NATURAL HOOF CARE - WHY IT ARRIVED AND WHY IT HASN'T LEFT
(This is a contrived discussion I created based on the questions I often receive from clients.)
Doesn’t a wild horse trim belong on a wild horse’s foot? Domestic horses need a domestic trim.
One way to judge hoof soundness (complete lack of lameness in the hooves) is by how easily a horse moves over the harshest of terrain, like big sharp gravel, without needing any sort of hoof protection. By this definition, the wild/feral horses in the US Great Basin are the soundest on earth.
Why are they so sound? That can be figured out by studying their lifestyle – how they live,what they eat, and how they move:
- They live outdoors in groups, year round. They are constantly establishing and reinforcing social hierarchies among themselves.
- They eat the high desert grasses and other vegetation, grazing and nibbling pretty much all day and night.
- They move. A LOT. They move to find food, water, shelter and run for safety. They move up to 20 miles a day. With all this movement hoof growth is balanced perfectly by hoof wear on the dry, abrasive ground. The result is the short, tough mustang hoof that’s become so symbolic to the natural hoof care movement.
Read, The Natural Horse: Lessons From the Wild,by Jaime Jackson, Flagstaff: Northland Publishing, 1992.
Also, Article: "Domestic vs. Wild Horse Hooves" by Jaime Jackson.
It should be noted here that domestic horses and mustangs are genetically the same. In fact, many (arguably all) mustangs currently in the wild are descendants of different breeds of domestic horses that were released into the wild throughout the 20th century.
***The difference between the wild or feral horses and our domestic horses is nothing other than lifestyle.***
Jackson began to apply attributes from the mustang’s lifestyle to domestic horses to see if it would improve their hooves. It did. By housing domestic horses more naturally (outdoors in groups), by feeding them more naturally (free-choice, low carb hay), by encouraging more movement (spread the horse’s resources as much as possible around the pasture), and finally, by trimming frequently to mimic the natural wear patterns seen on the mustang hooves, the result was increased soundness and stronger hooves.
There are many other populations of wild or feral horses who have very different “natural wear patterns”. For example the Carmargue horses have very long toes to scoop and provide traction in the sand. Other populations even have evidence of laminitis. The hoof has to adapt to whatever environment it’s currently in, doesn’t it? The wild environment has nothing to do with a domestic environment. How can you justify using just one particular “wild horse model” over another for domestic horses?
The horses in the US Great Basin are the most sound of any horse population, domestic or wild. Their hooves are strongest. Why would you use a less-sound hoof for a model for hoof care? Why not use the most sound one and learn some lessons from it?
Why use any model at all?
Simply accepting that a domestic hoof is doomed to domestic problems (chipping,splitting, cracks, tender-footed, laminitis, founder, navicular) is ignoring the fact that we can remedy many of the causes of these problems and get not only sounder hooves but healthier horses, too.
What are these domestic problems and how do they cause lameness?
Broadly speaking the domestic problems are: 1) unnatural boarding, 2) unnatural diet,and 3) unnatural hoof care.
1) Many, if not most, domestic horse care facilities greatly limit a horse’s movement. Sometimes horses are confined to a small paddock or stall, and/or they live alone. Reduced movement has similar effects on any mammal - if a horse OR a human uses their body less than it was built for, they will start to lose muscle tone, become weaker, have less energy, store more fat, have reduced circulation, etc. There is also the behavior factor. Horses are meant to live in groups; isolation is unnatural and arguably cruel.
2) We feed them unnaturally. Set meals (a.k.a. bolus feeding) is not natural for a horse. Horses are grazers (and browsers to some degree) and they eat almost continuously, day and night. Domestic horses, on the other hand, are fed in meals provided one, two or three times a day, in amounts they have no control over,and it’s usually hay that is far richer in carbohydrates than a horse would naturally eat. Or they eat green pasture, which is even richer still (green pasture is not the same as natural grazing – it is rich in carbohydrates, grows densely, and is moist).
3) We shoe them or trim them in a manner not consistent with how a hoof would naturally wear.
So, naturalize the lifestyle and get stronger hooves?
Yes. You’ll also get a stronger, healthier horse.That’s because by naturalizing the horse’s lifestyle you are tending to the biological (and psychological) needs of the horse.
Explain the natural wear patterns.
