I do a lot of different activities with my horses, from arena training to trail riding to long days working cattle. My ability to do my job relies heavily on my horses, so I need to keep them as healthy and sound as possible, whatever we are doing. When it comes to hoof care, I have found that my horses are most likely to remain strong and able to work when they are maintained with physiologically correct barefoot trimming. This is not the same thing as what many people call a “pasture trim”. It requires specialized knowledge of how the equine hoof is meant to function, how to optimize hoof shape and balance to maximize function, and what to leave alone so that you don’t inadvertently keep a horse foot sore by “cleaning it up” too much with the hoof knife at every trim.
By maintaining my horses in this way, I find I have far fewer hoof problems and lameness issues than I see in comparable shod horses. I also greatly prefer the feel of riding a barefoot horse, as there is a real difference in how barefoot horses sense and respond to the ground. I believe this is because healthy bare feet have the greatest proprioception, which can be defined as “the sensing of the environment, and the sense of the position of parts of the body, relative to other neighboring parts of the body.” The work of the great Dr. Robert Bowker showed us that the frog, in particular, is filled with tiny sensors (called proprioceptors) that allow the horse to respond immediately to changes in footing, slope, etc. A healthy bare foot has the back of the frog making contact with the ground, thus maximizing proprioception and allowing the horse to use his own body in the best way to balance himself and avoid injury. Some people believe that a horse will slip more in rough country or when working at speed without shoes, but I find just the opposite to be true. My barefoot horses have terrific grip, and their sure-footedness enables me to trust them over any type of terrain.
I also find that barefoot horses move better overall, as they seem to be more connected to their entire body. Some people say this is because shoes actually restrict blood flow in the foot to some degree (an idea that Dr. Bowker’s work supports), creating a feeling of numbness in the foot. If you’ve ever had a foot fall asleep, you will recognize that feeling disconnected from your feet would not put you at your best for athletic endeavors! There is definitely a liveliness in the step of a barefoot horse that I really enjoy, and I agree with barefoot enthusiast and British Olympian Emma Hindle, who says that barefoot horses move more correctly. Other benefits include zero down time from lost shoes, quicker heart rate recovery after exertion, and, as a family man with three young children, I definitely appreciate the financial benefit of keeping my horses barefoot, as trimming costs far less than shoeing.
All that said, barefoot can present some challenges. In particular, when the ground is really soft and wet and the feet are not hard, walking on rocks can be a challenge for the horse. I’m also respectful of my horses’ feet when riding on hard-packed roads topped with big chunky gravel, as that is not comfortable for most barefoot horses.
Still, I find that the benefits of barefoot hoof care far outweigh the occasional inconveniences, especially as I know that my horses are likely to stay sounder, and for longer, without metal shoes. In general, I have not put shoes on any of my horses unless I needed them to slide, in which case I used slide plates on the hinds. Barefoot horses simply don’t slide well, as their feet have too much grip. Other than that, they seem to work and feel better barefoot, and that works just fine for me.