Published in The Horses Hoof magazine. Written as a letter to Natural Hoof Care Practitioners:
Hoof Care in the 21st Century?
The hoof care industry has advanced more in the last ten years than in the last century - perhaps in the last millennia. A strong statement, but I believe it to be true. I also strongly believe that horses can thank natural hoof care practitioners (directly or indirectly) for almost all of this rapid change.
The most dramatic changes have come about in the field of laminitis: It is suddenly very rare to hear a vet or farrier recommend elevating the heels on a laminitic horse. As a result, you never hear anyone say “ten degrees rotation is a point of no return”… Remember that? Not too long ago, eh? Dietary and environmental management for laminitic horses has become normal. Exercise for laminitic horses has become normal. Remember when “setting up a rotated P3 on a natural ground plane and then growing a healthy foot around the correct bone position” was a radical idea? I almost got run out of town for it - now it is considered self evident by almost everyone. Almost every feed manufacturer now produces a “low starch” feed (or at least labels a product as such). Almost every vet pulls laminitic horses off grass - fewer and fewer end up confined to stalls. Almost everyone seems to be aware of grass sugars and more professionals recognize sub-clinical laminitis before things get out of hand. Axial support is being provided; inflamed laminae are being unloaded. Almost no one thinks the frog can or should support P3. Plastic or foam pads are being taped or casted onto foundered feet by horseshoers and veterinarians everywhere and they are succeeding in growing well connected walls.
The average veterinarian and horseshoer look at navicular disease in a whole new light as well. There are regional and individual exceptions of course, but heel wedges for navicular horses are suddenly quite hard to find. As little as three years ago it was still the norm. More mainstream professionals are talking about prevention and about strengthening the internal structures of the foot. No one thinks “navicular” is a disease anymore and very few veterinarians consider it the death sentence they once did. There have been too many barefoot/booted navicular success stories to ignore.
Veterinary researchers are now studying feral horses, dietary effects on hooves, forage analysis, barefoot rehabilitation of laminitic horses, various axial loading systems for laminitic horses, internal foot development of live horses, circulation while standing on various surfaces, collateral groove relationships with internal hoof structures and the long term rehabilitation of horses with navicular damage. Most farriers are quite happy to offer routine barefoot trimming as an option. It seems like only three or four years ago most farriers got angry at the mere mention of a barefoot horse. Barefoot horses and booted horses are becoming increasingly common in competition and they are doing very well. All this change is very good for horses and has all been fueled by the influence of Natural Hoof Care. Most of our radical ideas have become mainstream ideas.
Where does it leave the “barefoot trimmer?" Some would argue the point, but I believe that ten years ago, barefoot trimmers had the market almost cornered on chronic laminitis recovery. Ten years ago, I also believe we were the only hope for most navicular horses. Long toes, under run heels, contracted heels, thin soles, weak frogs, wall cracks, shelly walls, WLD… All best treated by dietary changes, environmental changes and routine barefoot trimming. But the farrier industry has been studying our work, reviewing our case studies and instructional material - many of them have become quite capable of doing what we do.
So what does the future hold for natural hoof care practitioners? I believe that is up to each individual practitioner. We forged a new hoof world, but can we adapt to it? Most of you know how I feel about hoof boots, casts, pads and epoxies. For years I have preached far and wide that these are tools that all trimmers must have in stock - right here right now in their truck at all times. There are numerous and distinct exceptions, but not all horses can be worked barefoot. Not all equine disciplines are safe for all barefoot horses. Not all horses can be rehabilitated completely barefoot. Sometimes it is because of terrain; sometimes it is because of the pathology; sometimes the diet and occasionally genetic fault. Sometimes this is temporary, sometimes not. Do these horses need their soles and frogs lifted off the ground? Do they need to be peripherally loaded? Do they need to be robbed of vertical flexion of the hoof capsule? Do they need to be shod? No- I feel as strongly about that as ever, but they do need something! I have still never seen a rehabilitative situation I felt was best handled with a metal shoe, but I must say I have seen plenty of horses that are better off shod than completely bare. There must be a bridge between the extremes. And here we are back to my overused quote: “The need for hoof protection will remain as long as the horse is domesticated, but the 21st Century Horseshoe will be a hoof boot.” This is where, in my opinion, each individual barefoot practitioner has a choice between extinction or not. Guys and Gals, you must keep a full line of boots and other protective devices in stock [or otherwise quickly and readily available] and you must insist that your customers use them when they are needed. It is good for the horse and essential for the survival of our industry.
