Tuesday 3 February 2015

Living in the dark ages?

Horses and their owners today are incredibly fortunate in so many ways.

Our horses are not kept in the harsh conditions which are the norm for working animals and their lives as a result are much longer (a typical working horse in Victorian London began work aged 4 or 5 and would only "last" for 4-6 years).
Today, even a really "hard-working" horse in the UK is likely to be exercised only for a few hours per day, with plenty of time off, and we expect our horses to be fit and healthy well into their teens and (increasingly) twenties.
We have access to research on behaviour, biomechanics, exercise, nutrition and disease. Most owners take the opportunity to educate themselves about their horses using the huge amount of information available to us and most strive to ensure their horses' needs are fulfilled.
We can harvest and preserve high quality forage and we have the ability to analyse the nutritional quality of the food our horses eat, feed a bio-appropriate diet and supplement their feed to ensure optimal health.
Horses are typically treated as athletes not workhorses (though arguably we sometimes forget that even the greatest equine athlete is first and foremost a horse). 

Horses today can have massage, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy; they can work on treadmills and walkers and compete on arenas with surfaces designed specifically for a particular discipline. 

Top horses are regularly flown round the world and even a family pony or bog-standard hunter may well have a lorry or trailer designed for his comfortable travel along with a wealth of related equipment.
To a large extent we can and do manage our horses' environments to suit both them and us. Girths and bridles can be ergonomically designed; saddles can be pressure-tested; rugs are made of breathable, lightweight fabrics. Buildings are designed to be well-ventilated with good lighting and even heated wash-down areas. 
We vaccinate our horses against tetanus and ensure they are free of parasites. And when things go wrong there is sophisticated veterinary diagnosis available, perhaps using MRI, ultrasound, scopes and x-rays, with the option of surgery and rehabilitation to give the horse the best chance of recovery.

Nowadays nearly all of us can take good quality slow-motion footage using our phones and as we work our horses, train them, have lessons or compete we have the ability to use video and photos to highlight problem areas and improve both ourselves and our horses.
However, there is one area of horsemanship where we are stuck in the dark ages, using an invasive, poorly-understood technology which is hundreds of years old. Yep, you've guessed it...
Don't misunderstand me - I am well aware that shoes are a useful way of allowing an unhealthy hoof to over-perform. In my opinion that is the deciding factor which ensures the continuing popularity of horseshoes. 

If you have a horse with unhealthy hooves you can enable those hooves to become healthier by addressing the horse's diet and biomechanics but this takes time and effort. By contrast, the single quickest way to achieve a higher level of performance - more miles, tougher terrain - than unhealthy hooves are currently capable of is to put a set of shoes on. 
Like every quick fix, shoes have a number of disadvantages. Recalling my time with shod horses these include a heightened risk of injury (to horse and owner), loss of integrity in the palmar hoof, diminished proprioception and (frequently) impaired biomechanics. 

Shoeing is fast, though - certainly faster than growing a healthier hoof - and, as in Victorian London, you can use shoes when you have no means of improving the health of the hoof. 
Shoes therefore made perfect sense for working horses in Victorian London and before. These horses were required to work for 10-14 hours per day, 6 days a week and could regularly cover 40 miles per day*.  
City horses were kept confined in stalls when they weren't working and outside the air was polluted. Their forage was often dusty and of poor quality and of course there was no way of analysing what might be missing from feed. The long periods of work with no forage can't have done them much good either. 

Horses were almost bound to suffer nutritional deficiencies not to mention respiratory and metabolic challenges (all of which can, as we now know, affect hooves). 
In the circumstances, shoes were an effective way of ensuring that each horse could work for a few short years, regardless of the health of its feet, its management or the state of the roads. 

But technology has moved on (at least in most other areas) and practices that were acceptable in the 19th century are often outdated, unnecessary and primitive today. 

We are so used to shoes that its sometimes hard to see beyond them (I've blogged about this before too because even veterinary academics have this particular blind-spot!) but, as Steve Leigh said to me yesterday, can you imagine what the outcry from welfare groups, let alone vets, would be today if someone proposed, out of the blue, nailing a metal shoe onto a horse's hoof?
In an era when the health and performance of our horses is everything, why do so many of us cling to a shaped piece of metal as a talisman for soundness? In an era when we prefer science and evidence to tradition and hearsay (or like to think we do), what is the reason for this superstitious behaviour?
Its not because shoes are a technological solution, that's for sure.

