Transition Your Horse from Shoes to Barefoot

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So, you're thinking about making THE decision of transitioning your horse from shoes to barefoot. This decision doesn't have to be a difficult one. But, it can be a tough decision for many so let's explore a bit of why you want to have your horse barefoot and what the process might entail!

Now, where to start?

Let's take a look to see how you can best aid in the transition. 

First, your horse may need protective boots for the soles. But, only for a limited time. Others may be able to have the shoes pulled with no issues whatsoever.

It all depends.

Photo from Pinterest. 

It depends on how your farrier has been trimming the hooves all along. Does he/she knife out the sole until it gives to 'thumb pressure' (as many are taught)?  If so, then your horse's soles will be too thin to be without protective boots for a while. But, if the farrier only trimmed flat the walls and took down the heels without knifing or rasping the sole then the soles won't be as sensitive as they will have some conditioning to them already.

Does your farrier leave adequate heel height? If so, then that is a definitive plus but, if like many, the heels are rasped down to the base of the collateral groove, that will present a soundness issue when the shoes are pulled.

Does your horse have pads along with the shoes?  Then, again, the soles might be tender enough to require boots at first for protection against stones and such. But, if not you may simply be all ready 'good to go'.

Photo from PENZANCE Equine Integrative Solutions, Gwenyth Santagate

Now please keep in mind that any horse with laminitis, founder, navicular or other hoof disease that "required" shoes will most definitely need boots or be kept on soft ground for awhile. This is not a decision to be made lightly in these situations. So, be sure you've considered your options. Have you talked with your veterinarian and hoofcare provider about this? Do you understand all the possible ramifications to pulling the shoes when the hooves are in a diseased state? Is your horse in such a physical state that he or she is able to withstand such a major change at this time? 

Given the individual state of your horse's hooves AND its overall physical health, transitioning to barefoot hooves from hooves with shoes can be very simple or it can require more attention overall.

Remember - the hooves are the PRIMARY survival tools of the horse! If they cannot get away from a predator then they become dinner for the predator. So they HAVE to be able to move - fast - and when the situation calls for a quick get-away.

The actual practice of pulling the shoes from the hooves does not automatically cause soreness or discomfort. In fact, doing so will improve the circulation of the blood supply in the foot, increase the sensitivity of the proprioceptors (the nerves that tell the horse where his hooves are on the ground), as well as enabling an increase of nutrients and oxygen to the hooves for new growth via the improved circulation. The hooves will be able to expand more in the heel region as they are intended to do which will cause the hooves to grow - sometimes up to 2 shoe sizes larger. This gives a stronger and sturdier "platform" for the hooves and the horse. (Think of walking on stiletto heeled shoes vs. platform or flat-heeled shoes.) This increased sturdiness will improve the horses way-of-going within the realm of extended strides, tracking up straight, more confidence and better performance all the way round. Dr. James R. Rooney found and stated in his book, "The Lame Horse", "if you draw a chalk line around the foot of a shod horse standing on hard ground, then do the same thing 15 minutes after the shoe has been pulled, you will find that the foot has expanded beyond the original line. The shoe restricts the normal expansion of the hoof."

A study by Robert M. Bowker, VMD, PhD, Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, and Lori A. Bidwell, DVM, of the Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington, Ky, showed :

"Three weeks after shoe removal, the front feet of these show horses showed definite signs of changing conformation. Their feet tended to widen with a more “shallow cupping” of the soles. The central sulci became shallower or more open, rather than having deep crevices at the heel area, and calluses began to form on the soles at the toe, indicating greater wear and weight bearing at that site. There was a reduction in the distance between the apex of the frog and the toe at the dorsal hoof wall, as the breakover distance was shortened naturally in these horses by the way in which they moved over the terrain.

At six to nine weeks after shoe removal with normal wear and no trimming, the entire frog area became larger, and the width of the feet increased as well. The heels of the frogs (back part of the frogs) usually began to make contact with the ground at that time, which resulted in a gradual enlargement of the frog and parts of the sole surface. This increased weight-bearing surface of the foot distributes the weight of the horse over a greater area, which reduces the load or stress on the entire weight-bearing area.

During the same time frame, with normal wear and no trimming, the imprints of the feet on imprint boards and plaster of Paris moldings clearly showed that the bars and frog had begun supporting the horse’s weight."

