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by Monique Craig

The Epona Institute

It is not news that at some point in their lives, some horses were and still are left barefoot and even ridden barefoot. For instance, when I grew up in Switzerland, we used to remove shoes on some horses to give their hooves a break. During this rest time, the horses were mildly ridden in a soft arena or given a vacation. In the recent years, there has been a lot of debate on whether horses can be left barefoot permanently. The answer is yes — but this ‘yes’ may depend on the exact situation. There also seems to be some debate on what constitutes a ‘barefoot trim’ versus a ‘pasture trim’. The reality is that a good trim is a good trim.  Also, I believe that both farriers and barefoot trimmers are capable of reproducing similar trims.

Ideal Situation for Horse Hoof

In an ideal situation a good portion of the hoof should lie behind the tip of the frog, have plenty of sole depth, have a good quality frog and bars, and not be burdened with miles of toe (see figure 1.)

Good View of Horse Hoof

Figure 1: A good hoof.  This is a left front hoof. A good portion of the hoof is behind the apex of the frog (C.) The hoof has good concavity (E.) The radiograph (B) shows the bone stance and the sole depth including the arch of the sole (red line in insert in B.) The sole depth is over half an inch.

Most horses with good hooves and good conformation are fine barefoot, especially if they are worked on soft surface while being ridden. The health of the hoof depends on adequate movement, it is therefore crucial that barefoot horses have plenty of room to roam freely.

Assess Horse Hooves

Radiograph / Xray

Prior to removing shoes it is important to assess whether your horse satisfies certain criteria.  I would recommend having your veterinarian shoot a set of lateral radiographs of all four hooves. It is a good way to assess the current sole depth, as well as the position of the pedal bone inside the hoof capsule (a.k.a. internal bone stance.) For instance, if your horse has hooves with very thin soles, it may be advisable to first remedy this issue prior to leaving your horse barefoot. Your veterinarian will also be able to tell you if your horse has a ‘normal’ pedal bone. Some pedal bones show sign of unusual remodeling without signs of lameness (at least not initially). In such cases it would better to keep your horse’s hooves protected.

Radiograph (XRay) of Horse's Hoof

Figure 2: From lateral radiographs your veterinarian can check the sole thickness, and look for issues with pedal bone demineralization and other conditions.

Heel Height – High/Low Issues

Next it is important to assess the innate conformation of your horse’s hoof.  It is not uncommon for horses to have a ‘high-low’ conformation on the front hooves – with one foot much higher at the heel, and the other hoof flatter and more splayed. If the heel height between the two hooves is not significantly different, your horse should be fine barefoot. Horses with more serious difference between the two front hooves should probably be kept shod.

Measurement of Horse Heel Height - High/Low Issue Example

Figure 3: The front feet of a horse with “high-low” hooves.

‘Front-to-hind’ hoof conformation also presents some challenges if the hind hooves differ significantly from the front hooves. For instance, the hind hooves could have low heeled conformation while the front have a high heeled conformation or vice versa. It is sometimes hard to balance such hooves just through trimming only, and so again shoes might be helpful in such cases.

Measurement of Horse Heel Height - Diagonal High/Low Issue Example

Figure 4: This horse is low-heeled in the right hind feet compared to the left front. This is an example of diagonal high-low issue.

When metal shoes are removed, horses are generally immediately uncomfortable. Horse hooves need some time to readjust to be barefoot. It is advisable to use boots or keep your horse on soft ground for a while till the hooves toughen up. Horses should not be ridden until their hooves have completely adjusted to being barefoot. Horses with good hooves adapt to being barefoot within a month — but there is a lot of variation from horse to horse — some take longer. This does not mean that you can immediately go back to your normal riding schedule. You need to monitor if your horse is completely comfortable being barefoot while under saddle. If a horse stays sore and does not move freely after a while, you may want to reconsider the wisdom of keeping the horse barefoot. A horse that cannot move comfortably for a sustained period of time runs the risk of developing health issues besides damaging its hooves. Impaired mobility can affect a horse’s digestive system or even create metabolic issues. Chronic pain is stressful, this may affect cortisol levels.

Formulating a Plan

In order to keep your barefoot horse with optimum hooves, you will not only need good turnout time but the right type of pasture or turnout. A horse that is kept mainly on moist pasture cannot be ridden on hard and abrasive ground. The sole is very likely to be too soft to go abruptly from moist ground to hard ground. You will need to formulate a plan on how to manage your horse’s turnout by adjusting what type of surfaces your horse spends time on: maybe part of the day on soft pasture and part of the day on a harder surface.  Excess moisture is not good for hooves, so you may also need to winterize your turnout. A covered dry pen for the winter is excellent. In some cases, keeping the horse barefoot leads to too much sole wear, and the horse can become sore-footed. So I suggest having your veterinarian take a yearly set of preventative radiographs to make sure that your horse’s hooves continue to have adequate sole depth.