The biggest  problem with going shoe-less is going shoe-less....clue-less!

The biggest problem with going shoe-less is going shoe-less....clue-less!
© by Carola Adolf NEP/fSHP
Imagine this: You have finally given in and you made the plunge into the unknown: You have decided to try and go “barefoot” with your horse….
What ever the reason was, you called your trusty hoofcare provider and he or she pulled the shoes.


You can see with your own eyes that “barefoot” is just not for your horse – or you. He is just one of those horses that can not cope without shoes. And you can not cope seeing him uncomfortable…..

So you decide that “going barefoot” is just not for everyone, just like your farrier said: Your horse NEEDS shoes. That’s it.

So it was an easy decision to give up on barefoot and your horse is being re-shod the next day. You know you have made the right decision, because he is instantly more comfortable and you can go on a ride the very same day.
All is well.

Or is it?

Let’s go back to the various reasons why people decide to have their horse’s shoes pulled:
To name just a few:
*     They want to – or need to- spell the horse and having the horse shod may not be practical or                               viable when turned out
       *     They want to – or need to – reduce maintenance costs

       *     They have heard about the recent “barefoot” trend and want to try it

       *     They have learned about the benefits of bare feet and possible health risks associated with 

       *     They have an unsound horse that is being retired because of soundness problems, age,

Now, having mentioned a few of the reasons for shoes to come off, lets also mention a few of the reasons why we put shoes on in the first place:                 (these are the most common and clourful arguments.....)

*The young horse is introduced at a sale and having shoes on is part of the required presentation standards

*The horse is beginning his working career (breaking in, first training), and shoeing is almost seen as part of a “maturation process”

*We all know that “good” horse owners have their horses shod - because …. (?) it’s part of good horsemanship and TRADITION?

*Shoes obviously protect the hooves from
              falling apart

*Shoes give better traction

*For orthopedic reasons

*       The horse has really flat feet,”typical thoroughbred feet”, bad feet, white feet, soft feet etc….

*A performance/sport horse needs shoes (unlike the “other” horses that are often listed on the other end of the “scale of relevance” of domestic 
        horses – like brood mares, paddock ornaments the week-end plodder and perhaps ponies….. (“but they do have naturally tough feet”…)
        (Yes, horse discrimination/racism and sexism is alive and kicking, believe it or not….!)

*       The farrier/vet/trainer/instructor/ friend said so

*Domestic horses don’t have the same tough feet as wild horses and just can’t cope with what we ask them to do, so we need to shoe them

*And one of my favourite reasons for shoeing is this statement: “Well, do you know any Olympic rider who has won any medals with a barefoot

As you can see, there are more reasons FOR shoeing than reasons for going “bare”.
Unfortunately none of these reasons address the wellbeing of the horse and its natural design limitations -  and none of them have ANY scientific basis.
It seems when it comes to shoeing, all knowledge we have of anatomy, physiology, histology, zoology, physics and biomechanics is completely irrelevant……and different rules apply?
All there is, is the tradition, the established beliefs and a pretty big commercial interest.

Even though some of the proud guardians and supporters of the century-old-hoofcare-trade are resisting the development, there is no doubt that we actually need to become a bit more “cluey” about the whole subject of shoeing, hoofcare in general  and this new “thing” called “barefoot hoofcare”…..

First of all: WHAT is “barefoot hoofcare” – or let’s better call it BAREHOOF CARE.
(I always have to laugh when we talk about “barefoot hoofcare”….(!!!) J

Is what we call “barefoot” or “barehoof” the same as unshod or shoeless?

Of course it is.
A hoof is either bare, shod or booted.
A HOOF IS EITHER           BARE ....                    SHOD ....       OR          BOOTED ....
Each state (bare, shod or booted) has an effect on the biomechanics and limb cycle during movement, with “bare” being the natural state where the hoof is in contact wit the ground.

Of greatest importance is, however, HOW the bare hoof is prepared by the hoofcare provider:

A functional barehoof trim is one that respects the
- physiology and anatomy of the horse  (considering pathologies/deformities) and
-  the individual circumstances (including lifestyle and terrain)

What makes an “individually physiologically correct” barehoof trim, will be the theme for another article.
(But let me assure you that there can be quite some differences in the way bare hooves can be prepared….)

