Anatomical Hoof Care & Barefoot Trimming
An Improbable Toe
Imagine a creature weighing nearly as much as a small car, with a flowing mane of "hair," that can run up to 55 miles an hour—the speed limit on highways when I was a child—and turn on a dime on legs that taper to one toe. One toe. Like so much in nature, the horse's hoof is something of a miracle. Over millions of years, a "foot" with three or four digits evolved into a single, upstanding, incredibly durable "toe"—and that single remaining toe is what we call a hoof.
Why Are Horses Shod in the First Place?
The horse was humanity's primary form of transportation until very recently. Imagine having to make a run to the market, but instead of grabbing your car keys and heading to the garage for your car, or to the street in front of your house, you had to go out into an immense field in which your horse is grazing happily—and therefore not very enthused about the prospect of being caught, hitched up to a coach, or ridden into town. Stables were convenient parking lots from the medieval era to the advent of the automobile. But keeping a horse conveniently accessible meant that the horse could not naturally condition and wear down its hooves, as it does in its natural condition.
And yet for some 99.9% of the horse's 55 million years on earth—that figure is not a typo—no metal was ever nailed to the bottom of a horse's foot, in order that it might be sound. Though there is archeological evidence of the presence of iron horseshoes in antiquity, it was only in medieval times that farriery became standard practice. And yet there are non-European horse cultures around the world that have never shod their horses—neither historically nor today—even though they use them rigorously for travel, work, and sundry essential livelihood.
A horse is not naturally stationary. Horses in their natural environment and instinctual atmosphere roam in herds over vast terrain, looking for grasses and watering holes, and avoiding predators. This process of roaming includes all gaits—walking, trotting, cantering, and galloping—and every form of motile agility—stopping, turning, accelerating, leaping, etc.—that horses have evolved, over millennia.
A horse's hoof is precisely formed and maintained according to a natural wear pattern resulting from this vigorous contact with the earth. In the wild, a horse's hoof is essentially perfect. "Perfect" means that the shape and contour of the hoof is perfectly aligned to the pastern bones and to the coffin bone, a hoof-shaped structure that sits inside the hoof and is the most distal bony extension of the horse's leg. The natural horse's hoof is tough, rounded (beveled all the way around the hoof wall); the frog is ample but not excessive, and does not bear weight when the horse is still, but only upon impact loading of the foot; the hoof wall is straight all the way around, from the coronary band to the beginning of the bevel at the distal portion of the hoof; there is no flare or curvature in the horny growth of the hoof wall. Motion shapes matter. The movements of the wild horse literally form its hoof according to its need for toughness, alignment, and functional plasticity.
A horse's hoof expands and contracts—an action that is compromised when immovable metal is nailed to its structure. The hoof, in a certain sense, is not unlike a heart in that it quite literally pumps blood, from the leg toward the heart, upon impact loading of the hoof. When the hoof hits the ground, (impact loading), the hoof wall widens and flattens; the whole hoof expands. This causes the frog, a wedge-shaped structure in the sole of the hoof, to compress. This compression in turn activates a ring around the pastern bones, effectively squeezing the blood up the leg and back toward the heart.
For a horse to stay sound, the hoof must be balanced and "worn" (trimmed) to a wild horse's natural proportions. "Balance" has to do with the anatomical understanding of the alignment of the pastern bones and the fulcrum of the breakover of the step. If the foot is treated by an experienced barefoot trimmer every 4 to 5 weeks, there is a very good chance the horse's hooves will function optimally, and a greater chance that the horse will stay sound.
To Shoe or Not to Shoe?
There is a debate—sometimes it feels more like a very not-nice war(!)—between advocates of the barefoot horse and advocates of the traditionally shod horse. I am trained both in farriery (the traditional shoeing of horses) and in barefoot trimming, and I am not drawn to this argument within horse culture—an argument that sometimes takes on the air of zealotry, rather than curiosity, wonder, and a willingness to learn. For some reason human beings seem to feel satisfied (identified, validated) with binary, absolute forms of conviction and belief.
So I will say gently that I believe that most horses do fare better—are healthier—barefoot, but only if the barefoot trimmer is extremely knowledgeable and experienced. But I would just as gently add that there are some horses/conditions/uses/atmospheres/lamenesses for which shoeing may be intelligently indicated.
Transitioning a horse to barefoot is a process; it takes time, and goes in stages. It also takes more care, more commitment on the part of the trimmer and the owner. In most cases, if one is devoted, transitioning one's horse from shod to barefoot is in my experience a good idea. But not always. All of the variables must be considered, and the decision should not come as a result of being part of one "camp" or the other, but should depend on the precise and well thought out needs of each particular horse.
What is a Barefoot Horse? And Why a Barefoot Trimmer?
A barefoot horse is not "wild". A barefoot horse is "natural" only to the degree that we imagine the barefoot trimmer to be imitating the forces of nature with their craft—a craft, we would remember, made necessary by the horse's domestication. An experienced barefoot trimmer does the best they can to imitate the conditioning and altering forces of nature, according to the anatomical conformation and the activity of the particular horse.
For the barefoot horse, the only protection of the hoof is its shape and human-influenced condition. Barefoot horses do erode their hooves somewhat on their own, more or less, depending on their environment and activity. But extremely rare is a domestic barefoot horse that does not need hoof care. In fact, if a horse is accessible to a human's whims and needs, that horse will by virtue of the fact almost certainly not be wild enough to form and condition its hooves naturally.
A barefoot trimmer, therefore, must have an extremely sound knowledge of the horse's anatomy. Not just its hooves, but its processes of locomotion, which means its entire body. A barefoot trimmer is by necessity holistic in perspective—and that is my draw toward the art of barefoot trimming. I have solid and extensive training and education in farriery—from blacksmithing to hoof care to veterinary medicine as it applies to hoof health and kinetic locomotion. But barefoot trimming demands of me heightened knowledge, heightened care, and heightened attention to the particular needs, character, environment, activity, and form of each horse. That level of attentiveness is for me deeply satisfying.
In summary, a barefoot horse's hooves are, I believe, healthier than a shod horse's hooves. But the vulnerability of the bare hoof necessitates a level of devotion on the part of the owner as well as the trimmer. I work only with owners who have this kind of devotion to their horses. Together we examine every aspect of the horse, and we discuss together the ideal hoof form for the holistic function of the horse.