paps in arena

Barefoot Riding

Currently all TEN of our horses and all our miniatures are without shoes - welcome to the world of barefoot riding.  

Going barefoot is not simply taking off the shoes and leaving the feet to repair on their own.  So we give them a little encouragement through their diet and daily husbandry requirements.  Barefoot horses depend on us to give them that little bit extra attention to help them through their 'footy' problems - going barefoot is 70% management, and 30% no shoes!

The advantages we have noticed with eight barefoot hard working horses:

The feet are warmer as they receive a natural bloodflow to the hooves
The legs are warmer and any cuts and abrasions heel quickly and efficiently
The frogs are harder, less fragmented, and perform the function for which they were designed - to absorb pressure and reduce concussion through the limbs
The angle of the feet from the coronet band to the ground is a good 45 degrees.
The way of going of the horses is far more natural, and they choose the path they should take to avoid stress  - your horse may zigzag along the tracks, but then so do we when we take a mountain walk!
Lameness is a thing of the past - shoes tend to hide any problems that may be developing, so that by the time we notice a problem on a shod horse it has become a major problem.  When barefoot, every little issue is noticed so it can never develop into a major problem.
The central sulcus is allowed to develop as it should providing a connecting tissue between the heel bulbs, the frog and the heel bars.  Any impairment of the central sulcus needs to be addressed to prevent infection getting into the internal tissues of the hoof.
The heel bars develop thoroughly allowing strength throughout the sole of the foot.
The colateral grooves develop fully, and the sole flows out from the grooves to the outside of the hoof, allowing a deep solid sole to grow.  Many shod horses have a soft sole, providing no support or protection to the internal structure of the hoof at all.

Some horses develop laminitis on too much grass during the spring and summer, but if your horse is barefoot this is spotted much sooner, and alternative management can be introduced long before the horse is unsound and truly laminitic.

Others, as they get older, get rotated pedal bone.  Barefoot horses are unlikely to suffer from this as the foot is always trimmed to a natural shape and not allowed to grow long, which causes the heel bulbs to lower, shrink and drive the pedal bone round and forwards.  

We consider that regular trimming is essential as our barefoot trimmer can see any hoof problems long before they are fully developed.  He visits once every eight weeks and helps to keep their feet in constant good condition.  Clive from Blue Moon Equine provides a holistic approach to going barefoot stating that going barefoot is so much more than taking the shoes off - Clive and his wife Jill are also able to give nutritional and supplement advice.

Dispelling some of the myths about barefoot horses

-  "I have a thoroughbred, so can't go barefoot"  - any horse can go barefoot, the success being dependent on correct daily management; they were after all, born barefoot!  Pebbles is 100% thoroughbred and has been barefoot since we have had her, and rides out daily over the moor.  She is one of the soundest horses that we have.

-  "We do a lot of road riding, so wouldn't be able to go barefoot" - road work is in fact really good for their feet.  The surface that you regularly work on will change the type of foot that they grow, but road work will encourage the growth of a thick, solid sole and deep colateral grooves, especially in the early days of barefoot riding, preparing the horse for softer, irregular ground in the future.  Any percussion is distributed through the limbs and body far more than the rigid shoes that they have pinned to their feet, which may often restrict the cushioning the frogs and heels provide to the limb.

- 'My horse is too old to go barefoot' - from our experience the age does not really make a huge amount of difference - the other influencing factors are controlled by the individual horse (his past history, the history of his shoeing, diet and metabolism as well as day to day management and exercise regime).  Dandy took about 6 months before he was truly comfortable on his feet, and he went barefoot at the age of 18, but Rosie's condition of feet and limbs improved so rapidly that she was walking and trotting soundly within 3 months, age 20.  Paps took no time at all - just a few weeks - age 8, but Archie took a long time before he was really settled, and needed constant work and attention, also going barefoot at age 8.  He was probably going through periods of discomfort for up to a year due to his feet re-establishing themselves to their new envirnment.  Archie has been the most problematic horse on this journey, but he would have had far greater foot problems had we kept him shod, as many of the problems we discovered barefoot would not have been rectified.

- "I tried barefoot for a couple of months, but had to go back to shoes"   Going barefoot is a big commitment, and there is no magic formula - it will take as long as it takes, depending on how damaged the shod foot has become.  Some horses feet have grown at the wrong angle under shoes, and so the structure of the entire hoof has to adjust to the natural shape, and some have not been able to use their frog, heel bars or central sulcus (if they have one), and these take time to readjust and the sole maybe soft and spongy, so it needs to thicken up to a hard protective layer once again.  Others may even be walking toe first, and have not been used to putting any weight on their heels, so then the legs will also be quite painful during the readjustment process.  If you keep your horses out 24/7 on grass and expect them to harden up for barefoot riding, this is not going to happen either, so many people design a track system with different hard surfaces around their fields.  However, as long as you persist, take the transition gently, slowly, and sensitively, your horse will soon become fully rideable again, and should give you years of fun well into it's senior years.

