Friday, 4 April 2014

Why not just settle for the quick fix?

I've been lent a book recently which is very entertaining reading. Its called "Horse Sense" (part of a trilogy entitled "Horse Wisdom") and is by Henry Blake - if you ever come across a copy I highly recommend acquiring it.
Henry Blake was writing at a time when most horses were backed and trained, one suspects, with considerably more force than is acceptable today. He evidently made a career out of re-training horses who were sent to him as either "mad" or "bad" (and as he says, none of them were anything of the sort) and did so with kindness, trying to see the world through the horse's eyes. 

Although he was obviously no pushover and set very clear boundaries, he went to great lengths to train horses using positive techniques, using activities horses were likely to find easy and enjoyable. The downside, as he says himself, is that these types of techniques take a lot more time and patience than training a horse by fear. 

"Since fear training is quick and easy, why do we take so much trouble to avoid it? 

The answer is that it is effective only when teaching relatively simple is a short term technique.

When you are training a horse you are working with a long term end in view. You want a finished product - a co-operative, willing and enthusiastic horse. 

If you use the method of avoiding pain the animal will very quickly learn the minimum that is required to do so. You will end up at best with a horse which is doing the absolute minimum to avoid punishment. At worst, if you are dealing with an excitable and nervous or very strong charactered horse you will end up with an animal that is completely unmanageable."

So what has that got to do with working horses barefoot? 

The answer is that if you are intending to work a horse without shoes successfully you have to take a long term view. 

If you have a horse whose feet are not strong enough to cope with roadwork or stony tracks then the quickest and easiest way to deal with this is by putting a set of shoes on him. 
This, after all, is the commonest reason for shoeing horses, both historically and today - the rider wants a higher level of performance out of the hooves than they are presently capable of. Its similar to the "fear training" Henry Blake describes because it simply achieves the immediate end without taking account of the long term view.

By contrast, those of us with barefoot horses are opting for the slower but (in my opinion) more complete approach of building a stronger and healthier hoof in order to get the same - or in fact an even higher - level of performance out of the hooves.

However, this will never be achieved overnight. A truly fit and healthy hoof, like a truly fit and healthy horse (funny how often the two go together...) is only achieved with patience, persistence, attention to detail and hard work over many months and years. 

Many owners have a pretty steep learning curve once they start taking really looking at hooves. If your previous responsibility for your horse's feet was confined to booking the farrier regularly it can come as a tremendous shock to discover the effects that poor diet, poor lifestyle and poor biomechanics can have not only on hooves but on the whole horse. 

The thing is - once you've seen the magnificent levels of work which perfectly healthy hooves are capable of  over extremely tough surfaces its hard to be happy with anything less. 

A really sound healthy hoof has so many advantages over a shod foot - of which the most important are probably its superb ability to shock-absorb and better proprioception. 

A hoof without a shoe is also efficiently able to adjust growth rates depending on the surfaces and mileage the horse is working over and finally there are the (not inconsiderable) fringe benefits of fewer injuries to themselves or to other horses or humans plus the fact that you never have to worry about losing shoes.

I'd never criticise someone who preferred a quick fix for their horses' hooves but its certainly not for me or my horses :-)


Jose Diogo Price Castiço said...

Good article, it took me 2 years with every single horse I own - 5 at the moment and 4 are converted - to convert them to barefoot.

At the beginning when I took the shoes off they where clearly lost without that fake support and pounding every surface senseless, you could feel they lost touch with the ground and that the "iron" was only making things worse, its almost has if they had numb feet same thing that happens to us when we are sitting in the same position and when we get up our feet hurt but we can still pound them and feel that gentle pickering pain.

Over the first year I would ride them approx once every week, calmly, walking on soft to hard surfaces.

I used laurel oil and pig fat to grease and make the hoofs grow at a faster rate - laurel oil has that ability and I found it great.

The start of my problems came with cracked hoofs, anything more that "just a stroll" would incur in this situation, clearly the hoofs where not strong enough and hard transitions (walk to canter for instance where the horse has to "dig in" to propel himself forward) do not help, walk to trot to canter seems to have a least devastating effect, my finding and not an universal truth.

Limitations, there are some, I cannot and will not ride my horses all day long, not because of their feet but because I don't, even on turf.

I used them mainly for tour ridings that go from 1 hour to 4 or 5 at most. When they come back, sane and without an hint of soreness I know I did the right thing.

I check the hoofs on a daily basis to keep them clean and with a good frog. I used a very sharp carbon knife (Opinel is the brand and they are great!) to shape the break over - I could use a rasp but i prefer a knife as I get more comfortable with one.

Once every quarter I get a farrier which know A LOT about hoofs, barefoot and shoed to check on them, its que quickest visits this guys has to do over (especially) the last year - in 2 minutes per horse he says - PERFECT. This makes me proud.

Thanks for the article!
Diogo Castiço

Anonymous said...

The book sounds like one I'd want to own - I managed to order a used copy.