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…

Misty morning ride

There is something special about the time just after sunrise. It is, more than any other time of the day, a time for solitude. I love rising early in the morning to go for a walk. Out here where we live, 5 miles from the village, it is always quiet, but the stillness you get at this time of day is of a different quality. I saw a doe yesterday in the entrance to the forestry and she watched me almost without fear as I stood and looked at her. Then I thought it would be nice to go for an early morning ride, something I hadn’t done in a long time. So today I got up early, Máire arrived at 6 and after a quick cup of coffee we headed out to the field to get Ben and Cassie.

It is a soft day. The land is shrouded in mist, the cobwebs in the hedgerow are glistening with moisture and the gate to the field is hung with drops like a string of pearls. The horses are resting under the trees. Cassie spots me standing at the gate and makes her way over.

 We bring Ben and Cassie into the stables to groom them and tack them up. By the time we are ready to ride, a light drizzle has started. We walk the horses down the track to mount at the bottom of the hill. Cassie feels calm and confident and she stands quietly and without fussing or fidgeting until I ask her to move. I feel proud of her. We set off at a leisurely pace. It is lovely to be out, even in the still persisting drizzle. The hedgerows are full of Meadowsweet, Purple Loosestrife and Valerian, the last of the honeysuckle is almost finished. Summer has passed its peak.

We ride into the forestry. Ben and Cassie are barefoot, no boots, and when the ground gets too rough Máire and I dismount and lead the horses.

There are always situations when I would get off and lead my horse, especially with a young horse. Sometimes it’s just easier to deal with things on the ground instead of from the horse’s back. Having a barefoot horse has made me more aware of the ground they have to put their feet on. I can feel it when Cassie finds a surface hard to deal with and then I don’t think it’s fair to ask her to carry me. So I get off and walk beside her. It’s companionable to walk side by side for stretches of the route and I’m sure Cassie appreciates it.

When the ground improves, we get back on and continue to ride to a little river nearby. Cassie doesn’t like going into water and I want to practice that with her. When we get to the stream I walk in first and after some encouragement Cassie follows. I lead her in and out a couple of times and stamp my feet and jump around a bit. When Cassie follows me without hesitating I let her stand in the water. It’s a great way to soak her hooves and let her gain confidence at the same time. The water flows fast and Cassie seems intrigued. She dips her lips in and starts splashing water around. She catches some weeds on her nose, which she smears on my shoulder when she can’t shake it off.

After a while we walk on. The mist hasn’t lifted and all the views are veiled by a milky film that the camera can’t focus on. On the way home I can feel Cassie is getting tired and she is beginning to look for reasons to spook. I have to work for a bit to bring her attention and focus back, but we are both getting better at this, our communication is improving all the time and Cassie soon settles again. At home, we are eagerly awaited by Minnie and Rosie who by now are anticipating breakfast. Máire and I are interested in breakfast ourselves too, so we feed the horses and then go in to the house for fresh coffee and scrambled eggs.  An excellent way to start Sunday morning!

Hoof boots – not that simple

Transitioning to barefoot is a long process and it is not without its ups and downs. To begin with there is hoof maintenance. Barefoot is still the exception here, most horses are shod and farriers show little interest in barefoot horses or learning about a barefoot trim. As the nearest professional trimmers are hours away from where I live, I had to learn how to trim myself. Since the shoes came off last September, I have been – and still am – on a steep learning curve.

I was lucky with Cassie. Cassie had in essence good feet, and she coped well with going barefoot. Walking her in-hand on the road wasn’t really a problem for her. She might pick her way a bit to avoid treading on too many loose stones, but on the whole it didn’t seem to bother her. It was different when I was riding her. With the added pressure of my weight, Cassie seemed more aware of her feet and she was not striding out as freely as I would have liked. In trot she was more inclined to stumble and a rising trot seemed to throw her off-balance. 

Minnie was far more sensitive on the road than Cassie, so I bought front boots for her. After a lot of research and weighing up all the pros and cons of the different types of boots, I settled on Renegade hoof boots. The boots made a huge difference to Minnie. I was happy with the boots too. They were easy to put on, Minnie didn’t object to them at all and they come in a range of funky colours. Another reason I chose the Renegades was that they were developed for Endurance riders, so they are designed for intense use. They stay well below the coronary band, so there is no chance of damage through rubbing there, the heel captivators are properly padded and they are adjustable. Some boots are only suitable for light hacking, but I wanted something a bit more versatile.  In the end, I didn’t get to do a lot of riding with Minnie, but Máire had bought Renegades for Ben too and they did a lot more mileage in them than Minnie and I. Ben was doing fine and he seemed happy in his Renegades.

