Thursday 30 April 2009

"Transition" myth

Here's the second in our occasional series of barefoot myths de-bunked :-)

"Transition" is a word regularly bandied about amongst barefoot horse owners, and horse owners who are considering taking horses out of shoes.  "How long will it take to transition him from shoes?" is the sort of question that I will be asked by new owners, for instance. 

The Collins dictionary definition is:

"The period of time during which something changes from one state to another"

I don't know who coined the phrase, or why it was applied to barefoot horses coming out of shoes, but the more horses I take barefoot, the more misleading I think it is.  

There is an assumption that once you take shoes off a horse, you need to wait, and if you wait long enough, it will "transition".  There is an assumption that while you wait, your horse will be footy or uncomfortable, but that, with time, this too will improve.   Of course, while you are waiting for your horse to "transition", your riding will be limited or possibly be stopped altogether.  

The problem with this view is that it doesn't recognise that the hoof is a dynamic part of the horse's body which, like any other living structure, requires nutrition, stimulus and correct function in order to be healthy.  A weak hoof cannot improve overnight, so time is a factor, but time alone will not turn unhealthy hooves into healthy hooves. 

If you take the shoes off a "sound" horse which has weak, unhealthy hooves and is footy on hard ground then after 6 months of "transition" you will most likely have a horse with weak, unhealthy hooves which is footy on hard ground.  Its hooves will be a little bit stronger and will have better circulation, but transition time alone will usually not make that much difference. 

On the other hand, if you address the horse's diet before it even comes out of shoes, work it consistently on surfaces on which it can land correctly and put as many comfortable miles as you can on those hooves, then in 6 months you will generally have a horse with hooves which have strengthened dramatically, both internally and externally, and which is capable of high levels of barefoot performance.  

Its more about rehabilitation and fittening than "transitioning", in my opinion. 

PS: Hunting season finished yesterday, Felix, Hector and Charlie were out and had a lovely day, ending up at kennels (Charlie's spiritual home!).   Charlie has hunted 3 times this week, and still went out up the field last night with the other boys at a flat out gallop and came in as sound as a pound this morning.   What a little star!  

Hector behaved beautifully nearly all day (!) and was ridden by a friend who had great fun with him - Hex went up the field last night standing on his head, but fortunately doesn't do anything of the sort when ridden :-)

Felix and Charlie will now have a thoroughly well-deserved holiday, at least until they get bored :-)

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Those boys are good...

Charlie, Hector and Jacko were out hunting AGAIN yesterday.  There is a real end-of-term atmosphere and having missed so many days this season because of work, and having the horses out with other people, I have been determined to get these last 3 days in :-)

I must say that the boys  - including Felix of course - have been absolute stars this season.  Charlie in particular has worked his socks off, and carried 8 different people, hunting twice a week for most of the season.  Hector has grown up immensely, and felt yesterday as if he could have carried on for twice as long, even though we had a very fast (if short) day.  

I have invested in a gadget that tells me how far and how fast we have gone, mostly because it would be fascinating to use it for a season and work out how many miles the horses have done.  It also provides objective evidence of barefoot performance, which I think will be very useful over time. 

So yesterday, we were finished by 3pm but had a fast day, and covered 22 miles or 35 km.  The GPS also logs the time you are stopped, so it tells me that we covered that distance in just over 3 hours.  What it can't tell you is that the terrain was very nasty indeed.  Either very stony tracks or deep moorland, which was wet again after the last couple of days.  No really steep hills yesterday, but tough on hooves and tendons.  

The best bit is that the boys are all fit and happy this morning, and have suffered no ill effects.  One visitor  who comes down from Leicestershire remarked on how good all the horses were looking yesterday - you really wouldn't guess that they are all at the end of a long, hard season, which is a credit to their fitness. 

Monday 27 April 2009


Its always interesting to watch the rehab horses as they mooch round the track with our horses.   Our guys go where they please - they aren't bothered about which surfaces they are moving over, and if its quicker to go over shillet to get somewhere they will do so very happily.  

It makes no difference to their movement whether they are on deep pea gravel or flint - they still land correctly and have long, even strides. 

By contrast the rehabs will avoid the tougher surfaces, at least in the early days, and find routes to places that allow them to stay on comfortable ground.  

As long as they do that, they are sound, but if we forced them to go over hard, stony ground they would shorten up, become unlevel and land badly.  

For me, it proves how essential it is for a horse to be comfortable in order for it to move soundly, and how rehab is all about expanding that comfort zone until it extends not just to good surfaces but to tough ones as well. 

