Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Why not shoe?

One thing you can guarantee when you have a hard-working barefoot horse is that it will get people talking - even arguing.
Other horse owners will make lots of assumptions about why you choose not to have shoes on your horse (inevitably, I suppose, I make assumptions in return about why anyone would choose to shoe a horse but I've not come up with any very satisfactory explanations although habit must play a large part).

I blogged recently in my "Living in the Dark Ages" post about how strange it is that in the 21st century so many horses are still shod. 

The assumptions people most commonly voice are that either we do it to save money (nope) or we've just been lucky and somehow stumbled across horse after horse with fantastic feet purely by chance (nope).
Yes, our horses do have fantastic, healthy feet but that's a product of the diet we feed them, the environment they live in and the work we do with them week in week out. Hoof health, like whole horse health, rarely happens by chance. 

So why not shoe? Quite simply because we want to keep those feet as healthy as possible. 
Interestingly, especially given how widespread the practice of shoeing is, there is very little evidence or research into what it does to a horse's foot. There is no research, as far as I am aware, comparing loading of of shod and bare hooves or measuring the comparative changes in them over time. 
Realistically this is difficult to achieve because owners of horses with healthy bare feet are unlikely to allow them to be shod and simply taking the shoes of a horse which has previously been shod (which is all that shod/bare studies have historically done) certainly doesn't give you a healthy bare foot as a starting point. 
So what can we know about shoes? 

Logically, as they are metal and secured with nails, they will have an effect on the temperature of the hoof. Metal is a better conductor than hoof wall so its logical to assume that (in most climates) a hoof will be colder when shod. 
In fact it was a farrier who first demonstrated this to me when he showed me something called a heat sink - a piece of aluminium designed to remove heat as efficiently as possible and which looks in essence a lot like a shoe. 
I posted about this in a blog back in 2009 but I still find it fascinating. The fact remains that shoes are an effective way of drawing heat rapidly and continuously out of hooves. Is that a good or a bad thing? I don't know but I for one prefer hooves which feel alive rather than dead. 

Another logical assumption which we can make is that shoes - particularly metal shoes - will have an effect on the internal hoof. 

Metal not only conducts heat but also shock. This is one area where there has been some research reported (Luca Bein, 1983) which confirms that a shod hoof receives significantly more concussion on a road than a barefoot horse.  For me, that's another reason not to shoe - why increase the concussion on our horses' limbs and feet if we don't have to?
The increase in concussion is not surprising. There is a double-whammy effect -  not only does the metal as a material increase shock but also the fact that a shoe loads the horse's weight onto the hoof wall, making the frog and digital cushion unable to do their job.
Over time, my experience is that an unloaded frog and digital cushion weaken and atrophy - a prime contributor to heel pain and lameness - another reason not to shoe. 

There's an additional effect which shoes may have, but where there is no equine research, so far as I am aware. Its something called stress shielding and I blogged about it in 2010 because I had a suspicion then that shoes could be affecting horses this way. 

Stress shielding is defined this way and is a familiar problem in the medical world, for example in hip and knee replacements: 

" If you replace or support a bone with a stiffer material, like metal, then the stiffer material becomes the primary load-bearing structure. This reduces load to the bone and it degenerates in response."
It seems astonishing that there has been no veterinary investigation into shoes and this phenomenon.  Bob Bowker published an article about coffin bone degeneration in shod horses but again we could do with comparative research which looks systematically at healthy, hard-working barefoot horses. Until then, coffin bone deterioration is another reason for me not to shoe my horses.

There are other reasons too. A hoof is the magnifying-glass to the horse's health and fitness. A healthy hoof is capable of incredible levels of hard work over every surface but you can't take short-cuts

Nutrition has to be right and the horse has to be moving correctly and loading balanced feet. The hooves themselves have to be brought to a level of fitness for the mileage and terrain you ask of them - unlike the "quick fix" of shoeing. 
Again, this is something I've posted about before - http://rockleyfarm.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/hoof-as-magnifying-glass.html - and its something which others have talked about more eloquently than me, notably this blog post which explains why the "hoof is the governor"  - and why this can easily be ignored in a shod horse: https://perseveranceendurancehorses.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/eventually-further-and-faster/ 
So, yet another reason not to shoe. Add to that the obvious benefits of fewer and less severe injuries and the wonderful but under-rated ability for a horse to self-trim and grow the hooves he needs in response to the stimulus he receives and I am still left wondering why barefoot is still in the minority...


BruceA said...

Well written post Nic. In the end of the day there is a whole industry out there that will ignore the welfare and health arguments to protect itself until it's dying breath and horses will continue to have this medieval treatment for another generation at least. It's up to owners to question everything done to their horses and they have to really take responsibility - in both trimming and shoeing - and not abdicate critical thinking and accountability to the farrier or trimmer or the vet for that matter.

Sara said...

Long time silent reader from the USA here. I do endurance over here and my mare is barefoot with excellent feet and does very well over all types of terrain. I get a *ton* of sideways glances, downright nasty comments, and questions over my choice to leave my mare bare. In fact I had one person accuse me of abuse due to my insistence of leaving her bare. Sigh. It is so inbred into the industry that horses need metal shoes. I really hope it changes soon as many ride managers over here are now mandating hoof protection to enter the ride.

