Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Why not shoe?

One thing you can guarantee when you have a hard-working barefoot horse is that it will get people talking - even arguing.
Other horse owners will make lots of assumptions about why you choose not to have shoes on your horse (inevitably, I suppose, I make assumptions in return about why anyone would choose to shoe a horse but I've not come up with any very satisfactory explanations although habit must play a large part).

I blogged recently in my "Living in the Dark Ages" post about how strange it is that in the 21st century so many horses are still shod. 

The assumptions people most commonly voice are that either we do it to save money (nope) or we've just been lucky and somehow stumbled across horse after horse with fantastic feet purely by chance (nope).
Yes, our horses do have fantastic, healthy feet but that's a product of the diet we feed them, the environment they live in and the work we do with them week in week out. Hoof health, like whole horse health, rarely happens by chance. 

So why not shoe? Quite simply because we want to keep those feet as healthy as possible. 
Interestingly, especially given how widespread the practice of shoeing is, there is very little evidence or research into what it does to a horse's foot. There is no research, as far as I am aware, comparing loading of of shod and bare hooves or measuring the comparative changes in them over time. 
Realistically this is difficult to achieve because owners of horses with healthy bare feet are unlikely to allow them to be shod and simply taking the shoes of a horse which has previously been shod (which is all that shod/bare studies have historically done) certainly doesn't give you a healthy bare foot as a starting point. 
So what can we know about shoes? 

Logically, as they are metal and secured with nails, they will have an effect on the temperature of the hoof. Metal is a better conductor than hoof wall so its logical to assume that (in most climates) a hoof will be colder when shod. 
In fact it was a farrier who first demonstrated this to me when he showed me something called a heat sink - a piece of aluminium designed to remove heat as efficiently as possible and which looks in essence a lot like a shoe. 
I posted about this in a blog back in 2009 but I still find it fascinating. The fact remains that shoes are an effective way of drawing heat rapidly and continuously out of hooves. Is that a good or a bad thing? I don't know but I for one prefer hooves which feel alive rather than dead. 

Another logical assumption which we can make is that shoes - particularly metal shoes - will have an effect on the internal hoof. 

Metal not only conducts heat but also shock. This is one area where there has been some research reported (Luca Bein, 1983) which confirms that a shod hoof receives significantly more concussion on a road than a barefoot horse.  For me, that's another reason not to shoe - why increase the concussion on our horses' limbs and feet if we don't have to?
The increase in concussion is not surprising. There is a double-whammy effect -  not only does the metal as a material increase shock but also the fact that a shoe loads the horse's weight onto the hoof wall, making the frog and digital cushion unable to do their job.
Over time, my experience is that an unloaded frog and digital cushion weaken and atrophy - a prime contributor to heel pain and lameness - another reason not to shoe. 

There's an additional effect which shoes may have, but where there is no equine research, so far as I am aware. Its something called stress shielding and I blogged about it in 2010 because I had a suspicion then that shoes could be affecting horses this way. 

Stress shielding is defined this way and is a familiar problem in the medical world, for example in hip and knee replacements: 

" If you replace or support a bone with a stiffer material, like metal, then the stiffer material becomes the primary load-bearing structure. This reduces load to the bone and it degenerates in response."
It seems astonishing that there has been no veterinary investigation into shoes and this phenomenon.  Bob Bowker published an article about coffin bone degeneration in shod horses but again we could do with comparative research which looks systematically at healthy, hard-working barefoot horses. Until then, coffin bone deterioration is another reason for me not to shoe my horses.

There are other reasons too. A hoof is the magnifying-glass to the horse's health and fitness. A healthy hoof is capable of incredible levels of hard work over every surface but you can't take short-cuts

Nutrition has to be right and the horse has to be moving correctly and loading balanced feet. The hooves themselves have to be brought to a level of fitness for the mileage and terrain you ask of them - unlike the "quick fix" of shoeing. 
Again, this is something I've posted about before - http://rockleyfarm.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/hoof-as-magnifying-glass.html - and its something which others have talked about more eloquently than me, notably this blog post which explains why the "hoof is the governor"  - and why this can easily be ignored in a shod horse: https://perseveranceendurancehorses.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/eventually-further-and-faster/ 
So, yet another reason not to shoe. Add to that the obvious benefits of fewer and less severe injuries and the wonderful but under-rated ability for a horse to self-trim and grow the hooves he needs in response to the stimulus he receives and I am still left wondering why barefoot is still in the minority...

Monday, 20 April 2015

Track life

We've had amazing weather this month - almost wall to wall sunshine. Its forecast to end later this week I think but for now we are making the most of it!
The strong wind yesterday did make for some rather fetching hairstyles...
Bryher, Charlie, Merlin and Lad mooching in the firs while everyone else was sunbathing in the yard...