Natural trimming mimics the wear patterns of mustang hooves in order to “trick” the domestic hooves into responding with the same, healthy growth patterns of the mustang hooves. As trimmers, we use nippers and a rasp on a monthly basis to do what the abrasive terrain would do on a daily basis if the same horse was wild.
The natural wear patterns on the US Great Basin hooves include:
- The ground-bearing surface of the hoof wall is well-rounded (people call it a“mustang roll”)
- The water line, or inner hoof wall, is the first part of the hoof to hit the ground. The sole and frog are passive to that because they sit slightly higher up in the dome-like underside of the hoof.
- The water line is always slightly longer than the outer hoof wall (which naturally wears into a roll or bevel up off the ground a little) and longer than the sole and frog. Never is the toe backed-up to the white line or sole, nor is the sole made to be the primary weight-bearing surface.
- The hoof wall at the toe is straight – the tubules are perpendicular to the ground bearing surface, and they have a straight-line, consistent angle of growth from the coronet band down to the mustang roll.
- The width of the hoof wall as viewed from the underside is consistent from the heels, through the quarters (sides), to the toe. It is not narrower in one part or another.
This makes sense to me in theory. But my horse is only sound with shoes on. If I take them off he’s lame, so I don’t think he’s a candidate for natural hoof care. He needs the protection of shoes.
If your horse is not sound with shoes off, he is not sound with shoes on.
So what do I do then?
Begin the process of transitioning to barefoot by applying all aspects of natural hoof care: natural boarding, reasonably natural diet and natural trimming.
Please keep the following things in mind:
- The horse’s hoof is not a static structure composed only of insensitive keratin material. Rather, it is a living, dynamic structure that responds to internal and external forces.
- Allow that healing takes time.
- You cannot put a natural hoof on an unnatural horse.
- Hoof protection may be required initially if your horse is sore without shoes. Hoof boots offer great protection. Boots are cheaper in the long-run than shoes, they do not restrict the hoof mechanism (the physical changes in the hoof when it is subjected to weight-bearing forces), they do not cause mechanical damage to the hoof, they do not increase shock and vibration on ground impact, and they do not lift the underside of the hoof out of its important secondary support role.
To quote Natural Hoof Care Specialist Pete Ramey: Pick up any farrier text and you will find that they all encourage long, unshod periods to heal the hooves from the effects of continuous shoeing. In natural hoof care, we simply take things a step further and allow this healing to continue throughout the horse’s life. …It’s that simple. As this healing continues, the result over time is hooves that rarely need protection at all.
Please also read the article at the bottom of this web page called “Get a Grip”.
Joe Camp, creator and director of the Benji films, and author of Soul of Horse, gives a concise explanation of why a hoof needs to be barefoot here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2ZofRxB1bU
The hoof is always growing. It will grow stronger in response to natural trimming and natural lifestyle changes. So, what you do is: frequent natural trims, natural lifestyle changes, temporary hoof boot protection if necessary, and allow time for healing.
But he seems comfortable in shoes so why should I change anything?
No one’s saying you have to change anything. But if you’re reading this you’re at least thinking about it.
Horseshoes mask problems. They are part of a system of hoof care that recognizes symptoms (versus causes) and tries to fix them. Ouchy on gravel? Put shoes on and now he can move soundly over gravel. But don’t you wonder WHY he was ouchy on gravel?
The mustangs we were talking about at the beginning are not ouchy on gravel. So we know it’s certainly possible for a horse to move soundly over gravel.
But those are wild mustangs. This is a domestic horse.
As I talked about before, the only difference is the lifestyle. I firmly believe it is our responsibility, and in our horse’s best interest, to keep our domestic horses as healthy as possible.
So let’s introduce some lifestyle changes that we know will improve health. This is not a new idea anymore. This is being done all over the world now by increasing numbers of horse owners who are learning about natural hoof care and allowing their horses to go barefoot.