Proponents of shoes will argue that there is little research on the performance of horses without shoes. To be honest, there is little research on the performance of shod horses either and certainly none which rigorously compares long-term performance between horses who are working shod and barefoot in the same disciplines (which is the evidence we need).
So, if we are short of research, what do we have? My experience, and that of most owners of hard-working barefoot horses, is that hooves are sounder and as a rule function more effectively without shoes. 

I have also seen an awful lot of horses which have previously been shod and had serious lameness issues but which have returned to full work barefoot. 

Of course, the owners of these horses wouldn't dream of shoeing them again (I wouldn't dream of shoeing any of my own horses either) because we have seen that our horses have healthier feet without shoes. 
Interestingly, almost all owners of barefoot horses have extensive experience of working shod horses. By contrast, very few owners of shod horses have extensive experience of working barefoot horses. 

[Note: for some reason, barefoot horses cause emotions to run high among horsey folk. If you come across a wild-sounding claim about horses' feet (particularly online) its always worth exploring whether that person actually has any experience at all in what they are talking about. Most don't...]

Even farriers recognise that hooves benefit from not having shoes on - its just that they believe that horses can't perform without shoes.**

Those of us with barefoot horses have seen with our own eyes the high levels of performance healthy hooves are capable of - seeing is believing, especially as most of our horses had serious soundness problems when shod. 
Shoeing remains a quick, if invasive, way to enhance the performance of a poor foot but it is ill-researched, carries the risk of injury and even the physiological effects aren't clearly understood. 
Of course you can continue to use shoes if that's your preference and if you plan to work your horse 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, 40 miles per day I'd say its advisable (and you should start saving for a new horse now as well).
However, if you aren't tempted by a quick fix and would rather take the option of improving the health of your horse, starting with his feet, then congratulate yourself that you live in an era when its actually possible and start doing something about it!

*www.victorianlondon.org contains excerpts from The Horse World of London (W. J. Gordon, 1893) which provides a fascinating and sometimes horrifying glimpse into the lives of working horses.

**www.farriery.org.uk The Horseshoeing Book (Humphry BVMS, MRCVS, AWCF,1995)

"Riding without shoes can of course save a lot of money in farriers bills. There are other advantages too. Unshod hooves grip the ground fairly well and are able to expand better without the restriction of nails. The frog, being nearer to the ground, is able to take more weight and better fulfill its natural functions of shock absorption and of circulating the blood around the foot. The hooves can also wear more easily in the way that is most comfortable to the horse. Furthermore there is less danger to other horses if there is a kicking match...

It used to be the custom to turn out all types of working horses for a few months during the summer without shoes. This not only gave them a rest and improved their general condition but gave their hooves a chance to grow without being damaged by nails...If your horse is used less at a particular time in the year then consider whether giving it a holiday without shoes might benefit the horse and the feet."


BruceA said...

Great article Nic. I saw several behaviour problems just evaporate when we went barefoot and my horses were more predictable, happier, more able to learn and adapt as a result. I guess having your attention constantly diverted by having sore feet makes you less able to learn or focus.

And isn;t it nice when the ground is really icy to be able to still walk your horses over it - I'd never walk a shod horse over the surfaces my guys are negotiating confidently at the moment!

Nic Barker said...

Absolutely, Bruce - and can you imagine ever wanting to go back to having your horse shod? :-)

Unknown said...

Alleluia for common sense. Surely the horse wouldn't have evolved into the wonder of motion it is,if it required shoes?
Shoeing is so indoctrinated into the way we manage our equines, that people who don't have horses are surprised when I tell them I don't have mine shod. It's an uphill battle in the horse world and as you rightly mention everyone has an opinion.
I depend on your blog as a well of information that has enabled me to provide the best foot welfare I can for my horse. Thank you!

ellerkincato said...

Alleluia indeed! And for spelling it out so well. Like Jane, I depend on well-informed information from the little "family" of blogs and forums such as Rockley, Phoenix, Steve, Prog Earth etc to help me ensure my horses' health is optimised - hard work but SO rewarding. My three hunter trial, dressage, showjump,go hunting, swim in lake, do endurance rides - and are comfortable and happy. My old mare with wonky foot is now less wonky, all my herself! Plus I can tell if things slightly not right by the health of their feet ... Thank you all for the great advice.

Nic Barker said...

Glad you like the post - thanks for the kind comments :-)

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. Shoeing is often due to a combination of lack of knowledge and impatience - many people just don't want to wait for soreness to resolve as the horse grows a new foot. There are a lot of other practices in veterinary (and human) medicine as well that are all about treating symptoms rather than creating the conditions for underlying causes to resolve and improve. Joint injections are all the rage in many parts of the horse world - in some cases, they may have valid treatment reasons but in most cases it's all about masking symptoms so the horse can continue to be used.

