As a professional natural hoof trimmer, I strive to find a way to trim horses that never, ever makes them sore. I have tried trimming more and I’ve tried less. Now I trim even less than before, but I have still not found a formula that guarantees comfort in every horse. I haven’t been able to figure out the “perfect” trim, because I wasn’t getting the lesson that I truly needed – there is not a perfect trim that never sores a horse because soreness in the feet is not always about the hooves.

Experience has taught me that the feet are a reflection of the overall health and balance of the horse and that many factors beyond trimming contribute to a sound barefoot horse. Becoming aware of these allows you to consider each horse as a whole, ensuring not just sound feet, but mind and body as well.

Key factors to whole body soundness:

1. Rule out over-trimming. This is the only mistake that will cause constant soreness. Since I have started spending less time on the bottom of the foot and more time addressing the overall shape, I find horses usually transition to barefoot very easily. The most common trimming mistake I see is when trimmers take off more to “fix” the problem, so if your horse is uncomfortable, try trimming less.

2. Ensure a proper balanced diet. Too many carbohydrates for an insulin resistant horse guarantees sore feet. For horses in this category, cut out as much starch and sugars as possible, including grain, molasses, and high fructan (sugar) hays and grasses.

Provide the balanced vitamins and minerals necessary to grow healthy hooves. Cut down on high protein levels found in some processed feeds and alfalfa hay. High protein can result in soft, tender soles. Finally, consider supplementing with the Omega fatty acids such as flax which not only improves hoof quality but also helps stabilize blood sugar levels and triglycerides.

3. Understand that previous damage from hoof imbalance affects healing. One example of this concept involves very contracted feet. Usually horses with this imbalance show dramatic improvement when their shoes are pulled. After a few months, the foot begins to open up and the frog starts to expand. Suddenly, three to six months later, the horse gets really lame and everyone panics. The owner thinks the trimmer is doing something wrong, the trimmer starts to question her methods, and everyone wonders why this horse went abruptly lame.

I believe that, due to the previous contracted heels, lesions had developed between the deep digital flexor tendon and the navicular bone. As the foot opened up, the scar tissue began to break apart, which hurts of course and the horse goes lame. Nothing can be done from a trimming standpoint to fix this problem since only time and movement will help. But be patient. After a horse goes through this stage, she is more sound than before.

HINT: Supportive therapies such as homeopathy and herbs can be beneficial in offering some relief during this transition stage.

4. Check your saddle fit and rider balance. Problems with either can show up as lameness which is often attributed to the hooves but is really connected to body soreness.

5. Strive for a healthy immune system and absence of illness. Hooves are a window to the internal health of a horse, so try to determine if the hoof symptoms reflect a more serious condition. See sidebar on page 31 for one such example.

6. Consider sub-clinical laminitis. Nobody wants to hear that their horse has laminitis issues, but I see it on a daily basis. I define sub-clinical laminitis as the fleeting low grade laminitis that causes the horse to be sore on gravel, but doesn’t manifest as bounding digital pulses. No stretching of the white line appears but the horse is noticeably sore. If the horse is even sub-clinically laminitic, then she will never be able to tolerate hard, rocky working conditions without boots.

7. Provide your horse with thorough dentistry by a Certified Equine Dentist or qualified veterinarian. Dental imbalance affects the whole body and can show up as persistent lameness. Interestingly, dental imbalance can contribute to uneven hoof wear.

8. Understand the importance of a proper environment and exercise. Having firm, dry footing can help form sole callous and has exfoliation benefits which help build strong hooves. Exercise also plays a vital role by increasing circulation, and strengthening the hooves and body. If you are struggling to get your horse comfortable, use boots so that you can put miles on him.

If you’re having ongoing problems after switching from shoes to barefoot, please do not assume your horse is going through a long drawn out transition period. If he or she is not showing improvement in a few trims or takes a turn for the worst, consider other factors may be involved. Healthy horses do extremely well barefoot and for these horses, it is easy to find the perfect trim.