Thursday, 5 May 2011

Step AWAY from the celery...

I had a right old rant in my "stick of celery" post last week about ill-judged trimming and the disastrous effect it can have.   Its been on my mind since then because its an ongoing problem.  Trimmers and farriers have a primal urge to jump in and trim hooves and in my opinion its high time they stopped and took a step back.  
For those of you who've read "Feet First", I apologise for re-stating the obvious, but overall hoof health and good hoof function owe very little to trimming.
By far the most essential elements for healthy hooves are correct nutrition and correct biomechanics; a trim is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg.

You can sometimes improve a hoof slightly with a trim, particularly if the horse isn't doing much work; I'd say the margin for improvement is (at the very most) 10% and with a healthy bare hoof in normal work its probably considerably less than that.

A safe, effective trim can make a healthy hoof look pretty and - if you are very lucky - it might even nudge the horse who owns that hoof towards slightly better biomechanics.  That is the most it can do.
Here is the dangerous bit, though.  If you trim and get it wrong, you can cripple a horse, upset its biomechanics and cause serious lameness.   The harm when it goes wrong FAR outweighs the benefits when it goes right so any trimming should be undertaken with EXTREME caution.

However much we'd like to think it, its just not possible to merely"trim" your way out of most hoof problems.  In reality, this means that you are HIGHLY unlikely to make a lame horse sounder just with trimming.  [Trimmers and farriers, please read that last sentence again.]

This is true of any barefoot horse, and its doubly true of a rehab horse, whose hooves are undergoing enormous change.  Even a well-meaning attempt to nudge the horse closer, faster towards better medio-lateral or dorso-palmar balance can backfire - possibly just because the right change has now happened too fast.
As I said in my last post, I know all about this because I've made these mistakes before...BUT there is a way of avoiding mistakes, and that's to listen to the horse.   Any horse which walks away worse from a trim shouldn't be trimmed again until something has changed and if a horse is already lame, think beyond trimming, because that alone probably won't help.

  • If grass (or another nutritional problem) is causing sole sensitivity, the owner needs to discuss management options with the farrier or trimmer.

  • If the trimmer or farrier has been over-zealous, they need to be informed that the horse didn't benefit and, unless they take that information on board, they shouldn't be allowed near the horse again.

  • If the trim overloaded a weak structure of the hoof, that area needs to be strengthened before any further attempt is made to increase the load.

I can understand that owners want a professional opinion on their horse's hooves at regular intervals - that is completely understandable and is how it should be.  But the emphasis HAS to change.  The title "trimmer" should be abandoned for a start - although its so much snappier than "hoofcare professional" that we are probably stuck with it.

Nevertheless, there should be a clear understanding by owners and professionals that trimming is (or should be) only a tiny part of hoofcare for a barefoot horse.

A competent hoofcare professional should expect to spend most of their time on a visit advising on nutrition, biomechanics and management and may - or may not - end up trimming the horse.
In this sense, its more like being an instructor than a farrier (thanks to Wiola for this photo!).

The professional may need to assess where and how the horse is kept, will certainly need to evaluate the horse's diet, and should always observe the horse's movement and how the hooves are loading.    If trimming is necessary, it should be done only as part of a wide picture, with caution and the horse should be extremely closely monitored before and after.

Whereas with a shod horse the owner's responsibility for hoofcare may simply be to book the farrier at regular intervals, with a barefoot horse at least 90% of the horse's hoof health becomes the owner's responsibility.

Really, the professional's job isn't to trim, its to work with horse and owner and give THEM the tools to achieve optimum hoof health within the practical limits available.
It can be difficult for hoofcare professionals to get their heads round the idea of being paid for their time, knowledge and expertise rather than just for wielding sharp instruments but they need to start doing just that.

They should be talking to owners, giving them tailored and detailed advice on every aspect of hoofcare, not just billing £x for "a trim" and leaving the most important elements to chance.
The sooner we get away from the idea of hoofcare professionals being "paid to trim"and feeling they have to do a bit of cutting and rasping, no matter what, in order to justify their bill, the better for the horse...


amandap said...

Fantastic post Nic. The emphasis of getting diet and environment etc. right puts the responsibility squarly back with the owner where imo it should be.
It seems many still think a Farrier or Trimmer can 'fix' their horse by a shoe or a trim.

jenj said...


Also, your signs made me laugh out loud! Especially the DANGER KEEP HANDS AWAY sign. Teehee!

Emily said...

Nic, you mention improving the biomechanics and strengthening weak structures. Do you have any posts, or could you write one on ways to do this? I'd be all in favour of another book describing how you actually rehabilitate the horses at Rockley as its something I'm dreaming about starting here in California. The standard of farriery here is atrocious - 7 weeks training and even that's not mandatory to call yourself a farrier.