Sunday 26 April 2009

Timing... mine completely wrong yesterday...

We exercised Uriel and Bailey during the first torrential rainstorm of the day, then poor Blue and Hector went out and we were hailed on - hard!

Blue is lucky and only has a bib clip, but Hector had the full brunt of hailstones on his unprotected bottom, and was extremely indignant.  Not easy to ride and lead when the ridden horse is bunny-hopping with his nose on his chest and his head in a hedge :-)

Much better timing today, and we were out in the sunshine - huge improvement :-)

Saturday 25 April 2009

Miles and miles, up and down...

Following on from the discovery that we average about 25 miles a day out hunting, even on a relatively quiet day, I took the head cam out again yesterday for the last big day of the season -there are actually 2 more days to go, probably, but the last Friday is traditionally a day for visitors and has a holiday atmosphere :-)

I've posted this clip, which I hope gives a feel for the sort of terrain we cover.  The giveaway is the sound - you can hear better than see what the ground is like underfoot!

Jacko, the grey horse, Charlie (the bright bay who is plaited up in the footage of the first day) and of course the horse I was riding, Felix, are all barefoot, and Charlie and Felix have been out twice a week for most of this season.  

Of course we have some lovely gallops over old pasture, but we also spend a fair amount of time on flinty tracks, and on any day you will have roadwork and deep ground thrown in as well. 

You'll see that there aren't any jumps, but the ground we cover can be challenging, partly because we have steep gradients, partly because the horses have to be clever over wet ground, and partly because we have long days.  

Yesterday, for instance, we started at 11am and didn't get back to the trailers till just after 6pm.  
Despite that, the horses are full of beans even after a long day - a large proportion of the footage was shot after 5pm yesterday, and the horses were still keen to gallop, and more importantly they are all in very good form this morning. 

Tuesday 21 April 2009

"Paddock paradise" myth

Subtitle: You CAN have high perfomance bare hooves with just a field and stable!

There seems to be a rather pervasive urban myth about at the moment, an assumption that in order to have really high performance hooves you need to have a track system/paddock paradise and loads of pea gravel 

I've heard it on the UKNHCP forum, and its also a common belief among owners who send their horses here for rehab - they seem to think that unless they have tracks laid out their horses' feet will fall apart once they go home...!  

I thought it was worthwhile setting out the reality 

You need pea gravel 
Nope. Its a comfortable (because conformable!) surface, particularly for horses with very compromised feet, which is why I have some at Rockley.  

I have it for the rehab horses, because they have to be able to move happily and most have long term lameness when they arrive.  

Pea gravel also helps stimulate the whole hoof, and if horses are here for rehab we need them to improve and grow better feet as fast as possible because we normally only have 8-12 weeks to turn them around.  

If you have a lame horse with weak frogs, contracted heels or a thin sole then pea gravel is a big help, but horses with healthy feet don't need it.  

You need a track system 

Nope. Hooves are healthiest when they do lots of work, so a track is a good way of getting more movement, but if you ride your horse regularly on different surfaces, that will do the job for you.  

If you have an insulin resistant horse or really lethally rich grass, then a grass-free track can be a big help in spring and summer, but its not a necessity for most horses.  

For most horses, you can get very healthy hooves if you limit grass intake in spring and summer by keeping them in during the day with hay or haylage and give them enough exercise by regular ridden work.  

Most of my owners don't have tracks or pea gravel. Generally, they keep their horses in during the day and out at night in spring and summer to limit grass intake or they may make an electric tape track round their field .  

My own horses here have rock-crunching hooves but they don't need the track to keep them that way - good job really, as the rehab horses get first choice of the pea gravel and tracks!  

The most important things for my own horses are: 
  • being off the grass during the day (in a box, field shelter or barn, they don't mind); 
  • having a mineral rich, low sugar diet; and
  • doing miles of work.
None of this is particularly expensive, and its certainly not rocket science, but its not always the easiest option, I agree :-)


I've always suspected that we covered quite significant mileage out hunting, but over the last week someone who was out had a GPS with them.  It only provided basic mileage, and unlike some I've seen didn't measure how much you climbed or dropped, but even so on a fairly quiet day yesterday we covered around 25 miles, and the visitor said that he had recorded similar on each of the other 2 days he was out.  

So Charlie, who has hunted the most recently, has done 75 miles of moorland, roads, tracks and hills in the last week and is still raring to go :-)  

I had the headcam out again yesterday - first time I've been out for a while although the horses have all gone with other people :-)  and hope to get some more clips up on Youtube in a few more days.  Its a handy way of showing people that "moorland" consists of flint as well as bog :-)

Monday 20 April 2009

90% of lameness is in the foot...

