Quite a few of you have asked since then for some advice on how to go about taking a horse barefoot so I thought the easiest way to put the information in one place was another post. Its a huge topic and I thought it was worth spending a whole week's blog posts on it so lets make a start.
First off, today's blog is all about nutrition. Its the foundation for hoof health and of course is equally important if your horse is shod. However with a barefoot horse nutrition is everything - you absolutely have to get it right.
Without appropriate nutrition no horse can have healthy feet and without healthy feet a horse will struggle to work hard especially on tough terrain. Its my experience that every horse who is uncomfortable out of shoes has a nutritional problem rather than a "foot" problem.
Its therefore worth going through your horse's diet with a fine tooth comb well before you want to work him barefoot - at least 2-3 months is sensible and longer if possible.
The basic rules for hoof health are fairly simple - low sugar, low starch, high fibre and adequate minerals.
The devil, however, is in the detail.
Low sugar/low starch doesn't just apply to your bucket feed but everything your horse eats - and most of that is forage. You need to be aware of sugar levels in grass (which fluctuates wildly through the seasons and can be dangerously high at some times of year) and also that some types of grass - like ryegrass - will always have higher sugar levels than others.
Unless you are on incredibly safe grazing or have a very resilient horse you are likely to have to restrict grazing during high risk periods. This isn't terribly difficult (on hot days during spring and summer often horses prefer to be in and away from the flies) but it does make more work than just chucking a horse in a field and it does entail feeding lower sugar forage - hay or haylage - as a replacement.
Minerals are the next essential. Most UK forage is low in key minerals which are crucial for hoof health (copper, zinc, selenium and magnesium) so most of us need to provide supplements. A forage analysis gives you a detailed picture of what is - or isn't - in your forage but many horses do well on an off-the-shelf supplement and that's an easier place to start.
However, please don't feed your horse a standard balancer and expect his feet to improve. Many contain sugary bases to make them palatable and there are a few - very popular - balancers which are notorious for making horses footsore. As if that wasn't bad enough, most don't even contain adequate levels of the necessary minerals, making them worse than useless.
Fortunately there are supplements available which not only provide the right levels of minerals but also no nasty additives. The downside is that they aren't as palatable but - like toddlers - horses get used to them if they are introduced gradually and if sugary alternatives are no longer offered.
There are very few supplements which I am happy to recommend. Progressive Earth sell a range of great supplements and either Pro Hoof or Pro Balance are suitable as an all round mineral supplement. They are a great company to deal with and have a fantastic reputation for customer care as well!
Alternatively Equivita is another supplement with good levels of key minerals and no unsuitable ingredients.
I haven't got time to go into all the dos and don'ts - there is a whole chapter on feeding in "Feet First" after all! - but oats and unmollassed sugar beet are safe, readily available and enjoyed by most horses. Micronised linseed and copra meal are higher in oil (for slow-release energy) and are also safe for feet and very palatable so perfect for horses in really hard work or who are lacking condition.
I'll blog tomorrow about getting horses working barefoot!