The Benefits of Barefoot Horse Keeping

There are many benefits to keeping your horse barefoot:

  • Increased circulation (improving the horse's overall health).

  • Stronger, thicker hoof walls.

  • Greater shock absorption - fewer concussion related injuries.

  • Quicker heart rate recovery time after exercise.

  • Lower risk of injuries in the pasture with other horses.

  • Improved traction - a hoof is designed to adapt to varying terrain.

  • Less tripping, slipping, stumbling and forging.

  • Smoother stride.

  • Increased energy and spirit.

Free of metal shoes, a hoof is able to flex and twist adjusting to the terrain - just as it is meant to do. The horse can feel the ground allowing it to become truly sound and surefooted. The barefoot horse is more resistant to illness due to a greatly improved circulatory system and looks better due to an increased ability to exfoliate proteins.

No horse is expected to wear shoes all year round. Good farriers recommend removing shoes to allow hooves to recuperate during the off season. We've long been told that shoeing is a "necessary evil" - something we must do to protect a hoof despite the unhealthy repercussions. But with the age of quality hoof boots at hand, the need for the medieval iron shoe has ended. Now, every horse can live the way that nature designed and those who need additional protection while working can wear well-fitting, flexible, performance enhancing, long-lasting, removable hoof boots.

Natural Hoof Care fits very well within the natural horsemanship philosophy. We get more from asking than from telling. Rather than forcing the hoof to conform to human expectations, we respect its ability to support the horse in its actions and find it quite capable. We can learn much from the horse when we take the time to listen.

Tips for Successful Transitioning to Barefoot

When shoes are first removed, allow a few days for proper circulation to return to the lower legs. There may be increased sensitivity during this period. Refrain from riding, but keep the horse active by providing plenty of ground work and pasture turnout. Do not confine or limit activity; keep him moving. After this initial pause, resume riding as usual using hoof boots.

If possible, provide living conditions that are similar to those the horse will work in. If bedded on straw but ridden on gravel roads, provide turnout in a gravel paddock. Use of pea gravel toughens hooves while providing support and comfort.

Keep hooves clean! Remove feces daily and soak hooves in a 50/50 mixture of water and apple cider vinegar as needed to control fungal invasion (Thrush). I often recommend a 20 minute soaking once per week during the wet season.

Take measures to remove sugars (also starches and extra proteins) from the horse's diet. In the Springtime, the sugar level of pasture grass can climb to 30% on a sunny day. Commercial feeds may contain up to 60%. Add in carrots, apples and treats... by the end of the day a horse will consume several kilograms of sugar creating a situation that will weaken the laminae of the hoof. In most cases, mature, mixed grass hay provides all of the daily requirements of calories, vitamins and minerals. Test your hay and supplement only the nutrients found to be missing. If you must feed grain (grain is not part of a horse's natural diet), make it a small amount (1-2 handfuls) of steamed or rolled oats.

Avoid feeding meals. Horses are foragers and need to eat small amounts constantly in order to maintain proper balance in their digestive tract. It is better to provide 24 hour free choice mixed grass hay than 2-3 large meals.

Use a grazing muzzle when pasture grass is lush or stressed.

Provide plenty of exercise. Horses are designed to travel 20-30 km per day. Keep him active and fit. If you need to add weight to your horse, provide more exercise.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will my horse be sore after removing the shoes?
If the horse has been shod for a long time, he may be sensitive for a few days (unless the internal damage is severe) after removing the shoes as normal circulation is restored. It is best not to ride during this period, but keeping the horse active with groundwork and turnout time with buddies will help speed the process. Afterward, if the horse was sound with shoes, he should be sound without them. Hoof boots should be used for the first few months or anytime when ridden on terrain that differs from that he lives on.

Will my horse be sore after a Natural Hoof Care trim?
Trimming should never cause pain. With exception of hooves already in a pathological state (ie. laminits/founder, caudal foot pain [Navicular], thrush, abcesses, etc.), the horse should feel the same or better after a trim. That is my goal.

How often will the hooves need to be trimmed?
It is important to maintain an optimal hoof shape at all times rather than allowing a hoof to overgrow and then fix it later. Trimming frequently ensures that the integrity of the hoof form is maintained between trimmings. I trim on a 4-5 week schedule - never longer.

How long will I need to use hoof boots?
On one hand, this is up to your horse - his comfort, diet, living conditions, general health. Keeping the feet and bedding clean, providing plenty of exercise, eliminating excess sugars (feed only mature, mixed grass hay 13% or less fructan), modifying living terrain to match that of working terrain... these things will help condition the horse and hooves to riding barefoot. On the other hand, this is up to you. How long would you like to use hoof boots? They offer better protection and performance than barefoot or iron shoes while supporting and stimulating the entire foot. Once you own a set of boots, there is little reason not to use them. Hoof boots are not a substitute for iron shoes; they're better!

Do I need to boot both front and hind feet?
Most horses have better developed hind feet and will only need boots in the front. However, if the hind feet are sensitive when riding barefoot, then boots are recommended. You should also consider your own expectations. Though your horse may be comfortable on his hind feet, he will still need a few months after removing shoes to "toughen up" to riding on gravel roads. If he is expected to perform at 100% shortly after removing shoes, then the hinds will need to be booted. Personally, I boot all the way around and never spend one minute worrying about sore feet.

Are hoof boots difficult to put on?
Please watch the instructional video posted on the hoof boot application page.

I keep my horse in a stall. Will Natural Hoof Care work for my horse?
Any horse will be better off living barefoot. A stalled horse should be able to ride in the arena or on grass fields comfortably. Hoof boots should be used when riding on rocky trails or gravely roads.

Are white hooves weaker than dark ones?
A white hoof is just as capable as a dark hoof. The only difference is the color.

What about horses with conformation issues?
Most horses with conformation issues will be more comfortable and healthier barefoot. They will travel and wear their hooves the way that their bodies dictate. Minor conformation defects such as toe-in or toe-out bother the owner a lot more than the horse. Often, shoeing to correct conformation only sends lameness up the leg into another area compounding the problem.

What about horses with navicular syndrome?
Horses with navicular syndrome will be relieved to become barefoot. It has long been known - though infrequently prescribed - that removal of bar shoes and providing plenty of exercise at liberty is the best solution to this problem. Most horses with navicular syndrome can be ridden in boots with foam padding completely free of symptoms. Competent barefoot management is often the "last hope" for the navicular horse.

What about performance horses?
Most performance horses really shine when barefoot. An unrestricted hoof mechanism assists the heart increasing circulation so barefoot horses have a quicker pulse and respiration recovery rate providing an edge over shod competitors. The top endurance horse in the US is barefoot and competes wearing hoof boots.

My horse seem fine in shoes. Why should I remove them?
Over the past 20 years, there has been a remarkable amount of research in equine physiology - particularly the hoof and how it is negatively affected by attaching a metal shoe. The iron shoe is a medieval device that ignores the physiological functions of the hoof. It restricts blood circulation, causes bone remodeling, stresses tendons, blocks nerve function, promotes fungal infection and contracts the hoof. Iron shoes do not cure or mend sick hooves. Rather, they mask symptoms while impacting or directly causing many of the pathological conditions present in our horses hooves - even seemingly sound hooves. Take home message: a horse that is only sound in iron shoes, is not a sound horse!

For more information on iron shoes, see the About Iron Shoes section of the articles page.

Next: Hoof boots - the 21st Century Horseshoe