From the rocky road on to the right track

A while back I went to a demonstration in an Equestrian Centre. I met a father and daughter there who had barefoot horses. The father trimmed the horses himself. I was obviously interested in their experiences and when I noticed them bringing out their horses I went over to ask if I could see their horses’ hooves. They were talking to a man who was giving them advice. I gathered that the father’s horse was a bit sore on his feet and the man was pointing out what was wrong with the trim and what needed to be done to make the horse comfortable. I had heard that the Equestrian Centre had started with one or two barefoot horses, so I thought the man must be the Equestrian Centre’s trimmer.  I was wrong. This man, who was talking all the talk, was not a barefoot trimmer at all, he was in fact about as qualified as I am; he did the same barefoot trimming clinic with Dermot McCourt that I did two years ago.

I would not call myself a barefoot trimmer anymore than I would call myself a dentist because I know how to brush my teeth. In Ireland it is illegal for anyone to shoe a horse unless they are fully qualified by an approved governing body. But anyone can set themselves up to be a barefoot trimmer, it is not a protected profession and not all qualifications are equal. I have been trimming my horses’ hooves myself for the past 2 years from necessity. I went to Dermot’s trimming clinic because I wanted to know more about barefoot and hoof care in general. When Dermot first set us up on the road to barefoot, I knew that he wouldn’t be able to maintain their hooves. A four-hour drive is just too far away, but I was hoping to find someone nearer who would trim them properly every 8 weeks or so and I was prepared to do light maintenance in between. The farrier I had used was not interested in doing the trimming, I couldn’t find a qualified barefoot trimmer and so I ended up having to trim my horses myself.

Fortunately, I was not alone. Máire and I trimmed our horses together, and we progressed from sweaty palmed insecurity and taking photographs to email to Dermot for advice to something resembling confidence. We trimmed very conservatively, and our horses stayed sound, but I always felt a bit uncomfortable. Horses’ hooves change all the time and our trimming sessions were fraught with unanswered questions while we pored over their feet and wondered if what we saw was normal, why did this lump appear on the sole, is this frog shedding normal, or is there something else going on? The more I read, the more insecure I felt, because for every opinion you can find the opposite. Trim the bars – leave them alone, trim the frog – never touch the frog, thrush is smelly and black – thrush doesn’t always smell, hooves need to be trimmed every 2 weeks – you shouldn’t really trim, it’s all down to diet and exercise, the list is endless, a morass of contradictions. The transition to barefoot was a rocky road (and I haven’t even mentioned hoof boots yet!)

So when I was told that a barefoot trimmer had recently moved to the area, I was delighted and made an appointment. The trimmer was friendly and I liked the way my horses were handled. I was told that they all had thrush (the non-smelly variety), and that Cassie hadn’t fully transitioned yet because of it. I hadn’t noticed that (obviously because of it being non-smelly), although Cassie’s front frogs certainly looked rather ragged, but I had put it down to spring shedding. The following morning, the day I was to leave for the clinic with Alexandra Kurland, Cassie was very lame on her right fore. I was devastated, because it was obvious Cassie was not fit to go anywhere. It was when I picked up her hoof to examine it for heat that I noticed how short the trim was. She was practically walking on her soles.

When I came back from the clinic, Cassie was still lame and she has only started to improve over the last few days. There was no abscess. But even though she was improving, she was landing toe first and I was worried about thrush and frog disease. I also felt guilty, because I felt responsible for the pain she had been in. I wanted her to be seen by someone like Dermot, someone with a huge amount of experience and an approved professional qualification, who could tell me about the state of her hoof health, so I asked around and eventually I came up with the name of a master farrier. A master farrier who shoes international competition horses and with an excellent reputation for all round hoof care. I rang him and after a lengthy telephone conversation, I asked him to come and look at my horses.

