The Barefoot Horse: Keeping and Maintaining Healthy, Happy Hooves
There's an old saying that goes 'No foot, No horse', which basically means, that even if your horse is perfect in all other areas... if it's feet aren't well looked after, you're likely to have serious problems.
Ensuring that your horse's feet are in good condition is absolutely critical to it's overall health and wellbeing. Poorly maintained feet can result in lameness, poor performance with an increased risk of injury, conformation issues and much, much more.
Now, most people tend to shoe their horses, allowing them to be able to perform across all terrains with minimum wear and tear to the hoof itself. However many horse owners also choose to keep their horses barefoot, either through medicinal reasons or simply because they prefer to keep their horse as naturally as possible.
Skye has always been barefoot and I've been advised by a few farriers that she should never need shoes and I'd like to keep it that way. The hoof naturally expands and contracts to improve weight distribution and lessen impact across different surfaces. Metal shoes often prevent this from happening and once you've put shoes on a horse, it'll take a long time to get the hoof back to a good, healthy barefoot condition.
Don't get me wrong, some horses will always need to have shoes and going barefoot won't be suitable for all horses, but as owners we should always be looking to do what's best for our animals.
When I first moved to our new yard, I found that Skye was struggling to walk comfortably across the gravel tracks. She's always had good feet, but because the ground in her old paddock was constantly wet, her feet just weren't adapted to the drier, harder ground in her new field and she really struggled for a while. Her feet simply weren't strong or calloused enough to deal with the stones on the tracks around the yard.
She was never lame but you could definitely tell that it wasn't comfortable!
Although horses are naturally barefoot, there are several things you need to do to ensure strong and healthy hoof growth.
A couple of years ago, Skye injured her coronet band on one of her back feet, and this has resulted in the hoof wall becoming much weaker. This means that this hoof is prone to splitting from the bottom, and there have been many times where she's developed seedy toe due to bacteria getting into the internal structure of the hoof.
My farrier put a small staple above the the crack to stop it spreading further, and I'm pleased to say that three months down the line, the crack has almost grown out completely! Unfortunately this hoof will never be as strong as the others, but I'm making sure that I'm doing everything I can to ensure that the new growth is as healthy as it can be.
Since the move, I've made sure that her feet are well looked after by having them trimmed regularly, and making sure that all the little pieces of grit are picked out of her feet every day. Leaving stones embedded in the hoof can result in huge cracks, which can sometimes result in infection and lameness.
I'm also making sure that her diet is optimised for healthy hoof growth, by restricting the amount of sugary grass she's eating and supplementing her forage with a good balancer, ensuring that she's getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals to support her hooves as they grow.
I hardened her feet gradually by going out for short hacks and asking her to walk over harder ground. At first she found this really difficult and stumbled and tripped a lot but now she's happy to walk over stoney areas without hesitation.
It's been very dry in the UK for a few weeks now and recently I've noticed that her hooves are starting to chip and crack between trims, so I'm now making sure that her feet are kept hydrated to prevent them becoming brittle and damaged. Ideally I'd let the water trough overflow slightly so that she could stand in a puddle while she's having a drink but as I don't own the field I've purchased a good hoof balm instead, which seems to be doing the trick!
I'm also considering investing in a pair of barefoot boots to prevent her feet from chipping when we're out on a hack, and also to provide a little bit of extra comfort and support when she's walking across stoney areas.
Horses can easily be kept barefoot if their diet is optimised to support healthy hoof growth, and that they're having regular trims and getting enough exercise on different terrains to help condition the hooves for different surfaces. It's a long process, but shod horses can be transitioned to become barefoot again over time as long as their feet are looked after and maintained correctly.
I'm aiming to keep Skye barefoot throughout her entire life, we've got a little way to go until she's 100% comfortable on stoney ground, but we're definitely getting there!