Nic Barker said...

Bruce, I am with you 150% on this - owners are the only people who will make a long term, significant difference.

Sara, thanks for your comments and so sorry you've had such negative feedback with your mare. I can only hope that you and other riders can educate those who run your rides.

Unknown said...

Any size horse? Please advise on length of time to be comfortable from transition of shoes to barefoot... Also...a horse with navicular.... Can they be better off barefoot... Thanks

Babsi said...

Very well summarized and argumented! Here one - until now silent - reader of yours from Finland which still don't have balls to share it among ppl here (I guess still more than 90% are shod, it's getting better but slowly...). Last year, one horse magazine even published an article where one farrier explained that keeping a working horse barefoot here (rough rocky roads) is on verge of animal abuse.
The problem here is, except of traditional believes like "a working horse can't survive without shoes" & "the hooves will wear away", lacking knowledge how to do it right and pain-free. Me and my first horse were stumbling, unsure what's wrong, too. I guess now she was sensitive on rocks/hard ground because she's sugar sensitive and was on fulltime pasture that summer. But I wish I knew then! I didn't understand how important diet is. I had previous experience with barefoot horses but for some reasons they didn't have any of the problems I came across with my mare. They were without any issues most of the time and no special attention to their diet so I was so stressed at times not knowing what's exactly wrong with my mare and what to do about it (there wasn't only one problem and one source of problems is arthrosis (not inside of hooves but higher)). Sure, the Internet is neverending source of information but it's hard to know what to believe etc.

I'd like to ask - a good book about horse diet? I bought your book but I've found it too brief in that matter but I don't know any good book - could you recommend something (English is okay)? Here I borrowed one very popular and highly appreciated and haven't really read it yet but I couldn't agree on some things I came across there... F.e. they assume you shoe your horse - so you don't notice possible grass sensitivity; other thing - they consider normal to feed grains even to horses in light work (only not-working horses can manage on hay diet without any other source of energy) and I got an impression that in their opinion horses needs tons of sugar. Of course they keep quality hay as a cornerstone of diet but on a top of that they MUST get something more, and sugary things are preferred in general (of course they mention there needs to be a balance between energies and the exception of laminitic horses)...
Maybe I'm wrong and judge the book too harshly but it definitely doesn't suit my purpose. Well, also my horses do get not only hay but in very limited quantities and low in sugar (it's beet pulp, to be exact, and it's a way less than the lowest limit stated per day on the package, and they still have enough energy, I would say even too much! :D).
But I'd need to know more about diet suitable for barefoot horses which is low in sugar, more exact info about minerals and vitamins and their role and sources... Thank you!

Lilylui said...

I hate shoes have 5 horses 4 barefoot and none look totally comfortable:(
One now has shoes so I can ride him I struggled for 2 years I kept his diet as advised, they had ad lib hay not much grass just older meadows that wasn't rich,
My problem as I have a concrete yard and 24/7 access to stables with open doors, his feet wore down to quick, he wore boots for riding out in, but he always looked sore,
So how can you ride out and keep the sole from touching the floor as feet have worn down too quick.
I am so disappointed he has shoes on, but he is sound now and looks comfortable
We have Tarmac and horrid gritty forest tracks here, very little grass to ride on.

Unknown said...

We were on a fun ride on Dartmooor at the weekend and I noticed a definite rise in the number of barefoot horse and ponies out there which I was pleased to see. However I did talk to a woman there who had two barefoot ponies and she told me rather abruptly that I MUST change to a barefoot trimmer and not use my farrier as the pasture trim ALL farriers do are no good for bare feet. I didn't even bother to explain that my pony is insulin resistant so his diet is even more critical than with most horses. I'm quite happy with how my farrier does my horses feet as they always walk away sound after his trims which is what its all about in the end. So although I do believe barefoot is spreading there is still a way to go before people understand it is 90% diet and management rather than a magical 'barefoot' trim. Its also not a great way to encourage barefoot - ie lecturing someone before you've even qualified how much knowledge they already have!

Hanneke said...

Joe Camp (Soul of a horse) has written about this too:

Jo B said...

This topic fascinates me. I have my horse shod, admittedly mostly because I always have! It is a big step changing this with the possibility of having a footsore horse and being unable to ride. I would be interested to know if you have had success with thoroughbreds? My horse is an ex-racehorse and when I had him he had bad feet. 7 years of Farrier's Formula and they are so much better but no shoes - not sure I am brave enough!

Nic Barker said...

Kayley - short answer is yes any size horse and yes they are better barefoot, especially following a navicular diagnosis. All the rehab horses here have that type of problem so for me its a no-brainer.

Basbsi, I have put a lot more info on the blog about feed over the last few years. In fact between the blog and the Feet First book then you should be able to answer most diet questions!

Lilylui, I would bet that you need to look at diet again - high sugar levels and low mineral levels are the cause of sole sensitivity in almost all cases - that or metabolic challenges. By all means shoe, but getting a really detailed look at your forage and other feed is the best way to ensure long term hoof health.

Eldest Clock - I sympathise :-) There will always be the odd person like that unfortunately(!)

cptrayes said...

People asking basic questions here how to do it, go onto the Horse and Hound forum or the Pheonixhorse.myfastforum.org forum and lots of people will help you.