Thursday 12 February 2015

Getting hooves working

Following on from Monday's post (and sorry "tomorrow" turned into Thursday but that's life!), here is the next in what I am going to entitle the "how to take your horse barefoot" series...

I started off by looking at why shoeing horses became popular and why - for me - its a relic of the dark ages and something we and our horses are better off leaving in the history books.

On Monday I was talking about the cornerstone of healthy hooves - nutrition and why its critical to get this right before you start working your horse. Today I want to cover some of the essentials to consider when you start working your horse.
However I must make one thing clear straightaway: this blog post is talking about horses who are already sound and have no pre-existing injuries. Horses who are recovering from lameness or trauma are a whole different ball-game and need careful - and individual - handling or you run the risk of aggravating or worsening the problem. 
  • Does he have a balanced foot? 
Before you work your horse you need to be sure his feet are balanced and capable of supporting his limb as he moves. There are 2 main things to look for. 
  1. Your horse should typically land heel first in walk on a flat hard surface. 
  2. Your horse should load both front feet evenly (a fractional lateral first touchdown is acceptable), so rather than landing on one heel and tipping, both heels should touch down at the same time.
Both of these are easy to spot once you get your eye in but if you are not used to assessing movement then filming your horse and slowing it down can be helpful. To do this you need the camera held as still as possible and level with the horse's fetlock while the horse is walked past or towards the camera (there are plenty of examples elsewhere on this blog!).

If your horse is on a good diet, has a balanced foot and is sound then working barefoot should only strengthen his hooves and improve his movement and that's where the next important step comes in.
  • Fitness for feet
If you have a shod horse and are used to your responsibility for his feet being confined to booking the farrier every few weeks it can be intimidating to understand just how much responsibility you as an owner have for your horse's hoof health once barefoot. 
A horse with healthy feet is capable of awesome amounts of work without shoes. Our own horses hunt twice a week over a 9 month season on some very difficult terrain - the oldest have been doing so for 11 seasons barefoot and are still going strong. 

The key point here is that feet have to be healthy. In horses, feet are a magnifying glass for health and health problems will often show up in the feet first; this can be foot pain over tougher surfaces, flat feet and loss of hoof integrity and, in extreme cases, problems like laminitis or tendon and ligament damage. 
As well as needing to be healthy, feet need to be fit. You wouldn't dream of taking an unfit horse out of a field and riding it for hours with no preparation (at least I am sure this is true of anyone reading this blog!). By the same token, you should expect a horse's feet to need fittening for the work you regularly do, especially if he has been in shoes or out of work. 
If you build up and reduce work levels steadily and consistently you give hooves the best chance of adapting their growth rates to the mileage and terrain they are covering. For instance, although many people instinctively feel that hooves grow faster in the summer, my own horses grow the most hoof during the hunting season - the autumn and winter when they are doing the highest mileage. 
Terrain, as well as mileage, plays its part. Just as a runner from a flat part of the UK would struggle with fell-running, hooves which are only used to an arena or soft field need time and work to adapt to more challenging surfaces like stony tracks and roads.

There is no reason why a healthy hoof can't cope with extended mileage over this sort of terrain but  - as with hill work or fast work - you introduce it gradually and increase it steadily. 
Our 2 year old comes out on the roads led from another horse but - although he has great feet - he doesn't do the same mileage as the older horses (in the wild he would, of course - its not his feet which are the limiting factor but our time constraints!).

As he gets older and does more his feet will develop and strengthen, just like the rest of his body, and by the time he is ready for ridden work he should have feet which are as rock-crunching as our other horses. Consistent work will keep them that way and once a hoof is strong and well-balanced there are few limits on what they can achieve.

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