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The Barefoot Endurance Horse | Part One

Not so long ago, this topic would not even have been thought about; now we are seriously considering it. Crazy? Shoeless and clueless? Some think so, but then maybe they don't know that in the US long-time competitive endurance riders have switched to the barefoot approach and are still winning 160km and multi-day 80km a day rides on barefoot horses!

But be warned, if you are in a hurry because you want to be competitive NOW or want to get some runs on the board to sell a horse overseas, then barefoot is not for you, unfortunately for your horse. It takes time, especially if your horse has already been shod more or less full-time for a couple of years, depending on the quality of the shoeing and the individual horse.

Why would you want to run your horse without shoes anyway? To answer that, we need to look at what the hoof is intended to do. The horse's foot is a marvel of bioengineering, having evolved through millions of years to become the most effective device for escaping predators over a wide variety of terrain in all sorts of weather. How arrogant are we to think that we can improve on its grip or resistance to wear by nailing a lump of metal onto it? We shoe horses for our benefit, not the horse's, because it saves us from keeping the horse under living conditions that more closely approximate its evolved needs and saves us from taking the time and trouble to condition the feet to the demands we want to place on them. That may be OK, because it achieves the necessary protection under those circumstances, but we must recognise this and not just talk ourselves into believing that because it has always been accepted that horses need to be shod that this is necessarily so. It is no more than conventional wisdom that must be further examined to determine if it is really valid.

We must also be aware of the damage that shoeing does to horses. The type of shoe most commonly used, a metal rim shoe that is nailed onto the hoof, stops the hoof mechanism functioning, because the whole foot cannot expand and contract as it was designed to do. As a result, many of the common lamenesses are in fact caused, or contributed to significantly, by shoeing e.g. navicular syndrome, contracted heels, corns, side bone, ringbone and laminitis (founder) in some cases. Shoeing can also lead to systemic problems, as without a properly functioning hoof mechanism to ensure proper foot circulation, extra loads are imposed on other body systems such as heart (therefore higher heart rate to do the same job), lungs, kidneys and liver.

This is not to say that your horse will necessarily develop problems simply because it is shod; the quality and frequency of the shoeing, together with the proportion of life spent shod, will largely determine whether problems such as these develop. There are obviously outstanding examples of high-mileage endurance horses that have been shod for all their competitive life, because thats what the Australian rules required until 2004. Most people, however, do not have deep enough pockets or an adequately trained and skilful farrier to shoe their horse every 2-3 weeks, which is the interval necessary to ensure that foot balance is not altered excessively by hoof growth. Once the break-over point and foot balance change, the upper body has to compensate and starts to develop soft tissue and bone problems. The so-called natural balance and Cytek shoeing methods only go part way to addressing this.

Other ill effects of shoeing include damage to the corium, the sensitive blood-supplying layer above the sole and elsewhere in the foot. We often talk about stone bruises, but most commonly these bruises are from the unsupported (due to little or no sole contact with the ground) pedal bone being driven into the corium from above by the weight of the horse descending on it without the benefit of the natural hoofs amazing shock-absorbing capability. Also, the reduced circulation and lack of hoof mechanism greatly reduce the functioning of the nerves in the foot, so yes they can go over stony ground without feeling it nearly as much, but at the same time it also impairs proprioception i.e. the ability of the foot to feel where it is, so a shod horse is much more likely to stumble in rough country.

Greatly reduced shock absorption is one of the most deleterious ill effects in the long term for shod horses. Horses shod with metal shoes have 60-80% reduction in shock absorption; or put another way, a shod horse walking over pavement suffers three times the impact that a barefoot horse does trotting over pavement. Imagine how this adds up in ill effects on the tendons, joints and ligaments over time.

Some 'fringe benefits' if you like of barefoot horses are less damage to you and other horses from kicks and in these days of loss of places to ride because of supposed damage to the environment from shod hooves, less damage there too. Another bonus is not having to worry about losing a shoe on track!

Most people also think that shoes give better traction, but this is not so. A shod foot packs up with mud, dirt and snow (Quilty in Tasmania in June!) because it does not have the expansion/contract- ion induced self-cleaning action of the natural foot. Had to ride on bitumen? Barefoot is best. A well-conditioned natural foot has a somewhat domed sole that also provides enough edge for good grip on softer ground. Do we really think that a prey animal would survive a million years if its feet didn't give it the traction necessary under all terrain and weather conditions to help it reliably escape predators?

Unfixable lameness problems are one of the main catalysts in getting people to try the barefoot approach, especially if they have a favourite horse that they don't want to give up on. But again, remember it is no quick fix because the damage has usually been done over a long period and it takes time, given the hoof growth rate, to recover. The process may also cause more temporary discomfort before improvement is seen and you need sound, qualified advice before and during the process if you are contemplating the barefoot rehabilitation route. Those who have persevered have been amazed at the improvement, not realising that such things were possible, often because conventional wisdom has said that they weren't. Such people have provided some of the photos here.

