barefoot horse

When making the transition to barefoot, or riding over certain terrains, your horse may benefit from a little extra support. Let’s review some alternatives to traditional metal shoes.

Barefoot movement is steadily growing worldwide. As new research on the detrimental effects of metal shoes reaches more and more horse owners, equestrians in every discipline are asking for alternatives to the traditional nailed-on horse shoe. While some people are still skeptical that horses can perform well in certain disciplines without shoes, it is possible. Whether you are making the transition to barefoot, or just looking for a little more support for your horse’s performance, here are some ideas.

The Best Intentions

Shoeing originated in an effort to protect the horse’s hoof. Taking horses out of their natural life in the wild and bringing them into the confines of domestication and unnatural feeding practices brought on negative changes to their hooves.

Today, the metal horse shoe is losing its popularity and the stranglehold it once had. We now know that the metal shoe, when nailed to the hoof, interferes with the true mechanism and function of the horse’s foot. This reduces blood flow and shock absorption, putting stress not only on the internal structures of the hoof but the horse’s entire system – his heart, lungs, joints, ligaments and lymphatics.

Shoes peripherally load the hoof because they force the horse to bear all his weight directly on the hoof wall and laminae. The laminae consist of the epidermal and dermal layers, connecting the outer hoof wall to the internal structures. The laminae on their own were never meant to bear all the horse’s weight. Peripheral loading causes tension on the bones (coffin and navicular) inside the hoof capsule. This tension causes bone loss, setting the horse up for a multitude of hoof pathologies. Ideally the whole foot (bars, frog, sole and outer wall) is meant to support the horse’s weight.

Stuck Like Glue

There are many new ways to protect the hoof that don’t require a shoe – metal or otherwise – to be be nailed into the hoof wall. Glue-on plastic shoes are slowly replacing the metal shoe, and can be helpful during transition or for therapeutic purposes. Although the flexible plastic allows for better hoof mechanism, they do still tend to peripherally load the horse’s hoof. Some plastic shoes have a built-in soft pad that makes sure there won’t be any pressure points on the frog and sole, and this also gives some support to the frog and internal structures.

Most models can be glued on, but there are some concerns with regards to the use of acrylic glue – do pay attention to the ingredients in various products. As with any type of shoe, they need to be reset at regular intervals (typically every four to six weeks). Plastic alternatives can be more costly than metal – but the benefits can outweigh the cost for some.

A Bit About Boots

There are many varieties of hoof boots on the market today – most of the time you can find something to suit each horse and rider. Boots are a great hoof protector because they can be removed after performance. In my experience, the boots most often used in high level performance are the Cavallo Sport, the Renegade, the Easy Care Glove, and the Fusion. All boots can be used with padding to prevent peripheral loading.

You do have to pay attention to the rules for your discipline, however, as many disciplines require any hoof protection to be below the coronet band. This can often deter performance riders from using boots.

Glue-on boots like the ones made by Renegade have helped eliminate this issue, and work well for the endurance rider requiring protection for long periods without the worry of rubbing. They were developed for high performance events in speed and long distance. They are cost efficient and you can learn to apply them on your own. Without the use of some padding between the sole and boot, the glue-on boots will peripherally load the hoof – in this case, hoof packing can alleviate the problem for the short term. It is recommended that glue-on boots not be left on any longer than ten days, and again, be aware of the type of glue used.

On Guard

For those who would still rather go barefoot with their high performance horses, but want a little more protection during competitive events such as racing, there are several protective products on the market, including Sole Guard by Vettec, and Hoof Armour. Many of these are great for the short term only and give protection to the sole while allowing the hoof mechanism to work properly.

Hoof Armour is a tough and durable yet abrasive adhesive coating that is applied to the bottom of the hoof to protect the sole from excessive wear. Since it is flexible, it does not restrict the natural expansion and contraction of the hoof. According to the Hoof Armour company, the secret ingredient is a non-toxic epoxy base, which contains a natural anti-microbial and anti-bacterial agent.

Sole Guard by Vettec is a fast setting liquid urethane which adheres directly to the sole and frog, sealing out moisture and debris and providing an instant pad that stays soft in cold temperatures.

Do keep in mind that epoxies can be toxic, and that for the best results, some products recommend the sole be trimmed into live sole before the product can be applied.

The Simpler, The Better

In my opinion, the best alternative to a shoe is a bare healthy hoof. The use of plastic glue-on shoes, boots or sole protection will definitely help the horse make the transition to barefoot more easily, working towards a natural, healthy hoof.

It is and always will be my goal as a Natural Hoof Care Practitioner to achieve and maintain a healthy well-connected hoof. This is achieved through a correct diet with sufficient, well-balanced nutrition, and enough continuous movement to keep a bare hoof in top form and function.

A high performance barefoot horse should be given lots of opportunity to live and work on the same terrain he will compete on. Only then can he develop the correct hoof for high performance: a well developed frog that provides traction, stability and shock absorption, a tough toe callus for further traction and easy breakover, a naturally developed concaved hoof that provides suction, and a thick calloused sole for protecting the internal structures. Every part of the natural hoof plays a critical role and all must be allowed to work together. Any horse can develop high performance-level bare hooves when given the correct tools for developing the same strong, functional hooves their wild friends have.

Anne Riddell is a Certified Natural Hoof Care practitioner who specializes in Founder, Laminitis, Navicular lameness, and High Performance Barefoot Horses. She offers trimming instruction to horse owners and other professionals.