Springtime! The grass is growing. The trees are dropping tons of pollen. My horse has just about lost his winter fuzziness and his dapples are emerging once again! I trimmed his feet last week, before the horse show, and I nearly depleted my energy and strength before finishing the trim. His previous trim had been two and a half weeks earlier, but there was so much hoof to take off that I had to trim his front feet one day and his hind feet the next. That's right, I wrote 2.5 weeks! Barefoot hoofcare is definitely not about doing less for your horse's feet. If I do not trim this frequently in the spring, I cannot keep up with his hoof growth. I only wield a rasp and do not own a pair of nippers, so loads of excess hoof wall is extremely laborious, not to mention detrimental to Harley's hoof health. Occasionally, I hear a horse owner comment that his or her horse cannot go barefoot, because he would wear his hoof down too quickly. I know that every horse is different, but I cannot help feeling waves of disbelief, especially when I am in the throws of rasping nearly a quarter inch of hoof wall after two weeks and 24/7 turnout on sandy soil. The hoof is an amazing thing! Hoof care is a part of horse ownership that has opened my eyes and led me to a completely new understanding and appreciation for horse feet.
Harley is barefoot. He was bare when I purchased him in 2006 and had been for several years. According to his previous owner, he did wear shoes at some point in his life, but it is quite possible that he has been bare for the better part of 10 years. I used to pay for a farrier to give him a pasture trim, with the thought that at some point we would be ready in our conditioning to start wearing shoes. Harley is the only horse that I have ever owned, so I never REALLY had to worry about hoofcare or shoeing until him. After a year or so of pasture trims and lots of riding, I looked at his hoof and thought, I just cannot put nails into this foot. I also noticed that it was very difficult to tell if the farrier had been out to trim my horse along with the other bare and shod horses in the barn. There was almost nothing to take off his feet, and this was before 24/7 turnout.
Something did motivate me to switch to a true barefoot trim, however. I noticed this lip of material forming ridges at the sides of his feet. Another older horse that I worked with at a different farm had similar, deeper ridges and the barn manager had requested that we be vigilant in cleaning out these ridges so that the horse did not abscess. This kind of horrified me. How on Earth could we possibly clean out the ridges well enough to keep him healthy? Horses are always standing in dirt and manure! I looked at my horse's feet and worried if he was headed for the same futile ridge-cleaning. It is also worth mentioning that the older horse periodically went unsound and walked with such a distinct toe-first leading that his fetlocks and knees snapped down with his heel as he took a step.
At the time, I did not understand the significance of this type of landing or that the ridge I was looking at was flaring hoof wall. Fortunately, I knew a wonderful young horse woman who did and she offered her hoofcare services to me and Harley as an alternative to the pasture trim. We took her up on her offer!
This lovely, caring woman began trimming my horse's feet with the same compassion that she offered her own horses. She patiently tolerated my endless questions and looking over her shoulder. I learned many things that I had never needed to even think about before, like the toe callous and how the pasture trim grinds it down and creates a flat surface for a shoe (even though one was not being applied). I learned that my horse's feet were becoming box-shaped because of the excess ridges of hoof wall at the sides and that with a little rasp work, this could be relieved. She also showed me that the excess wall at the sides of the box was creating pressure at the toe where my horse was developing "sand cracks". I had already ran through several brands of hoof conditioner, trying to alleviate the cracking. She showed me how a bevel applied to the hoof wall relieved the stress that caused flaring, which is really a weakening of the connection between the inner wall and the internals structures of the hoof. She spoke about the white line or laminae and how the wall is attached to the laminae much like Velcro. A well-connected hoof is not flared and has an angle which matches the angle of the new wall growing at the coronary band. Probably the best thing that she taught me was to start reading. I read everything that I could find on hoof care and performance barefoot. And then I reread them!
I was interested in learning how to trim my horse's feet, so she taught me how to handle the rasp and hold my horse's foot safely. I started small, with just a little rounding of the outer wall and from there learned to trim the entire foot. Her visits became less frequent as she gently removed the scaffolding and allowed me to accept the full responsibility of trimming my horse's feet. It was exciting and a little frightening. I was exhilarated and I developed a deeper appreciation for the gift of being able to ride my horse. My relationship with Harley grew as I learned what it means to truly work with an animal when you must crouch below the enormous body of your friend and ask him to balance his foot on your knee.
I have been trimming Harley's feet exclusively for over a year now. The learning process is not over, in fact I find that I relearn and re-understand aspects of trimming all the time. I still return to credible articles and videos. Every time, I walk away with something new to think about, even if I had read the article a half dozen times before. I do not see the young lady who got me started with the barefoot trim very often, but she is trimming a couple horses at our barn and has inspired another owner to pick up the rasp for a little wall beveling. It is people like her who truly make working with horses a beautiful experience.
As for Harley's weedy feet, I have started weekly mini-trims. Just a little touch-up on the rolled edge and little bit of wall to take down at the quarters. I noticed chalky sole in his heels, so I took them down a bit as well. As spring turns to summer, his growth should slow and I will be able to return to trimming at two to three week intervals. By winter, it will take him four weeks to grow what I am taking off after one week in the spring.