Horse Health

OTTB Hoof Care: The Great Barefoot Debate

One hoof strategy does not fit all

If you are anything like me, your newsfeed has switched from one of pretty ponies to wrinkly politicians. All of us riders and horse owners who had previously been united by our love of equids are suddenly divided, and what had once been a discussion of whether to buy a pale pink or baby blue air vest has been overtaken by whether you voted red or blue.

And, if you are like me, you are trying to find anything to distract you from all the name calling and vitriol. So please allow me to be the distraction you need, for I will replace one controversy with another.

So what topic is just as divisive as the presidential election? Shoeing horses, of course!

This morning I met my farrier as the sun was rising to pull my horses’ shoes. We had been discussing this possibility for quite some time and had come to the agreement that it was both plausible, and a good time to do it.

“Nixon” came off of the racetrack in May of 2015, and ever since, we’ve slowly and carefully transitioned his feet to those of a sport horse. It wasn’t easy at first; we went through cycles of glue-ons and transitioned from side clips to front, but Gage Morgan and I agreed he had exceptional feet. With good angles, a thick sole, and a strong wall, he was doing better than most.

Healthy hoof. On a thoroughbred, no less!
Healthy hoof. On a thoroughbred, no less!

I decided to wait until after his last competition of the season, as I had kept him drilled and tapped in case we were ever cross-country schooling and I felt he needed the addition of studs (although in retrospect I never used them). Being quite the balanced horse, in addition to the level he is at in his training and the footing with which we schooled in, we never needed the additional traction. So with November rolling in and the event season in Kentucky grinding to a halt I called my farrier, and off they went.

Attempting to distract my fellow horsemen from the surge of negativity on social media I shared this information and was met with shock, awe, horror, and high fives.

“Oh my gosh, that is amazing! I shall immediately pull my rarely sound thoroughbred shoes tomorrow!”

“Oh wow. No thoroughbred should ever be barefoot. He will immediately go lame—you just watch.”

“How dare you have put nails into a horses hooves! Here, let me connect you with my barefoot trimmer. He will do a better job than your podiatrist.”

“Every horse should have their shoes pulled in the fall…When the weather reaches exactly 42 degrees and the frost has begun. They shall only be replaced when the moon is gradually passing the sun during the vernal equinox. My animal psychic told me so.”

As I listened to some of the most intelligent horsewomen discuss this transition and their own experiences, I felt as though a blog was needed to give them a voice, and educate readers. More importantly, I wanted everyone to realize that just like Cinderella, one shoe (strategy) does not fit all.

With the help of two fellow eventers, Dr. Kristen Brennan and Melissa DeCarlo Recknor—both fantastic horse women—I have a response. All three of us have two thoroughbreds—one barefoot, one shod. And we all agreed on the same thing: some horses can be barefoot, some horses need to be barefoot, and some horses need shoes.

Melissa’s first story was that of “Shooter”. Shooter and Nixon are similar on so many levels, but where they veer apart is in their feet. While Nixon went barefoot because he could, Shooter went barefoot because he had to. Melissa had known this horse for years through her work as a trainer at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center, and knew he’d always had perfectly fine feet. But a few years of separation, different management and a transition in geography had brought Shooter back into her life, with feet that crumbled.

Shooter’s feet, May 26th, 2016.
Shooter’s feet, May 26th, 2016.
Shooter’s feet May 26th, 2016.
Shooter’s feet May 26th, 2016.

Melissa had tried to keep shoes on in an attempt to progress his training from that of ‘maverick freak’ to that of ‘well-behaved show pony’, but his feet were the main setback. So after relocating to North Carolina and fighting lost shoe after lost shoe, she and her farrier decided to pull them.

some horses can be barefoot, some horses need to be barefoot, and some horses need shoes.

But she was lucky. Her trainer advised her to reach out to Hawthorne not only for their products, but for their guidance and support. So with the additional support of both a fantastic farrier and a team of professionals advising her, Melissa sacrificed her summer show season in order to better her horse’s hoof health. Painting his feet with S-Pak, packing his soles with a medicated sole-pack and painting with the paste, she saw results within a month. A few months later Shooter was walking soundly on hard surfaces and back to being rideable.

Shooter, September 26th, 2016
Shooter, September 26th, 2016
Shooter, September 26th, 2016
Shooter, September 26th, 2016

The thoroughbred with the “horrible feet” was officially barefoot, and Melissa was going to try to keep him that way for as long as possible. But she was quick to add that her other event horse would most likely never be barefoot, nor would she even go without hinds. “Fly” has severe arthritis in her hocks and the hind shoes have helped support this, keeping her sound, happy and rideable. Approaching her late teens, Melissa has had Fly as a partner for years and knows her inside and out. Alongside her veterinarian and farrier, they have agreed that it is better to leave her shoes on.

One owner, two thoroughbreds, and two very different decisions regarding their shoeing practices.

Kristen was quick to agree with almost everything Melissa had to say, and had surrounded herself with similar minds. But she added an additional factor—nutrition. As an equine researcher herself with a doctorate in animal science, she now leads the team at Alltech’s Equine Nutrition Program, and had a ton of great advice for those intrigued by the idea of hoof health.

While her horse “Frankie” was what you would call an “easy keeper” regards to his weight, she strategized a feed plan that would enhance both hoof growth as well as strength and overall health. Kristen immediately made sure he received a combination of a 10% protein textured feed, but with the addition of a ration balancer that includes an organic TM (trace minerals). As a true scientist, she was quick to point out this addition of organic TM’s provided the horse with a more bioavailable form of Zinc and Copper, elements that are extremely important in keratin which is the primary constituent of the equine hoof. She also added Farrier’s Formula supplement for the extra biotin.

Kristen was quick to point out two things: all horses need a balanced diet, but you can add additional proteins and elements that may help your horse transition to barefoot. With that in mind she was quick to point out that while this was working for Frankie (along with the guidance of Kim from Hawthorne Products that Melissa was also using), her other thoroughbred “Marcus” was different.

Frankie’s hoof with the Hawthorne Sole-Freeze Hoof Hardener.
Frankie’s hoof with the Hawthorne Sole-Freeze Hoof Hardener.

Marcus was on the same feeding program, received the same level of care and yet, he was fully shod. Just like my horse Mak, Marcus needed to stay on a strict shoeing schedule of a full set of steel shoes every 6 weeks. And just like Mak, Kristen had attempted every alteration to this cycle, without luck. What had worked for one horse did not, and would not, work for all. Ultimately, it boils down to educating yourself with great professionals while also listening to your horse.

So those are our stories. And these are our responses—our opinions. Should every horse go barefoot? Heck no. But can a thoroughbred go barefoot? Why, of course. But more importantly, should you have to make these decisions on your own? No.

Surround yourself with a great team of professionals—from your farrier, to your veterinarian, and then add a nutritionist. Talk to your trainer and even your local tack or feed store. Educate yourself on what this is involves and the management practices that will potentially need to change. Examine yourself internally as a horse owner to conclude whether or not you have the time, money and patience invested for either of the outcomes. Most importantly, listen to your horse. He will be your best advisor.


About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.

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