Skillful neglect

A year ago, Máire and I went to a trimming course and afterwards we got Dermot and John out to set us up on the road to barefoot. The theory is logical and I still think no shoes is without a doubt the best for horses’ health, but the road has been rough and full of potholes. I realised at the start that transitioning was going to take time, but I was confident because I had known many horses and ponies that were effortlessly barefoot. As a child I learned to ride in a riding school where they had lots of ponies. Most of them were imported Dartmoor ponies, or Dartmoor crosses bred by the owner of the riding school. They lived out all year, they ate nothing but grass or hay and they were all barefoot. Except that it wasn’t called Barefoot, because Barefoot as a movement didn’t exist yet. When I got Starsky, my beautiful Palomino pony, he never wore shoes either, but I rode him everywhere. Out in the fields or on the road, it didn’t matter, we were as happy cantering on the stony towpath along the river as we were cantering in a field. Starsky took it all in his stride and he was never lame or sore. So when the shoes came off my horses, I suppose that on the whole I expected it to be fairly easy.  But it didn’t turn out that way.

Most barefoot, or natural, trimming methods are based on the wild horse. More specifically, they are based on the feet of the American Mustang, who lives on hard, dry ground. Short toes, low heels, walls trimmed down to sole level and everything rounded, a “mustang roll”. I could see how a Mustang’s hooves end up looking the way they do when you take the terrain into account. But there are other wild or feral horses that live in completely different conditions than the Mustang and I couldn’t imagine their hooves would look the same as Mustang hooves. Right from the start, I wondered what the hooves of wild horses living on boggy ground looked like. Because Minnie and Cassie are not living on dry, hard ground. Our land is boulder clay. This type of soil can get rock hard in dry summer weather (not a chance when you live in the West of Ireland!), but lots of rain quickly turns it into a quagmire (which is what we usually have around here). My horses spend most of their time on soft ground. That was my first problem.

When I started the transition to barefoot last year, Minnie was recovering from a tendon injury. Learning to do a basic trim on a healthy horse with basically good feet is one thing; Cassie had good feet and I carefully trimmed her by following the sole, preferring to err on the side of caution, and emailing photo’s to Dermot for his opinion, but I found it hard to do Minnie. Minnie’s front feet seemed to be growing at a different rate; her right front hoof, the hoof under the injured leg, didn’t only seem to grow much faster than the left foot, but unevenly as well, with the wall on the outside quarter much longer than the inside quarter. No matter how she was trimmed, Minnie’s hooves didn’t seem to want to stay balanced. Initially I thought that she was not putting her full weight on that leg, and that what seemed like excess growth is actually lack of wear. Now I am not so sure. Minnie was professionally trimmed only 3 weeks ago, and the difference between her front feet is already very noticeable.

Minnie’s newly trimmed right front 3 weeks ago:

Here is the same hoof this morning:

You can clearly see how the outside hoof-wall and heel (left in the photo) are much longer than the inside, and the bars that were trimmed back have reappeared. Quite a few changes in just 3 weeks. The white line in tight, there is absolutely no flaring, this is a healthy hoof. As far as I can see Minnie is walking straight at the moment and when I lift her left front foot up she shifts the weight easily onto her right front without any loss of balance.  Hard to believe that all this excess growth is caused by lack of wear and tear.

I keep fairly detailed records about anything that happens to my horses and I went through the history of Minnie’s injuries. Tendons take a long time to heal. Minnie’s took over a year and it went with ups and downs; she had periods when she was completely sound and times when she seemed sore again. Eventually she scanned clear, and we were well on our way with rehabilitation work when Minnie blew the suspensory ligament in the same leg last April. I put her back on rest again, treated her with homoeopathy and leg gel and in July she was sound and moving beautifully. Unfortunately she turned up lame again in August. I took her to the vet and the suspensory was 30% inflamed.

My notes for early August state that I had given Minnie’s front feet a light trim to balance the heels and uneven hoof-wall and take the bars down. I remembered a paragraph I had read in Nic Barker and Sarah Braithwaite’s book “Feet first”. It describes the case of a horse who had grown a medial wall deviation to compensate for an old knee injury. The horse remained sound as long as the wall deviation was left in place. Was it possible that Minnie was growing her own deviation to cope with the weakness in her leg? It certainly seemed that way, because no matter how the hoof was trimmed, it kept trying to grow back into that particular shape. I’ve seen several racehorses with tendon or ligament injuries where the farrier put wedges in between the back of their hooves and the shoe, to help take the pressure off the tendon or ligament. It seems as if Nature was trying to provide Minnie with natural wedges and I, in my ignorance, have been taking them off. 

