Conditioning the feet

by Dr Steven Roberts BVSc

In the previous article in Volume 1, we explored the reasons why you would choose to train and compete your endurance horse without traditional metal shoes nailed to its feet.

Briefly, these reasons revolve around the fact that such shoes stop 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. For example 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 the heart (therefore higher heart rate to do the same job), lungs, kidneys and liver. Concussion to the limbs is also significantly increased by shoeing; bad news for endurance horses that are out there for so long with so many stride repetitions, often over very hard surfaces.

So, if you want to try barefoot for whatever reason, how do you do it? Be warned, however, that you will need lots of patience, persistence, an ability to cope with lots of frustration and be prepared for ridicule from those who choose to follow conventional wisdom. Even allowing for the faster foot growth of an unshod hoof, it will still take at least 6 months to start getting the full benefits of your conditioning program and more likely 12 months to get rock-crunching high-performance bare feet. This of course will vary with the individual horse, how long and how well it has been shod previously, and the skills you bring to the task. For example, my current horse has had two light seasons of competing to get out of novice, but after the break he had at the end of the year when I did very little with him, I am virtually starting again with conditioning his feet and probably won't get it together until the middle of the year!

To start with, have your horse assessed and trimmed by a competent, professional trimmer. As with farriers, there are trimmers and there are trimmers, but ask around, try the internet, join the Australian barefoot discussion group (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) to help find someone competent in your area, tryhttp://www.easycaredownunder.com.au/page15.htm. You can also check out Australian Equine Arts athttp://www.ausequinearts.com/. There are many internet sites that discuss all the aspects of going without shoes, some constructive and some critical, so go surfing and get some ideas. Discuss everything with the trimmer you use as they are a great source of information and usually happy to discuss reasons for what they are doing. If you find that they are not, get yourself another trimmer!

Once you have a feel for the whole thing, consider attending a trimming workshop yourself as it is easy to learn the basics. As your horse will require trimming every 4 weeks or more often sometimes, you may also find it more economical and rewarding to learn how to do it yourself. The above contacts will often have details of upcoming workshops; you can also try a couple of the better ones that I know of in Julie Leitl, an accredited trainer and hoof care professional and Carola Adolf, another hoof care professional, through Australian Equine Barefoot Movement Inc (http://www.AEBM.org.au) and the Equethy workshops run by Mike and Chrisann Ware (http://www.equethy.com) and Andrew Bowe (http://barehoofcare.com).

Once you have a reasonable trim on your horse's feet, work the horse over a variety of terrain, starting on the softer surfaces. Remember that movement is the key to good hoof function and therefore health, so if it is at all available to you, a paddock existence in a herd is far better than keeping the horse in a small yard or, horror of horrors, in a stable. In their natural state, horses usually travel about 15 – 30km every day, or 15,000 steps minimum, so you can see how far behind you are when the horse cannot move anywhere near that much and you do not work it enough to make up the deficit.

If you are used to riding shod horses, you will probably find it very frustrating at first as your horse dinks its way along, carefully choosing where it puts its feet! You will also be alarmed the first time it stands on a stone and goes three-legged lame for a couple of strides, but you will find that because it can feel its feet and has unweighted the foot instantly, a normal stride will rapidly be resumed. You will also find the stride is significantly shortened over the rougher going but if you get onto grass, the stride will lengthen right out. Allow the horse to choose its own path, which again can be frustrating as it weaves its way down the track, but it is much better to do this as it allows the horse to choose its own level of comfort. For example, on hard-packed gravel or dirt roads, you will usually find that the horse chooses to go along the edge where all the stones have piled up, because there may be more stones there but there is also more give underfoot.

If you find that your horse has great trouble coping at all, then hoof boots may be the answer. Boots can help get the horse moving enough to ensure adequate hoof mechanism without causing sole damage and deeper bruising. There are several hoof boot designs available now that are very good, so talk to people that are using them and to your trimmer to get a feel of the pros and cons of the various designs. I find that the Easyboot Epics are great, but they still have the cable system which can suffer breakages so I prefer the Easyboot Bares which have a rubber bungee at the front to provide some tension. They are harder to get on and off than the Epics but work well. Both are variations on the long time Easyboot, with the addition of a gaiter, or fetlock wrap, that is attached around the back of the boot and virtually stops them coming off altogether. If you only want to trail ride around for a while, some people prefer the sneaker style of the Old Macs, but they are not as suitable for competitive endurance. There is a new, sleeker model however that may be better. There are also the Swiss Hoofboots, which are somewhat akin to the rubber over-shoes that we used to have, but apparently they do not stay in place very well at speed.

