Monday 16 July 2012

Barefoot isn't the answer

When I first experimented with taking the shoes off my horses (and like many owners I tried it because there were no other options left) I honestly thought that going barefoot (and of course a "barefoot trim") was the answer. 

Taking shoes off seemed to be the last piece of the jigsaw - but how wrong I was!

Over the years its become increasingly common  - as barefoot has become more popular - for people to email me or post on forums a comment like: "My horse has been barefoot for x months and its still not right" or "I tried barefoot but it was no good for my horse". 

Like me all those years ago, these people thought barefoot worked like a magic wand - you take the shoes off and bingo, everything sorts itself out. 

I suspect this blog may be partly responsible for people having that impression because they see the rehab horses here improve fairly consistently, but here is the point: 

Taking a horse barefoot isn't the last piece of the jigsaw, its just the tip of the iceberg.

Once shoes are off horses' feet can (and often do) change radically - but its not inevitable that they will do so.
The foundation for any successful barefoot horse is good nutrition and this is one area where we've made huge progress. At the time "Feet First" came out, most people thought that "barefoot" was a type of trim. The book was an attempt to give owners a more accurate picture of what factors influence hoof health and practical ideas on how to improve the health of their own horses' feet. 

Many were initially sceptical about how big an impact diet has on feet, but trial and error - and seeing the effect on their own horses  - made most owners well aware of its importance. 

For sure, if you ignore nutrition (unless you are very, very lucky) you will struggle with soundness. I posted about the some of the nutritional "challenges" here and generally the more "red" factors you have to deal with, the more careful you need to be.
 However, even nutrition isn't the last piece of the puzzle. 

Right from the early years I have had rehab horses who arrived out of shoes but with ongoing lameness problems. Often vets and even owners say something like "Its already barefoot and its still lame so how is what you do any different?"

The common denominator among the horses who arrive here - whether shod or barefoot - is that their biomechanics are compromised. Generally, horses are landing toe first and/or have poor medio-lateral balance; naturally some have nutritional/metabolic issues too, which complicate things further, but the biomechanical problems are common to all of them and its these that have led to the "navicular", DDFT and other injuries that are then diagnosed. 

The hype about "barefoot" has grown a lot in the last few years and there are still people (like the ones quoted above) who think its all about taking the shoes off. They are then puzzled when the same lameness persists out of shoes - but the answer generally is that the biomechanical problems have not been resolved and so the damage and injuries persist. 

Someone called me only the other day about their 4 year old horse which went lame in shoes with a "navicular" diagnosis. He had improved somewhat after she had taken the shoes off but was far from 100%. Her words were "You hear all these stories  about barefoot successes so I don't know why its not working for my horse."

I haven't seen the horse, but since she had already sorted out his nutrition, its most likely that the horse's biomechanics were still compromised - the way he was moving was still causing stress or injury. 

Believe it or not, its possible for barefoot horses to have biomechanical issues, just as its possible for shod horses to be perfectly sound. It all depends on how the horse is loading his feet and whether he is landing correctly. That in turn depends on the strength of the horse's hooves and how he is affected by trimming or shoeing. 

So what's the point of this post? Its just a reminder...Don't lose sight of the whole horse. Its a very complex puzzle and there is no one aspect which will give you all the answers. 

Nutrition is vital - but its one part of the puzzle. Feet are vital - but they are one part of the puzzle.  Movement is vital - but its one part of the puzzle. Good biomechanics are vital - but they are one part of the puzzle. Fair and correct training is vital - but its one part of the puzzle. A good environment is vital - but its one part of the puzzle. Well-fitting tack is vital - but its one part of the puzzle. You get the idea!

What you will find is that if these aspects are individually right, then you will gradually get a "virtuous circle" of improvements - in health, in behaviour, in ridden work. What is less successful (though its easier in the short term especially if you are confident in one field and not in the others) is to focus on one aspect to the exclusion of the others. A magic wand would be much simpler - if only life were like that!


Charlotte B said...


Jane said...

Nic, I think this is one of your best posts yet! Hear hear!

M's mum said...

Fantastic post!! Words of wisdom if ever there were!

Maria said...

And, sadly, as I see youngsters born and can compare them to parents, there are also genetics at play. Of course, one has a HUGELY better chance of managing genetics when it's from a young age but they cannot be ignored.

Hannah said...

Brilliant post with great attention-grabbing title and logical, demystifying information. There are no magic wands, for sure.

Nic Barker said...

THanks guys - this is something which has been niggling away at me for a while, and it took a long time to write, but glad it was worth it :-)

Anonymous said...

Very good stuff, and so important - now if we could just get the vets (at least over here - don't know about yours) to pay attention to the whole horse and not just joints and bones.

Val said...

Excellent piece!

