FREEDOM FOR THE FEET
..........STEPPING OUT OF STEEL SHOES...IN STYLE!
KEYS TO SUSTAINABLE HORSEMANSHIP
by Tomas G. Teskey D.V.M.
We are intertwined, heart, mind and soul with these animals. They perform for us with a work ethic rarely seen in human circles, and become capable of so much more when we allow their feet to function properly.
A renewed burst of energy was mine four years in to my veterinary career after being called to help a champion quarter horse mare, losing her hooves from founder. She was as painful a horse as I had ever seen, and had undergone over a year of corrective shoeing by a master farrier and daily treatments with many drugs by experienced veterinarians. The owners informed me of their decision to remove her shoes to see if she would do better and asked if I would “help them take them off?”—she could do no worse at this point in their eyes. I noted the latest and greatest pair of support shoes on her, but she was down and beginning to suffer despite all the best efforts of previous veterinary care: pressure sores covered her body and blood oozed from her coronary bands, her teeth grinding all the while. These courageous folks and this mare became my teachers over the next six months, as I came to understand what honest soundness was for horses.
Not only did this mare heal, she continued in her rein as a champion the following year...without the aid of horseshoes and no evidence of previous founder. She “beat the odds” given her by previous doctors and other concerned horse owners in the neighborhood, making a “miraculous” recovery. Looking back I can say without a doubt there was nothing miraculous about it—the reasons she couldn’t recover at the time were the horseshoes themselves and the overuse of drugs intoxicating her body.
Horseshoes haven’t always been a normal part of having a horse. They have been used for a relatively short period of time in recent history, a troubled time for horses. Thankfully, not only has the horseshoe once again become unnecessary, but our increased knowledge of the horse and proper hoof care has permitted bigger and better accomplishments in all equine disciplines and sports. Previously thought to be a sign of good horsemanship, horseshoes are now recognized as a leading cause of disease, disability and early death in horses. Traditional farriery consumes and erodes the foundation of the horse in a few short years, whereas natural hoof care produces and sustains honestly sound horses from the ground up for a lifetime.
Coming to understand how to ask a horse to perform instead of telling them has made natural horsemanship the preferred method of the world’s brightest trainers—horses know how to be horses without our advice! As a partner in their world, and them in ours, they willingly and expertly perform with their minds and bodies left intact. Once you let your horses know you're going to allow freedom for their feet and ask for their best effort, you’ll develop a different kind of bond—one of mutual respect that will leave you both stronger. Respecting each other’s natural abilities and giving best effort allows for a most honest and sustainable relationship.
Shall we force our will upon them, or simply ask them to help us out?
OUT WITH THE OLD
There is a gold mine of information available which will allow successful transitioning from a shod to natural way of life for you and your horses. Spend some time reading and talking with knowledgeable hoof care providers about your decision. Attend workshops to familiarize yourself with the complexity and wonder of the hoof. Research which hoof boots you are going to have on hand to ensure your success. And have no fear—you have a horse, capable of more than you know.
Horses have been through a traumatic experience and mistrust us around their bodies when they have been traditionally trimmed and/or shod, because it is a forceful way in which we demand their performance.
Using an old rasp, file off as much of the clinched nails as you can. A clinch cutter can also be used to remove the ends of the nails, although I prefer not to hammer on the hoof to avoid miscommunication. The rasp also cleans the area so less contamination gets pulled through the hoof as the shoe is pulled away. Use an old pair of nippers or shoe-pullers and start at the heel, grabbing and levering the shoe carefully, forcing the handle of the tool towards the toe. Individual nails should be removed one by one when a horse is painful or the hooves in very poor condition.
There is always a degree of laminar separation in a shod horse—simple mechanical forces and presence of nails force the hoof wall to separate from the bone when shod, and the horse will feel this separating even more as you pull the shoe. This is uncomfortable for the horse, and is similar to the sensation you would have by grabbing your fingernail and lifting it upwards as if to tear it away from your finger. Also, soreness along the sole will become even worse with pressure, so reassure the horse and try to work carefully but deliberately and as quickly as you feel is possible. Keep moving your pullers further towards the toe, lifting more and more until you have all nails pulling through and the shoe removed.
At this point, the horse has a major brain adjustment to make to relearn where their hoof is in space. As far as they can tell, you have just removed a large part of their hoof, and the sensations of having their own feet on the ground can be pretty intense. Watch the horse's expression and study what their eyes, posture and actions are telling you. Make sure the horse has a good spot to put its now more sensitive foot to get the opposite shoe pulled off.
A NEW BEGINNING
The feet of most horses recently de-shod will be in no condition to perform well at this point, due to dependency on and damage from the shoes. Changes in circulation and sensation occur quickly, and you will often note faster breathing, wider eyes, and tense muscles attempting to keep the body balanced. Be conscious and sympathetic to what is happening at this time! What was once disallowed has now been set free.
The entire body will need time to heal and readjust over the next few weeks and months. From the lowest joints in the legs all the way to the spine and skull, to every muscle, tendon and ligament in between, adjustments will be made as the hooves begin to function normally.