I was reading a paper last night by a friend who is a professional event rider.  It was a very interesting read, about the correct development of the horse's back, but she included, in passing, the old comment that 90% of lameness is in the foot - something we have all read in one veterinary or farriery textbook or another. 

It got me thinking.  

In the years when I had shod horses, I would have agreed that 90% of lameness was in the foot - Ghost was a good example, as when he went lame all those years ago it nerve-blocked to caudal hoof pain.

However, in the years that our horses have been barefoot and working hard, we have had lameness occasionally, but it has always been an accident - such as Bailey getting kicked last week - or a strain injury, like a pulled muscle or tendon.   Its rarely in the foot. 

In fact the only lameness I can think of when it HAS been in the foot are abscesses - and again those have happened very rarely (despite 2 years of interminably wet weather!), and seem to occur no more frequently in barefoot horses than in shod horses, at least up here.    

Of course, there are horses that arrive here for rehab - those ARE lame, and its consistently in the foot.  But guess what...that type of lameness ALWAYS (to date!) improves once they have been here for a few weeks...and often they come completely sound.

So maybe the saying should be...90% of all lameness is in the foot IF your horse is shod...

...but what about the barefoot horses with bad feet (and you do see them - poorly trimmed or lacking work and with correspondingly weak hooves)...and the well shod horses who have no problems?

I think personally that the saying should really be:

90% of lameness is in the foot UNLESS your horse has perfect foot balance.  

Can be shod, can be barefoot - of course, its much easier to balance a foot without a shoe, because with enough correct work, the horse will do it for you... :-)

Saturday 18 April 2009

Hoof growth rate

...the other question people ask a lot is why our horses feet don't wear down to stubs when they are hunting barefoot. 

Here is why.

The lower photo is Uriel, one of our rehab horses, who arrived here on 26th March.  The photo was taken the next morning, just before I took his shoes off. 

The top photo is Uriel yesterday - 3 weeks later.  Bear in mind that he is only in light work on conformable surfaces, because his hooves have a long way to go before they are fully fit.  

Despite this, you can see from the line in his hoof wall how much hoof capsule he has grown in this very short time.  

We see this time and time again with barefoot horses that are living and working on abrasive surfaces - their rate of hoof growth is stratospherically greater than that of a shod hoof, or an unshod hoof on soft ground. Great for us - means we can turn feet around quicker, most of the time :-) 

What is already clear with Uriel, which is very encouraging, is that his "new" white hoof, once its fully grown in, will be much more similar in angle to his black hoof.  He has a lot of changes to go through, but he is doing his best to grow good feet as fast as he can :-)

Common hoof misconceptions...

...there are lots of visitors down on Exmoor at the moment, and the ones I encounter are generally down with their horses from other parts of the country where hunting has finished. 

Generally they are also from parts of the country where there aren't as many barefoot horses hunting as there are down here :-)  *

Now, I am always happy to chat about hooves -  in fact I am a complete hoof bore given half the chance - but I am well aware that for most people, barefoot horses are just an oddity so I do try not to speak until I am spoken to...

...there is no doubt, though, that its always the same questions that crop up, time and again.  Its lovely now, compared to 5 seasons ago, because people are much more interested than they used to be, but there are still a lot of misconceptions out there.  Here are the most common ones (!):

"It must be OK because you don't do roadwork" 

I usually just nod and smile, and wait for the dawning confusion as they watch us belting down the road.  A classic was a friend-of-a-friend who had been telling me that his horses needed shoes because they did so much roadwork.  He spent the day watching Felix and Hector on the roads and apparently said after a few hours, in some bewilderment "...but they should be lame by now..."

"How long does it take for their feet to harden up?"

This is a classic, typically from people who know a little bit about barefoot and have heard that horses need to "transition" to stony surfaces.  Of course the point is that horses with healthy feet can already cope with stony surfaces - so if they can't, you know that they have unhealthy feet...

"Its all about how you trim the feet, isn't it?"

Again, normally from people who are interested in barefoot and have heard about "barefoot trimming".  Its often hard for people to understand that creating a healthy hoof is mostly about nutrition and environment until they have seen it in action.  

"I wish I could just take the shoes off my horse - it would save me loads of money"

Definitely a "just smile!" comment... :-)

"How do they go over flints without their feet being cut to pieces?"

Ummm... the same way as the shod horses :-)   

* Honourable mentions go to Cheshire and Cornwall, where I know there are definitely horses regularly hunting barefoot!

