A while ago now I went with a friend to view a horse. While we were doing the initial overview, prodding and poking, I asked the seller when the (barefoot) horse had last seen the farrier. I was told that she preferred to let her horses self trim. This rang alarm bells for me when I considered the size of the medial flare of the horse’s hoof. It could easily cause a brushing injury to the opposite limb. Were there issues in that opposite limb? Was the horse a nightmare for the farrier so it was easier to let her “self trim”? Yes I know, I’m playing devils advocate, but that’s sometimes needed when viewing horses.
Since then I’ve heard the term self trimming with increasing frequency. So I resolved to ask my farriers.
Horses have worn shoes for thousands of years, from leather pads used by the Romans to today’s iron shoes, but increasingly there is a movement saying that shoes are unnatural and we shouldn’t use them because of the damage they cause to the growth and strength of the hoof capsule whilst protecting the sole of the foot. I don’t disagree; shoes can cause damage but ultimately we have created an artificial environment for horses which means we may have to artificially intervene in order for the horse to be comfortable and to function to the best of their ability.
For example, humans now keep horses in smaller paddocks, ask them to trot and canter increasingly smaller circles, and jump higher and wider. In the wild horses roam over many miles of varying terrain, trot and canter in straight lines and only jump when necessary to avoid danger. Factor in our breeding which focuses on certain traits (for example speed in thoroughbreds) at the cost of other traits (again, in thoroughbreds, the quality of their feet) and humans are causing many of the problems we see today, be they conformational or due to injury. Which means that it’s our responsibility to do what we can to help our horses.
So let’s return to the barefoot versus shoeing debate. Scientific advancements and a greater understanding of the equine body does mean that we should rethink shoeing – the materials, technique, frequency etc – and the development of hoof boots are providing us with excellent alternative options. Although hoof boots do make me think we are going a full circle and returning to the leather pads used by the Romans and ancient Asians, albeit a little less crudely. So with this move away from shoeing horses, we naturally gravitate towards the barefoot approach.
Yes, it seems like the easy option – no lost shoes on competition morning, smaller farrier bills – but I don’t think it is necessarily the easy way out. A barefoot horse still needs their feet checking on a daily basis and having the correct diet to help them grow strong hoof. I think that keeping a horse barefoot is great so long as they are comfortable and able to carry out their work. It’s awful seeing horses struggling to walk across gravel. But ultimately if they can’t manage then it’s our responsibility to do something about it, be it through a change in their diet or by shoeing.
Moving on to self trimming. What is it? Now, it has two interpretations. To the innocent bystander, it is not interfering with the natural growth and shape of the foot, and through work letting the horse wear their feet down naturally. Minimum intervention, if you like. Which is fine. But, just like any athlete looks after their legs and feet, we should still look after our horse’s. A foot expert will notice any changes in hoof quality, spot abscesses, and still with minimal intervention, help the horse’s hooves grow in the best direction for that horse. For example, removing excessive flairing and encouraging the hoof wall to grow downwards as opposed to out to the side. Or vice versa if the horse has boxy feet. In the same way that occupational therapists help correct human’s gait. They teach you correct foot placement, use insteps to stop you walking on the outsides of your feet, and especially with children aid skeletal growth so that they are stronger and less prone to wear and tear. I’m going to direct you to a Michael McIntyre joke about learning to walk correctly now. Go on, have a laugh while you watch it and come back after to finish reading.
Anyway, whilst keeping things as natural as possible, regularly having your horse checked or trimmed by a farrier will help prevent problems developing. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people who go down the “self trimming” route see it as just letting a horse sort themselves out. Which would be fine if the horse had perfect conformation and lived over a variety of terrains, but as I said earlier, humans intervening with natural selection are responsible for less than good conformation in some horses so they need to help them where possible, so it’s important for barefoot horses to still see the farrier on a regular basis even if it’s just the condition of the feet that is checked, or as in Phoenix’s case a fortnight ago, only a tiny bit of shaping to rebalance them and encourage the hooves to grow in the preferred direction. I think also, that when a farrier is called out to a barefoot horse he feels obligated to trim so that the owner feels something has been done. But if the horse’s hooves have worn down through work then taking any more hoof off will only cause problems, so in that case maybe farriers should feel more able to say to an owner, “his feet look great, they’re in excellent condition but I won’t take any off because that may make him foot sore… shall we rebook for next month?”
Whilst talking to my farrier, he said that he views his job as assisting the horse. So he takes into account conformation, strength of the hoof horn, workload, management routine, and does as much or as little to the feet as each horse requires to make their job easier and them more comfortable.
The next interpretation of self trimming, is I guess, a more detailed and natural way of looking after horses feet, but is probably more time consuming and potentially more expensive than initially appears. The best place to read up about it is here – Rockley Farm website . Self trimming is still about minimal intervention and letting the horse’s hooves respond to their environment. Which means that a horse who has low mileage grows foot at a slower rate than one who does a lot of hacking and needs more hoof growth because they wear them down quicker. It’s also about providing a variety of surfaces for the horses. I get lost on the physiological benefits, but working on both hard and soft ground helps stimulate correct hoof density and growth. I think! It helps improve proprioception anyway, so horses will become sounder and have less variation in their stride length over different surfaces.
So self trimming is really about providing a variety of surfaces to best stimulate healthy hoof growth, either during turnout or by in hand exercise. Which again, is great. But you need the facilities! There are very few livery yards which even allow you to do a track system, let alone have different surfaces in their fields, and the surrounding area may not have suitable surfaces for encouraging self trimming. So this interpretation of self trimming may be leaving the hooves up to the horses, but it requires a lot of time invested by their handler in stimulating hoof growth, which just may not be possible for horse owners with full time jobs, family commitments, who also want to ride!
I think it will be really interesting to see how the barefoot movement develops, as I certainly think it has benefits. Before embarking on that journey though, amateur horse owners need to be aware of the need to provide a balanced diet to encourage healthy hoof growth, the fact that we keep horses in unnatural environments so don’t allow them to roam for miles over varied terrain and surfaces which help them to regulate their hoof growth, and that we work them on artificial surfaces which can be very abrasive. The idea of self trimming is great, but the realities of being able to follow a program such as Rockley is more time consuming than many are led to believe, so I think you have to meet halfway. Go barefoot if your horse can tolerate it; use your farrier’s guidance and expertise especially if they don’t take much off when they trim; use different surfaces that you have available but don’t be surprised if small trims or tidy ups are needed because their conformation or living circumstances require it.