I have to admit that I was really nervous and I more than half expected him to say that the only solution was to put shoes on Cassie, but he didn’t. He was modest, with a calm, quiet manner that was reassuring. He took his time looking at Cassie, checking the way she stands, and how her leg and pastern axis related, explaining what he was looking for and what he saw. He told me his views on barefoot trimming and the difference between the barefoot trim and a trim to prepare the hoof for a shoe. He was passionate about hot shoeing and making individual shoes for horses and how important it was to make sure the horse has correct break-over and a well-balanced hoof, for the shod horse as well as the barefoot horse. Then he trimmed Cassie’s frogs. Fortunately there was no underlying disease or thrush. He checked Minnie and Arrow, and trimmed frogs where needed. He had a wonderful way of helping Minnie to lift her left hind leg, which is really hard for her, and explained to me why her left fore grows the shape it does, something I had always wondered about. We have discussed a trimming schedule, where he will come and do the proper trim and I just keep things nice and smooth in between visits. It is such a relief…


A name and a trim

He’s been here a week now, the pony, and as his personality started to emerge a name began to suggest itself to me. I got some really nice suggestions for names, and I let it all simmer away, but in the end I think the pony gave me the name himself and so we have decided on Arrow.

Arrow has had almost no handling, so he has no manners and he has never heard of things like boundaries or following a lead. Some training was definitely in order and because I couldn’t get a head collar on him I started him practically straight away with the clicker. Over the past few days I have done a lot of work with him. I can now touch him everywhere around his head and neck, stroke his ears and face and put a head collar on without a problem. Not only can I put the head collar on, he will stand still while I put it on and fasten it without fidgeting too much. Thanks to the clicker, Arrow has learned very fast. Food is an incredible motivator for him. Still very new to clicker training myself, I am absolutely astonished what can be achieved in a short time.

Arrow came in dire need of a good trim. High heels and pointy toes might look nice under an evening dress, but not on a pony. On a hard surface Arrow was standing on the hoof wall only, his frogs were floating in space and he had a classic toe first landing. After the head collar, trimming was definitely a priority. My experience with trimming doesn’t really go much further than maintaining the hooves of my own two horses and giving Maíre a hand with hers.

My horses received a proper professional set up trim and as I was looking at those long toes, high heels, elongated soles (forward foot syndrome?)  and stretched white lines,  I would really have liked somebody else to trim Arrow for me. I was also a bit worried about the amount of ridges in the hoofwalls and some reddish bruising on the hoofwall of his hind feet; I’m not looking for trouble but it did make me wonder if he could have been sub-clinical laminitic at some point last year.  So, feeling a bit apprehensive about tackling those neglected feet myself, it would have been wonderful to have a professional nearby, but as that is sadly not the case, I had no alternative than to roll up my sleeves and get to it myself.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it on my own. Maíre came over yesterday to help. I always think it’s a good idea to have a second pair of eyes and to be able to discuss what needs to be done, but especially now that I was feeling a bit insecure. As Arrow was already tuned in to clicker training, we decided to use it during trimming and it proved to be a big help. We started by clicking and treating Arrow for lifting up a hoof and then for holding it up without pulling. I would lift his feet, while Maíre stood beside him at his head and did the clicking and treating. Then, as I started to trim, Maíre continued to click and treat him for standing still and not pulling his hoof back. As she was flooding him with clicks and treats for his good behaviour, I was able to trim and finish with hardly any drama at all. We used the same approach when I pulled his legs forward to put his hoof on the hoof-stand. It worked really, really well and I got all 4 feet done in a relatively short time. Arrow was absolutely great; he didn’t just accept the trimming, he also ignored the high winds and being buffeted by a hailshower during the process! Ah, April in Ireland!

I took off as much as I could (or dared), but on the whole I prefer to err on the side of caution so I trimmed conservatively. I think in this case it is probably better to trim regularly and give his hooves and legs time to re-adjust gradually than over-doing it or making a mistake. Afterwards, I took Arrow out for a walk. He walked without a problem on the rough, stony surface of the track and on the road he happily bobbed beside me, bursting with energy. And landing heel first.

Twinkle likes going for a walk too!

Pony hooves pics

Here are photo’s I took of the pony’s hooves. They are not the best quality, but it was the best I could do as I was holding the hoof with one hand and taking the photo with the other hand. There is a bit of work to be done here; I am interested to hear what you see when you look at these pictures!

