If winter weather or your competition schedule has you riding less, right now may be the perfect time to strengthen your horse's feet by pulling his shoes for a few months.
"What?! On this frozen ground?! He'll go lame in a millisecond!" you say, and you're probably right. This is one of the very few times I'll tell you to look the other way and allow your horse to be sore.
That soreness is the first step in a healing process that will ultimately strengthen and improve the quality of his feet.
Going barefoot is good for your horse because it:
Allows the foot to expand to its natural shape and wear to its natural length. Shoes and clips, particularly if they're improperly fitted, constrict the hoof wall and create growth irregularities.
Eliminates damaged hoof wall as the lower portion of the wall that's been weakened by nail holes, urine, or other environmental factors breaks off. Although that chipping and flaking looks ugly, and may cause the horse to go lame as the foot gets shorter and the sole and frog, unused to bearing weight, make contact with the ground.
Increases blood flow to the foot by putting the frog back in contact with the ground and allowing it to perform its natural traction, shock-absorbing, and circulatory functions. That, in turn, stimulates hoof growth.
The drawback is that this process can be uncomfortable. Many horses initially go lame when their shoes are pulled. Their soles, protected and lifted off the ground by shoes for so long, are tender and bruise easily. But there are plenty of things that you can and should do to minimize this discomfort:
Give him a break. Plan to pull your horse's shoes during a time when you can either give him time off from work or work him very lightly on soft arena footing. Winter is good for this because it's a break in most sports' competitive schedules-and poor weather usually means even pleasure riders are riding less frequently. Also, even though the ground is frozen and hard in many places, conditions are consistent (no wet, dewy mornings or frequent bathing combined with hours standing on dry, baked-hard ground), which helps keep feet healthy.
Use a hoof-hardening product, beginning several weeks before you pull his shoes. Keratex? Hoof Hardener can be used on the wall and sole, not only to toughen feet but to improve hoof condition. Less-expensive Venice turpentine can also be painted on soles to toughen them.
Find the most comfortable footing possible for your barefoot horse. That may mean changing his turnout area, or keeping him in his stall on soft, clean bedding more of the time.
In the end, much of going barefoot comes down to your horse's comfort level: If he hurts too much to get around, you'll have to put his shoes back on. Unfortunately, the horses who get the sorest when their shoes are pulled are usually the ones who most need time going barefoot to grow stronger, healthier feet.
Instead of having your horse's shoes pulled and then asking your farrier to put them back on a week later, because your horse is sore and his feet are chipping, work with your farrier to figure out ways to keep him comfortable enough that his shoes can stay off for a few months. In the long run, that's the best way to help him grow stronger feet.
Certified Journeyman Farrier R. Vance Glenn has shod sporthorses for more than 25 years. His clients include world-class competitors in eventing, dressage, show jumping and driving. A member of the American Farriers Association, Vance also partners with veterinarians on lameness issues that require state-of-the-art therapeutic shoeing. Based in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he travels monthly to Aiken, South Carolina, and seasonally to Ocala and West Palm Beach, Florida.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Practical Horseman.