For now we shall return to the problems that can lead to “post-shoeing barehoof failure”

As you can see by the title of this article, going shoeless – or “bare” after shoeing can often be a painful experience to both, horse and owner if it is attempted  “clueless”.
So let’s look into the reasons why going “bare” can be traumatic and why it can often be a painful experience to horse and owner, leading to barehoof failure (and consequently having the horse re-shod as a result).


Just like the application of the first set of shoes can be a huge life-changing experience to the horse, removing shoes can be just as significant to the horse.
Why is it life-changing for your horse to have  shoes put on his hooves, you may ask?
Because of the importance of functioning hooves to the psychological and physiological well being of the horse:
….restrict hoofmechanism and therefore healthy circulatory, neurological and metabolic function 
….alter limb cycle and muscle function
….change traction
….increase concussion 
….cause damage to external hoofcapsule (e.g. nail holes or stress fractures) and
….loss of tactile ability and ground stimulation

amongst other things.

(You do not need to have a science degree to understand that nailing an iron rim onto a naturally flexible, dynamic  structure can not possibly be healthy to the hoof itself, let alone to the rest of the organism!)

So why do we do it?
Well, just go up a few paragraphs and re read the reasons for shoeing. These are the most common reasons that people have!
Realistically, they have nothing to do with the horse, but all with convenience and practicality to enable us to use the horse when and how we desire, without having to consider its biological limitations.


If the horse has been shod for a period of time it has not had proper hoof function - and therefore the structures of the hoof are weak or damaged. It is very likely that the horse needs a transition period to re-adjust to hoof function and ground stimulation. Remember: When the shoes were on, the hoofcapsule was only loading on its periphery, the hoofwall as it was nailed onto an iron rim.
Any reaction, like tender-footedness, ground sensitivity, even lameness and inflammatory responses are often associated with the removal of shoes. But this discomfort it is NOT caused by the fact that the horse is now without shoes and barehoof  - but rather by the fact that the horse WAS shod and now has to get adjusted again to what is a natural state!

The preparation of the hoof for setting a shoe (flat and to the “solar plane”, where toe and heel angle match) plus the effects of the shoe on the living structures inside the hoofcapsule itself are the problem, NOT the return of the hooves to their natural state.

In the attempt to give you some idea:
(And I am sure many of the female readers can relate to this):
If you have ever endured uncomfortable footwear in the name of fashion
(until you couldn’t even feel the blisters any more) then you know what
hurts more: Dancing in such shoes or finally being able to take them off….)

So, removing shoes may always cause some discomfort to the horse before it re-adjusts to function and tactile sensation.

Since most people may be aware of this and will tolerate a little “tender footedness” after “de-shoeing”, we must now talk about the more serious reactions. Those reactions that some of my colleagues either fail to mention or

simply underestimate - or may not even be aware of!
They do occur from time to time and no matter  who the barehoof guru may be who tells you otherwise:

Some horses can not easily transition to barehoof, because the have severe pathologies and damage to the structures of their hooves.

Usually these horses are:
·Horses that were shod early in their life (before the maturation of the skeleton)
·Were shod continuously for years without break
·Have obvious deformities and inferior horn quality
·Had unnatural lifestyle (stabling, bedding)
·Had “corrective shoeing” or specialty shoeing which altered
        the natural hoof form to resemble..................... a square-toed stump)    >

It is often the unexpected severity of the barehoof transition that makes owners dismiss barehoof and go straight back to shoeing.
These are the “barehoof failures” - that have failed because of having gone shoeless clueless!
All hoofcare professionals (including those of the New Age kind - us barehoof trimmers) - who are often ask to remove shoes, will have to deal with “complications” sooner of later:

Some transitions require a lot more than just pulling shoes and putting boots on!
This article is meant to help you prepare the horse for those more difficult transitions, so no false expectations will ruin the chances of some  horses to get back on to their own feet after a long time in shoes - just because the owner did not understand what was happening!