Hoof health affects the entire horse.
Hooves are the base of support
for the entire horse.
As a hoof regains its lost arch and becomes more naturally shaped, cartilages and other soft tissues inside the hooves regain their function: The digital cushion above the frog is brought back into service, and the sole begins to flex away from its previously vaulted position. The entire hoof capsule begins to adjust as the horse moves, but these movements are sadly unfamiliar and often painful. Increased blood perfusion to all regions of the hoof soon follows, allowing damage to be reported and then repaired. It may be days or weeks or months before a de-shod horse can begin to enjoy normal hoof function.
Note that when young horse’s hooves are shod, they fail to reach their normal size and strength, and adult horse’s hooves atrophy, or shrink—deformed hooves result in every case and limited performance is the result in every case. Luckily, the ability to heal to an acceptable “human” degree allows most people to enjoy the new-found abilities in their rehabilitated horse with more normal hooves. Your next horse will not be mismanaged.
Some recently deshod horses will have an increased amount of toxin begin to burden their bodies, partly because the increased circulation to damaged hooves begins a clean up process, and partly because the horse’s digestive processes can become dulled from pain, allowing toxin to escape to the blood. If a horse's system becomes stressed by this clean-up process in the hooves and/or from indigestion, he can become ill and even die. Starting a horse on some charcoal orally can reduce toxins in the gut, which seems to help spare the horse from the abnormally elevated levels of toxin experienced when the filth from the feet begins to assault the system. There are also other herbs that help support circulation and liver function and can also give a little "lift" to the horse's spirit during this process. Jiaogulan, for example, has shown good promise in this regard.
TIME FOR A TRIM?
After the shoes are off, minimal or no trimming should be done in most cases. The experience of a natural hoof care provider will be invaluable at this point. I am often told that, “There sure is an awful lot of JUNK on those soles that could come off”, at which point I say, “It may be junk, but it’s all she’s got right now, so let’s leave it!” Turns out that this loose material will be worn away in a matter of days anyway, and very often allows a horse to be more comfortable and move around more in the early days following de-shoeing. Likewise, trimming a horse to ensure “hoof mechanism” at this point is most often a mistake, as the main thing needed for hoof mechanism will be LOST if a horse is trimmed too early: MOVEMENT of the horse.
If a horse is too sensitive after de-shoeing, no amount of extra
trimming will ensure proper hoof mechanism, because
the horse will be unwilling to move.
Now is a good time to just learn some patience, utilize your hoof boots, with pads if necessary, and allow your horse to move about as much as possible on some friendly terrain. Full time turnout with another horse is of course mandatory, as you will have discovered in your research about natural hoof care!
Regarding smelly feet: Some of these feet have MAJOR toe jam! If they are especially offensive or soft, soaking in some apple cider vinegar to discourage further bacterial and fungal infestations is beneficial.
The earliest trimming should involve control of obvious wall flares and gross elevation of heels. Applying a proper mustang roll around all edges is most often very relieving and appropriate for giving these horses a nice start, as it keeps chunking off of hoof wall to a minimum and provides honest relief to laminar pain that drugs simply cover up.
A natural doming of the sole will come with time, and isn’t really appreciated until an entirely new hoof capsule grows in. Appreciate that every part of the horse’s hoof helps in bearing weight, not just the hoof walls. The bars and sole and frog not only adapt marvelously well for weight bearing, they are stimulated and rejuvenated by such pressure, allowing the internal structures of the hoof to respond with stronger and stronger growth.
LOOK AT THE WHOLE HORSE
Now you're set to start in on further rehabilitation of not only the feet but the entire horse! All parts of the body will readjust, as well as the brain! The psychological changes that occur are fascinating: horses that were once dull and depressed become active and alert, while sour and mean horses become playful and sociable.
Giving a horse his feet back will positively change his life, and it will be a liberating experience for you, too, changing your life as you learn firsthand what a powerful tool this knowledge is. Your discovery of natural hoof care will take you through chapters on appropriate nutrition and the importance of a more natural lifestyle, and utilizing such knowledge will reward you with healthier horses. Most often you will also find it necessary to further your research into more humane and effective tack to maintain the healthiest horses possible. Bitless bridles and saddles that complement your horses’ movement will take you to a new level of horsemanship, as steel in the mouth and ill-fitting saddles cause over 200 known ailments in horses!
Honestly sound, bare feet provide the horse with more than simple locomotion. They provide honest protection from the terrain, vital circulation, self-trimming, and FEELING. Horses will not and cannot fully give us their best efforts if we shut down all these vital functions with the application of steel shoes.
Granting horses freedom for their feet is one big step in the right direction towards attaining a sustainable relationship.
Dr. Tomas Teskey D.V.M. graduated in 1995 from Colorado State University and practiced equine medicine in Southern Arizona USA for ten years before getting back to the family ranch in central AZ where he grew up. After a long history of shoeing and riding shod horses, 1999 began a new understanding of what the horse's foot was all about. He now holds equine hoof and Sustainable Horsemanship workshops and offers rehabilitative opportunities for horses in a working ranch environment in central Arizona.