My heart is with the Natural Hoof Care Practitioner - I want you to succeed. But in the last month alone I had three different navicular horses and one laminitic horse travel from afar to meet me at barns in my home area. All four were already barefoot; all four were getting good trims at regular intervals. Two of those horses were already fitted with hoof boots - I added pads to the equation for one of them. For the other I recommended a shorter trim cycle. Both of those horses were being maintained by traditional horseshoers, and I was quite pleased with the work that had been done and the fact that necessary protection had been provided. The problems those horses were experiencing were being caused mostly by the diet. So those two visits turned into nutrition seminars.
The other two horses came to me barefoot with no boots. They were being trimmed by full time barefoot practitioners who did not stock hoof boots. The horse owners had been advised they could order boots from the manufacturer “if they felt they needed them,” but the average horse owner cannot fit boots, nor is the average horse owner qualified to determine the needs of the equine foot! Each of the trimmers had been doing a very nice trim, the dietary issues had been well covered, but the horses were both having problems due to incorrect movement; specifically both were impacting toe-first causing persistent thin soles, lamellar separation and thus ongoing lameness. In the end, both clients had essentially hauled their horses to me to have boots fitted. It made me worry about the future of natural hoof care practitioners.
In truth, it would not have even been necessary to carry a full stock of hoof boots in these situations. I doubt the previously mentioned shoers carried a stock of boots, they just adapted to the situation presented to them. If those two trimmers had carried a $100 kit of wraps, casts, epoxies and pads, a temporary support system could have been built on day one. Then boots could have been ordered and fit any time within the next 2-3 weeks. The issue is not financial. Instead, it is a lack of a fundamental understanding: Correct movement is critical to general hoof health and to rehabilitation.
I cannot stress this enough: If a horse is not 100% while barefoot it is our responsibility to do something about it if we can. Otherwise, I promise you the customer is considering other options and they should. The stimulation and correct movement provided by padded boots is usually our very best rehabilitator of problems anyway. If barefoot riding is your goal, hoof boots are usually the quickest way to get there. One by one the farriers and vets are stepping up to your game. Now it is your turn!
Organizing bins make it easy to inventory boot stock at a glance. This aluminum tool box with simple plywood dividers stores every size of Easyboot Glue-on and Glove. Similar bins in Pete’s truck are used for epoxies, casting material, pads, Rx boots, and draft-sized Epics.
The 21st Century Farrier
I am surely too short-sighted to predict the next 90 years, so let’s talk about the next 20 years. Specifically in competition, you will see metal shod horses, a few synthetics, plenty of barefoot horses and an unprecedented number of booted horses. This will vary depending on the discipline and the choices made by the winners (It will also depend on whether boot manufacturers finally provide various performance tread patterns for varying surfaces- hint, hint). Experts in each hoof care discipline will be needed to care for the competitive horses, so the specialists in each field are here to stay. Get used to each other.
