Today's world has brought along with it many enlightened methods for horse handling and training. Most of the new techniques are based on ancient horse craft and natural tendencies of the horse. Along with this drive to lighten up on the methods of training is a trend to do the "natural" thing with horses in all manner of application.

One of these new status symbolized methods is that of riding a horse unshod. The argument most heard is that in the wild horses go unshod and remain sound. Well,… is that totally accurate?

In the wild the horses running feral are the result of centuries of natural culling. Any horse with poor feet would not be able to keep up with it's herd mates and would certainly become fodder for prowling predators.

Lame animals would meet a poor end prematurely. Over the course of time, genetic selection and natural culling allowed for an overall standard of excellence among the wild horses to a point that they have very sound, hearty, and solid feet. They can run over stone, sand, cactus or chat without feeling it. They trim naturally by wearing the hoof off and they often resort to digging for water or food with hooves without ruining them.

This all sounds very good as well it should. But how does that equate to the average domestic horse and the applications their feet are required to endure?

To begin with, today's domesticated horse, at least here in America, often comes from such stock as would have been culled by natural selection in the wild. Horses with soft or poorly formed feet are bred every day because of some other quality they possess that the breeder wishes to propagate.

Horses today are generally kept up in small enclosures… fenced pastures, paddocks, stalls. ... rarely getting to live the feral type existence whereby they become hardened to the requirements for good solid feet. In the wild horses do not stand idol for long hours at a time in a softly bedded stall. They do not spend days on end in one small pasture where they rarely exercise. They do not stand on soils that are devoid of rock or other hoof hardening surfaces. Today's domesticated horses live with interference from man in many forms and endures some form of hoof trimming which often times is not optimum for what nature intended.

In the wild, horses eat from natures bounty and suffer famine and glut. They eat a wide range of forages and derive minerals from many natural sources. Domestic horses eat a rich diet including milled products, refined substances and artificially generated additives. Such feeds may encourage hoof growth but lack the natural content the feral horses glean in the process of grazing varied plantlife.

Genetically, many of today's domestic horses are weaker than the feral strains. Left to their own devices in the wild many would perish in short order due to weak constitutions and inability to adapt to the harshness of the wild.

SO, why then are we to expect to raise horses artificially by comparison to those feral horses, yet attempt to treat them " al la Naturale?"

It does not make much sense.

In the wild a horse uses his feet and teeth up by the early teens as a rule. They do not have the life expectancy of 25 or 30 years as domestic horse is achieving. The price paid for a free and natural existence is not all wonderful.

Horses roaming in the wild travel constantly and keep their feet in good shape. They do not carry weight upon their back and if they wear their feet down too quickly they become sore and lame just like any other horse.

Today, humans apparently believe that they can ride their horses barefoot with no consequence even though the horse was not designed to carry weight.

Is it possible to do so safely? The answer to that is yes….and no. Not every horse is a good candidate for barefoot riding. Just as not all horses are good candidates for becoming a cutting horse or high jumper.

Horses with good sound feet that are the result of good nutrition and genetic make up, may perform reasonably well in some situations provided the terrain is not too abrasive or rugged.

Horses in wet climates where the feet remain softer most of the year are probably not good subjects for this form of riding.

A few years ago this argument came up between proponents of several different gaited breeds. Breed "A" was touted as having the "best feet in the horse world" and was proudly submitted as totally barefoot in use. Breed "B" was presented as shod with keg shoes.

The discussion became a challenge between groups. With group " A" declaring their horses could go anywhere the group "B" horses went and remain sound.

The test was a ride of some 25 miles over varying footing ranging from woodland spongy turf, to coarsely crushed rock, to silty sand, to solid rock and then to hard packed soil.

The horses of group " A" had been ridden and conditioned for months and had not shown undue stress or difficulty to date. The horses from group " B" had been ridden and conditioned as well.

The day of the ride all the horses were inspected and declared sound and fit prior to the start.

The ride began with horses from group " A" gingerly setting pace. They traveled at a modest rate of speed up the verge of a highway that was primarily of packed soil that was grass covered. After a mile the trail head was reached. The approach was an old logging road that had been coated in coarse and packed gravel.

Group " A" horses continued on up the trail for a period of about an hour before they began to slow. By this time the group had reached the spongy turf portion of the trail that is excellent footing and very nice to gait along. At this time the horses from group "B" struck out ahead of the horses from group " A" but those horses were still performing without apparent tenderness. They had just slowed down.

Coming out of the deep forest the trail once more became a portion of an old logging road that was covered in large extremely jagged rock for a space of approximately 100 feet before returning to broken rock and soil natural footing. After negotiating this "bridging" of rock the group " A" horses fell farther behind those in group "B".

The trail began to climb and the footing changed to solid packed dirt with occasional outcroppings of rock. The footing was crumbly and loose under foot as the elevation steepened. At the top of the climb was a level track of rocky soil that ran along a ridge.

AT the top of the climb the horses of group "B" had to stop and wait for the horses of group "A" to catch up. It was apparent they were having difficulty and were working much harder than they should have needed to.

By the time the group "B" horses caught up they were lathered and tired looking and one was noticeably tender on it' feet.

We had gone by this time only 8 miles.

The riders of group "A" insisted their horses were tough and could continue the ride. No amount of concern would discourage them from progressing in the ride.

Only two miles farther along, the tender horse became downright lame. It was not able to go any farther. A second horse had gotten sore as well and the third was so tired it was heaving and hanging it's head.

The horses from group "B" were fresh and only just getting warmed up to the ride.

The end result was all the horses of group "A" had to be ponied back to the starting point where the trailers were parked. Inspection showed multiple stone bruises, excessive wear to the sole, bruising of the heels and lacerations of the heel and frog. Beyond that the hooves had become chipped and shortened. The break-over points of the hooves were worn to the white line.

What does this tell us? That while in some applications it may well work to ride a horse barefoot, in other conditions or situations it may be folly to attempt to do so.

There is absolutely no disgrace in shoeing a horse. From the earliest of times horsemen have realized the benefit of protecting the hooves of the horses they depended upon. Had there never been a need to shoe a horse, then horse shoes would never have been invented!




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