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Shoes mask weaknesses, barefoot highlights strengths

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Barefoot and hard keepers

Austen asked about keeping weight on a hard keeper, while keeping sugars and starches to a minimum.

In the UK we find linseed to be a hugely valuable feed. It is high in top quality protein (all the essential amino acids) and omega 3 and 6. It is also a useful source of copper. As a bonus when wetted it produces mucilage which is very good for the gut. And it doesn't make horses fizzy. The down side is it smells gorgeous, tastes nice and the horses get somewhat addicted to it.

I have also found it is a good product for hiding nasties like bute, wormer and sedalin.

If you want shiny hair and great skin try it - and let your horse have some too!

For an example of the results see this horse - just after she completed a 25 mile endurance ride.
There are two ways to feed it; micronised is the best, but not always easy to source. In the UK I only know of one producer Charnwood Milling. If you can't get micronised you will have to cook your own. This is an art and you must be patient to get it right. I used two ways:

1) Huge pan (couple of gallons would be ideal) 4 pints of water, 2 egg cups of linseed.
Bring to the boil - watch carefully because linseed is notorious for boiling over and because its high in oil it is very very hot. Then keep at a fast simmer for 30 minutes. Watch it very carefully and add more boiling water if you need. You will end up with something between a thick snotty slime and a jelly. I used to add mint as it cooled because my old horse loved it.
This process does destroy the quality of the oil but not the calorific content.

2) Microwave. Similar to above, but much less stirring and fretting required. Also with microwave safe plastic the washing up is easier. Bit of a pain if you let it boil over though.

Whatever you do, don't use the linseed lozenges. They are a by-product of the linseed oil industry. The valuable oil is extracted (to be wasted on wooden floors) and the left over mass is glued back together using molasses and sugar syrup. The resultant lozenges were originally intended for the cattle industry - but typically some bright spark thought they could turn some extra coin by selling them to horse owners.


For an average keeper, but working hard, 500kg horse, I used to feed one egg cup of the seed (which was then cooked as above). Or one 1/2 pt mug of the micronised version.

For hard keepers you can up the quantities. Linseed is very low in sugar and starch so I never worry about feeding it. But of course there are always exceptions so introduce gradually and see how you go.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Barefoot - its a whole horse thing

Regular followers will have seen some of these pictures before.

I want to show how if there are metabolic, physical or stress issues these have to be dealt with as part of the transition. When a horse is not 'whole horse' healthy, it is likely to show in the feet and even the best trim in the world can't fix a poor diet or a stressful environment.

Just deshod, flare and stress rings clearly evident

Today, the foot is in better shape, but the lower two thirds is full of stress rings. The last big ring about 1/3 the way down was from when she had an allergic reaction to a vaccination.

Just deshod, heel contraction clearly evident

Today, foot decontracted

At least two severe laminitic episodes are evident in the stress rings. It would appear there was some separation. (I used off fore for this shot because the picture was much clearer, but both fores are the same)

The separation has grown out and the foot is a much better shape, but there are still stress rings, albeit much fainter than before

Just deshod - this foot is a mess of shedding sole, lack of trimming and thrush, it is misleading as to the true picture of what is going on with the foot

A bit later, the sole has shed out (this was not trimmed), the overlaid bars were trimmed and the wall tidied up and rolled. This picture shows how 'sick' the wall is. Very thin with little water line - it disappears altogether in the back half of the foot. The sole is completely flat, with very little depth to the collateral groove. The shape is more indicative of a hind, but its actually the near fore.

Same foot now. The heels have broadened, the shape is rounder and although its hard to see in this photo there is more depth to the foot.

But holistically this is still a sick horse. If you looked at her in the 'traditional' way you might not think so - her coat is shiny, she eats well, her eyes are bright and full of interest.

But her feet still hurt sometimes. Especially when she has been turned out on grass, or has suffered some stress. True she can manage a lot more surfaces than she could and she is happy to work on a circle both ways. But her feet lack sufficient concavity, her walls are still a bit thin, she has stress rings and struggles on lumpy concrete.

Until these issues go away I will not consider my job done. And my work won't be completed with a trim; its about diet, building her confidence so that she gets less stressed, repairing her immune system and then giving her enough appropriate exercise.

It's really easy to lame a horse with a bad trim, but the best trim in the world won't fix a horse if the other aspects are not properly addressed.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Barefoot horse case study hinds - day one

This is a continuation of yesterday's post which looked at the fronts.