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Lad, with and without

New boy Lad arrived yesterday and he is another Devon resident, which means his owner Vikki will at least be able to come and see him a lot!
Lad's vet and farrier have done their best to improve his lameness but its persisted so he has come here to see if rehab out of shoes can help him instead. 
There is already lots to like about his feet and his farrier has done a good job of improving his landing - which has gone from toe-first to flat or fractionally heel first on his better foot. 
There are some issues with his medio-lateral balance I suspect  - if you look at the digital cushion there is a distinct difference between lateral and medial sides - but that should improve out of shoes.

Lad has quite long toes in this shot but had gone 6 weeks since his last shoeing.
These sole shots highlight how differently a hoof loads in a shoe as opposed to out of it.

More on Lad soon, of course. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


The swallows are arriving, the sun has been shining consistently since Easter, the fields are rolled, the muck is spread, the tractor has broken down only once - it can only mean one thing: Spring has decidedly sprung and there is LOTS to do!
There is lots to blog as well but we've had an incredibly busy few days here. With a new horse arriving today there will be masses of photos tomorrow - back soon!

Friday, 10 April 2015

Road movie

Another update today, this time Goofy and Ernie who have been here several months.

Both arrived following diagnoses of DDFT lesions and navicular bone damage (Goofy worse than Ernie) but I am glad to say that they have done well and have been back in work for a while.

Our mission now is to get them fit and as I have had extra hands helping this week I thought it was a great opportunity to rope in the boys (Andy and  my nephew) to get some footage of Ernie and Goofy doing their roadwork and hillwork.
I've slowed down some parts of the footage so you can see their landings more clearly - bear in mind that this is filmed uphill so the heel first landings which are very clear downhill and on the flat are less obvious (though still apparent) here. 

Roadwork from Nic Barker on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Ennis' 6 week update

Ennis has been here 6 weeks and like Merlin has changed his landing from toe first/flat to heel first. He arrived already barefoot, although he had been shod for many years before that. As always, above are his photos on day one with today's comparisons below. 
For me the biggest changes are at the back of his foot - the digital cushion depth is the clearest indicator of a better landing. Although he didn't have the long toe which you could see on Merlin yesterday the stronger palmar hoof is giving his foot a more upright appearance today.
His frog, heels and digital cushion are more developed and his foot is becoming more concave.

These shots demonstrate what is happening - more frog stimulus, stronger digital cushion and better development in the  back of the foot, exactly where he needs it. 
His heels today are a bit too long but as his palmar hoof becomes stronger they will shorten. 

A more supportive foot today.
The frog on his RF was much bigger than his LF but his soles were relatively weak and his heels were a little under-run. On both feet he is changing his media-lateral balance which I hope will also help his comfort levels overall. 

Not such a dramatic change on this foot and he still needs to build a stronger frog and shorter heels. As his landing is now much better that should happen over the next few weeks. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Changing bases - Merlin's 5 week update

Apologies for the long blog break - there was so much to do in the run-up to Easter that blogging had to take a back seat. Now we have better weather (at last!) and things are calming down so normal service will be resumed...

Merlin has been here for 5 weeks now and is making great progress. Amanda came to see him before Easter and we took the opportunity to film him and assess him on a circle but what I didn't manage at the time were photos.

Only a week later (sorry about that!) here are his 5 week photos instead...
Interesting for lots of reasons. Firstly the nail holes are nearly grown out. Secondly his toe is vastly shorter and his heel is more supportive and less under-run. 

Compare these photos and imagine how his foot loaded in its shoe. Try standing up yourself and then moving both feet half an inch further forward. You'll find you lose your balance and are constantly trying to bring your feet back under you into a more supportive position. 
Out of a shoe Merlin can re-establish his own foot balance, which means weighting the back of the foot and allowing it to become stronger. He has been able to do this relatively quickly because he already had fairly good feet with frogs and heels which were capable of rapid improvement. 

He was landing flat/toe first when he arrived but had developed a heel first landing by week 4. 
His frog is now receiving more stimulus and has become more robust as a result. You can also I hope see the change in his digital cushion, also developing as he now has a better landing. 

This is his lamer foot and its good to see similar positive changes here. He is also much sounder now on the right rein and should continue to improve over the next few weeks. 

It will be interesting to see whether the twist which was apparent in this limb when he arrived straightens out as his feet change. I suspect it will - but we shall see!
From this angle you can see that the lateral wall was longer than the medial. I think this is beginning to even out but only time will tell.