This study was done on 125 barefoot horses, mostly Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds and Arabians that had never been shod before along with 10 shod show horses that were ridden regularly. The shoes were pulled from the 10 horses and they were allowed to be barefoot for the fall, winter and spring. Plaster castings were made of the hooves. At the end of the spring, the formerly shod horses hooves were more closely related to the healthy, barefooted ones in both form and functioning. Their hooves became healthier overall. 

These studies show the same findings as Gene Ovnicek, Registered Journeyman Farrier (RJF), and those which others have found on wild mustang feet. We know that the mustang travel up to 20 or 30 miles a day on rugged, varied ground. Wouldn't we all love that our domestics could do that same!

Keep in mind that transitioning your horse from shoes to barefoot can take up to a full year. The full growth cycle of a new hoof from the coronary to the ground takes from 8 - 12 months and depending on the individual horse, hooves, environment, genetics and care, the sound transitioning time will vary. The horses mentioned in the above study transitioned over a period of about 9 months.

Read some quotes from these professional equestrians who have transitioned their horses from shoes to barefoot health:

"I have so far had no reason to put shoes back on my horses. All of the horses have trained better, are more fit, balanced, and sound, than ever before." -- Shannon Peters, US Dressage Competitor and Trainer

"Consult professionals. Across the country, more trail riders are successfully enjoying their barefoot horses over tough terrain. What's their secret? They have a team of knowledgeable professionals helping them through the process. And, as we learn more about managing this transition, the process should become simpler." --Lisa Simons Lancaster, PhD, DVM

"Some horses turned out in rough terrain will need different hoof care than the ones turned out in a small pasture or kept in a stall. It also depends on which part of the country they’re in. Horses turned out in dry areas with their hooves trimmed properly don’t need the extra attention. Being turned out and active, the circulation in the hoof is better. The key thing is to educate the horse owner, then let nature and the farrier do the work." -- Javier Soto, Farrier

Kelsy Smith and Huxley Heights show jumping barefoot. Photo courtesy of  Chesna Klimek, "Eventing Barefoot: Is It Possible?", Chesna Klimek, May 21, 2014

“Every horse is an individual,” she says, “for Hux I think barefoot offers more advantages [than shoes]: easier on his joints, better circulation in the hoof/leg, good traction, etc. Also, I never have to worry about if my horse pulls a shoe on course or what type of stud to use.” --Kelsy Smith, Eventer

Whiskey has won close to $80,000 barefoot. You know, I don’t think that every horse should be barefoot, but in some situations, and especially cutting, it can be done and I think my horse has an advantage being barefoot in a lot of pens. He’s learned how to deal with it and I think that in the next ten years we will see more disciplines, not only cutting, going barefoot;" --Wylie Gustafson

" A sound barefoot horse not only can feel the ground, she also has better traction." --Stephanie Krahl, Team Penning, Barrel Racing, Sorting

"Do draft horses need shoes? “It depends,” ...

"Traditionally, draft horses naturally have strong hooves and don’t need shoes. However, years of selective breeding focused on cosmetics rather than conformation and utility has increased the number of draft horses that require shoes year-round to keep the horses sound. Chances are if you buy a horse with good solid feet, you’ll never have to shoe a horse."  --Doug Butler, founder of Butler Professional Farrier School in Crawford, Nebraska.

So, where to start?

Well, start with having your horse's shoes pulled. Have your farrier pull the shoes and LIGHTLY rasp any ragged edges from around the hoof walls. The hooves may need to be properly balanced and can be done with minimal invasion to the hoof simply by gently lowering the higher side of the hoofwall or heel to the lower side and that's it. That's all that needs to be done the first trim. 

Turn the horse out in boots, if needed, but, ideally, turning the horse out in totally barefoot hooves is the best thing one can do to get the hooves conditioned to the ground. Keep in mind, if the regular turnout is softer then the hooves will not be able to be conditioned in the same manner as if the ground is tough and packed hard. If you have soft pasture then walking your horse in hand for 10 minutes a day on a clean, tarred road will condition those hooves better than anything imaginable.

Google Photo

If your horse is comfortable then ... RIDE!  Go riding. Use boots if needed to mitigate any discomfort on rocks, gravel or hard ground. Your horse will determine what he or she needs. Listen.

The more your horse moves around on different ground surfaces the faster the hooves will acclimate to being without shoes.

That's it for the first trim! After that, subsequent trims will be determined according to how the hooves have strengthened, worn and grown, their balance and their overall health.



Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications including The Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoof care for the last 20 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. You can email to Gwen -- or telephone in the US (774)-280-4227 NEW PHONE). For further information please click here:

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