How do horses cope if we are not there to trim their hooves? Mustangs wear their hooves down, but what about horses in other environments? They self-trim by chipping. That may not look nice, but Nature is not concerned with looks, only with function. I thought back to those ponies I learned to ride on.  The owner of the riding school was a qualified farrier and so she looked after the ponies’ feet. The ground they lived on was clay. Soft in summer, knee-deep mud in winter. Not much wear and tear on their hooves you’d think, but they only got tidied up twice a year; in Spring when the mud was drying out they all got checked, and again in Autumn. That was it. I remember what their feet looked like. Not pretty, but none of them was ever lame. I used to have an old Irish Draft mare. She lived on this land and she had big, strong feet. My farrier at the time only trimmed her 2 or 3 times a year, it was enough for her.

This past year I have been trimming roughly every 4-6 weeks, depending on growth. I thought I was doing the right thing. But now I wonder. What if the hoof I was trying to achieve doesn’t suit them or the environment they live in. Have I been preventing my horses from developing the feet that they need for their bodies in their particular situation in this moment in time? An old country vet I know believes we often make things worse by interfering, instead of trusting in the healing powers of Nature.  When asked how to deal with things he believed should be left alone, his answer was always: “Ah sure it’s a long way from his heart, it’s best treated with skillful neglect”. Perhaps Minnie could do with a dose of that.


19 thoughts on “Skillful neglect

  1. I’m really interested in this, you’ve got a great theory going there. I’ve followed Maire’s story of going barefoot, so I’m interested to see how it works out for you both long term.
    I’ve got the same sort of soil as you, there’s about 12 feet of clay topsoil, so it’s soup in my paddock at the moment, whereas Maire has outcrops of limestone and her track to help wear the feet.
    I’m seriously thinking about barefootedness when I return from France, and I hope to benefit from your experiences!
    Thanks for sharing

    • Hi Martine, welcome to my blog! I grew up with horses and ponies that never had shoes, and I always felt uncomfortable watching the shoes being nailed on to a horse’s feet, even before I knew anything about the bio-mechanics of hooves and how shoes can interfere with that. My ground is a swamp right now, but I do have area’s of hard standing, which are quite rough and at night I bring my horses into my yard. The yard is an area of about 45×45 ft topped with pea grave, there are stables there that the horses can use as they please and behind that there is a field of about an acre which is now very soft. It is not as good as having a track, which I cannot afford, but they do move around on different types of footing and even my soft, muddy ground still has lots of rocks in it. So there should be enough to help them wear their feet. At the moment I can’t do much with either of them, as we are coping with leg injuries, but as soon as they improve I will start hand walking them out on the roads again, which will also help.
      Going barefoot hasn’t been easy, but I still think it’s worth it!

  2. I think you do indeed have a theory there. I’ve wondered about this quite a bit. My Walker mare’s father lived on a farm in northern Washington (near the border with Canada) in a pasture filled with rocks. He never needed trimming.

    On the other hand, I have an old mare whose ringbone causes her to walk on the outsides of her feet, and she is noticeably LESS lame after a trim..she gets overgrown fast on the sides she doesn’t weight, and then she doesn’t have a choice but to walk on the outsides of her feet. I’ve often wondered if someone out there has tried giving their horses some rocky footing on purpose for “self-trimming” to see what happens.

    I really like the phrase “skillful neglect.” There is a lot to that.

  3. Fetlock, my old Irish Draft mare did more or less self trim on this land, and she was not a riding horse, so she spent all her time moving around the fields. Even though the ground is soft, there are lots of rocks in it and for her it must have been enough to help maintain her feet. I didn’t know anything about trimming at the time, so I just asked the farrier once or twice a year, and sometimes he only trimmed her front hooves. It wasn’t until I learned a bit more about hooves that I realised how little I knew and it made me very anxious. Ignorance really can be bliss sometimes! I think overtrimming is as big a risk as undertrimming, and of course every horse is an individual and what works for one may not work for another, so at the moment I am trying to find where the balance point is.

  4. Sound trumps pretty every day of the week.

    That foot looks good, the frog looks nice and healthy, the caudal hoof looks strong and the foot is round like it should be. In wet footing wild horses tend to have longer hoofwalls and bars because they don’t self trim and it’s possible that the excess actually helps them with traction. They get pretty ugly though with flares and cracks, still- soundness is most important.

