Most horse owners and riders take for granted that their horses’ hooves should be outfitted with metal shoes.
They don’t think twice about having horses shod because that’s just what people do.
But there are others who do think twice. For them, attaching metal shoes to a horse’s foot is not automatic, and could in fact be viewed as unnecessary.
Welcome to the realm of barefooting.
While it’s not a widely used practice and its very existence is unknown to many horse people, there are knowledgeable folks in the equine field who believe in it and promote it.
One of them is horsemanship trainer Mike Daniels, of Raymondville.
“I think the biggest thing most people using horseshoes are having trouble with is tradition,” Daniels said. “They do it because they’ve always seen it done.”
While the specific origin of horseshoes is not known, people have employed different forms of extra protection to horses’ hooves since the early stages of their domestication. There is evidence that metal horseshoes may have begun being nailed to horses’ feet in the sixth or seventh century, and “hot shoeing” (the process of shaping a heated horseshoe before placing it on a horse) became common in the 16th century.
Daniels, a Colorado native who has lived in Raymondville for eight years after residing in northwest Minnesota for seven years, has always had an interest in animals. He acquired his first horse as a youngster and eventually began training and selling them during his teens.
His unique, highly interactive horsemanship teaching techniques are derived in part from being influenced over the years by renowned trainers like Monte Foreman (known for his scientific approach and focus on where a horse’s feet are at a given moment), Ray Hunt (whose approach is known to be more psychological, with an emphasis on hands and hand positioning), Pat Parelli (who is widely credited as being founder of the “natural horsemanship” movement), and John Lyons (whose focus was riding without equipment).
“They all influenced me, and every time I took any information from them it just fast-forwarded me ahead,” Daniels said.
Parelli’s reiteration of age-old techniques is among the stronger influences on Daniels’ approach.
“People say what he does is new,” Daniels said, “but even Parelli admits that this stuff is so old it’s new again. What he teaches is thousands of years old, but somehow we forgot it. Now it’s being brought back.”
Although similar in some ways to the way Parelli teaches, Daniels stops short of calling what he does “natural.”
“It’s not really what a horse would be like in its completely natural state,” he said. “We’re asking them to be more like humans and us to be more like horses. That’s not really natural.”
As someone who rode horses mainly to move cattle or tend to other farm-related tasks on his own property, Daniels years ago began to leave his animals shoeless.
“For me, it was practical most of the time,” he said. “But once in a while we would want to ride on some rocky ground.”
So prior to a rocky ride, Daniels would outfit his horse with horseshoes.
“I would shoe them, but just for that time,” he said. “I got to thinking that that didn’t really make sense.”
So Daniels acquired a set of hoof boots designed for temporary use on rocky ground and became a barefooting fan for life.
“I just think it’s a waste to shoe a horse for one weekend here and there,” he said.
One of the primary contentions of all barefoot fans is the fact that horses were simply never meant to wear metal shoes. Pennsylvania barefoot horse expert Marjorie Smith figures horses did just fine before man came along and started outfitting their hooves with iron.
“Since horses have succeeded as a species for millions of years without shoes, I believe any shod horse would prefer to go barefoot and feel the ground, if we had a way to ask them,” Smith said. “A horse depends on his feet to escape from predators, and feels insecure if he can’t feel the ground.”
While shoeing has been popular for thousands of years now, it’s no secret that early settlers of this continent met with Native Americans riding barefoot (and bareback) horses. It’s also well documented that many of history’s successful armies – like that of Alexander the Great – went to battle on barefoot horses.
Barefoot fans contend that one of the primary negative effects horseshoes have on a horse’s foot is the prevention of proper circulation.
Basically, when a horse places its weight on its foot, the cone-shaped hoof wall flexes wider at the bottom. When the foot is lifted back off the ground, it returns to its narrower (or “closed”) shape. This motion acts like a pump, pulling blood into the animal’s foot with each step.
A rough estimate is that a medium-sized, barefoot horse pumps a gallon of blood through its four feet in about 20 strides.
“Since horseshoes are nailed onto the foot when it’s in the closed, off-the-ground position, the hoof can’t flex, so the pump doesn’t work,” Smith said.
The result is that not enough blood and nutrients are pulled into the foot to build and maintain strong tissues.
“A hoof has to be able to expand and contract,” Daniels said. “When it doesn’t do that, the foot is just not as healthy. It’s not rebounding and it’s not as strong as it should be.”
Another issue barefooting tries to address is shock absorption. Smith points out that the flexing of a weighted hoof can absorb as much as 2,000 pounds of concussion, but a horseshoe holds the foot inflexible and cancels out the majority of its ability to absorb shock. In turn, concussion goes up the leg, potentially damaging joints and tendons that were not designed to take so much shock.
“We wear tennis shoes with lots of shock absorption,” Daniels said, “so why would we think a horse wearing metal shoes wouldn’t have trouble with concussion? It’s kind of a common sense situation.”
Using hoof boots can provide a part-time solution for many of the situations horseshoes are used for. Daniels said most domestic horses’ hind feet are stronger due to being utilized for locomotion, but their front feet – particularly the back portion – are often susceptible to soreness due to improper or lack of use.
“They’re forced to develop their hind feet because that’s what takes most of the pressure when they’re in motion,” he said. “The key to getting horses to transition well to becoming barefoot is to get them using the back of that foot. When we boot and pad, we’re trying to encourage the horse to hit the ground with the back of its foot so he can develop it.”
Boots are now available in varying styles for varying uses, and usually cost about four times the price of shoeing. But considering the typical lifespan of a boot, their price is pretty reasonable.
“You figure it that out here in the country it costs about $15 a foot to shoe a horse,” Daniels said. “But at $60 a foot for boots, you can expect them to last 20 times as long. And, of course, you typically only need boots on the front feet.”
A horse owner may need some patience when converting a horse from shoes to barefoot, as a period of transition takes place while the hooves heal and strengthen. According to Smith, it can sometimes take a year before a de-shod hoof is fully established to its natural state.
“The issue when you pull the shoes is not ‘can I take my horse on a long, rocky trail ride tomorrow?'” Smith said, “but rather ‘what’s a good program to rehabilitate his feet?'”
Daniels thinks shoeing a horse can in many cases be compared with the use of drugs. Both might produce a short-term fix, but not necessarily a solution to a problem.
“You might see results right away, but in the long term, they make things worse,” Daniels said.
To go along with losing the shoes, Daniels points out that horse owners involved in barefooting should keep close tabs on their animals’ diet in order to insure proper strength and overall health.
“It’s kind of like getting as close as possible to the way God intended it to be,” he said.
For more information, call Mike Daniels at 417-457-1015.