I wanted to bring Cassie on, but I was not sure if she was able for more work and I didn’t want to push her if her hesitancy was caused by the fact that she was feeling her feet. As I have mentioned before, there is not a lot of off-road riding here, the forestry has some very stony tracks and the roads are pretty rough too. Eventually, I want to do long distance rides with Cassie, so I decided to order her Renegades too, for both front and hind feet.

The boots arrived a couple of weeks ago. I tried them on, Cassie didn’t mind them at all, so off we went. That first ride I had to dismount several times because the boots were twisting. I didn’t enjoy the experience, and checked the Renegade website to see if there was anything I could do about that. The website’s solution for twisting boots is to use a filler, but it states not do make adjustments too quickly because the boots can take a couple of rides to settle. That sounded plausible, so I decided just to tighten them slightly and try again. The front boots stayed perfectly in place, but the hind boots continued to twist. This may be caused by the way Cassie uses her hind feet; she tends to turn her toes out a bit. Whatever the reason, I found a small rub on one of her heel bulbs, so I decided not to use boots on her hind feet anymore and we continued with front boots only.

Cassie went very well on front boots only, in fact it didn’t make any difference that her hind feet were not booted. That makes sense, since most of the weight is carried by a horse’s forehand, so front boots will have a bigger impact on how the horse goes than hind boots. The little rub I had found on her hind heel bulb had made me a bit apprehensive though, and I examined her feet thoroughly after every ride, but all seemed fine. Then one day I asked Cassie to trot uphill. At first she seemed to want to canter up the hill, but then I realised that she was uncomfortable. We tried a trot again on the flat, but she was just not right. We walked home. I scrutinised her heel bulbs, but there was nothing to see.

Cassie is crooked to the left, and I have been working on getting her to go straight, so it was possible that she was a bit stiff from the exercises. I gave her a couple of days off. There was no trace of lameness or stiffness, so I decided to take her for a short hack, without boots this time. Cassie seemed fine, she was a bit hesitant to go into trot, but I let her pick her own speed and she was not lame. The following day we rode out with Máire and Ben. I decided to try the front boots again. At this stage I was already worried about the boots, so I paid a lot of attention to the fit. I made sure the heel captivator was in the right position and that the straps were not too tight. Cassie was fine in walk, but when I asked for a trot it was obvious that she was very uncomfortable. We turned around and went home. I checked her feet again, but there was nothing to see, no sign of rubbing.

The following morning Cassie pulled back when I was cleaning her right front hoof. That is unusual, because she is very good about holding her feet up for me. I picked her foot up again and pressed into her heel bulbs. Cassie tried to snatch her foot away. I tried her left front and although there wasn’t such an obvious reaction, she was definitely tender. As there is nothing to see externally I can only conclude that her heel bulbs are bruised inside.

I have now completely lost my confidence in the boots. I followed all the fitting instructions although it is possible that I initially fastened the bottom strap a bit too tight. Perhaps the Renegades just don’t suit Cassie, or maybe they don’t work as well in the bigger sizes. All I know is that I don’t want to use anything that could potentially harm my horse. When her heel bulbs are not sore anymore, I’m going back to riding Cassie bare foot. If that means if have to get off and walk her through the rougher areas, then so be it.

These boots are made for walking

Maìre  came over with Ben and Rosie today for one of our Sunday rides. This time, it was Cassie’s turn to stay behind with Rosie. At last I was able to take Minnie to ride out with Ben again.

I got Minnie a couple of weeks before Maìre bought Ben, and we did a lot of rides together that first summer. Some rides stand out. I remember the first Trec Orienteering we did together. There was a fabulous long canter stretch cutting across several fields in it. Neither of us had cantered our new horses out in the open yet, but it was a beautiful day and we felt good and we just went for it. It was my first introduction to Minnie’s speed. Maìre and Ben took the lead in a powerful gallop, and I would have been content to stay behind them, but Minnie was not to be outdone. I felt her muscles bunch underneath me, then a surge of energy and before I knew it we were flying past Maìre and Ben. It was the first time I felt a real connection with Minnie; this was something we both liked, to run like the wind.

Things have changed since then. It will be a long time before Minnie is ready again for any kind of speed. Slow and steady is what she needs to rehabilitate and strengthen her tendon and that process will probably take up most of the summer. We’ll be walking for miles and miles, and that is what we did today. The last time Minnie and Ben rode out together, they both still wore shoes. Now, they are barefoot and they have Renegade hoofboots in front.

We had a lovely ride. It was one of those spring days that make life worth living. The sun was shining, the sky was blue with a few puffy clouds for contrast and the air was perfumed with the heady smell of blackthorn blossoms. The horses were happy to be out and striding along in time with each other without any need for encouragement from us. It was Minnie’s longest ride since I started riding her again, and she proved well able for the distance.

After the ride, we let Ben and Minnie roll in the picadero, before turning them out with Cassie and Rosie. Today was good.

