barefoot jumper

If you think switching your horse to going shoeless is difficult or even impossible, think again. Follow one show horse’s successful journey from being shod to barefoot.

For the price I paid for my horse to be shod every four weeks, I could have bought myself a new pair of Jimmy Choo shoes once a month. Nieman Marcus would have loved me. As it was, only my farrier loved me and my horse Zephyr had no regard for his pricey footwear. He’d knock them off during turnouts, taking off chunks of his hoof with the shoe, or wear them down to nothing before it was time to replace them.

The worst part was that I could not keep his front left shoe on. No matter how many times it came off, the farrier could never make it last until the next trimming. “What’s going on?” I asked. I was told: “Zephyr has a compressed heel bulb and bad feet, like all Warmbloods.

But he’s not lame, so why worry?” I worried even more.

At the same time, I had been reading about horses going barefoot. When I suggested this, my trainer laughed at me, and the vet just shook her head and walked away. Was I crazy? How come so many other people had barefoot horses that did cross country, endurance and eventing? Why couldn’t hunters in southern California be the same?

Taking the Leap

First, I got a new farrier. For even more money (we’re in the Manolo range now) I fi nally got an answer to the falling off shoes – White Line Disease. But my farrier promised he could cure it and keep my poor horse shod, training, and showing. His feet looked horrendous, so I started researching this disease on the internet. I also spoke to a lot of barefoot people and found an amazing trimmer that hails from Arkansas.

This was my big break. Mike Lagrone, who has now been our trimmer for over five years, took one look at Zephyr’s feet, then together we worked on a plan to heal him, improve his diet, and make him “whole” again. Finding a “partner”, someone that supported my vision for my horses, gave me the confidence to move forward and go against typical hunter show norms.

Controversy in the Show Ring

It took a full year and Zephyr had a pasture lay-up to cure the White Line Disease, for part of the time, but we were successful. Recently, my daughter and I were in San Juan Capistrano, California, showing at The Oaks. She was showing in the grass ring, and I was the nervous mother on the rail, watching and counting strides. Before she and Zephyr (show name Tall, Dark, & Handsome) set foot in the ring, they were attracting some extra attention. Zephyr was the only horse showing on the grass without studs. In fact, he is now completely shoeless, front and back. Several trainers thought it was impossible to jump without studs, and one thought it was against the rules for safety issues. But Zephyr was as sure-footed as always, contrary to the many horses I saw tripping over their feet. He and my daughter won their division, probably causing some trainers to scratch their heads in wonder.

A Recipe for Success

Now that I’ve bragged a bit, I want to know why going barefoot is so shocking to horse people. I have yet to see a downside. My expenses for hoof care are lower, both my horses (we took our Quarter Pony, Sunday Best, shoeless at the same time as Zephyr) move more soundly and have become more balanced and better muscled. We trail shoeless, we show shoeless, we train shoeless, and have never had a lameness issue. As well, my life is simpler since I never have to worry about a lost shoe or hot nail. And by understanding hoof health, I have a better picture of my horses’ overall well being. At shows, trainers and horse owners approach me to inquire how such a large horse (Zephyr is a 17.1 hand Belgian Warmblood) could be barefoot and have good feet. Like many others, they thought only ponies with dark hooves could go shoeless.

One trainer told me, “My horse eats an apple fritter every morning and has horrid feet. Do you think that may be the reason?” Sugar is one major cause for bad hooves! I’m not a hoof expert, but my secret to good hooves is pretty simple – no alfalfa, minimal sweets, minimal grains, grass hay, some good herbs, and that’s it. I feel my approach is just a simpler way of taking care of our horses, though many view it as labor intensive.

Step by Barefoot Step

1 First, sugars. My horses love apples. In fact, we have five apple trees at our house. They’ll get a few apples a week during the fall, but not by the bucket full. Same with carrots. They get a carrot now and then, not five pounds a day. People equate sugary treats (and yes, carrots are full of sugar) with love. I treat my horses with fresh dandelion leaves, Swiss chard and melon rinds. In addition, I’ve told our trainer that no one else can “treat” our horses except us. I don’t want a well meaning person giving them a dozen carrots or a handful of molasses-sweetened cookies. Of course, they get no sweet feed either.
2 No alfalfa. My trimmer once told me he’s never seen a horse with good hooves that also eats alfalfa. Even just a little alfalfa during one winter to keep Zephyr’s weight on made his feet go downhill. Good grass hay, and plenty of it, should be your dietary foundation.
3 I love using herbs for my horses. My core herbs are bladderwrack kelp, dandelion leaf, rosehips, nettles and cleavers. I feed them raw apple cider vinegar and ground flax seed daily. I’m also a big fan of garlic and spirulina during fly season.
4 Lastly, I keep their feet dry. Few people seem to realize the importance of this, but wet feet can turn soft, mushy and tender. For Zephyr, they also attract fungus.

Aside from taking the time to research some herbs and regulate my horses’ sweets, I’ve found that caring for a barefoot horse is not so different from caring for a horse with shoes. I love sharing my barefoot experience, but for some reason, other horse people are very hesitant to follow suit. I hear all sorts of excuses, such as: “Your horses must have really good feet, my horses’ feet are horrible” or “My trainer would never allow it, it’s against the barn rules”. My favorite is, “My farrier said my horses’ feet would crumble with the pounding they take in the sand ring and over jumps.” Zephyr is doing 3’ 6” with no hoof crumbing! In short, there are a million excuses not to go barefoot. But if I can do it, anyone can!

Georgette Topakas is the owner and founder of Zephyr’s Garden All Natural Equine Products. Unable to find effective products for her horses, Georgette applied her background in Plant Science and Pharmaceutical Marketing and created her own products and company, launched in April of 2008. Georgette has two children, her daughter now rides and shows Zephyr, a wonderful husband, three dogs, and two horses.