Sole damage and deeper bruising, when overdone, can take quite a while to correct. This is one of the keys to conditioning, listening to your horse and changing the type of terrain that you work him over and adapting the amount of work to what he is comfortable with. Those who push their horse past its comfort zone and refuse to use boots, thinking that this will condition the feet faster, or have a horse who is so keen to go that he ignores his feet, will be frustrated by lack of progress. They will have to constantly backtrack in their program to allow healing before being able to progress. Many people try going without shoes on their horses to try this barefoot stuff but after 3 months with little progress, because of the way they are going about it, give up, claiming that it doesn't suit their horse! As mentioned above, how long it takes depends on the individual horse, and quality and duration of previous shoeing, as well as how you go about it. Some horses taken out of shoes to try barefoot really excel and surprise their owners, while others will be a source of frustration for some time.

So to re-state, a variety of terrain is essential as movement is the key. Don't think that you will condition the feet faster for going over gravel roads and other rough terrain by constantly going over only that type of terrain. Horses in the wild move as a herd to different types of forage over the course of the day and this means differing conditions underfoot, that is they don't spend all their time going over the same terrain. Varying the going exposes the feet to different conditions for short bursts at a time, allowing them the opportunity to recover from the rougher stuff before doing it again. You may find that to do your faster work you have to stick to paddocks and other softer going. If you don’t have this available, then use boots to reduce the sole impact. In really damaged feet, you can even put extra padding in the bottom of the hoof boot in the form of high density foam etc..

The oft-stated need for soaking the feet causes some people concern when they hear that they should be soaking their horse's feet for 15 minutes every day. While that may be an ideal under some circumstances, it is by no means essential. For example, a horse that starts with damaged feet and poor hoof form from bad shoeing will benefit from such soaking to help the hoof be more pliable as it changes and to facilitate frequent trimming as small corrections may be required often. Horses with good feet will get enough moisture exposure from visits to the dam, creek, slightly overflowing water trough etc and also from overnight dew, as well as rain of course. If you are really keen and have a number of horses to prepare barefoot, some people have foot baths made to tie their horses in while they are fed, or have a boggy area created around a water trough. With the stage my horse is at now, I don't bother soaking unless I need to for trimming.

Other tricks people use include having coarse gravel put around their water troughs and also in their round yards to help condition the feet while the horse is worked in there. It depends a lot on what sort of country and pasture the horses are running on as to what artificial surfaces you need to add in. If you have a variety from softer paddocks to rocky ridges, you are lucky, so make the most of it.

So there are some basic principles to guide your efforts along the unshod path. As you can see, it is impossible to give a set program that will suit all horses. Some horses will fly from the word go, others will progressively improve fairly quickly, while others will be constant sources of frustration and take a year or more to make it. But don't despair, especially if your horse has low-grade lameness issues that may well be due to shoeing, as this is the very reason why some of the barefoot pioneers in endurance chose to go down that path. One of these, whose horse was diagnosed by two vets as having navicular syndrome, resulting in a recommendation to retire it from endurance, has since performed well at many rides, including a very respectable sub-15 hour time at the South Australian Quilty! Photos of those feet after the 160 km were in the last article.

Before and after shots of another horse with the same owner appear here, to show you how they coped with 40 km in 3.16 over a track that was very hard underfoot and stony, to the extent that the top professional team had pads under their horses shoes. This horse is in its third barefoot season and successfully completed an 80 km ride a month before this trainer. All rides have been done without boots. In the previous two years it has only done one trainer each year.

Join a chat group for ideas and support, or form a local support group with like-minded people, as they did down the Riverina with the Bidgee Barefoot Brigade (thats short for Murrumbidgee folks). Such groups add to the enjoyment and help with ideas and encouragement to keep you going when everyone else is saying 'just stick shoes on him'. If only they knew what damage shoes can do.

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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