We will be able to tell more when the shoes come off. For now I have bulleted initial observations.

Right Hind Front, Left Hind Front

  • Both hinds show stress lines
  • The divergence in angle is clearly seen at the top of each foot

Right Hind Side, Left Hind Side

  • Bull noses on both hinds
  • Cracks around nail holes, especially on left hind, these appear infected
  • Heel is contracted

Right Hind Heel, Left Hind Heel

  • I can't find the right words to describe what I see, so please compare these heels with those of a robust, healthy barefooter

Right Hind Sole, Left Hind Sole

  • Heels are somewhat contracted
  • Frogs look weak and thrushy
  • Shoes are impinging on frogs
  • Both toes are crumbling, there is a deep cavity under the shoe which is full of black, smelly gunk

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Barefoot horse case study fronts - day one

The owner of this horse has very kindly let me post these 'before' pictures of their horse's feet.

There is a lot going on with these hooves. I will bullet initial observations after each pair of pictures. These are limited - we will be able to tell more when the shoes come off.

For the first stage of the transistion to barefoot the owner is moving the horse onto a high forage, low sugar diet with mineral supplementation (not OTC). This stage will take four weeks as the horse is weaned off a packaged mix.

Right Fore Front, Left Fore Front

  • Both feet show stress rings
  • The top of the hooves is showing a significantly different angle of growth to that lower down, suggesting flaring
  • Left front toe has been damaged, the owner reports an infection
Right Fore Side, Left Fore Side

  • Stress rings very clear in left fore
  • Heels appear underrun
  • Although not clear both fronts have bull noses
  • Lateral cartilages appear weak

Right Fore Heel, Left Fore Heel

  • Both heels are contracted
  • Palpitation revealed poorly developed digital cushion

Right Fore Sole, Left Fore Sole

  • Heel contraction very evident
  • Frog weak and thrushy
  • Infection in the toes
  • Bars are overlaid

I will post more pictures of these feet when the shoes come off - and I will post the hinds tomorrow.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Diet for barefoot hooves

Ok - let's set out the stall here. In the past I have tried really hard to keep out of any discussions about feed. Many aspects of horse keeping are open to earnest debate, but perhaps none get so muddled and/or muddied as the ones about diet.

But the thing about keeping your horse barefoot - certainly in the UK - is that for many of us, diet is the the biggest factor in whether we will be successful. I define success as my horse being comfortable and happy to work at all paces over a variety of surfaces including rocks/stones.

The thing about diet/feed is that there are so many vested interests and I don't just mean the usual suspects of the feed and drug companies. Feeding your horse/dog/family/yourself is often tied up with a complex set of emotions. It is very hard to be passionate about your horse and completely objective about his/her care.

So how do we meet both the physiological and psychological needs of the horse in relation to diet and meet the needs of the carer (whatever they may be).

For me some of the answer lies in education. That way it is easier to resist the subtle (or not so subtle) marketing and emotional blackmail that horse owners get subjected to.

But unfortunately it isn't that easy for the everyday horse owner to get a decent education about what to feed their horse. So much published information is either out of date/rooted in tradition or led by parties that have something to sell.

One thing I have learnt - is that the horses I have worked with have all learnt to self select. Although I am sending a memo to the little QH that plastic car bumpers are not generally considered to be part of a balanced diet for anyone; horse or human.
Little QH trying out a new supplement...

When I had my PP - all the horses liked to eat the moss from an old oak tree. They also liked to chew on silver birch, but not the other trees. The little QH would spend hours licking the metal gates which were coated in zinc. The arab in particular was an expert at digging up patches of minerals. She would also strip all the leaves from nettles as soon as they died. George mostly seemed to copy the girls. I don't know if that meant he lacked confidence/experience to choose for himself or if he was just doing a natural horse behaviour thing - as in the matriach knows best. I do know he didn't just survive - he thrived.

So - what to feed? This blog is not the place for specific advice but I am more than happy to share what I do with mine.

What I feed

Ad-lib Soaked Hay
I feed ad-lib soaked hay. The hay is soaked for between 1-12 hours to reduce the amount of sugar in it. Steaming doesn't do - its great for swelling mould spores, but sugar has to be leached/washed out.

It took a long time to teach Grace to eat even dampened hay such was her sugar dependancy. If you want a sugar, mineral and/or particulate analysis then Dodson and Horrell offer a hay analysis service. Their website has a reputation for iffy links, so if you can't find the information you need call their nutritional helpline 0845 345 2627.