Nobody is arguing whether shoeing causes changes to the dynamic structure of the external hoofcapsule or not. This is well documented, and every good farrier will always recommend to leave a horse without shoes as much as possible. However, what may be even

more problematic is the unavoidable damage to the living tissue inside the hoofcapsule that occurs over time due to a number of things:
*lack of circulation

This damage is not only relevant to the most affected part, the hoof, but can also have an effect on remote and not obviously related parts of the organism: Metabolic organs, like kidney and liver, and of course the heart and circulation.

Since horn production IS part of the protein metabolism and therefore part of the body’s waste elimination process, we know that without working, functioning hooves, the horse’s metabolism (especially the organs of waste elimination, like kidney and liver) become stressed.
So is the heart.
The coria (the living metabolic tissue of the hooves) are highly vascular. The hooves are the farthest away from the heart (which is proportionally relatively small for such a large animal). There are no muscles in the lower leg that could help with venous return.
If the pumping function of the hoof is disallowed by the brace of the shoe, the heart will also be stressed!

If all of a sudden the shoes are pulled and the structures of the hoof are beginning to flex in a more natural way, the sensation can range from discomfort to severe pain.

The solar vault can now decent again,
               the laminar connection is be able to stretch (which can be a problem when there is a lot of damage and the connective interface is
               the digital cushion and the lateral cartilages can engage again, the heel tissue will start to stretch (which can also be painful if there are

But most of all, the body will now start a healing process by removing damaged cells and tissue…(either by re-absorption or encapsulation, which will become an abscess later on).
This re-absorbed cell debris acts as toxins, which are now transported via the bloodstream to liver and kidneys for elimination.
If these organs were already working overtime (because the metabolic function of the hooves was compromised), then we may not only have a foot sore horse, but also a very ill horse!

So…….. prevention and preparation is the key!

Remember: The more damage there is, the more complicated a barehoof transition can be:

In cases of long-term shoeing and severe deformities, you must prepare the horse for what will be as big a change to his system as the day his first set of shoes went on (but now with the consequences of having to deal with the damage that shoeing has done since):


1. Consult with your veterinarian (s/he will help with diagnostics, radiographs and will be on stand-by with pain relief when necessary)

2. Consult with a herbalist/homeopath (to prepare a de-tox program and prescribe liver/kidney tonic). S/he will also advise on
   alternative pain management and general remedies that are helpful to for the organism to go through the process.

3. Have one pair of shoes removed first (usually hinds) and allow these to transition.

4. You may have to have the front shoes reset for a few weeks or even a couple of shoeing cycles (you may need to find a new cooperative   

5. ….before you have the remaining hooves “liberated”……

6. Have some hoofboots on standby, to help with the initial tenderness (if necessary) and follow the advise of your hoofcare provider.

The first few days may be traumatic to the horse and the owner, as the horse will experience a “healing crisis”, which may involve a laminitic episode.
(The influx of circulation with the body’s reaction to damage tissue may result in inflammation in the corium. If this happens to be in the laminar corium, it is called laminitis.)

Through this initial period, stay in close contact with your vet and hoofcare provider, so you can administer the necessary treatment so the horse gets over this crisis quickly.

Once the acute transition stage is over, healing can begin.

You may or may not have to follow a protocol that your hoofcare professional will compile for you.

But one thing remember:


The damage that shoeing may have caused, will not have happened over night: It may have taken years to get to such a pathological state.
So do not expect the reversal of the damage to take a few days. It may take weeks, months or even years.
Some damage can never be reversed.
The damage will be there if you keep your horse barefoot or if you re-shoe it.
But you will always improve the general health of your horse in the long run if you allow him the function of his hooves.


And this last thought is for our farriers:
A good farrier is worth his weight in gold, because he will shoe to keep the negative effects of shoeing at a minimum and will always recommend for the horse to have a break from shoes to be able to regenerate its natural hoof form…..
If you know one like this, look after him and feed him biscuits and coffee – and better still: Tell him about “barehoof care” – and that it
could be a wonderful additional tool in his tool box.
He just has to embrace it with an open mind… and a lot of love for horses (which was most likely the original reason he wanted to become a farrier).

Many happy (and hopefully complication-free) transitions