This is not an ‘airy fairy’ idea for idle horses that doesn’t apply to working horses. It is science-based and field-proven. Horses are more sound and more healthy under natural hoof care. This includes being barefoot, as the hoof was meant to go. Here are a few examples:
- The Houston Mounted Patrol http://www.houstontx.gov/police/mounted/horses.htm
“In 2003 the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol was the first unit to initiate a bare foot program for all law enforcement agencies in the United States and the program has proven to be a great success. We no longer utilize a farrier and over this period of time we have had very little hoof problems. Currently, there are four (4) mounted officers who have been trained in barefoot hoof trimming. These officers believe so much in this program that much of their learning of barefoot and trimming techniques was paid for out of their own pocket. Initially, when a horse's hooves are trimmed we will utilize hoof boots until the sensitivity has dissipated. Over a period of time the hoof will strengthen and no longer require the boots. Our hoof boot of choice is the EasyCare, Inc., Old Mac G2.”
- Testimonial from the client of a barefoot trimmer http://www.aanhcp.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=209&Itemid=146
“Unknown among many equestrians is the amount of traction an unshod hoof will have on natural rocks. People notice it among mountain goats, but generally do not associate that with horses. But I have seen first hand this weekend the tremendous traction and increased stability of the unshod hoof.”
- The Tevis endurance ride – barefoot performance.
In my experience there are as many different kinds of barefoot trims as there are barefoot trimmers.
Yes, and many of these do not mimic the natural wear patterns of the wild mustangs in the US Great Basin. Many involve techniques such as backing up the toe past the water line to the white line, or even to the sole. Such a wear pattern is never seen on the mustang hooves. Some techniques promote “solar loading” by taking the hoof wall out of its weight-bearing role. Again, this is not seen in nature. Some styles of barefoot trimming do not address the necessary lifestyle changes to naturalize things for the horse. Well, you cannot put a natural hoof on an unnatural horse:
“The hoof is a SYMPTOM. The best trim in the world can only do so much if (your horse’s) lifestyle does not reflect his needs.” (Dr.Bowker, VMD, PhD).
Okay, my horse’s toes are flared way forward and the white line is stretched. My barefoot trimmer is going to back up the toe (cut it back to the white line or to the sole), explaining that this will allow the toe wall to grow straight down into a more normal position. She says that backing up the toe will bring breakover back and therefore benefit the horse’s biomechanics, and it will also relieve unnatural leverage forces on the toe wall.
I understand what you’re saying and I used to think that too. But actually, bringing breakover back really has nothing to do with it.
First of all, accept that the hoof can’t be fixed in one trim. It will take time. Neglecting a horse’s natural needs (albeit inadvertently or unknowingly) is probably what got him into that situation and it didn’t just happen overnight if the toes are already long enough and flared enough to cut vertically back. So one can’t expect it to be fixed overnight either.
The cause of the flare needs to be removed – this is priority. Trimming is secondary to removing the cause of the flaring and stretched white line (a.k.a. lamintis).
In this situation, for trimming, I would still relate back to the wild horse model. What would wear off naturally if this hoof had the opportunity? I would trim the hoof to mimic the same natural wear patterns. I would not cut the hoof wall back far enough that it no longer has primary weight-bearing ground contact, and put primary weight-bearing instead on the white line or even sole. That would not be natural. I would leave the water line in tact and on the ground even if it is a little forward of where it would be if there was no flare.
But what about the leverage forces on the flared toe wall? It can’t grow in straight if it gets pulled forward with every step.
Again, the hoof is not a static object composed of insensitive, keratinized material. Rather, it is living, dynamic, and growing, and it responds to both external and internal forces.
To quote from an online forum, I think forum member “DangerRanch”, who follows Jaime Jackson’s trim methods, explains it very well:
“(The hoof) is not purely a mechanical structure where ‘pressure here pushed this part this way and landing this way forces this’. There are nerves involved. The papillae that grow out the hoof wall in the coronary band determine their angle of growth by vibrations from the hoof wall when it hits the ground. In order for it to grow the correct angle the wall must be active.
“…The vibrations that tell the hoof what angle to grow go up the wall when the foot lands, not when it lifts (at breakover). You are thinking of the wall being ‘levered’. Just remember that the wall at any point on the hoof is quite firmly attached to the wall of the rest of the foot, including the bars. A pull on one is a pull on all. …If you roll the wall passive to the ground (or back up the toe so the toe wall is no longer on the ground) the wall will not know exactly what angle it should grow at and in addition since it does not get the day to day stimulus of many steps of pressure that tell it how strong and thick to grow it will never grow stronger and may even weaken.