The hay provides three basics for my horse. It satisfies her physical and emotional need to chew. The fibre feeds the bacteria in the gut and these provide both nutrition and heat for the horse. I often find a cold horse can be quickly warmed up by giving them some hay to eat. Long feed like hay also staves off boredom.

Vitamins/Minerals and nutritional necessaries
I provide Grace with a 'base' of Kwik Beet and micronised linseed. I can increase/decrease the quantity according to her needs, but she always gets a small amount to act as a carrier for her minerals.

The Kwik Beet is very low in sugar and high in fibre and it also has useful levels of minerals which I take into account when analysing Grace's diet. The micronised linseed is an excellent source of high quality protein and oil. Again it has other minerals which I factor in.

To the base I add calcined magnesite, brewers yeast and seaweed. A good source of information about quantities can be found in Feet First. But it is important not to be too rigid as each horse's requirements are different.

Grace has 3 licks. None of them have any sugar in. Each lick supplies something different mineral wise, although the base is salt. Grace gets to choose which one she wants to use. At the moment her favourite is the Himalayan salt lick, but she is also having a go at the one which is high in copper. This ties in with slight signs in her coat that she may be copper deficient. This is not uncommon in areas with high natural iron - but it is largely unrecognised. Pregnant mares that are deficient in copper can have complications at foaling which are frequently fatal.

I am also considering getting her a specialist magnesium rich block. Again she will have free choice.

Supplements are a huge source of expense and worry for horse owners. And many are unnecessary and misdirected. For Grace if a supplement is prescribed by a vet I will have had an intense, active discussion regarding ingredients, efficacy and side effects. Grace doesn't have any prescribed supplements :-)

I don't feed any mainstream supplements. Most have very low levels of the required ingredient and it is cheaper/more effective to feed the 'source' instead. For example instead of 'branded magnesium supplement' at £30 for a small tub I feed calcined magnesite which costs more or less the same for 25kg. Not all horses like CM but you can buy magnesium oxide which is more palatable, albeit more expensive. You can get both of these products from The Metabolic Horse Company.

Be careful though - I have seen a 'specialist' barefoot supplier offering linseed lozenges and waxing lyrical about the health benefits. Unfortunately they don't seem to be aware that linseed lozenges are a waste product from linseed oil production. So the lozenges are low in oil. Equally unhelpful - the waste linseed has been glued into the lozenge shape using sugar syrup/molasses. I have seen these lozenges cause a lot of problems for a horse I do, so I avoid them.

And just because something is advertised as safe for laminitics or low in sugar - read the labels, check the ingredients. If sugar syrup, corn syrup, molasses, glucose or anything similar have been added then I wouldn't feed them. Not even if they have the Laminitic Trust mark.

Help its all so complicated
Feeding a diet based on a horse's individual needs, rather than a prepackaged mix can be a pain while you adjust. But the benefits outweigh the initial frustration.


  • Even if I am cutting calories I can ensure Grace still gets all her vitamin/mineral requirements

  • I know precisely what my horse is getting in her bucket

  • I pay for high quality feed rather than marketing and cheap fillers (like wheat middlings)

  • My horse is calm and settled during 'down' time, but full of energy when working

  • Her coat is shiny and her skin is in good condition

  • My horse will be less likely to suffer colic or laminitis or mental/emotional stress

  • My 'hard' feed bill has been more than halved, but my horse is better fed

  • Micronised linseed is a really good 'blind' for horrible things like bute and even fussy feeders seem to love it. Its the only thing that will tempt Grace to eat 'nasties'.


  • Need to be organised. I bag feed up in advance. Then if I am late to the yard it is easy for someone else to feed Grace for me

  • Some of the ingredients are not sourced by local feed merchants - I get my micronised linseed by post from Charnwood Milling

  • Need to have a good eye for detail. I take photos regularly so I can spot even tiny changes in my horse before they become an issue. Photos are also nice to have and very reassuring

  • I have a nutrition plan which is adhered to and monitored. This means knowing the basics of what a horse requires. Read Feet First as a starter for ten - it is available from Amazon

  • Initially I had to weigh out lots of ingredients until I got a decent set of measuring spoons

If you have any burning questions that I haven't addressed in this blog, then feel free to add your comment and if it is appropriate I will respond in a future post.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Barefoot hoof - building concavity

04 Sept 09 (photos 1 and 2)

07 Sept 09 (left photo - 3) 10 Oct 09 (right photo - 4)

29 Nov 09 (left photo - 5) 23 Dec 09 (right photo - 6)

12 Feb 10

All photos are of the same foot

This foot is an ongoing case study about building concavity.