Front side view:

Hind side view:

Left front sole:


Left hind sole:


Right front sole:


Right hind sole:

Right hind sole


What do you see?

Hole in the hoof-wall

In April Minnie had an abscess in her right fore hoof, which burst through the coronary band. Initially, the exit-hole was quite small, but on its way down the hoofwall it stretched and became bigger, until it looked like this (picture taken in September):

You can clearly see a stress-line at the same height as the abscess exit-hole; the abscess itself could have caused this, and the fact that she was on Bute for a week certainly wouldn’t have helped. I knew I could expect trouble from the exit-hole as it was growing out, but I thought it wouldn’t happen until it was much closer to the ground. I wasn’t prepared for this – oh joy!

Funny how these things always greet you first thing in the morning! What do horses do at night? Anytime I go out to check them they are always either peacefully grazing, or dozing under the trees, but there are times when I suspect they secretly do hand-stands or climb trees or develop other dangerous hobbies! Whatever Minnie did, there was a large chunk missing and the hole was packed full of dirt. After I brushed most of the dirt out I got a better view of the damage. I could see dead lamina in the hole and the edges were all sharp. I got my rasp out to try and smooth everything out, but it was not easy and the hoof-rasp was just too big. Fortunately, as a sculptor I have a whole array of marble rasps, and I picked out a small riffler with curved blades that was just perfect for the job.

I have to say I felt a bit out of my depth here as I actually had to rasp inside the hole to make sure everything was smooth, but I couldn’t leave rough edges anywhere that might catch; that stress line looks horribly like a perforated line with the words “please break or tear here” printed above it! Here is the finished result after I rounded everything off as smoothly as possible:

I had to take the hoof-wall a bit further in than I would have liked, but Minnie didn’t seem to mind. She was not lame, even after my efforts to tidy her up, so at least there is no pain and there is no sign of infection. I expect more problems as the hoof grows out further, but for the moment I hope I have done enough damage control.

Fortunately, her sole is still intact, but there is a small hairline tear which I don’t like. Not much I can do about that, though..

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.

The knock-on effect of leg injuries

Earlier this week when I went out to feed the horses in the morning, I noticed to my horror that Cassie’s knee was swollen. I put her bucket down in front of her and as she happily started on her breakfast, I ran my hand over her knee. It was hot and puffy and I felt like screaming. I left Cassie to eat in peace, gave Minnie her bucket and then sat down to think about it. It was her left knee, just above the bony growth caused by her injury. For a moment I wondered if she could have had a reaction to the Comfrey ointment. But Comfrey is not as aggressive as some plant extracts, it is safe to use on wounds, it is anti-inflammatory and I hadn’t used it on her knee. The chance that she had somehow managed to knock her knee just above an existing injury while out in the field seemed negligible. The only logical explanation I could think of was that it was related to the existing injury.

When something hurts, the last thing you want to do is put pressure on it. I only have to look at Minnie to see what happens when a horse has a long term injury. Minnie has had a succession of injuries to her right fore leg and she has learned to avoid putting her weight on that leg. That has had consequences elsewhere in her body. To begin with, her front hooves started to look uneven. Her right hoof got bigger than the left and the bars seemed to be growing at a fearful rate. No matter what I did, I didn’t seem to be able to get those hooves to stay even. The reason the right hoof got bigger was because she wasn’t putting her weight on it, so she wasn’t wearing it down. Toe, quarters and bars were all growing longer, while the left hoof was bearing all the weight and probably had more than its share of wear and tear. It has also had an effect on her heel bulbs; strong and wide on the left hoof, much smaller on the right hoof. The biggest impact of her long term lameness has been on the opposing diagonal. Over the past months Minnie has lost movement in her left hind leg, leading to muscle atrophy and stiffness. So stiff, that the last time I trimmed Minnie’s feet I couldn’t bring her leg forward to put on the hoof-stand. Even just lifting her hoof to pick it out became a serious effort; Minnie was unsteady and the whole leg would be trembling. I realised that even when I managed to get her leg off the ground, she was still refusing to put weight on her right fore, so I was in fact putting Minnie on two legs. No wonder she didn’t like it.