Unknown said...

I cannot believe how lucky I was when I had horses. I think we had the worst grass on our road, we only put shoes on during the eventing season, after having issues with bruises and abcesses one year when we had a very wet winter (the eventing season was through the middle of winter - great!) Our farrier actually made the shoes to fit the hoof/leg of the horse - and made the shoes from a long rod of steel, it did take him all morning to do 2 horses, as it was a bit of work for the old guy, but he was the only one still making to measure. He also thought that horses should be out of shoes as much as possible. I don't think they make them like that any more!

Heila said...

I'm so frustrated that my farrier has no clue about the effects of diet. When just about every horse at our yard went footy in December he would not consider the possibility that it was because our grass was very short and stressed. And that would have gotten him off the hook, as it wasn't a bad trim that caused it then!

And an unrelated question... can you have thrush in a frog without the usual signs of smell and black gunk? What else causes a very deep central sulcus on one front foot in a horse that generally has very good feet? He tends to stand with that leg back and the other one forward when he eats (which is non-stop), and did have an injury to the DDFT last year.

cptrayes said...

Great post Nic.

jenj said...

Excellent post, although it's SO frustrating to try to figure out which piece of the puzzle isn't right if your horse isn't improving. I really hope that as time goes by, we'll have better insight on how all of the pieces fit together... your work at Rockley is really pioneering, and I hope that it will become more mainstream in the future. Thanks!

Kristen Eleni Shellenbarger said...

So true and SOOOO frustrating as an owner trying to grasp at all our puzzle pieces as they float in and out and change constantly. What does one do to try to change/better bio mechanics?! It's a very difficult thing (rehabbing) to try to fix/address all puzzle pieces especially when boarding, I find. But, your blog helps me stay determined as well and ask myself questions :)

Kathy Adams said...

Wonderful post, thank you!
Can anyone recommend any eductional DVD's/books that focus on these biomechanical issues? How to recognise when a horse 'needs' an imbalanced foot to compensate for conformation issues etc? Would love to learn more about biomechanics.

FD said...

Heila, I hope I'm not being cheeky answering this since you asked Nic, but yes, in my experience you can have a thrush infection without discharge. The other main contributor to a deep central suculus that I am aware of is foot imbalance of varying types.

Nic Barker said...

Heila, FD makes a good point.

TBH, though, in a horse with DDFT damage you can get a real chicken/egg scenario where there is pain in the palmar hoof so the horse lands toe first, so the frog lacks stimulus, so thrush/infection gets a hold, so there is pain in the palmar hoof...etc - you get the idea.

Toe first landing perpetuates DDFT damage so the key is to get on top of both aspects, which is sometimes easier said than done.

Nic Barker said...

Kathy, the best teachers of all are the horses - certainly as to which hooves the "need" but there are lots of good resources on biomechanics - any of the basic anatomy texts are useful. Denoix and Pailloux's "Physical Therapy..." is excellent (apart from the love of remedial farriery!) as are Sara Wyche's books, inc "The Horse's Muscles in Motion".

Michaela said...

Hi just read your artical and found it very interesting would be really greatful for some advice as I have a very dramatic horse I've chose to got barefoot with my horse as it was a drama getting his shoes on he really panicked and dint like to see him worried but he hates to be in and goes stir crazy and will hurt himself been in so he's out 24/7 atm will be in with the other horses over winter as he's fine when there all in but also he's dose get a small feed of build up mix as I have problems keeping wait on him he's coping with out shoes but is footy on the stony ground is there any feed I can give him to help keep his wait up with out causing lameness or problems thank you xxx

Nic Barker said...

Hi Michaela, Feed is a massive subject - too big for one comment! Have a look at the "Key blog posts" tab and check out the Phoenix forum (link on R) as well.

Heila said...

Nic & FD, thanks for the replies to my question. My farrier has really worked that foot and frog over with a hoof tester and he shows no sign of pain. How deep is too deep for a central sulcus? I think I also need to get a physio out to look at him.

I don't often look at shod feet, but picked up a foot today that had lost a shoe and boy, suddenly even the bare foot I'm wondering about looks fantastic.

Heila said...

Is it possible to see a toe first landing with the naked eye, not on a slowed down video clip? Can you tell by the way the hoof wears down that it's landing toe first vs heel first?

Nic Barker said...

Heila, yes, once you get your eye (and ear) in you can spot a toe first landing without it being slowed down.

Its also related to the split central sulcus - once there is no longer infection it won't be painful but if a horse is still landing toe first it won't improve either. That may be what you are dealing with, in which case you need to get some stimulus to the palmar hoof to improve it.

Kathy Adams said...

Thanks for the tips Nic! I also found Dr Deb Bennett's series on Conformation Biomechanics very informative.