In photos 1 and 2 you can see that if the walls were trimmed to remove the flare the horse would be walking on her convex sole. But if the flare is not removed there will be a leverage action on the already stretched white line which can be incredibly painful.

The sole is flaking and ready to shed; and we don't really know what is underneath. I prefer in these circumstances to let the horse self exfoliate, but there may be times when this is not possible.

Exfoliating the sole by hand is a highly skilled job. It is important to remove what nature would take, given the chance – but avoid cutting into the hard or live sole underneath.

Excessive thinning of the sole – often associated with preparing a foot for a shoe - can lead some people to think their horse will not be suitable for barefoot. At other times an attempt is made to carve concavity into the sole.

Both of these practices will just make the horse foot sore over rough/hard ground and vulnerable to injury. However if the horse is subsequently shod, the reduction in blood supply means the horse can not feel its feet properly so is unaware of the problem.

However some horses both shod and bare will develop a tin can foot – with a deeply compacted false sole. This should be removed, but it is entirely different from paring or carving the sole. Done correctly the sole will ‘pop’ out in several large chunks.

Photo 3 - three days later the sole has exfoliated quite substantially, but there is still some way to go. You can see the sole is very flat and there is very little depth in the collateral grooves.

Photo four - one month on; there is a little more depth in the collateral grooves and the sole has cleaned up a little more.

Photos 5 and 6 – another 7 and then 4 weeks. The foot has got ‘stuck’. Even though it is winter we do not have enough control of the sugar in this horse’s diet. We start to teach her to accept soaked hay. This is unusually difficult; a) she initially hates it and b) we have weeks of snow, frozen taps and no spare water for soaking. So what should be fairly easy takes several weeks.

Photo 7 – the horse has been on properly soaked hay for one week. If you scan across the sole you can see how it is building a ‘rim’ just inside the hoof wall. Often when building concavity an early step is the hoof putting in a rim of sole that often resembles a pretend shoe.

Provided the foot/horse is correctly managed this rim should build and grow and change until we end up with a neatly concave foot. Only time will tell if I can successfully manage this horse to the next step. But I know we are on the right track because the horse has gone from being footy over stones to quite comfortable.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Bruised and flat soles

If you read the last post you will probably realise we have had a lot of problems with flat feet and bruised soles (because of too much sugar in the diet.

The trouble with the bruises is that depending on the thickness of the sole they will show up long after the damage is already done.

So if the foot has pancaked we have a couple of options. Most horses are very good at choosing the going they are comfy on - so for training purposes, we let them go on the verge if they need to. But at a competition or on a longer ride this might not be adequate.

It took a while to find boots that worked for us. They needed to be a doddle to put on, suitable for sensitive skin and stay on through deep mud. The Gloves do this for us, although we had to experiment with fit.

In the end we fitted Power straps (not shown) and on the off (right) hind, which is a peculiar shape, we put a square of carpet tape on the hoof wall. This works perfectly, a bit like athletic tape, it is grippy but it also 'fills out' the hoof wall. Because this horse's skin is very fine we also line the inside of the gaiter cuff. A bit of bed sock is perfect! :-)

We only use the boots some of the time and at the moment, with no sugar in her diet, this horse doesn't need them at all. They are a useful option for when we have made a mistake and the horse is paying the price. Much better than shoeing because when the horse is not working her feet are free to contract/expand and wear as nature intended.

This horse is not particularly easy to fit with boots, as her feet are all slightly different and change so much, so fast, but the Gloves have worked well. I would recommend using a fit kit.

If you have a very short term or an acute situation with flat feet or similar you can make an effective, temporary 'boot' with wadding, something tough like canvas and carpet tape.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Flat foot to concavity and some of the challenges

Taking your horse barefoot is both challenging and rewarding (when you get it right). It can also be very frustrating when you make a mistake. But trust me, even the most successful barefooter will have made mistakes. This is especially true in the more difficult environments where the ground is often wet and muddy and the grass grows fast and lush.

This post shows that you can make mistakes and recover and end up with a very sound, very happy horse.

