Transitioning a Horse to Barefoot for the Winter

Going barefoot can benefit many horses, especially during the cold months when snow can pack onto steel. But pulling shoes requires planning to ensure horses’ continued comfort.
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Transitioning a Horse to Barefoot for the Winter
Protective hoof boots for riding can help horses successfully transition to barefoot. | Michelle Anderson
As fall is (reluctantly) upon us, I start to hear comments that my clients intend to soon have their horses’ shoes pulled. This is not uncommon in the winter, especially where I practice in the Northeast. While the owner’s wallet and the horse can see immediate benefits, it’s important to consider a few factors before making the transition. I sat down with Alicia Harlov, a full-time hoof care provider in Northeastern Massachusetts and the creator of the Humble Hoof Podcast, to pick her brain on this topic.

Winter’s slower pace and accompanying snow (which can stick to horseshoes and form slippery ice balls) can be a great time to transition your horse to barefoot. “Pulling shoes over the winter is also a great way to get ahead of nagging pathologies (diseases or conditions) that we often chase throughout the rest of the year,” said Harlov. “It can allow for observing wear patterns, changes in growth and movement, and making trim adjustments if needed.”

Shoes are necessary for many horses, both athletes and backyard friends alike. “One benefit some find with shoes is their ability to provide stability to the foot, but with that stability often comes a compromise of natural hoof function,” said Harlov. “Allowing the feet time to rest out of shoes can result in benefits to the caudal hoof, relaxing contracted heels, growing healthier frogs, and strengthening the structures in the back half of the foot especially.”

So what’s the best way to approach the transition to barefoot? Harlov recommends pulling hind shoes first. This gives the horse the opportunity to adjust to changes in stance and locomotion or any unintended, fleeting discomfort. “Pulling all four shoes at once, for some horses, can make them feel as though they have no comfortable foot to stand on as they adjust,” she said.

Shod or not, the trim is the foundation for the horse’s soundness. During the transition it’s best to do a minimal trim. “When you’re already removing a huge part of their protection (shoes), removing any more off their foot can cause soreness and setbacks,” Harlov explained. “As you notice the growth, wear patterns, and movement change over the following cycles, the trim can be adjusted to the horse’s individual balance and needs, but rarely do I trim sole on a barefoot performance horse (or retired horse, for that matter).”

Foot pathologies play a role in every aspect of podiatry, not just barefoot. “Every horse responds to the transition to barefoot differently, and many can surprise us with how well—or how poorly—they handle it at first,” says Harlov. Many of the problems she finds “to be a symptom of underlying metabolic issues or diet sensitivities and mineral imbalance. Any of these can make a barefoot transition difficult and cause soreness, so I seek to be proactive about them before the shoes come off.” A well-balanced and complete diet, as well as any necessary metabolic testing and treatment, can resolve many pesky foot complications.

Barefoot is not for every horse, whether the owner wants to accept it or not. After pulling shoes for the winter, if your horse develops sudden lameness, increased digital pulse, or reluctancy to move, talk to your farrier. He or she can assess your horse’s podiatry needs and help you decide what your horse might need to function.

Many horses go barefoot, whether year-round or just seasonally, and do so wonderfully. If you have any concerns or questions, contact your regular hoof care provider to make a proper plan for your horse. “Some horses need an adjustment in their workload at first as their feet strengthen, while others can immediately go back to their previous workload seemingly unaffected,” says Harlov. “A good rule of thumb is for every year shod, expect one month of transition time before the horse is fully comfortable. A little bit of preparation and observation can go a long way in a successful barefoot transition.”

Do you keep your horses barefoot?

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Written by:

Chris White, DVM, was raised in central Maine and competed in barrel racing his entire childhood. He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the Atlantic Veterinary College, in Prince Edward Island, Canada. His interests include performance horse medicine, ophthalmology, and dental care. He has practiced in Upstate New York, New England, and Atlantic Canada.

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