How gorgeous is Charlie?!

Excuse the fact that I am in here too, folks, but Andy took this lovely shot of Charles and I had to include it, because he made me laugh so much yesterday :-)

I took him for a friend to hunt, and we had to box to a meet about 45 minutes from here.  No problem 'cos he travels like an angel.  However, en route the hunt lorry overtook me (I only pootle because I am in a trailer and its a horrible way for horses to travel, so I go at snail's pace especially on Exmoor roads!).  I felt the trailer rock-n-roll, but he was quiet so everything seemed fine - in fact, they told me later that as they overtook Charlie turned and gave them a Paddington bear stare, in some indignation that they dared go past without stopping to pick him up :-)  Like dogs, horses learn to recognise the sounds of their favourite vehicles, obviously!

Once at the meet, Charlie had a HUGE strop in the trailer, bouncing against the breast bar because he could see the lorry and was convinced he was missing out.  Despite all the head tossing we eventually got his bridle on and out he marched, in a real paddy.  Stomped up to the hunt lorry and stood stock still...In fact it was so foggy that we were standing around for a good 45 minutes, but Charlie never moved - he just knew he was in the right place, and sooner or later his hounds  and his hero, Raven (the huntsman's horse), would come out, and all would be well ;-)

Friday 17 April 2009

Planning ahead

As always at this time of year, the days and weeks are flying past, and although up here the focus is on hunting and lambing, everywhere else hunting has finished and they are in the middle of hunter trialling and eventing.

Unlike last year, when the ground was so wet that we really could hardly use our XC jumps, this year is looking much more promising - the ground is lovely at the moment so I am planning to take Hector, Felix and Charlie out for a whizz round the fields in the next few days.  Felix will not have forgotten anything, but Charlie has done very little jumping, so could go either way...  

Hector has done more, in his past, I would imagine (there was a photo of him at his previous place loose jumping over some pretty serious fences) and has enthusiastically popped stuff out hunting, so that will be illuminating! 

Further down the line, the Golden Horseshoe (big and serious Exmoor endurance ride) is running as always in May, and we will probably take a couple of horses to do the pleasure ride, which is a 15-20 mile zoom round the moor - ideally in the sunshine, though last time I did it the rain was torrential....

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Here's something really scary...

YIKES!  Here we all are trying to develop national occupational standards for natural hoofcare, along with LANTRA and the welfare organisations, and yet these courses are STILL being advertised - its terrifying!  

So the well-meaning owners who go along to this will come home and merrily set about their horses with a hoof knife and rasp, after 3 days!  Ye gods, 3 days isn't enough to even learn some basic tool-handling, let alone anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, horse handling, nutrition and any of the other skills that are absolutely ESSENTIAL pre-requisites for taking a horse barefoot.  I know lots of people think the UKNHCP course is too extensive, but honestly and truly everything on the main course is an essential component that was put in after weeks and weeks of discussion and planning by experienced trimmers and farriers.

I think its fantastic that owners want to learn more and are passionate about their horse's hoofcare, but although natural hoofcare is NOT rocket science, there is a bit more to it than you can learn in 3 days - I promise (!)

A better day...and toe first landings

..Bailey is doing well, and we've got away without elephant sized knees :-)  She is still walking cautiously but I think she'll be back to normal in a few more days.   

Very strange weather here today - mild, warm and foggy as anything...Bizarre.  The horses are happy with the temperature but its not quite warm enough for rugs off, especially with no sunbathing opportunities today...

While we are on the subject of landings, above are photos of a horse landing toe first on the day he arrived here for rehab.  He doesn't look very happy about it, does he?  In fact he has been lame in shoes for at least 3 months, and most likely a lot longer.  

I'll post more photos of him shortly :-)

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Poor Bailey...

..went hunting with Andy yesterday  - a perfect Easter bank holiday, glorious sunshine and a great crowd of people...Charlie and Felix were also out, but poor Bailey was double-barrelled by a shod horse in a narrow gateway :-(  Not her fault, for once, as the shod horse was being ridden by a visitor and presumably got into a panic.  Visitor of course was mortified...

Fortunately although we were in the middle of the moor, it was only about a mile away from a trekking centre, so Andy walked her down there and they were fantastic, providing buckets of ice, bandages and rugs, and in no time at all she was tucked up with ice packs on both front legs and a nasty deep cut bandaged, while I went off on Felix to get the trailer. 

