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…