Failing that, why don't you come on holiday here and teach me in person ;0)

Nic Barker said...

Thanks Amanda, and Jen - I had lots of fun writing this one though it raised my blood pressure too ;-)

Emily - that sounds like it would be fun, problem is holidays don't really feature in my schedule at the moment! LOL

A book on rehab would be fun too, but its finding the time - if you have a look here you'll find quite a bit on rehab though:

The Dancing Donkey said...

Question....I've been following your blog for quite a while and have read your book. I totally agree with your post and the results you get speak for themselves. BUT, what is an owner to do if the horse does not self trim?

For example, my own farm: my horse and two donkeys are on a track system, eating low-sugar native-grass hay and a tightly balanced mineral supplement created specifically to balance my feed. The soil here is clay and rock. It is VERY soft except for the times when it is frozen solid or dry enough to be like concrete. It goes from super soft to super hard and back again in a matter of days depending on weather. The horse's feet have a very hard time dealing with this. While I have attempted to build solid footing on my track, it is in such small areas that it is of limited use. Doing more in any meaningful way is cost prohibitive (my driveway, which is 10 feet wide and 300 feet long of gravel "track" cost $10,000 to build). The other thing they are lacking is work. I do the best I can, but they are never going to get the mileage they really should. Barring a miracle, that will never happen no matter how good my intentions. I am well aware that this is a very critical missing link, but it is not one I can do much about either.

My mare is 6 years old and has never worn shoes yet we struggle with underrun heels, long toes and thin soles. If allowed to "self-trim", they just grow longer and longer until they interfere with normal motion and she becomes sore. The donkey feet, which are meant for desert terrain, will not self trim at all on this soil and, if left to themselves, will turn into "elf slippers" and cripple them.

I am fairly typical of the horse owners in this area. We aren't dressage riders or hunters. We trail ride once or twice a week as our work schedules and circumstances allow. We care about our animals and want to do right by them. I trim their feet and try hard to do it the way the horse wants. I try very hard to make sure that the horse is at least as sound after the trim as before if not more so. However, these horses still can't ride out without hoof boots and they are ouchy on stones.

I get that trimming is not the best alternative, but what else am I to do? A couple of the animals I am working on would have been euthanized without the work I have done on them. I took up trimming out of sheer desperation and the horses I am working on are all better off now then when I started, but they never develop truly tough feet.

I would greatly welcome any input you can offer.

Nic Barker said...

DD, I will post about this in some detail in a future blog - probably over the next few days - but in the meantime this in your post jumps out:

"I try very hard to make sure that the horse is at least as sound after the trim as before if not more so. However, these horses still can't ride out without hoof boots and they are ouchy on stones."

That to me is all about nutrition and nothing to do with the trim. I don't doubt you are doing your best but a trim won't give you rock-crunching feet - as you've found - whereas fantastic diet will.

Work helps but nutrition has to come first or horses just aren't comfortable.

Get that right and you will most likely find that even the modest amount of work your horses do can allow them to self-trim.

The Dancing Donkey said...

I'm not sure what else there is to do regarding nutrition. I have had both the hay and pasture tested and created a balanced diet according to Dr. Eleanor Kellon's recommendations. The horses are on a track system and fed grass hay out of small-mesh hay nets. Feeding baleage (or haylage as you may call it?) is not feasible when feeding a very small herd and with no large equipment to handle the bales. It is far too high in protein for the donkeys as well.

I have certainly seen improvement in hoof quality since balancing the minerals over a year ago, but not as dramatic an improvement as I would have liked. There are some severe mineral imbalances in the soil here with very low pH and astronomically high manganese and iron combined with very low copper and zinc. I have had lime spread on the fields for the past three years, but correcting this soil is a very slow long term process that is likely to take at least 10 years to see real results.

The hoof problems I am seeing are epidemic in this area. I see similar problems in the few dairy herds that are left as well so it isn't just the horses. I have had horses for over 30 years and never had hoof problems until I moved to this farm 4 years ago. I agree that nutrition is likely the biggest problem, but short of selling out and moving again, I am not sure what else to do.

I think you are right on all fronts, but I am profoundly frustrated. I just don't see any way out of this hole.

Nic Barker said...

Well, first off DD don't panic :-) If its any consolation we have huge problems with those very same mineral levels in the UK so you aren't alone.

Sounds like you are doing a fab job with what you have so give yourself a break! There is no reason for you to feed haylage if you can make decent hay - we can't, which is a whole other story.

The one comment I would make is that EK's recommendations are (I've found) too low in magnesium so I would in your position be feeding high levels of that as it has a big effect on hooves. Its safe to feed as excess is easily excreted so better to feed too much than too little. I'd be feeding at least 25g Mg per day - if you feed MgO then thats around 50-60g.