Cassie’s left leg was injured in July, and already I could see changes occurring in her hoof. The tubules on the inside of her hoof were bending forward and a little dish appeared in her hoof wall.  I have been trimming Minnie and Cassie’s hooves for a year now, and although I am gaining confidence doing a basic maintenance trim, I am of course a rank amateur and I had absolutely no idea what to do about these changes. Now there was the knee as well. I contacted Dermot and John and explained I had two lame horses and that I was very unhappy about some unwelcome changes I had noticed in their hooves. Fortunately they were able to come and fit us in the following day.

“Well are you telling me they are lame because of bad trimming?” Dermot joked when they arrived, and I said the lameness was causing problems and that I hoped the trimming was ok. It only took them a few moments to see what was wrong with Cassie. To alleviate the pain of the bone spur on the cannon bone she was walking on the outside of her foot. As a result her hoof had become unbalanced and that of course was putting extra strain on her knee. Cassie got a good, professional trim and her left hoof certainly looked much better after it.

Then they had a look at Minnie. I told them that I hadn’t been able to trim her left hind for a while and that I thought the muscle had seized up. Trimming her front feet and right hind was no problem, but it took the two of them to do her left hind. Dermot had to practically carry her weight to keep her from falling.

Here is a picture of Minnie’s right fore after trimming. The hole in the hoofwall is where the abscess she had in April burst out through the coronary band. She has several stress lines in that area, the result of the abscess and treatment with bute for the suspensory ligament injury.

 Overall, they said both my horses have good, strong and healthy feet with no signs of disease anywhere and that I had done a good job on trimming, but that I should try and be a bit less conservative. They also advised me on how to look after Cassie’s left fore, and to make sure I kept her heels balanced. As always, it was great to see them and even greater to watch them trim my horses. Now that their feet are properly balanced and trimmed again, it will hopefully have a positive effect on the healing of their leg injuries.

No leg to stand on

How many problems can one horse have in one leg? Last Wednesday, Minnie seemed a bit tender again, but I didn’t think much of it and put it down to over-exertion. However, on Thursday night, she came hobbling towards me, and she wasn’t putting any weight on her right fore. My heart sank. She had been doing so well, I couldn’t believe it. I knelt beside her and felt her leg, checking tendon and ligament. No change. When I got up again, Minnie pointed her leg, barely touching the ground with her toe. I was so worried that it took a few moments before it dawned on me to check her hoof, but when I did it was clear that was where the problem was; her hoof was hot, so there was probably an abscess in there.

I got the vet out – I’m considering taking out a season ticket the way things are going – and he confirmed that Minnie had an abscess in her hoof. As he started digging in an attempt to reach the site of the abscess, he commented that Minnie’s hoof was as hard as flint, he was barely able to open it up. Unfortunately, the abscess wasn’t ready to go yet, so it would need poulticing to draw it out.

Minnie was in terrible pain, and she was not impressed when I wanted to soak her foot in a basin with hot water and epsom salts. It was hard to explain to her that it was necessary, but once she understood what I wanted she was her usual helpful self. I realised how lucky I am that Minnie is such a nice girl and that soaking feet in buckets is something I should have practised ages ago, instead of waiting for an emergency to overtake us. Cassie will be seeing a lot of buckets soon!

The abscess burst after 2 days of soaking and poulticing. Minnie is still limping a bit, but she is in much better spirits and even tried a little canter today, so things are looking good again.

Meanwhile, I have been doing a lot of thinking about Minnie’s right fore leg. When the vet was scraping at Minnie’s hoof, he showed me evidence that she must have had an abscess in that hoof before, in more or less the same spot. I remembered that before I went barefoot, Minnie used to lose the right front shoes. Then there was the tendon injury and then the suspensory ligament. All in the same leg. It makes me wonder if that leg really is that weak, or if there is a reason why she keeps getting injured there. Is it possible that the root of the problem is in fact the opposite diagonal, an imbalance somewhere in her left hind leg? Her left hind feels stiff when I need to bring it forward to put on the hoofstand for trimming. Worth investigating when Minnie is sound again, I think.