The mare is working hard, on a very low sugar, high forage diet and over the summer successfully completes two novice endurance competitions.

In the last post the first three pictures showed a really tiny Western Pleasure QH foot (as well as others).

This is a hind foot from the same horse as it 'arrived' April '08 - you can still see the nail holes from when the shoes were pulled the previous Autumn(ish)./div>
Slightly bull nosed, stress rings and bruising are signs that all is not well.

An injured sacro illiac, some dodgy trimming, too much sugar and an abcess later the front foot looks like this in August '08.

The sole is on the point of bulging (now why didn't the farrier or the vet point this out?) There is flare, there is virtually no depth of collateral groove (so no depth of sole) and the wall is really thin. When the foot was cleaned you could also see blood in the white line. But I was very inexperienced at documenting things then so didn't know enough to clean the foot before taking the photo!

After 12 weeks of box rest for the sacro injury the horse is still lame. So we move her to a mini PP track and within two weeks she goes sound and shortly after that she is rideable.

Feet are still terrible though and being trimmed in ski tip fashion. See Dec '08 below.

The mare spends a month completely off grass and on gravel instead and has one 'proper' barefoot trim. Jan' 09 left below.

Back on grass PP track. The improvement in concavity continues - you can see the sole getting ready to flake and the back of the foot is looking better. But if you look at the heel bulbs (2nd picture) you can see some odd marks/damage. This was little abcesses blowing out of the back of the heel. It went on for some time and then just stopped.

Then we had a foreseeable disaster; which we only saw with hindsight! The grass grew (bad bad grass), the sole splatted and the mare got horribly bruised.

Then because of circumstances other than feet, the mare spent much of the summer stabled, being exercised 3 times a day and her feet started to heal. In the picture below you can see new concavity spreading out from the centre of the foot. The outer rim of sole is still pancake flat at this stage.

At this stage the mare is working hard, on a very low sugar, high forage diet and over the summer successfully completes two novice endurance competitions.

The left hand picture is of a freshly trimmed foot. You can see the thick wall, tight white line and the wear in the heel area. This foot is on the way!
In the right hand picture you can see here how the sole is naturally exfoliating and exposing new concavity. There is a dirty great hole in her frog where an abcess blew out. You can also see how much thicker the hoof walls is, even with a big roll.

Unfortunately it is possible to make the same mistake over and over again. In the Autumn the mare turns out again which is much better for her socially. There is a struggle with grass management and quite inadvertantly a high sugar product is added to her feed.

Once again the feet splat and she bruises her soles. You think we'd get the message by now :-) This mare can't handle sugar.

The results are felt not just in her feet, which lose concavity again, but also in temperament - the mare looks sad and tired even though she is not working so hard.
Her owner though is both fantastic and dedicated. The source of sugar is found and eliminated. The feet start to improve again.

But as the nights draw in and with a saddle problem the amount of exercise is cut drastically.
Now, I often hear how people are worried they will wear their horses feet to the bone. Well actually, if you manage your horse well the problem is actually the reverse. This horse's feet have been stimulated to the extent that they grow so fast the owner can't wear them out fast enough. And then when the exercise reduces you can get the problem as seen in the next picture.

This foot looks like it's trying to emulate the 'tin cans' I worked on in the States. Just because it's gone short of some wear. The sole is in reasonable nick, although the heels are getting long.

We trim the foot and as it adjusts to less wear the growth slows. By the next trim, we have lost the tin can effect, but the heels are on their way to the moon. The horse has developed thrush and the foot is starting to contract again.

You can see the stress rings from the sugar the mare had in the Autumn. The wall is really thick and I've put on a fat roll to enable her to break over properly without suffering mechanical leverage on the flare.

The owner has strict instructions to work the horse much harder, on a variety of surfaces, where ever she is comfortable. I know the owner has the dedication to put in the work.
But there is the rub - unless you are keeping your horse on a PP track with a variety of surfaces it takes a lot of exercise to give the horse hoof the stimulation it needs. Most people don't actually ride enough :-) So far from restricting the amount of exercise you can give your horse, you will probably need to give it more.

You will also need to manage your horse's diet and environment really carefully, with attention to detail and a consistant approach.

A few people have horses or conditions that make it really easy. But that kind of luck is as rare as hen's teeth in the UK.
As you can see from this video - the mare is very sound on gravel and if you can slo mo it you will see she has a solid heel first landing.

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Southern England, United Kingdom