Thursday 11 July 2013

Hoofcare heaven or tilting at windmills?

Anyone who regularly goes onto so-called "social media" and has an interest in horses and hoofcare will have stumbled across the latest online controversy.

The practice of "farriery" is tightly controlled in England and Wales and, as we all know, only "registered farriers" are permitted to shoe or prepare a horse's foot for a shoe. This has been the case since 1975 - so far so good. 
The Act was clearly intended to regulate shoeing and there is nothing in it about trimming but because farriery IS regulated in this country, unlike in many others, both the FRC and trimmers' organisations have been circling the issue with a fair amount of mistrust in recent years. The recent spat arose because of concerns that the FRC was lobbying for an extension of the current statute so that it would include trimming as well as shoeing.

There are lots of aspects about this whole debate which I find puzzling. I haven't posted about it up til now because  - to me at least - the issue is a complex one. 

Let's strip it back and look at it from the horse's point of view. 
If someone is going to come along and bang nails into your feet, by god they had better know what they are doing. The margin for error is tiny and the risk of doing serious damage - both immediate (a nail into the quick) or long-term (improper foot balance leading to ligament, tendon and eventually bone damage) is immense.  
Equally, if someone is going to come along and trim your foot and change your balance and how you load your feet, by god they had better know what they are doing. An over-aggressive trim, just like a bad shoeing job, can instantly lame a horse and ignorant trimming over months and years can as surely lead to ligament and tendon damage as poor shoeing.

There is already legislation in place which has been successfully used in the past to prosecute the worst trimmers so is the answer really to extend regulation? You might be tempted to bang your fists on the desk and say yes, but my own suspicion is that horses are let down as often by farriers as trimmers. 

In my experience, the obsession by both sides with "trimming" (and shoeing, by farriers) is tilting at windmills. Trimming (and shoeing) is the most risky and least constructive part of hoofcare. Whether you are a farrier, a trimmer or an owner, you can do a lot of damage trimming (or shoeing) but you can't create a healthy foot with a trim (or shoe). 

I see hooves which have been deformed and weakened by shoes on a regular basis but I also get emails like this one on all the time: 

"It's just amazing what a difference diet can make - I always thought a trim every 5-6 weeks by was the answer -  every summer the trimmer put on the sheet that she had pulses but no suggestion that she needed to come off grass  or a change in diet needed- my own fault should have paid more attention and she has always been good to ride on grass and in the arena - she was only ever shod a handful of times before I got her when she was 4 years old just backed and she has been barefoot for 8 years however I can see in even a short while of a better diet she is much improved."

The emphasis in bold is mine - because it wasn't the owners fault. She put her trust in a "professional"; it was a failure in the trimmer's training programme (and, by the way, this was a trimmer from a "recognised" organisation). Its not just the trimmers to blame, because farriers don't routinely give dietary advice either. 
Then there are the trimmers - and farriers - who "re-balance" feet even when the horse is sore or less capable after every trim. I've posted about them before because its a very, very common problem but the most frightening fact about most of those guys (of whatever discipline) is that they took out their knives and rasps with the very best of intentions - they thought they were doing the best for the horse even though the horse was telling them otherwise. And in some cases they do it again, and again, and again, convinced that they know better than the horse what the horse really needs.  

This is a scary fact for owners because it means that a genuine, kind-hearted, passionate, committed farrier or trimmer isn't necessarily going to be better for their horse. Benevolent intentions help, but they aren't enough.

Many years ago, Ghost was "well shod" in "remedial shoes" - and was getting lamer each month. His (registered) farrier was well qualified, had his own horses (which IME is rare for a farrier), was a lovely guy and wanted to do the very best for the horses in his care.

No part of his farrier training (nor the vet) had suggested he look at limb loading, biomechanics, record how hooves were progressively deformed by the bar shoes or assess Ghost's deteriorating soundness. He put his faith in shoes despite the fact that they were ruining Ghost's feet and so the "degenerative" prognosis became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is an incredibly common story and is echoed for most of the rehab horses who come here. 

I actually feel very sorry for most farriers who care about horses. During their farrier training they are given only one tool with which to improve horse's feet - bang a shoe on. Nothing about diet, nothing about exercise, nothing about the biomechanics which are the cornerstones of healthy hooves and healthy horses. Some educate themselves later on, of course, but its not the norm.
Equally, there are a lot of trimmers who have nothing but a "barefoot trim" in their tool-box. And on its own, that won't get them far either, from what I see of the horses who come here.

I've lost count of the number of times when an owner has brought a lame horse here (and interestingly every single one has been under the regular care of either a farrier or trimmer) and admitted that the farrier or trimmer has never watched their horse walk or trot up either before or after the trim or shoeing job. To me, that's negligent as well as highlighting that the trimming or shoeing job was done with little or no awareness of the needs of that horse's movement. 
If I only had the options of trimming or shoeing as a way of improving horse's hooves and soundness during rehab I would have given up before I even began because of course most of the horses who come here are the ones whom shoeing (and increasingly trimming) has already failed.

