Can Your Horse Benefit From Being Barefoot?

Is barefoot right for your horse? Learn why and how farriers transition shod horses to barefoot.
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Are Unshod Dressage Horses at a Competitive Disadvantage?
Horses with good-quality hooves that do not exercise on abrasive surfaces might be good candidates for barefoot methodology. | iStock

With the deformable synthetic surfaces many equine competition venues use rather than abrasive or hard surfaces, high-level competition horses can compete barefoot successfully, said Stephen O’Grady, DVM, MRCVS, of Virginia Therapeutic Farriery, in Keswick. O’Grady presented on the subject during the 2023 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Nov. 29-Dec. 3 in San Diego, California. Traditional farriery retains a dominant and important role in the equine industry, but barefoot methodology still presents a viable option for many aspects of foot care, added O’Grady.

Horses with good-quality hooves that are not exercising extensively on abrasive surfaces or horses out of work rehabbing from an injury might be good candidates for barefoot methodology. Allowing a horse to be barefoot for a period is one of the best methods of improving hoof conformation or a hoof capsule distortion, said O’Grady. “We can also consider barefoot farriery in cases of poor limb conformation that results in abnormal loading of the foot, back pain, horses with foot lameness associated with farriery, and chronic foot problems with no known cause.”

When a horse’s hoof needs protection and added traction, or when veterinarians are treating lameness issues such as laminitis and white line disease, shoes might be necessary. “Shoes provide protection but also promote peripheral loading, which means weight bearing is concentrated on the perimeter of the hoof wall,” said O’Grady. “This changes the physiological function of the foot and decreases energy absorption. The horseshoe is not an extension of the foot, as the shoe creates an interface between the foot and the ground, which has consequences.”

He noted that shoeing involves two interfaces: one between the foot and the shoe and another between the shoe and the ground. This detracts from the single interface between the foot and the ground and affects the foot’s function. Researchers have documented that applying shoes increases the stress on the navicular bone and deep digital flexor tendon by as much as 14%, he noted.

When is Barefoot Best for Horses?

O’Grady explained that horse owners and farriers should consider barefoot farriery in cases of repositioning the heels such as that of a horse with sheared heels and a quarter crack that became infected. Leaving the shoes off for 10 days allowed the heels to assume a more appropriate position and promoted healing of the quarter crack.

“For managing a recessed frog, the shoe is left off and the heels are trimmed at 10-day intervals until the heels and the frog are on the same horizontal plane,” said O’Grady. “This is hard to accomplish while the horse is shod. On the other hand, leaving the shoes off a horse with a prolapsed frog, the weight of the horse will readily push the frog back into an appropriate position.”

When a horse is barefoot, each heel moves separately rather than being locked in place the way a shod horse’s heels are, he explained. The foot changes shape and forms a cup just like a shoe, giving the horse traction.

Transitioning Your Horse from Shod to Barefoot

“Prerequisites to transition from shod to barefoot are time for adaption, good foot structures, or structures that can improve, and change in farriery,” said O’Grady.

Horses typically need 30 to 60 days of being barefoot for all the foot structures to adapt. This happens when walking on firm footing and with turnout. “In some cases where the hoof wall may be compromised, we can use a modified hoof cast to add stability,” said O’Grady. “The cast is limited to the hoof wall and does not interfere with the physiologic function of the foot, and a hoof cast may enhance the transition process.”

Through his experience working with more than 60 upper-level competition horses, O’Grady now recommends just shaping the hooves rather than trimming them after the transition to barefoot. “Get rid of the hoof knife, you won’t need it to shape the foot,” he said. “Remove the shoes at the end of the shoeing cycle so there is some foot to work with and use a wire brush instead of a hoof knife to just clean the bottom of the foot.

“You may need nippers and definitely a rasp to remove excess hoof wall and create a thick bevel around the perimeter of the hoof wall,” he added. “The key here is to use the rasp on an angle instead of using it flat. We want to maintain bulk.”

Despite his enthusiasm for barefoot farriery, O’Grady acknowledged that not every horse should be barefoot. To successfully use barefoot methodology, however, practitioners need to understand the process and consider the necessity of allowing the horse’s hoof to adapt.

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Written by:

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she’s worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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