“Just TRY to pull on ground surface of the toe and make the top good portion of the wall bend. Remember that the hoof is not an empty bowl but is full of elastic tissue and bone. If you do manage to pull the toe wall forward, the quarters will simultaneously squeeze inward and when the pressure is released spring back out pulling the toe in again. All you might mess up is the damaged old growth. Also have you ever noticed that the lamellar wedge (very stretched white line) when it hasn’t been rotted by fungus is very elastic and moist and pretty darn hard to trim. It is there for a purpose,to keep the wall as attached to the horse as possible during recovery from a laminitis attack and protect the supercorium. It is NOT however meant to bear weight. By backing up the toe if you go to the outer edge of the wedge you make the horse use it for leverage in breakover.
“…When the stretched wall is in tact the breakover pressure is shared by the whole wall and the inner structures of the hoof. However if you take it out of active bearing the wedge does all the work there and probably does a good deal of living up to its name: wedging itself up the lamellar junction where you are trying to grow good wall. If you back it up to the edge of the sole you open the lamellar wedge up to infection and invade too close to the corium which can cause the whole corium and the bone to move back in the foot to avoid the "wound", which then means the breakover point that you just brought back is now too far forward and just a big mess. If you merely bevel the wall and wedge slightly passive to the sole it is not quite as bad but still you have the structures in an inverse relationship to how they should be, no support from the rest of the wall during breakover and more wedgie pressure up the laminae.”
My horse is foundered and I’ve been advised that his flared hoof walls should be made passive and that he needs“sole pressure”.
Please see above. Remove the cause of the founder, simulate natural wear by trimming frequently to mimic natural wear patterns, and encourage movement.
What about quarter flares? You have to rasp those off don’t you? How else can you relieve unnatural pressure on the flared quarter walls and finally allow straighter growth?
Again, see above. The same discussion about toe flares applies to quarter flares.
But the leverage forces on the flare hurts! How can you just leave it there?
Try this: Walk your horse across concrete or asphalt. Then walk him across gravel. If your horse is lame because the walls hurt he will be tender on the pavement when the weight of the horse is peripherally loaded on the hoof wall. You would expect your horse to be less lame on gravel where the weight is born more by the center of the hoof rather than the wall. In my experience (and countless other’s) the horse with flared walls will be more sound on pavement and less sound on gravel, which is usually because it is the underside of the hoof causing the pain or tenderness. The sole may be thin, or the frog weak or thrushy, or the heels weak. But - you try it for yourself.
You say that natural trimming should be done every 4 to 6 weeks. I’m used to having my horse’s hooves trimmed every 6 or 8 weeks. I’d need a pretty compelling reason to pay someone to do it almost twice as often.
I would need a compelling reason to do it LESS often. Again, look at the wild horse model. Their hooves wear and self-trim on a daily basis. The closer we can simulate natural wear and other natural lifestyle factors, the healthier the horse and the hooves. Frequent stimulation, by abrasive ground or by trimming tools, builds stronger hooves. …Think about the callus that develops on your bare hands or bare feet. Does that happen when you only work bare handed or bare footed once in awhile? or frequently? Ask any guitar player – strong, callused finger tips come from frequent practice. Frequent stimulation.
I’ve noticed you sometimes use the term “natural hoof care” and sometimes “natural trimming”. Is there a difference?
Yes. Natural trimming is one component of natural hoof care.
Natural hoof care recognizes that a healthy hoof grows on a healthy horse. Natural hoof care is a holistic approach to hoof health. It includes natural boarding, a reasonably natural diet, and natural trimming:
- Horses in the wild live in groups. We meet a basic, biological need for our horses when we board them outdoors with other horses, 24 hours a day, all year long. No blankets since we’ve learned that blanketing interferes with the amazing thermo-regulation a horse can do with its own winter hair coat.
- A reasonably natural diet consists of free-choice, continuously-available, low-carb hay (plus water, salt, and minerals without additives or sugars). To increase the mileage on your horse's hooves, spread the hay and other resources as far and wide as you can to encourage more movement. The more movement you can encourage the more healthy your horse will be.
- That movement, along with riding, still probably won’t approach the 20 miles a day that mustangs often do. Therefore, the hooves will require routine maintenance to keep the growth in check. Frequent natural trims mimicking natural hoof wear patterns do this job.