Most people know that it takes about 9 months for the hoof wall to grow all the way down from the coronary band to the ground-bearing surface. You can get more rapid partial conditioning of the sole to tolerate rougher surfaces, but overall the hoof will take about 9 months to show the benefit of a conditioning program. Horses of course are individuals and will vary greatly in their ability to travel without shoes and to some degree in their hoof growth rate, but if you have the patience, persistence, decent trimming and the country to train on, then nearly all horses can get there. Those with pre-existing problems and less suitable feet may take up to two years, so again, don't think it's a quick fix. Also, if you are going to compete in rides in rough country, you need to train on the same type of country to achieve adequate conditioning and/or use boots on the rougher tracks.

When wild horses are used as an example of those doing fine without shoes, people who argue against this by saying that horses in the wild don't have to deal with the weight of a rider, ignore the extra weight of pregnancy in mares and the large seasonal variations in body weight, which exceed that of a rider in most cases. Or that wild horses do not travel as far or as fast how come then that there are people consistently winning 100 mile and multi-day 50 mile endurance rides on barefoot horses? Because the foot adapts to the stresses and conditions placed on it, given the opportunity! Such high performance barefoot horses usually require trimming within a few days of doing these events, because the rate of hoof horn growth far exceeds what we are used to in long-term shod horses.

Movement is the key. Once you have a decent barefoot trim, adequate work over appropriate terrain will largely maintain that hoof form. This is the 'Council trim' you work them over the Council roads and that keeps em trimmed! On non-work days, the horse must also be able to move around adequately. A figure of 15km per day walking around the paddock is apparently the norm for those unrestricted by enclosures. Access for the feet to immersion in water to some degree also helps keep them in good shape, although obviously brumbies and station horses in Australia's arid pastoral zone still have great feet and gallop over gibbers without any problems. They will get some exposure to water at the water hole; horses will also get dew off the grass at different times. Fifteen minutes a day soaking may be regarded as the ideal, but it is not mandatory for successful barefooting by any means. It is, however, very handy at trimming time because virtually all trimming is done with a hoof knife!

So if you are lucky enough to have a youngster that has never been shod and you want to try barefoot, just start him that way and keep on truckin because unless you are in a big hurry, by the time he has been started and worked enough to do his first trainer, his feet will be reasonably conditioned and you can go on from there. If you want to switch a horse from shod to barefoot, it will take some time for the reasons mentioned and you will probably need boots to assist during the transition. We are lucky now that there are several types to choose from, starting with the original Easy Boot which many find is hard to keep on at speed, unless you use special fixation techniques that are fiddly. Then there are Swiss Hoof Boots, a bit like Easy Boots that stay on better but require more accurate sizing and can cause pastern rubs. Australia's own Old Macs are more like sneakers for horses and many people find them easy to put on, but they have a high wear-out rate if used for endurance and can have pastern rubbing problems, although they now have neoprene 'socks' available to help prevent that. The makers of Easy Boots have a new one on the market, Epics, which are only just being trialled in Australia but look very promising.

For those with access to the Internet, there are many web sites that feature the barefoot approach, but remember that the Internet can be as much a source of misinformation as information, with some sites dedicated to damning the barefoot movement or some of its protagonists. Here are some useful sites:

If you want to be inspired about what can be achieved in endurance barefoot and aren't aware of our early achievers here in Australia, visit the site of Darolyn Butler-Dial, a long-time endurance competitor in the US who has switched to barefoot and frequently has horses in the top ten at 50 and 100 mile and multi-day rides, including winning and best conditioned. One of her horses also ran the recently completed 2005 World Equestrian Championships 160km totally barefoot in the abrasive sands of Dubai, in a very creditable time of 9hrs 23. is the one for Dr Hiltrud Strasser, the German veterinarian who has done so much work over the last 20 years to show what amazing things are possible with that marvel of bioengineering, the horse's foot.

So have a think, consider your circumstances and see if you want to put in the effort, dare to be bare and give your horse the barefoot benefits for a lifetime of soundness.

Steve Roberts is a Canberra-based veterinarian who has been involved in endurance for over 20 years as a rider, ride organiser and vet. He trained his first endurance horse largely barefoot, only shoeing it or using four Easyboots screwed on to compete. In his last year of competition, this horse made the NSWERA top ten for part of the year. Together with Duncan McLaughlin, Steve was the proposer of the AERA rule change to allow barefoot competition, as Australia and South Africa were the only endurance nations to mandate shoeing. South Africa has now also moved to allow barefoot competition on a trial basis.

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