hoof care

It’s happening in our backyards and beyond; horses are running and working on their own bare feet.

There has been a steady increase in demand for information about barefoot hoof care, with many people attending clinics and doing extensive research into the subject. This pro-active approach is encouraging farriers and veterinarians to look into it too. Once they discover how healthy the horses are and how much common sense it all makes, many become advocates for proper hoof care. I’m a veterinarian and I’m one of those many.

In this article, I’ll offer a basic introduction to the concept of natural hoof care, whether for a performance, working or everyday trail horse. The ability to understand what constitutes a healthy hoof is not limited to the professionals. In fact, everyday horse guardians like yourself are becoming empowered with knowledge.

The latest hoof research from experts such as Dr. Hiltrud Strasser, Dr. Robert Bowker (Michigan State University), Dr. Chris Pollitt (University of Queensland), Martha Olivo, Pete Ramey, and KC LaPierre, focuses on maintaining normal hoof form and function to achieve optimum health. As the “keeper” of your horse’s hoof, you should strive to:

• Ensure the hoof can flex in all directions to handle the terrain.
• Promote fluid movement and circulation.
• Protect sensitive structures inside the feet and legs.
• Ensure the hoof wears evenly through movement and grows in evenly and strong.
• Help the hoof engage and sense the environment.

These are all achievable with natural hoof care and impossible using steel shoes or improper trimming. Why is that?

There is a difference

Placing shoes on hooves fixes them in two dimensions, forcing the joints above to twist and torque. Normal-shaped, healthy hooves are a specialized skin that can be conditioned to handle any terrain, flexing the proper amount to prevent damage to all parts of the body.

Instead of providing protection, shoes cause concussive damage, promote weak growth, prevent normal wear, and desensitize the hooves, allowing infection, heat and cold to invade the hooves. This can cause health problems for the entire body. On the other hand, normal hooves pump lots of blood, are perfectly protective, insulate against temperature extremes and prevent injury from rough terrain.

The loss of a shoe and the lameness that follows demonstrates the underlying unsoundness of the shod horse. Horses appreciate normal sensation and feel more comfortable around us when they can place their feet accurately with superior soundness and traction, keeping themselves and their riders safer. When in need of protection on rough terrain or during rehabilitation, flexible, removable boots that complement hoof form and function are most appropriate, providing superior protection and doing no harm to the horse.

Looks can tell a story

So epidemic are hoof problems that we can become used to seeing deformed hooves and believe they look normal. However, armed with some basic visual cues, any trained eye can detect imbalances and recognize common hoof deformities. The following photos and chart show you what to look for:

Finding a trimmer

Finding someone knowledgeable about natural hoof care is important to help you and your horses start off on the right foot. Many websites have lists of people that are specially trained in natural hoof care and a good number of these are women. As with many things, “asking around” your horse neighborhood is probably one of the best ways to find out who might be available to help.

Hint: Natural horsemanship practices go hand in hand with natural hoof care techniques.

Look for a conscientious trimmer who:

• Is excited about his/her work and spends a lot of time educating clients about what makes a good hoof. This trimmer should also admit that their trimming is not the biggest thing that delivers success.

• Recognizes the concept of hoof individuality, which allows him or her to help bring out the best in your horse’s movement.

• Provides well-fitting boots for horses coming out of steel shoes and makes respectful changes in the hooves to avoid unnecessary soreness.

• Leaves a horse moving better after a trim, not more sensitive.

• Has a working basic knowledge about nutrition, natural horsemanship and bodywork.

Other keys to success


Providing your horse with a maximum amount of movement is critical to a barefoot management program. The ideal is turn-out 24/7 with companion horses on terrain that, at least partly, matches the ground on which they work. All horses should be provided with dry or well-drained footing, but firm, dry footing is mandatory for those that are confined. Daily riding or lead exercise is especially important for the confined horse. Physical confinement does not necessitate shoeing, but it does mean you need to pay more regular and careful attention to the hooves as well as the use of boots when riding on rough terrain.


Evaluate your horse’s nutritional program to ensure she’s healthy and better able to grow a strong hoof.

Horses evolved over millennia to eat grass, and nothing we do is going to make them healthy on alfalfa hay and grain. Ironically, diabetes-like problems are becoming epidemic among humans as well as horses. The health of a horse excels when fed a high-fiber, low-carbohydrate, forage-based diet along with an appropriate vitaminmineral supplement.

The increasing body of evidence surrounding barefoot rehabilitation techniques and the convincing performance of barefoot horses is both fascinating and compelling. I can say that my own and thousands of other horses can and do ride barefoot for hundreds of miles a week – on rocks, without steel shoes. Even in the performance horse realm, competitors are seeing great success with their barefoot horses. The benefits are amazing and attainable to anyone who wants to learn.

Hint: Though hooves can often be rehabilitated, keep in mind it is easier to prevent a problem than to fix one. The best way to do this is not to shoe your young horses but do ensure balanced trimming.

What is concussion?

Concussion equates to the impact force as the hoof strikes the ground. Considering the weight of a horse concentrated on a relatively small hoof, that force is incredible. In a balanced barefoot, this concussion is damped by the hoof capsule as it flexes. In fact, a 1984 scientific study by Luca Bein, University of Zurich, showed that 80% of the impact force was dissipated by an unshod hoof. He further noted that a shod horse walking on pavement received three times the impact force as a barefoot horse trotting on pavement.

– When properly managed, barefoot horses with common problems such as navicular disease and laminitis or founder often achieve honest soundness, even though traditional veterinary care claims no cure for these conditions. Using drugs, special bar shoes and surgical neurectomy to attempt a “cure” in these cases makes horses even more lame down the road.


Equine Wellness Magazine is North America’s most trusted natural health and lifestyle magazine for horses, and the premiere publication educating a growing audience in natural and integrative approaches to health and horsemanship. EW transcends all areas of the equine market and appeals to everyone from backyard enthusiasts to serious competitors.