Many factors contribute to hoof health, including diet, trimming and movement. For the most part, these are universal around the world. But footing, another important factor, varies between geographical locations, and each has its own issues. For this article, we talked with three natural trimmers in different regions about their particular challenges, and the footing improvements they suggest.
Kirt Lander, Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Of the many variables that make up a sound barefooted horse, footing has perhaps the most influence on ultimate soundness and durability. Footing that helps the sole exfoliate provides the trimmer with a clearer sense of the structures within the hoof. A fully exfoliated sole gives a window view into the true position of the coffin bone and is the ultimate way to balance the hoof capsule. This is perhaps the most important aspect of natural hoof care because it is the horse that should decide how to trim the hoof, and not some preconceived idea coming from the trimmer.
Remember – Riding a horse on rocky ground does not produce the same results as giving him the right footing so he can exfoliate the excess sole himself. My preference for footing is 1½” of pea gravel over a firm base. More than that is not better; you do not want the horse swimming in footing. Pea gravel is about ¼” to 3/8” in diameter and should pass through your manure rake. Sometimes you will find suppliers who have an abundance of smaller material (1/4” or less), commonly called “road chips” or” birds eye”, that’s also good material for horse footing. You might also run across a combination material that has washed sand and pea gravel together. It’s often used for making concrete grout for cement walls, and I’ve had good success with it as well. If you opt for a combination material, make sure that it is produced by screening and washing. You don’t want the fines included in the mix as they can cause the material to compact as hard as concrete over time.
While getting the footing right greatly reduces the trimming workload, it comes at a price. Hauling in materials can be expensive and the mandatory poop scooping can be more added work for the caregiver. But the payoff is healthier, more durable hooves that are easier to balance and maintain with little or no change in soundness after trimming time. “I am totally amazed at how good my horse’s hooves look now!” This is the most common response from my clients who finally make the change to pea gravel or some other type of abrasive footing.
Kate Romanenko, Woodville, Ontario
My clients are located throughout Ontario, so I see various footings in different areas. In northern and eastern Ontario, the ground generally consists of bedrock and shale, while the southern and western parts of the province have soft, rich soil. One of my greatest challenges as a barefoot trimmer is initially convincing my clients that proper footing, (along with sufficient movement) is necessary for strong healthy feet. Most owners are willing to make some changes to their horse’s environment when they understand the importance of proper footing.
The first thing many people do to improve their horses’ hooves is remove their shoes, get a good barefoot trim, take them out of the stall and allow them to roam 24 hours a day. Keep in mind that most horses kept on soft ground are unable to walk comfortably on gravel, pebbles or rocks since their feet are not conditioned for it. Once the feet are given the chance to function properly again, it’s time to expose the horse to different types of footing.
If you live in an area that is mostly clay, you will have a lot of mud during wet seasons and hard, dry conditions in the summer. During wet seasons, I encourage owners to ride on the road, as this allows their horses’ feet to expand and contract. During dry periods, I suggest overflowing water troughs and foot soakings to keep the hooves moist and flexible. After all, a horse in his natural environment would visit a creek, stream or watering hole to drink, so his feet would get exposed to water daily. For footing changes, a truckload of pebbles or gravel can be dumped in an area where the horses are always crossing. Horses do have feeling in their feet so they may walk gingerly until their hooves have grown healthy enough to handle this type of footing. Concrete or pavement in some areas is also beneficial as it allows the hoof to “tamp” itself, becoming even stronger. Studies have shown that foals raised on hard ground have stronger, denser bones than foals raised on soft ground.
Remember – It is very important to ride your horse on the ground you expect him to perform on. At my rehabilitation facility, I have developed a perfect pasture consisting of grass and weeds, ponds and creeks, a concrete barnyard, and abrasive riding areas. This combination gives horses exposure to the variety of soft, hard, wet and dry ground they need for optimum health, allowing them to perform comfortably on any surface.
Chad Bembenek, Rio, Wisconsin
Living in Wisconsin can be a challenge when it comes to footing. Spring and fall are both very muddy times of the year, while the ground can be hard during summer and winter. Each of these conditions can present issues when it comes to hoofcare and maintaining or developing a sound horse. A horse’s footing needs depend first and foremost on his individual situation. For foundered cases, or horses with thin sensitive soles, I use fine clean sand, similar to beach or masonry sand. It needs to remain dry and unpacked to provide the proper support for rehabilitating and conditioning the hoof. It must also be kept clean to prevent the growth of bacteria or fungi within the footing. If the sand becomes mixed with too much manure and urine, it needs to be stripped out and replaced with fresh material.
For sound horses, I suggest semi-packed limestone fine screenings. This helps draw excess moisture from the hoof and is very easy to clean because the manure does not mix into it. Manure stays on top and is easily picked up because the rock and fines fall through the fork. Limestone also neutralizes urine to help control flies and ammonia formation, even when several horses urinate in the same spot. Limestone fines help compact the hoof (wall, sole and frog), making it durable at all times of the year. Horses conditioned on this type of footing can then easily transition onto larger gravel.
Remember- I do not recommend limestone fines for the initial rehabilitation of foundered horses. While it does provide support, it is not forgiving enough to keep the horse comfortable. I have found that each of these footings can be very beneficial if managed properly. We must always keep in mind the comfort of the horse; he may need to start on sand, then transition onto pea gravel, and finally limestone.
Kirt Lander is a natural hoof care practitioner and educator based in Arizona. A trimmer since 2000, he has helped hundreds of foundered horses. Kirt and his wife, Gina, enjoy endurance competition with their herd of a dozen barefoot horses, including their Arabian stallion Halim El Mokhtar, who received the nationally acclaimed American Endurance Ride Conference “Jim Jones Stallion Award” in 2005. Kirt is developing a new performance riding boot specifically designed for the natural hoof. www.thebarefootblackstallion.com
Chad Bembenek has been providing barefoot hoofcare since 1999 and has over 200 horse clients, many of whom are foundered or diagnosed with navicular. He is a full time AANHCP certified trimmer and a founding member of the American Hoof Association. www.trianglephoofcare.com
Kate Romanenko is a Barefoot Hoof Care Specialist who considers herself an advocate of “nature’s way of equine management”. She became a certified farrier in 1998, but when a friend introduced her to a natural balanced way of trimming hooves in 2001, there was no turning back. Kate now spends much of her time traveling throughout Ontario, trimming, teaching and training others about natural hoof care. She operates a barefoot trimming school and a 100-acre rehabilitation facility in Woodville. www.natureshoofcare.com