What exactly is barefoot transition?

Barefoot transition is the phase after pulling shoes when the horse rebuilds and restores his hooves, achieving a level of comfort, soundness and usability generally expected from a domestic horse.

Not included in normal barefoot transition is the horse recovering from laminitis/ founder or other serious hoof aliments; this should be viewed as a state of rehabilitation and is not specifically addressed in this article.

Will your horse get sore or go lame if you pull shoes?

Yes, no and maybe. The act of pulling shoes to go barefoot does not cause soreness or lameness in and of itself. It does, however, greatly improve the circulatory system and the firing of nerves, and this will bring to light the true state of health in a newly de-shod hoof. It may manifest in the form of soreness and lameness during the transitional phase.

Genetics and bad trimming aside, it is the health of a horse’s feet at the time of shoe removal that influences immediate soundness and durability more than any other initial factor. Hoof health therefore plays a big role in both the extent and intensity of the transitional phase.

It’s about time

You might be asking, “How long is this going to take?” Depending on the terrain, horses with reasonably healthy hooves devoid of major wall flares and with relatively healthy soles and frogs can go back to work immediately or in several days, weeks or a month.

Horses with less than healthy hooves may need many months or a year or more to transition. In any event, one must not be overly critical of the horse’s way of going until at least one new hoof capsule has grown out. For some horses, it may never be possible to achieve a satisfactory level of comfort and soundness without the use of hoof boots; for example, in the case of a horse with extensive prior damage, debilitation or untreated metabolic disorders that can cause perpetual low grade laminitis. It is my personal opinion that not all metabolic horses can be treated to eliminate all traces of laminitis induction.

Nevertheless, these horses still benefit greatly from going shoeless and should be provided hoof boots to be comfortable when ridden. The use of hoof boots is a tremendous tool during the barefoot transition and should be carried for use if needed when out on the trail.

HINT: All but the very best barefoot horses should at least carry boots on the trail in case of a stone puncture or if unexpected bad footing is encountered.

The myths and realities of abscessing

Abscessing will sometimes occur during the barefoot transition phase, resulting in much discomfort and lameness. A common misconception is that abscessing is caused by the recently de-shod hoof when in reality the now bare hoof is merely facilitating the process of cleansing and healing.

Why does this happen? Iron shoes can restrict circulation, causing an accumulation of cellular debris within the hoof capsule. Removing the shoe restores circulation and the body goes to work removing the accumulated material. Unfortunately, some of this accumulation will not readily absorb into the bloodstream so the body uses the mechanism of abscessing to get the job done. (Think of a festering sliver in a human hand.)

I don’t view abscessing in an overly negative light but instead accept it as a possible part of the transitional process. This is not to say it should be ignored or that I am happy when I see it, but I don’t panic if it occurs.

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Proper environment goes a long way

Footing and movement have an incredible influence on both the time for barefoot transition and the eventual level of soundness and durability in the barefoot horse. If your horse lives in a box stall on wood shavings and rarely gets out for exercise, then transition will take a long time. Don’t expect him to crush rocks on the weekends without the use of hoof boots.

A horse that lives in a large paddock on clean rugged footing where he can move many miles each day on his own will promote a quicker and sounder barefoot transition and rock crushing capability.

A horse that is sensitive coming out of shoes may need softer, more forgiving footing in the initial stages of transition, but he should never be swimming in overly deep footing as this will reduce hoof mechanism.

A combination of footing types, where some areas are more aggressive than others, is also helpful. This allows the horse to pick and choose what is comfortable to him, and is beneficial both physically and emotionally. It is also very important that the footing be kept clean and is changed out when it becomes overly contaminated with manure and urine.

Diet concerns

A natural diet and feeding schedule is another key to successful barefoot transition. The wild horse roams many miles each day, constantly grazing and foraging for his meals. This keeps a near constant flow of material moving through his digestive system. In profound contrast is the far too common method of feeding rich intermittent meals a couple of times a day. This leaves parts of the digestive system devoid of roughage for hours on end.

The cecum or hind gut of the horse is full of microbes that are necessary for digestion. Research suggests that when these microbes die off, their exoskeletons release toxins into the digestive system. These toxins can be absorbed into the bloodstream, triggering laminitis to varying degrees. If a horse’s digestive system is perpetually unstable, it can induce perpetual low grade laminitis, affecting the soundness of the entire hoof capsule.

HINT: Some horses can be sensitive to alfalfa hay. A horse prone to laminitis should avoid alfalfa or “cool season” grasses that can be high in sugar.

Vaccinations can be detrimental to healing

Vaccines are another area of great concern. I am not a veterinarian, but from the anecdotal evidence I have seen, I believe that vaccine reactions may be responsible for a high percentage of the laminitis cases which plague our domestic horse population today.

Most all veterinarians would agree that if a horse gets sick he may develop laminitis. It is therefore not a stretch to imagine that if a horse has a mild reaction to a vaccine, it could trigger mild laminitis. If vaccinated semi-annually, he may never fully grow out the affected hoof capsule. Time and time again, I’ve come to trim a client’s healthy footed horse only to be faced with the results of a recent laminitic episode. When I ask the owner about the recent history of the horse, vaccinations are often part of the picture.

Whether or not you choose to vaccinate your horse is a personal choice. We must balance protection with vitality. Personally, I choose vitality.

The truth about trimming

So far, I haven’t covered anything about trimming a transitioning barefoot horse. That’s because success with a barefoot horse is more about how we kept them than how we trim them. Of course, aggressive or invasive trimming strategies are detrimental, but ignoring the natural lifeway needs of the horse has a far greater impact on overall soundness and level of performance than exacting trimming strategies.

Education is power

The uncertainty of the transitional phase needlessly scares people from pulling shoes. I encourage anyone who is contemplating going barefoot to educate themselves on the subject. Most transitional failures arise from a lack of understanding rather than a horse’s inability to go without shoes.

You must also be aware of your horse’s natural lifeway needs and integrate them as much as possible. This is how you’ll find a successful transition to high performance barefootedness.

Editor’s sidebar
Although abscessing is a natural process, there are some things we can do to help speed healing. Try:

  • Homeopathic silicea 6x, used for cold abscesses and given three times per day for three days to help the body expel the material.
  • Homeopathic hepar sulph 6x for painful, pus-filled conditions, given three times per day for three days.
  • Soaking the hoof for 20-30 minutes in ½ cup of Epsom salts, dissolved in 1 gallon of warm water. Used once or twice, this can help draw out the damaged tissue.
  • Applying a natural clay poultice and covering with a hoof boot. Let dry for one hour and rinse.