Barefoot transition: tips for success

The concavity and quality of your horse’s sole may change (for the better) as you transition from shod to barefoot.

Barefoot guru Pete Ramey’s favorite response to most questions is to smile and say with a chuckle, “Well, it depends!” I started this article determined to avoid quoting him, yet came to the conclusion that his answer is, without a doubt, the best I have. There are so many factors that play into the barefoot transition, and each horse is unique.

There are, however, things that make barefoot transition easier. If you take control of them, you can expect your horse to be at least as functionally sound after the shoes come off as when he was shod.

Four components of a successful transition

1. Boots and pads

The term “barefoot” now commonly refers to hooves that are booted when necessary to ensure the horse moves correctly and with optimum comfort. The long term objective is to have barefoot horses be sound without protection whenever possible, but protecting their feet should always be a priority.

Boots give horses the advantages of metal shoes without the concussion, nail holes and peripheral loading, while allowing them to continue normal work. Boots can be padded with cushioned insoles that encourage the horse to use his feet correctly and athletically, thereby accelerating redevelopment of internal hoof structures. This correct heel-first landing movement results in stronger, straighter and wider heels, and the increased blood flow builds tougher, stronger feet.

There are so many great hoof boots available that sound horses with any type of hoof can be transitioned successfully, provided they get the appropriate trim, boots and padding. Boots are usually only needed when a horse is being ridden. While most newly unshod horses are sound in arenas, I recommend that everyone buy front boots and pads and be ready to use them if the horse is the least bit “off” or hesitant. Occasionally, horses also need rear boots.

Hoof boots have come a long way in the past few years, and need to fit as well as any human athletic shoe. Qualified trimmers stock and sell a variety of boots as a service. Trimmers should know how to fit boots and be able to provide information on the advantages and disadvantages of the various brands or styles.

2. The right trim 

Getting your horse transitioned is easier when you have an experienced barefoot hoofcare provider. I suggest that you ask friends, chat boards, email groups and body workers for referrals, as not everyone who calls themselves a trimmer is qualified. Ask for references!

Good hoofcare providers not only trim your horse, they also share information on hoofcare, diet, supplements, living environment and soundness essentials, in addition to providing services like boot sales and fitting.

If you are committed to barefoot but your horse is having trouble transitioning, I suggest getting a consultation. Consultants can be found through the American Hoof Association, by asking for help on a barefoot email chat group, or by emailing the author of your favorite barefoot website. Most consultants require a series of pictures and a brief history on the horse.

3. The right diet is so very important!

Many of today’s horses are fed a rich diet that is literally killing them. Plenty of common domestic hoof ailments are a result of feeding overly rich forage, grain or pasture. A lush pasture is every horse person’s dream, but it can quickly turn into a nightmare in the spring and fall. At these times, pasture grasses are seasonally very sweet – too rich for constant turnout for horses that are casually worked or retired. All most horses need to perform athletically are:

• Balanced nutrients
• Good water
• Good low NSC (non structural carbohydrate) grass hay
• Low NSC pasture

4. Banish hoof infections

One of the first questions I ask clients is “does your horse have thrush?” The answer is usually “no”, but many horses have thrush without their caretakers even knowing it. Most people – vets included – don’t recognize the signs of thrush, and few people appreciate how painful it can be. Every horse with navicular, club feet, contracted heels or under-run heels that I’ve worked on started out with a thrush infection – I’m still waiting to find a pathological foot that is thrush free. A successful barefoot transition depends on eliminating frog infections.

Most over-the-counter thrush treatments are either too harsh and end up chapping the frog, creating a better environment for thrush, or else they don’t penetrate into tight cracks to reach the thrush. I have used White Lightning successfully, and also like Clean Trax, apple cider vinegar, athletes foot treatments, and usnea tincture.

Great expectations

Barefoot transition can require a leap of faith, and the initial results may be alarming for some riders. Keep an open mind, think positive, and expect great things from your horse’s transition!

Expect your horse to go barefoot without boots

Most newly de-shod horses are fine in a pasture, arena, and on soft trails. How well they handle challenging footing, and how long it takes them to be comfortable on moderately challenging surfaces, depends on their feet, general health, living environment, diet, exercise level, the terrain you ride on, the competence of your trimmer, and the regularity of the trims.

Boots last a year or longer for most clients, and are very easy to use, so most people with barefoot horses are fine having their horses be barefoot or booted. Horses may need boots for terrain they aren’t conditioned for, or when their feet are soft in the wet season.

Expect ugly walls to transform quickly into super feet

Most horses’ feet go through an “ugly” stage during the barefoot transition, immediately after the shoes are removed. This period lasts from a few weeks to a few months as the nail holes and delaminated walls grow out or chip off. It seldom affects soundness if boots are used for work.

Occasionally, pieces of wall come loose in the first few weeks, and this is scary for riders. When the horse is trimmed regularly and ridden in boots, this wall shed doesn’t bother horses or impact their soundness. When horses have unusually ugly feet, I suggest three week trims for the first two months.

Transitioning wall grows out quickly. Half the wall will re-grow in three to four months, and the entire wall will be re-grown in six to eight months. Because barefoot horses have significantly better blood circulation and minimal flaring, the walls thicken and grow denser, creating a better hoof overall.

Expect to become better educated about anatomy, diet, and movement

People who choose to take their horses barefoot tend to be proactive about their long term health and welfare, and to form interactive, supportive online communities that share a wealth of information. Because a moderately low carb diet accelerates the barefoot transition, and improves the overall health and fitness of the horse, barefoot riders who join online communities soon find themselves learning more about nutrition and the important role it plays for equine athletes.

Having a transitioned barefoot horse is less complicated than owning a shod one, and if riders understand their horses’ requirements, they speed up the transition and boost their horses’ fitness level at the same time.

Expect to see your bills go down, and your horse’s attitude improve

Horses with strong, balanced feet don’t seem to “break down” as frequently or as catastrophically as horses with hoof imbalance and discomfort. Metal shoes amplify concussion and numb the feet as they restrict blood flow, so correctly trimmed barefoot horses are more agile, stumble less and have a better feel for where their feet are.

Anecdotal evidence from my barefoot clients indicates that longstanding chiropractic, saddle fitting, digestive and body problems resolve themselves or become manageable as the horse transitions.

Going barefoot doesn’t involve only your horse’s hooves, nor will each barefoot transition be the same. As I said at the start, each horse is unique and “it depends”! Take a look at the overall picture, including diet, terrain, and exercise patterns. Educate yourself thoroughly on all aspects that surround going barefoot. Then work with your hoofcare professional to craft a plan that will ensure a successful barefoot transition for your equine partner.