    You could try a little experiment and let her go for a for a few extra weeks without a trim to see what happens while the footing is wet so she’ll sink into the turf without weighting the hoofwalls. If it doesn’t make a difference you can always take it off.

    In the meantime you might find these posts interesting: and

    • Thanks for the links Shannon, I’lI look them up. I think letting her go for a while and see what happens is a good idea, because Minnie always seems a little worse after a trim and better once the hoof restores this particular unevenness. Maybe the lack of traction bothers her? She does have good, healthy hooves, so at this stage I don’t think she shouldn’t be sore at all.

  5. “Ah sure it’s a long way from his heart, it’s best treated with skillful neglect”….a version of that line must be taught in ALL vet colleges! My vet says basically the same thing. 🙂

    • Wolfie, I always loved that line, it’s so true, and it belongs to the old school of vets who d0n’t think that anti-biotics are the be all and end all of medicine. Glad you have one of those too! And thank you for the award, I feel honoured!

  6. I think part of the equation too is how much we have messed with natural selection by in-breeding within breeds and keeping lines of horses pure. Nature seems to favor hardiness in plants and animals, which often requires mixing breeds to get the strongest traits (even if they turn out “ugly” to our eyes). So when you ask “what do horses do in the wild?” I would imagine that the ones with the bad feet run the slowest and get eaten by predators first. My Canadian Draft with his enormous weight and feet wouldn’t last a day in the wild without his farrier! I like your theory- and am just trying to figure out an answer to your question! Thanks for instigating the conversation, Corinna

    • Hi Corinna, thank you for visiting! You certainly have a point about how much we have messed with in-breeding within certain breeds. I used to have a lovely Thoroughbred who had the worst feet. It is interesting that people just shrug that off as “typical Thoroughbred feet”. The question is how much is due to genetics and how much is due to bad diet, stable management and circumstances. Too many Thoroughbreds are shod as yearlings because it “looks neater” when they go to the sales and they are kept stabled with little turn-out and on the wrong diet. Those hooves never get the chance to mature naturally.

      I sincerely believe that trimming is only a small part of the solution when there are problems with hooves or lameness, turn-out and diet have to be taken into account and I also think that the wrong trim can damage a horse. I am still struggling to find the best way for my own horses.

  7. I love your posts about your horses hooves. My horses are also barefoot and I find it interesting and very helpful to see someone else’s journey in the barefoot world as well!

    You’ve won an award on my blog as well!

    • Margaret, I am going to update regularly on what is happening to Minnie’s hooves, because I can already see changes and I really believe this may help her to become sound again!

  8. I am still researching “barefoot” and trying to decide if it would be possible to transition before/during our French trip. I cam across this in a horse&hound forum and thought of your mare with her foot seeming to compensate for her tendon problem :

    A trim which is perfectly suited to his problems as frequently as he needs to keep him moving in a way which will heal his injuries. For a horse I know, a six week trim did not keep her sound and a two week trim looks as if it is doing the trick nicely. Other horses need longer intervals. ** Some need to be allowed to grow deviations in the hoof wall to support problems higher in the leg and some have heels that shoot forwards or outwards if they grow too long. **

    I think you’ve stumbled onto something “known” all by yourself!

    I’m very interested to hear how she’s going

    • I think for us the winter was a good time for transitioning to Barefoot. There is less riding because of bad weather and short days, so the hooves have time to re-adjust and the nail-holes can grow out. It took quite a long time before Cassie felt comfortable trotting on the roads, transitioning would have been easier if we had proper bridleways here or grassy lanes, but most of our riding is on hard surfaces; roads and stony forestry tracks. If you want to do a lot of riding, hoof boots are good to have, although I found them less than ideal. Have you found a trimmer to set you up for transitioning?

      I’m going to do another post on both Minnie and Cassie’s hooves in a couple of days.

  9. Hi Maire. I believe if you bevel the right side, where it grows taller, in to just in front of that ridge that is there, you will find the foot will be much happier. The ridge is telling you the foot is unbalanced and that the hoof wall wants to be where the ridge is. The feet do tell us exactly what they want done. I do agree that horses with serious lameness will adjust their feet, but I have a horse whose leg is completely crooked. And her foot lands flat from side to side and the wall height is the same all the way around. (This happened after the first time I trimmed her. It also made a lump in her neck go away, as well as 2 of the lumps in her knee. The foot really does know what it’s doing.

  10. That should have been left side. And I should have said that while I agree horses adjust their feet to compensate for injuries, that adjustment is internal. Most people do not understand that ridges mean something and the horse is trying to fix its foot and just not getting the help it is asking for.

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