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.