Softening the Grip


Over the years I have had countless people across the globe ask me my opinion on keeping horses barefoot. In each case I always answer the same way. I explain that I believe if a horse can go barefoot on any terrain, at any time, and they can be sound doing so, then I would consider them a “barefoot” horse. This would not include a horse that is sound on softer ground while barefoot but has to wear protective boots in order to be sound on “rougher” terrain, or while being ridden. After all, if we have to put a boot on a horse in order for them to be sound, then by definition, the horse is not barefoot.

I have seen many horses over the years, and in fact, we have owned a number of horses over the years that were what I consider to be truly barefoot horses. In each of those cases, there was no need to put shoes or boots on them in order for them to stay sound regardless of the terrain. The good Lord and good genetics (along with proper care) supplied them great feet, and so there was never any need to do anything else with them in that regard. There’s no sense in fixing something that isn’t broken.

Also over the years, we had acquired a number of horses who were having lameness issues due to improper or poor shoeing. In those cases, pulling the shoes, properly trimming and balancing the feet and letting the feet recover was by far the best thing that could have been done for them. In the vast majority of those cases, getting the shoes off was one the thing that allowed the horse to come back into soundness.

My personal preference for our own horses is that they go barefoot as much as possible, and in fact, most of the horses that we don’t use on a regular basis are barefoot. However, the horses we use on a regular basis or that we travel with are always shod. The reason for this is because over the years these particular horses have proven that being barefoot and staying sound on the wide variety of footing that we are presented with as we travel can be difficult for them. Because I am a firm believer in consistency, keeping our horses shod allows for a sort of equalization of the footing we are on, regardless of how soft or rough the footing actually is. This equalization eliminates a ton of hoof management headaches when traveling around the country.

Of course I have heard all of the arguments on why horses should be kept “naturally” barefoot, such as shoes being harmful to circulation, that they don’t allow the hoof wall to flex properly, that shoes cause nerve damage, and on and on. But quite honestly, and after having researched the research of such claims, I have found little hard scientific evidence that any of those arguments are actually true.

On top of that, after spending nearly fifty years working with literally tens of thousands of horses, I have simply not seen the types of damage in a well-balanced and properly shod horse that many barefoot advocates claim happens in all shod horses. I have, however, seen a lot of unsound “properly trimmed and balanced” barefoot horses. Again, these are horses that are barefoot, but unable to travel on all types of footing or surfaces and still remain sound without putting a protective boot on them.

Recently, while we were out of the country, all of our horses, including the ones we travel with, were kept barefoot. Two of the horses we have are relatively new to us, one being here for six months, the other having been here for a little over two months. The one that has been here for six months has gone barefoot and been sound for the past three years while living with her previous owner. The one that has only been here a couple months has been barefoot and sound for the past two years with his previous owner.

However, almost as soon as they both got here, both turned up sore footed. This is due to a drastic change in the footing where they now live. One of these horses went from the grasslands of Texas to the hard and rocky ground here in Colorado, the other having come from the grasslands of Nebraska. We kept both trimmed and balanced and gave them time to see if their feet would adjust in hopes that they would come sound, but they both remained sore footed and they both started to wear their feet down to nothing just being on the rough ground that we have here.

In both cases it became pretty clear that these horses were not going to be able to stay sound if we were to leave them barefoot, and so we made the decision to put shoes on both of them. Both horses walked off sound right after the shoes were put on, and they have stayed that way ever since.

In this particular case there wasn’t anything wrong with the horses, or they way their feet were being trimmed or cared for, or the ground on which the horse was living. There was also nothing wrong with the theory of keeping the horse barefoot. After all, when these two horses were on softer ground, they could stay sound without shoes or boots, and had they not been taken to a footing that was much harsher than they were used to, their issue may not have ever presented itself. The problem was that when these horses’ feet were asked to do something outside of their theoretical boundaries (living full time on hard and rocky ground) they just weren’t able to hold up.

That’s just the way things go sometimes. This wasn’t a difficult issue for us to accept and remedy, as we aren’t married to the idea that all horses should be able to go barefoot all the time and we aren’t adverse to the idea of horses wearing shoes. Because of this lack of rigidity in our beliefs, it was very easy to find a solution to the problem, which was to get them some relief by putting shoes on them. For folks who are married to the idea of keeping all horses barefoot all the time, thinking this way not only would have been difficult, but probably downright impossible.

It has been my experience over the years that when it comes to working with, or caring for horses, flexibility of thought and action is almost always the key to success. Time and time again I have run into horse owners who, because of a certain belief about horses or horsemanship, would completely discount trying something that a horse really needed simply because that thing didn’t fit into their belief system. It’s the sort of catch-22 of horsemanship. By eliminating viable options due to the well meaning but possibly unrealistic ideals that we might have, solutions to chronic problems can, and often do, continue to elude us.

I think all of us, whether we’re talking about horses or just life in general, have at one time or another, gotten a little stuck. We buy into a certain technique, or system, or idea or dogma about how things should be done, and then we follow it blindly to the exclusion of everything else. In the meantime, we begin to lose our ability to see the broader picture due to the fact that our thinking process has become more and more inflexible.

As far as horses go, it is almost always that inflexibility in our thinking process that gets us in trouble. Inflexibility creates tunnel vision, and tunnel vision seldom allows for the expansion of awareness. Yet it is that awareness – that lack of rigidity in our beliefs, that will allow us to try things we haven’t tried before, or will allow us to think outside the box when presented with an unfamiliar or problematic issue. It can also ultimately allow us to answer our own questions and question our own answers.

It seems the older I get, the more I am able to appreciate the benefits in letting go of absolutes. I find there is a certain freedom that comes along with being able to both listen and hear what someone else is trying to say, even if what they are saying may not be something I agree with. At the very least, broadening this perspective has helped me to understand that sometimes the best way to get a good grasp of something is to first soften our own grip a little.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years (sometimes the hard way) it’s that there can be little softness when either a fist – or a mind – is closed tight.