Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hoof wars

Barefoot versus shod is a legitimate war waging in the equestrian community. Much like political issues, it has become way more polarizing than its followers ever intended to be. Of course, it's the "others" who are wrong and are making it an issue.

Well, it takes two to tango.

As an unbiased observer (haha), I have been caught up in the whirlwind of "You must go barefoot" or "Your horse must stay in shoes" debate on internet forums and even at the local tack shop.

I am going to present my ideology first before I represent both sides of the issue. Why? Because I want you to know my own bias so that when you read my descriptions, you will know how I feel about each one. Anyone reading this should also post your views.

Let me start by saying: this should not be a polarizing issue. Hoof work is an art, not a science and, thus, there is no black and white. Lots of blurring.

OK, here's my view: Horses have been domesticated for a very, very long time. Even the feral horses of the fabled Wild West were descended from domesticated horses. As such, humans have been controlling the breeding of horses, not nature (with the exception of feral herds after generations of dying due to poor genes).

This means that horses are imperfect and not suitable for life in the wild. Much like my chickens would likely be gobbled up by a passing fox if I tried to put them out in the wild. They are bumbly and pretty used to their cushy life style.

Hooves are the foundation of any horse, and yet few breeding programs take this into account.

Now, genes are only part of this equation. Horses are plains creatures, much like the zebra and buffalo, which is why they have hooves and not camel pads for desert or rabbit-like paw for the forest floor. Their ancestors were actually forest dwellers and did not have the single hoof, though, but that's not really relevant right now. (Bear with me through these tangents, I'm a huge nerd)

(Pictured: early horse ancestor, Eohippus, which had a pad-like foot)

Do you live on a plain? Does your horse live 24/7 in plains conditions through flood and drought, traveling to muddy water pits and grazing over 10 miles a day?

Very few can make that claim (though I know some of you are lucky to do so).

Then, we often put our own "ideal" standards on it and try to force it to exactly 45 degrees or go barefoot when the sole is too low or constrain it with a shoe. Some disciplines (I'm pointing to you, pleasure and racing) love long toes because it can create a smoother gait or have the horse reach further.

(Pictured: Big Brown's hooves. Famous for the reconstruction done to them, note the long toe and low heel commonly seen in racing and pleasure horses)

In summary, we have genes, environment and our own ideology working against the foundation of our horses' hooves. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn't.

So, am I pro barefoot or pro traditional? Neither. I'm in it for the horse. If barefoot is what works best to have a healthy, sound horse, then use barefoot methods. If traditional methods work, use those. I happen to believe that Buttercup is not a candidate for barefoot. Her splayed hoof and damaged lamina already create enough pain with a shoe holding it all together. She needs a model to "grow into."

Now, that's not to say I discount what the barefoot ideology says, or that I won't listen to someone who brings it up. My vet and I have talked at length about it; she's a barefoot advocate but believes Bud should remain in shoes.

How do you know which way you should go if you have a horse with hoof problems? That's a hard question to answer. The short answer is that you have to do what's best for your horse and put aside your own prejudices. You make up your mind by talking to as many professionals as possible and educating yourself on your horse's particular problems. A blog (especially this one), an internet forum or the lady who owns the feed and seed can't make that decision for you.

Here are my descriptions and dangers regarding each method:

Traditional: With traditional, you can go either barefoot or shod. Typically, your farrier is concerned with the proper angle of a hoof, however forcing an angle on a horse should never be condoned. Problems with this method include weakened hoof wall, contracted heels, shoeing the hoof to the shoe rather than forging the shoe to the hoof, and much more.

(Pictured: barefoot eventing horse)

Barefoot: Absolutely no shoes. Sometimes they use hoof boots to help horses in the transition. Barefooters seem more interested in maintaining the horse's natural hoof angle and usually keep heels low and the front toe square. Problems with this method is that the "natural" angle of the hoof may be hurting your horse and you may need more correction, low heels can exacerbate hoof problems and locomotive problems, sometimes a low sole causes pain for the horse on certain terrains.

I'm sure there are more descriptions to these as well as dangers. But I find it's best to go with a neo-traditional farrier (please don't call and ask a farrier if he is "neo-traditional," he'll probably hang up on you because I just coined that term, haha). Typically, he understands the barefoot principal and the traditional principal, and straddles both worlds to do what's best for the horse.

Above all else: stay away from fanatics, especially when it comes to your horse. Fanatics refuse to believe there is any other way but THEIR way, and that is dangerous thinking. If ALL horses must go barefoot, stay away from that farrier. If ALL horses must be shod at 45-degrees, take your business elsewhere.

1 comment:

  1. Only one point here- I have yet to see a barefoot horse who had his toes "squared off" as you mentioned.... (and I am a trimmer.... but an outcast of sorts, as we hold the view that if you need to shoe, you need to shoe. However, we have not had to utilize a shoe in 7 1/2 years now.)

    Back to the toes- we follow the natural line of the hoof. Purposefully squaring a toe is reserved for the occasional pathology, or say for a horse who has lower limb issues that prevent proper articulation.

    I would suggest searching out Dr. Robert Bowker's work for your own continuing ed, and see what he has to say about the involvement of sole in weight bearing.

    One more thought- anyone who "forces" a hoof into the perceived "natural angle" (which is dictated by a tremendous amount of factors actually,) needs to be invited to leave the barn. THE HORSE can, should the hoof care provider care to listen, will show you what they need and where that foot may need to work its way to. (That is for traditional OR a barefooter.)