Hooves – ups and downs

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet – Lao Tse

This weekend was all about feet. I had the vet out on Saturday, because Cassie suddenly turned extremely lame. She was barely able to hobble and the first thing I thought was “Oh please let it not be her tendon”. I anxiously felt her leg, but the tendon looked normal with no sign of heat or swelling. I checked her for cuts and puncture wounds, but there was nothing. I lifted her foot and found she was very sore between the inside heel and the frog. I couldn’t find anything that looked like a puncture wound, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t any and Cassie was due an anti-tetanus shot, so I called the vet.

The vet arrived and diagnosed a suspected abcess. I watched in horror as he took out his knife and with a couple of strokes removed Cassie’s heel. He found a spot where he thought the infection might be and started excavating the site. No pus came up, so the vet told me he couldn’t get at it with the knife and to poultice it. He then asked me if I was riding her. I said I was and he said “You’ve gone barefoot so, how is that going for you”. I told him Cassie’s shoes had come off in September and that she was doing really well. He looked at me and said, “Well, horses were never meant to have shoes. If they were, they would have been born with them”.

My vet is an elderly, country vet. He is over 70 and one of the most respected horse vets around. I have known him for years and he is an excellent vet. He comes across as laconic and he usually doesn’t say much. His visits tend to be short. This time, as we started discussing horses’ feet, it was obvious that this was something he felt deeply about. He became animated and told me that 90% of all lameness in horses is due to a problem in the foot, and that in his experience an overwhelming percentage of that was due to bad or faulty shoeing. He told me some harrowing stories of cases he had seen in his practice. We talked about transitioning and how horses cope with the roads. I showed him the Renegade hoof-boots I got for Minnie. I had to put them on her and he walked around Minnie, asking many questions and then this elderly vet went down on his knees to take photographs of Minnie’s feet in the Renegades. Ah, if only I had thought to bring my own camera!

On Sunday we had a visit from Dermot McCourt and his son John. It’s six months now since the shoes came off, and Maìre and I had asked them to come down, partly to evaluate our trimming, but also because we had many questions. The past six months have been an interesting journey. When we went to do the Barefoot workshop with Dermot and John on Clare Island, we learned a lot about how horses’ feet function, the effect shoes have on a horse and we were introduced to the basic trim. When Dermot and John came to us in September to take our horses’ shoes off and set us on the road to barefoot, we had a lot of questions that pertained to how to maintain our horses’ feet with the basic trim ourselves. Now that we have been trimming for six months, and gained confidence both in trimming and in handling the tools, we had different questions. Questions that are more specific to our own horses. How to trim Minnie’s right hind, which always looks flared, but isn’t, because it has a little dish above the quarter that makes it look flared. How to judge heel height. How much to trim off when the frog is shedding

I was slightly nervous before Dermot and John arrived. Maìre and I have been doing the best we can with our horses, but we are of course rank amateurs and now the professionals were coming to look at our work. But Dermot and John had nothing but good news and kind words. All the horses are transitioning really well, and now have nice hard feet. It was wonderful to watch Dermot and John in action again, and a treat not to bend our backs into it ourselves for a change.

Dermot had a good look at Cassie’s sore foot. The poultice hadn’t drawn anything out and even further investigation with a small probe didn’t bring anything up. It is possible that Cassie just hit her foot hard on something and got badly bruised, and after hearing how hard her soles are it seemed unlike a mere thorn could have pierced her! Meanwhile, her heel was gone, and Dermot decided to build an artificial heel so that Cassie will walk evenly until the horn has grown back. She’s a brave girl when it comes to a lot of noice, because when the angle grinder came out to smooth the surface, she tolerated it and after a while she even picked at some hay.

 The heel was built up with a special, fast-setting epoxy gel that can be rasped afterwards. Dermot left the hole open, so that if there is an abcess underneath it can drain. Here is a picture of the finished heel.

Here is a view from the side.

It was an enjoyable and informative afternoon in good company.  

I love this moment between Rosie and Cassie! Rosie is receiving her trim at this time, and it just shows how relaxed they were during trimming.

And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet, and the winds long to play with your hair – Kahlil Gibran

Time to trot

It’s been a tough week. Very cold with frosty nights. For me that means leaving even earlier in the mornings to get to work in time, as I have to take icy roads into account. For the horses, it means frozen fields, restricted movement and boredom. Cassie doesn’t cope well with boredom, so she seeks ways to entertain herself. Her highlight this week was pulling the hose out of the water storage tank in the yard. The tank emptied its entire contents of 1000 liters of water into the yard, so I’m hauling water from the house again. 