The ice seems to have done the trick, and saved us from 2 very big legs, because Andy said the noise as she was kicked was once of those sickening "cracks"...  However she is walking today, albeit not totally sound, but weightbearing well, so fingers crossed. 

On a brighter note, the 2 new rehabs are doing well and have settled in with  the rest of the gang.  Blue, a big Irish draft is hanging out with Ghost, and they make a perfect pair - both BIG grey (nearly white) IDx TBs, who are complete sweethearts :-)  The other rehab, who is a Dutch warmblood called Uriel, is "one of the lads" and prefers playing boys' games with Charlie and Jack...  Hoof-wise they are both at an early stage but moving well on gravel, sand and grass, which is great. 

Friday 10 April 2009

The dopey things they say...

...part 1 (because I am sure there will be more of these!) -  thanks to Sarah Braithwaite for this cracker :-)

This was said in the last few days BY A VET to an owner of a barefoot horse:  

"Your horse has a problem because it is landing heel first.  All horses should land toe-first" ?!?!?!??!?!???????????????????????????

Surely one of the stupidest comments ever made about a barefoot horse, and deeply scary to hear it said by a vet, who has spent years, one assumes, learning very little about basic horse biomechanics. 

EVERY SINGLE horse which comes here for rehab is landing toe first when it arrives - and has typically been lame for 3-9 months.   

I have high definition video footage to prove it.   

EVERY SINGLE sound, hard-working barefoot horse here lands heel first.  

In fact, its pretty clear that once horses start to be able to land heel first they set themselves on the road to recovery - this is one of the reasons why its so important for horses to be comfortable during rehabilitation.  If they aren't able to move on supportive surfaces they will be less able to land correctly, and take longer to rehabilitate weakened structures in the back of the foot. 

Just what does that vet think the back of the foot is for?  Does his detailed knowledge of anatomy REALLY lead him to believe that the horse's dorsal wall is designed for shock absorption?!!?!?

What a relief that there are great vets out there who are MUCH, much more switched on - and who are putting muppets like the guy quoted above to shame :-) 

Thursday 9 April 2009

Lambs who want waitress service...

Out in front of the house is an old shelter, which isn't normally used but is accessible to the lambs out there.  In the middle of the night I heard 2 bleating their heads off, and woke up convinced they were being eaten by a fox.  Went outside, turned the lights on, and found that it was pouring with rain.   Nice and warm, so mum, the ewe, was outside grazing, but the lambs were not setting foot outside the shelter till the weather was better and were standing in the doorway calling for waitress service at the milk bar...Whats more they got it!

Andy couldn't believe it this morning - started raining again, so off they go to the shelter, and kick up an unholy racket till mum comes running and provides them with elevenses in the comfort of their rain-and-wind free shelter :-)  Are these the cleverest lambs in the world?

Bank holiday tomorrow... of course after a beautiful warm sunny day yesterday its turned cold and grey :-)  Makes no difference to us whether its a bank holiday or not, of course, but its a shame for my brother and nephew who are down for the Easter weekend and are planning to go surfing...Still I suppose thats what wetsuits are for :-)

Charlie, as you can see from the last photo, is kingpin at Rockley, as far as he is concerned.  Felix lets him believe this, mostly ;-)  Charlie had a lovely day hunting yesterday and very nearly managed to get a lift back to kennels in the hunt lorry - he was actually on board, and all ready to return to his spiritual home when I turned up and bundled him OFF the lorry - the indignity of it -  and into the back of his very infra dig trailer, which contains NO hounds at all....He was not impressed, but OTOH he did get to swagger round the yard when he got home and tell everyone about how marvellous he had been all day...  :-)

Friday 3 April 2009

Lazybones, sleeping in the sun...

Charlie keeping his strength up :-)  Don't ask me why he chose to lie down there instead of on the soft comfy woodchip area 10 feet to the right... (!)

More sun!

Dry weather for the last 10 days, such bliss :-)  Dry ground, fields are all rolled and muck-spread, so we are feeling virtuous and well-prepared for the growing season!

Horses are definitely off the grass during the day, its not worth the risk, but are out at night.  

Charlie made us all laugh on Monday as he was back to being master's horse and made it very clear that this is how it should be and slumming it in with the rest of the field is totally unacceptable.  He is looking gorgeous with an amazingly glossy summer coat through on his neck, whereas the others are a bit patchy still (!).  

New horse is a good boy and has settled in well - Jacko is now trying hard to wind him up by biting his bottom over the gate, but he is standing up for himself.  Bailey is smitten and is horrendously in season so keeps waving her backside in his general direction and squirting at him...