Unknown said...

Without wishing to take your article to task, I would like to point out that the life of horses is not so rosy today as you paint. Certainly not here in mainland Europe. You say the horses in Victorian times would start working at 4-5 years and only last 4-6 years. Maybe you would like some figures for France and the Netherlands.
According to the Harras Nationaux, the average age of the horse in France is a mere 8 years (they start at between 3 & 4 years in general).
According to the KNHS in the Netherlands (where horses also start at an average of 3 years) the average age is just 7.
Looks like Victorian London was not so bad after all!

Nic Barker said...

Average age isn't the same as age of death Timothy. Its very sad if your horses can only work for 4 years though - something is definitely going wrong.

Unknown said...

Oh, I realise that, Nic. I realise I was not clear in my comment - this is the average life expectancy of horses in France and the Netherlands. The average age at which they are written off and put to sleep. Which will probably be drastically lower than your 8 to 11 years since your figures do not directly suggest their lives being ended at that point.
It does rather beg the question though, if the biological longevity of Man is around 30 and we are reaching our eighties (more than 2 ½ times our longevity) why, when the biological longevity of the horse is 50, do they so often get no further than 20?

billie hinton said...

I live with several horses who were never shod at all and the difference between their hooves and my horse who spent 15 years in shoes is remarkable. He's happily barefoot now for going on 11 years and there have been many positive changes to his feet - but it's clear his hooves are different than the ones never shod at all.

I wish we could get to the point where horses remained barefoot from birth and any money spent on shoeing was put toward learning about the keeping and feeding of these amazing animals.

Unknown said...

I agree Billie. Your horse that was 15 years in shoes will sadly never have the feet of a true barefoot; and that goes for any horse shod before it is about 7 years old. Since the coffin bone is still growing when the shoes are (usually) applied, it distorts through constriction.
In a number of European countries there are now laws which, in theory, ban shoeing - all allude to the "natural needs of the animal, not causing damage, not causing pain or injury" and yet, tradition has got such a hold, that even the lawmakers don't know what is right and what is wrong, despite legislating on it.

Kobi said...

It is a shame that most horse owners don't have the option of keeping their horses somewhere that makes going barefoot easier. The traditional stable plus rye grass turnout (often limited in winter) means that getting enough movement on the right surfaces is really hard work and you are always compensating for a less than ideal diet. Also things like ulcers are so common. I wonder when the options offered to the average UK owner will catch up?

Tim said...

Thanks for the post Nic.
Being on an all shod yard it can be difficult sometimes to stick with the plan and keep Fillys' rehab going. This was more a problem a few months ago. Now folks see how much better Filly is coping with all sorts of surfaces the comments are reducing. In fact the yard manager commented how much better her feet are beginning to look.
Still not riding her yet but she enjoys our daily jog, as do I.
Posts like this convince the stubborn side of me that I AM doing the right thing despite the odd set back like the recent chipped hoof. The logic of what you write is just overwhelming.
Going against the tide is always tough which is probably why barefoot on big yards is less common than it deserves to be.

Nic Barker said...

Thanks Tim and good to hear Filly is still improving - comparing how feet were to how they are today is always a great motivator!

As for options for keeping horses, like most things they are owner driven so its up to us to ask for more suitable turnout and better ways of keeping our horses if we really want alternatives to stables and unsuitable grazing. It won't change overnight but it will only change if we drive the change!

Tim said...

On my long walks with Filly I have plenty of time to think.
I wonder if the shoeing of horses has actually led to an evolutionary change. Horses that have poor feet have been allowed to continue to work and considered to be good workers. Thus they have been bred from. So the evolutionary pressure to have good feet to survive to breeding age has been lifted to an extent. This perpetuates the need to have horses shod and so the cycle continues.
There is also some research now that suggests that plastic changes are heritable. So shoeing a horse will produce a plastic response in the physiology of the hoof and some of that response may be inherited. So shoeing could become a self perpetuating requirement unless the cycle is broken.

Andrea said...

@Tim, that's an interesting idea but a few hundred years of shoeing is not nearly enough to cause an evolutionary change of an entire species. It can certainly, however, cause certain lines of horses to inherit certain bad conformational traits. Certain stallions and of course mares are known to throw crooked legs, or crooked mouths, or disorders such as HYPP which I imagine is not quite the deal in the UK as it is here, unless lots of HYPP positive horses have been shipped over there. But these all certainly do not involve the entire species as a whole.