Not to mention that there is a significant number of horses out there who are much more comfortable if they are allowed to set their own foot balance rather than have a biped impose what they think is suitable...
Given that regulated farriers lame horses and unregulated trimmers lame horses, even when they have the welfare of the horse at heart and the best intentions, regulation isn't the panacea some think it to be.

So is the answer in better training for trimmers AND farriers?

Farriery training is, as many of you are aware, in disarray following Ofsted's recent report which closed down National Farriery Training and uncovered "significant examples of bullying and harrassment" in the apprenticeship scheme. As we know, although trimming is part of the training the most important elements of hoofcare are missing from the syllabus. Astonishingly, there is no requirement for farriers to undertake any continuing professional development and by a further anachronism the official stance is still that horses "need" shoes for normal work and that "only" farriers are sufficiently well-trained to trim horses.

This is so far from the reality for most barefoot horses that owners have - understandably - lost confidence in many farriers and in their governing body. 

Equally, the various barefoot training organisations have widely divergent standards, many over-emphasise the trim as the cornerstone of hoofcare and  - like the FRC - most lack transparency and accountability when problems arise, which does not inspire confidence among owners.

There is a National Occupational Standard for Equine Barefoot Care (to give it its full title) but neither the farriery training nor any of the barefoot organisations offer this as a qualification - though some of the latter try to mirror their training to the NOS' requirements. 
If we are aiming for hoofcare heaven we need to think much, much bigger and way, way outside the box. We need to look beyond trimming - and shoeing - and look at hooves from the horse's point of view.

* For Kate..."Tilting at windmills" was the phrase used to describe Don Quixote who in the satirical novel by Cervantes thought he was jousting against ferocious giants. He was so befuddled that he never realised he was in fact tilting at windmills. 

He was also noted for a tendency to "intervene violently in matters which did not concern him"... 


CT said...

Hear hear! Foot lameness is such a huge problem but so little attention is paid to holistic solutions. Most domestic horses' whole lifestyle need a complete overhaul but I guess it's hard for their owners to a) know what needs to change, b) accept that they haven't necessarily been doing the best by their horse, and c) be able to make the appropriate changes.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that no one looks at the whole horse - professional training is limited to the specifics of a task rather than equipping the professional to gather data, evaluate it and come to a reasoned conclusion. I've found that many vets are poorly trained on metabolic and dietary issues - most barn owners are hopeless and the same is true for many owners.

The same thing is true in human health care - it's a problem of professional training methods and standards. And it's also about money - if someone is performing a service (even well) that you think is part of your charge, then you will do everything you can to get them disqualified. We've had the same issue over here with equine dentistry.

Kate said...

Thank you for the glossary xxx

amandap said...

Hear, hear, here too. lol

Think bigger is such an important phrase. Vets, hoof care professionals, breeders, livery yards, body workers, owners etc. etc. must start to look at what horses need as opposed to tradition and a human made up idea of what they need.

To get on my soap box... horses have served us so well when we needed them to survive but now it's time for us to do what is right for them, not just us!

Nic Barker said...

"horses have served us so well when we needed them to survive but now it's time for us to do what is right for them, not just us"

Now that, Amanda, is a mantra I could believe in - brilliantly well said :-)

cptrayes said...

It's the arrogance of the assumption that we know better than the horse that bugs me most. I watched a fully trained and experienced trimmer slice the bars off a perfectly sound hoof the other day. Not my horse or I would have stopped them. Perhaps that's why this trimmer also seems to be pushing really hard to sell their customers boots. Seems to me like they are creating their own market!

More regulation is not the answer though, and especially not more regulation by the FRC!!


Maria said...

Personally, I think we do need to extend regulation. If done well, it could weed out both bad trimmers as well as bad farriers, and it will highlight the need for farriers to become a broader-spectrum hoofcare professionals, who will actively advise on management and, indeed, check how an animal moves before and after a trim or shoeing. Having two professions leads to complacency amongst farriers and fanaticism amongst barefoot advocates. Both are harmful and not in the interest of the horse.

amandap said...

Thanks Nic.

I agree CpTrayes.

I also think training and education/rethinking and change is the way forward for us all. Well perhaps some less than others lol.

cptrayes said...

We already have t h e most regulated farriers in the world and we still shoot horses who only need their shoes removed. How will more help??

I have saved two chronically long term lame horses and the current proposal is to make it illegal for me to trim my own horse.

Over my dead body!


amandap said...

Is there a link to the actual proposals? I haven't seem them.

I'm reading The Lame Horse atm and it's a real eye opener about so many ligament and muscle strains etc.

Nic Barker said...

There are no "proposals" at this stage, Amanda. DEFRA were approached by the FRC and its DEFRA who would be responsible for pushing any new legislation.

In the current political climate new legislation is according to them unlikely unless they see no alternative. Given that the only people pushing for restrictions is the FRC that must be unlikely.

The welfare organisations are, as far as I know, content with the status quo as they managed to deal with Strasser trimmers effectively and there have been no recent prosecutions under welfare legislation.

amandap said...

Thanks for clearing that up Nic.

Nick Hill said...

Education, education, education!
Greater understanding of the whole horse and all professional bodies working together, sharing of information and passing on of experience freely!
Prosecution should be replaced by educating individuals, we are all human and therefore open to not being perfect, open minds and hearts!