Today, it’s Sunday and at last I have time to spend with my horses. After a week of rushing around and doing chores in the dark, I enjoy the simple pleasures of a Sunday morning. Feeding Minnie and Cassie, and being able to stay around, listening to their snorts of contentment as they finish their breakfast. Cleaning the stables and putting in fresh shavings. Sweeping the concrete footpath in front of the hayshed and stables. Raking the gravel in the yard. I brush Minnie and Cassie while they are loose in the yard, but not for long. They are bursting with energy and they want to run. Minnie chases one of the cats into a tree, Cassie tosses her head and lunges at Minnie and then they race each other around the field, matching each other stride for stride. I feel better than I have all week.

Later, Maíre came over with Ben and Rosie. There are hooves to be trimmed and we want to ride too. We do Minnie and Rosie’s hooves first so they can go off and graze while we take Ben and Cassie out for a ride. It is a misty day and we ride in and out of the clouds that cover the ground. The air is moist and bone chilling cold, but Ben and Cassie are relaxed and after a week spent mostly indoors, I would have wanted to be out even if it had rained.

It is nearly four months now since the shoes came off. Between the weather and the time our horses needed to grow a callous and get used to going around barefoot, we have had very few rides. So far, I have only ridden Cassie in walk. Going barefoot has changed the way I ride. When Cassie had shoes I didn’t really think about the surface we were riding on, unless it was slippery. Now, I am constantly aware of what Cassie does with her feet. I feel it if she doesn’t like the surface under her feet and I feel every stone she steps on. To give her time to adjust I’ve let Cassie set the pace during our rides.

Today I decided it was time to move on. Cassie is fine on the road, she doesn’t mind the tarmac and she walks with a nice, long and regular stride. I asked for trot. It took a moment before Cassie realised I didn’t want her to walk faster, then she moved into trot. After a few strides, she came back to walk. I could feel she was a bit uncertain about the sensation of trotting on the road. I asked again. She stumbled into trot. I experimented a bit to find what would make her most comfortable.

When I was young I had a dressage trainer whose pet hate was the rising trot. According to him the rising trot was invented for people who couldn’t sit to the trot and that from the horse’s point of view it wasn’t helpful at all. I tried both today and Cassie definitely preferred me to sit to the trot. We did a few more transitions and each time Cassie felt more confident. Her trot became even and balanced and when I looked around, Ben was trotting nicely along, not bothered by the road surface at all.

When we got back, It was Ben and Cassie’s turn to get their feet trimmed. Their hooves are looking very good, and after our successful trotting on the road today, I am happy with the way the transition to barefoot is progressing.  When their hooves were done, Ben and Cassie joined Minnie and Rosie in the field for an hour’s well deserved grazing together before Ben and Rosie had to go home again. 

Highlight of the holiday

Most of my week off work was marred by flu and a terrible cough that caused me to lose my voice, but yesterday, on my last day off, Cassie and I went out with Ben and Maíre for a hack. It was a cold, still day and the countryside was quiet and peaceful. It had a dreamy quality enhanced by a light flurry of snowflakes that gently drifted down to rest on our horses’ manes. With their bare feet, Ben and Cassie were hardly making any sound on the surface of the road. It was lovely to be out again and especially in the company of good friends.

Ben and Cassie are doing really well without shoes. Starting off a bit hesitantly due to the roughness of the road, they soon got used to the feel of it and found their stride. Ben was looking for the grassy verges to walk on, but Cassie prefers to see where she puts her feet and she stayed on the road.

I have only been able to ride out on two occasions over the past few months.  The only time I managed to take Cassie out after the long freeze she was volatile and felt like a coiled spring underneath me, and it took me a long time to settle her. Yesterday Cassie was relaxed and easy to ride. The company of another horse makes a big difference and Ben is a great partner for Cassie.

Cassie coped really well with the few potentially hazardous situations. We met a young, lone horse on the road. Sadly, that is not uncommon. There are a few fields around here where horses have been left for the winter, without any additional forage.  They tend to break out and wander the roads in search of food. When the young horse spotted us, he whinnied enthusiastically and I was a bit apprehensive in case he tried to follow us. I stroked Cassie’s neck and talked to her and she calmly walked past him. Ben blew himself up like a stallion when he passed and the lonely youngster decided against following.

On our way home we met a man out for a walk with two young children. The little girl was trying to learn how to ride her Christmas bicycle and wobbled dangerously all over the road. In spite of my warning, the man let the little girl wobble on ahead of him and she nearly hit Cassie’s hind legs. I was very pleased that Cassie didn’t get upset, but it was a reminder how ignorant people can be around horses.

When we got home, we let Ben and Cassie into the picadero to roll, which they did with relish.

Maíre and I spent the rest of the afternoon trimming hooves. The progress they have made in the last few months is huge. Their hooves are growing stronger and wider and are getting a good callous. All our horses are very good-natured about the trimming. We can take our time, sit underneath their bellies and in between their legs, and our horses are relaxed throughout to the point of getting sleepy.

 The trimming done, we turned the horses out into the field and Maíre and I went into the house for a glass of wine. A good day.