Wednesday 13 July 2016

Reverse engineering the barefoot revolution

I posted on Facebook about a great email I received yesterday about Alfie, who was here a couple of years ago. He and Will are now back eventing and Will wrote:

"He's a very happy horse; he's fit, agile and "healthy throughout" and he's not showing his age. (I've finally realised that a horse with truly healthy feet is healthy "all through" and you can't have one without the other); we are competing and performing better than we ever did before his "navicular"; he's got  feet that haven't seen a farrier in years; and finally (and I know this is the bit you like best!) – some proper heel first landings!"
I was also talking to an owner whose horse is going home today. We were out hacking at the time and her horse was looking confident, forward going and sound. The same horse which was given a "guarded" prognosis by an eminent referral vet who thought the horse unlikely to return to work.

Its such a common story among the horses who come here. We always ask for the vet's consent before a horse arrives at Rockley but that consent is often given grudgingly, even if the only alternative being offered is de-nerving or putting the horse down. 

By contrast, if you take to the internet searching for information once your horse has been diagnosed with navicular or significant soft tissue damage within the hoof you will (nowadays) find a host of helpful owners willingly and enthusiastically sharing their experiences and expertise and only too happy to suggest barefoot as a therapeutic tool in the fight against lameness.

Of course, this is a relatively new development. Certainly when we first took our horses barefoot in 2004 it was unheard of for horses to work hard in the UK without shoes and good advice on nutrition or biomechanics was vanishingly rare. If you mentioned barefoot on social media you would (at best) be laughed off the forum and at worst would be the target of aggressive abuse.
Its a happy thought that now, 12 years later, there are so many positive stories about barefoot horses and so many more educated, inspired and inspiring owners that taking a horse barefoot is an everyday occurrence. Even better, with owners so much more aware of what is essential for hoof health there are more and more horses who are thriving barefoot and  - like Alfie - demonstrating to their owners that healthy hooves make for healthy horses.

So what is the missing link? Its the vets, of course. Many improvements in horse health and welfare have come from the top down - following veterinary research - but barefoot is the exception. Most vets are still woefully unaware of the difference between a healthy and unhealthy hoof. Its not taught to veterinary students and their practical experience usually fails to bridge this gap. Why? Simply because a horse like Alfie not only won't see a farrier but won't see a vet (certainly not for his feet) either, because his feet are now so much better than they were.

My own vet has never even taken a look at our horses' hooves - which is a shame because he is missing out on a chance to see hooves at their best - because their feet don't give them problems. Equally once a horse has left here, most owners are keen to engage with their vet and update them about the changes in the horse's feet but the vets are, more often than not, uninterested.

You might assume that the answer is to provide evidence and research to the veterinary community but on the 3 occasions I have tried to do just that  - with submissions of our data to BEVA (twice) and Liverpool University - its been either ignored or dismissed as implausible. Of course there are some individual vets who become passionate about barefoot once they have seen it in action but they tend to be horse owners first and foremost, who "see the light" once their own horse's hooves improve.

While owners' knowledge about hooves has increased exponentially in the last few years the vets are being left behind. This is one revolution that will be reverse-engineered from the bottom up!

It reminds me of nothing so much as that great quote:

"Remember, amateurs built the Ark; professionals built the Titanic."


C-ingspots said...

Love it, but wish wholeheartedly that it wasn't this way. With the professionals, I mean. So, I have a question for you. I have a 16 year old barefoot Mustang gelding whose been barefoot for his entire life, I assume. I've had him for 5 years now and his feet are very "shelly" and chip away until he has virtually no wall left. He's turned out on pasture every day and has a couple areas where there is some packed gravel to walk on. He gets local (Western Oregon) grass hay, horseguard vitamin/mineral supplement, 4 ounces extruded soybean meal, 2 ounces Hoof Guard and 1 pound Purina Equine Senior grain daily. Plenty of turn-out, ridden on dirt mostly several times weekly. His feet have gotten so bad that I only ride him with his boots on to prevent walking on his soles. Any advice why this happens? What causes this, or have you had any experience and if so, what helps? He's my best horse and main rider and I don't want to cause him to become lame, and so far he isn't.

TBA said...

I'm a vet student in the US and I'd love to do some research and get some papers published on barefoot being an alternative therapy to shoeing. It's ridiculous how little education vets receive on equine nutrition and managing a horse's hooves, yet vets have so much say on treating lameness. Hopefully in a couple years I'll be better prepared to put in the time it takes to getting some research together because I think it would be so beneficial to the veterinary/farrier/horse-owning community!

Nic Barker said...

TBA - I wish you every success in your research :-) If any of the data here might be useful feel free to get in touch with me.

C-ingspots - there is nothing wrong with horses wearing away excess hoof wall ;-) Check out this link for the reasons:
Weak feet and soft soles are usually nutritional problems so take a careful look at his diet (I am not familiar with the sugar/starch/mineral contents of the feeds you list so you'd need to check labels) and you will probably find the solution.

Unknown said...

Such a good post Nic, but such a sad situation re the vets. I have the greatest respect for my local vets' medical knowledge but I really do feel more and more that in some areas the veterinary profession is well left behind, especially nutrition and feet. I don't know much but I do know more than some about both these subjects, and the thing that makes me most sad about the vet approach is how much it seems led by the pharmaceutical companies and a general unwillingness to discuss anything "alternative". PS I am pretty horrified at wedges on horses feet - what must this do to the rest of the horse's body as all the balances will be shoved out of kilter? Why would a vet sanction this sort of quick fix?

Jax said...

I'm sorry to be a cynic but I feel pretty sure that the lack of widespread 'official' information is down to the lack of potential financial reward to vets/farriers/pharmaceutical companies. Rockley results are down to good old fashioned hard work - but people don't want to do that (or can't) and instead want to buy (so companies want to sell) a quick fix product. Unfortunately, to get longterm results, there seems to be no substitute for the former (i.e. hard work) - and very little by way of a trim either.