Do your research, and check out some other barefoot sites on the internet - it is well worth the barefoot journey for a happy, sound and fit horse.

OUR DAILY ROUTINE:  Every day our horses are brought into their stables to get them off the fields, wet or dry, to clean their feet, harden their soles, and treat any problems.  They are on a strict no grain diet, and their main feed consists of a scoop of Primero Total Horse Feed from ("pioneering feed formulated by equine physiologists for optimum digestion, health and performance").  Since October 2014 our horses have been on this feed and their coats and performance has changed dramatically.  

Archie - has suffered with problems with his feet for many years - he has had contracted heels causing the space between his heel bulbs to be so tight that water and infection sets in at the slightest opportunity.  His frogs are very narrow as a result and he has had no central sulcus at all for many years.      

We have used many veterinary sprays including oxytetracycline sprays such as Alamycin, to control the bacterial infection, but until recently nothing has cleared up the problem. 

However, now we are winning the battle!  We took the shoes off Archie in 2012, and progressively his feet have become stronger and stronger.  Currently we clean his hooves out daily with a hoof pick and a stiff brush, then brush on a mixture of Multimite (diatomaceous earth) and a little sulphur.  On a weekly basis through the summer we soak Archie's feet in a borax water solution which is a gentle cleanser, kills bacterial and fungal infections, toughens the skin and frog and hardens the hoof.  We have been doing this for over two years, and finally this year he has filled in the gaps between his heel bulbs and has grown a central sulcus on all four feet!  At the same time his muscle atrophy behind the withers is filling out, his shoulder angle is far more natural, and his way of movement is freer and more flowing.  We thoroughly recommend this daily treatment above all others that we have used to maintain a healthy sole and central sulcus.

Rosie - in the summer of 2013 we were on the brink of saying farewell to Rosie.  She had very painful feet, would barely walk around the field, and would dig a hole in her field shelter floor (soil stable) to bury her hind feet, presumably to help take the weight off them.  She was ridden gently, but the exercise did not appear to help, and she was tripping at every opportunity.  Her coat was dull and 'chalky' and she was generally unhappy.  We modified her diet (having done extensive research on the internet) along with that of all the other horses, and took her shoes off in the September.  With the change of diet combined with barefoot, she slowly changed throughout the next 18 months, until this summer when her coat is gleaming, she is riding out over Exmoor once again, she seldom trips and she canters and gallops the tracks like a 'super-charged' Rosie back to her old cantankerous self, where few riders can cope with her enthusiasm and energy!  Welcome back Rosie!  Now 23 years of age we can once again look forward to a while longer of hill riding on Exmoor with her.

Archie bitless and treeless

Archie, returning from his ride on North Hill, barefoot, bitless and treeless HM saddle

Bitless Riding:

All our horses are comfortable in a bitless bridle, and can ride out with any rider safely.  On the whole we use Dr Cook's cross-under bitless bridles or similar, and thoroughly recommend these although they are now rather expensive.  We generally purchase the beta bridles, and although I have bought other makes, I keep comng back to Dr Cook's.

When purchsing your bitless bridle be careful that the noseband and browbands are large enough, otherwise the cheek pieces fall too close to the eyes, which can be rather uncomfortable for the horse.  Our horses seem to have rather broad heads, so it is difficult to get a good fit with 'off-the-shelf' bridles.

Our horses all go well out hacking, jumping and dressage work bitless (and one day I am sure that bitless bridles will be permitted in the show ring) and will get a good outline in these bridles.  Thoroughly recommended particularly with horses with a sensitive mouth, melanomas, poor teeth, and for anyone wishing to ride with a gentler contact.

Treeless Saddles:


As with the bridles, we have tried many different treeless saddles, and are now filling our tack room with Enlightened Equitation (Heather Moffett) 'soft tree' saddles.  The advantage of a treeless saddle are manyfold - these saddles particularly give the rider a better 'seat', a longer leg, leading to greater stability, and a safer ride.  Many people ride short, particularly in the UK, leading to knees too high up the saddle, forcing the body too far forwards, leading to greater instability.  With the HM saddles you have to ride longer, but you can adjust the knee-rolls to suit.  The seat on the FlexEE saddles is deep, holding you in position, and so comfy - our riders from all over the world always comment on the comfort of the saddle.  Our horses go well in these saddles, providing them with hours of riding without any rubbing, as the saddles mould to the shape of the horses' back.  With our high withered horses we do have to use padding, but as long as we get this right there are no wither rubbing problems.  Even Archie, who had a back accident in 2014, is now fully recovered, the muscle atrophy in his withers region has now disappeared, and he is riding out better than ever.  These FlexEE saddles can be used with or without a flexible gullet support depending on the comfort of you and your horse. Highly recommended!

…… be continued