However, for rehabilitative work and for the general barn-to-barn hoof care, the change is happening much more quickly. This one is easy for me to predict because I have already watched it happening before my eyes. The tools are getting better and the customers more educated. When things go wrong, horseshoers and vets are reaching for the same tools they laughed at us for ten years ago. The modern practitioner will be expected to carry a full stock of hoof boots (preferably several different models) and know how to modify them to fit individual feet. They will know how to pad them and shape the tread for various pathologies and equine disciplines. Epoxies, casting material, impression material, assorted pads and wraps will be expected in every hoof care practitioner’s vehicle at all times. All of these modern practitioners will offer barefoot trimming as an option and they will hopefully be experienced and competent to do so. Some of these practitioners will also offer forge work and metal shoeing. Some will not. Some will offer synthetic shoeing. Some will not. But where rehabilitative work is concerned, the voids between the barefoot and shoeing worlds are growing quite narrow. I predict that whether or not someone shapes iron will matter less and less as time goes by. This will be replaced with more important questions from the vets and horse owners: Can you heat fit hoof boots that work well on this high/low horse? Do you have knowledge and experience to handle this situation? Do you have the tools to handle this situation? Are you prepared to pad and cast this surgery site? Can you find a way for me to ride my navicular horse this weekend? Wouldn’t the exercise be good for her?
Where am I going with all this? I believe that in the 21st century two groups of hoof practitioners will (and should) go extinct. One is the horseshoer that “doesn’t need all these fancy new gizmos.” He (or she) thinks every foot should be iron shod, or the foot just isn’t well cared for. He thinks the sole and frog should be lifted off the ground. Theoretically he can add pads or modify a shoe but in practice he does the same old thing to almost every horse. If things don’t go well he points to the vet or to the horse’s genetic fault. He trims and shoes the way his grandpa did, and thinks all this new age thinking is a silly fad and there is nothing new that is worth knowing. He is wrong - and he makes all farriers look bad.
The other professional that will (and should) go extinct? The barefooter’s equivalent of the above, in my opinion. He (or she) says it costs too much to carry a full line of boots. He never tried to heat fit, wedge, shim, trim, repair or modify a problem boot. "The casting is too messy and pads just make the foot rotten." "The epoxies are expensive and they dry up if you don’t use them in time." He thinks he doesn’t need all that stuff; the horses in his care are happy enough. Theoretically he is in favor of his clients using boots, but he doesn’t make it easy for them nor does he insist on it. Just give it more time… more time... He thinks he can rehabilitate horses just as well as anyone with just his knife and rasp. He is also wrong - and he makes all trimmers look bad.
When those two extremes finally go away, it will be hard to tell “us” from “them.” The shoers will see less need for steel as healthier alternatives continue to advance (If not for a backlash against the “barefooters” I suspect this would have already happened to a much larger extent). I know that a boot tread can easily be designed that gets better traction than a band of metal (already done with rock, dirt and pavement, but seriously needs to be done for mud, grass and arena/track footing). When this happens, top competitors in all sports will use them. “Barefooters” will fit them and so will “horseshoers.” In the 21st century, I believe knowledge and technology will bring us all together.
I never dared to dream that the barefoot community’s ideas on hoof care, development and rehabilitation would be so widely embraced after such a short time, but we as a group are not getting widespread credit for these changes. I have come to believe that this is because of the number of practitioners that have not used booting and padding to its maximum advantage over the years. I know I am speaking to a minority of you, but there have still been too many stories of half trail rides and owners giving up and seeking some protection for their rehab cases. Even in cases where that hoof protection has no effect on the eventual outcome, the owners want to see it there - and so do the veterinarians. This has prevented many veterinarians from embracing our principles as a whole; choosing instead to rob the parts and adapt them to their own methods.
What can we do about it? Love the barefoot performance horse and never forget the healing powers of natural wear, stimulation, insightful trimming and time. Use it every day, as you will never find a better tool. But also become that well stocked practitioner. Boot new clients on day one - always. Think your way through boot fit issues or problems - always. Pad, protect and support lame horses on day one - unless your trim makes them safe and sound on day one. Then very soon you will find yourself in the center of the hoof care world - instead of the fringe. Your old naysayers already met you more than half way. Pete Ramey