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In Loving Memory...
~ Gogo Fatale ~

6/2/01 - 10/11/11
~ Forever the Marest of Them All ~

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Hooves of Steel: The Barefoot Journey, Part I (The History)

I am, always have been, and always will be, a horse industry skeptic. Fancy new supplements, expensive miracle therapies, and new age treatments all get thoroughly scrutinized before I pass judgement, and for the most part I'm never impressed. Five years ago, if you would have asked me about the barefoot movement, I would have scoffed at you. MY horse was an EVENT horse, event horses NEED shoes to compete. Barefoot is only for broodmares, foals and retirees. Sport horses DON'T go barefoot, how crude. Or so I thought.

I never gave much thought to hoofcare when I had Quincy. My trainer handled all the complicated ends of horsecare at the barn when we were kids - deworming, scheduling the farrier, etc. - and all I really knew was that all the horses went bare in the winter to "let those heels decontract." This certainly was a good first lesson for me, that feet needed a break from shoeing, but in my mind I equated this with taking a break from competing during the winter. When spring rolled around and the show season began, on went front shoes (never the hinds, the horses lived out in little herds 24/7. Another good early lesson to learn!) and off we went. When I got Metro, however, things changed. I became a bit of a foot snob. Obsessed with hoofcare and a beautiful, well-functioning athlete, the moment the farrier arrived to first work on Metro, on went the shoes and they never came off again. When I moved to Ohio to go to college, I found a competent farrier, and looked forward to our five and six week intervals. Like a hawk, I'd stand with the farrier and watch his every move, and in all honesty he did do a good job. it was fascinating. I remember going home to Michigan during winter break to show my old trainer the fancy eventer rim shoes my horse was now sporting, front and back, and feeling above everyone. I had no plans to take his shoes off during the winter season - I planned to show, and something about leaving him bare felt crude and prehistoric. Taking his shoes off for the winter would render him unuseable for months. Or so I thought.

It was around this time that I was perusing the vast interwebz looking for more information about hoofcare, and I happened to stumble upon a picture of a horse doing whatever it was doing, jumping perhaps. A random commenter had asked if the horse was barefoot (it appeared to be in the picture), and she stated that she too had barefoot performance horses, and anything else was clearly just wrong. I immediately got annoyed with said person, and reponded to her with the typical pro-shoe fire-backs - genetics, we've bred the feet out of horses, horses need the suport of shoes, horses have to have shoes to compete, et cetera. She was unfortunately one of those self-righteous barefoot types, telling everyone who would listen that shoes were cruel and evil, and gave me unsatisfactory and annoying answers to all the questions I posed. However, as with all interesting and differing mindsets, I felt the need to 'know my enemy', and went to read up on this barefoot hoodoo, just so I could make sense of all the jibberish she was speaking. What I found surprised me - endless pictures of gorgeous, healthy, short feet, hooves like I'd never seen before. They were gorgeous! These feet were tackling tough trails, rocks, speed events, and even jumping! Everything about them looked healthy, beautiful and biomechanically efficient. It made sense, even in terms of physics - the longer the level arm, the higher the force and energy required to move it. Long toes and high heels dramatically increase strain on the machine, which can lead to fatigue and injury. My horse certainly had both of those things going on. I felt as though somehow, mostly by accident, I had stumbled upon the answer.

Unfortunately by this time, Metro's mild on and off lamenesses has turned into a full-on chronic issue. Four months of misdiagnoses had kept me turning out my poor beast, and by the time someone finally figured out that he had a gaping black hole in his suspensory, the damage had been done. We experimented on and off with different shoeing combinations, starting with front shoes and pads and bare behind. He wore his hinds down to nothing, and when we went back to school in the fall, we put shoes back on his hinds. Given the pain he was in, he began wearing his front shoes in a very strange pattern, and the farrier who has previously been doing a great job decided to get cocky and experiment on my horse. He cut down the inside of my horse's foot and left the outside to flare out.... why? According to him, this would relieve some of the pressure on his suspensory, and he promised my horse would move off comfortably. Instead, he hobbled away from the shoeing, absolutely dead lame. The unnatural forces placed upon his compromised limb through his newly massascred hoof caused new damage to his already destroyed suspensory, and I immediately started looking for a new farrier (to this day, that guy swears up and down that he did nothing wrong). The new farrier arrived after much searching and scrutiny on my part, and once I was satisfied, I let him work on my horse. We entered a new realm of hoofcare I hadn't been involved with before: bar shoes, pads and injected silicone. I was startled to find that my horse walked off like a Hackney pony, the heavy steel shoes a new burden for his weakened suspensory to bear. His lameness worsened dramatically, and I ended up taking him back to MSU not long thereafter. As it turned out, the medial branch of his suspensory has ruptured, and the lateral branch was compromised and soon to follow suit. He had no chance of ever being comfortable again, not even enough to hobble around in a field for the rest of his life. I let him go three days later.

((Right: Metro's frightening feet the day before we put him down.)) The very worst part of the ordeal? I had the farrier come and pull his enormous bar shoes the day we put him to sleep, just so I could keep them as a memento, and turned him out in the indoor arena for one last bit of freedom. I was horrified to find that his once gorgeous feet were shriveled and mushy underneath the pads, his frogs only an inch wide, nothing like the beautiful, bare gravel-crunchers I had been admiring for months. The worst of the worst? When we let his newly barefoot self go in the indoor, he trotted off SOUND. Later necropsy showed massive hemhorraging in the ligament, but still... it was so awful to see. He even bolted away from the vet while we were putting him down, needle still in his neck, as if to say "stop!! I feel better already!! I don't want to die!!" I vowed that day to give the barefoot thing an honest try with my next horse, and that none of my horses would EVER go through that hell again.

When Gogo came into my life, she was shod with pads up front and bare behind. She threw both shoes within a week of me owning her, and they never went back on. To be continued.....


Mellimaus said...

Oh my goodness...your story about Metro is so sad. I'm sorry for your loss; that must have been horrible to go through.
I'm glad you've found the barefoot track.

PruSki said...

When I bought Olly, he was shod with shoes two sizes too small. One of his previous owners told he he would be lame without shoes. They saw it with their own eyes. For the first 6 months of owning him I had him shod, the right way. Every 3-4 weeks he would throw a shoe and the farrier had to come out and fix the damage. It got as bad as putting clips on his feet. I kept thinking if this is right, why am I having such a hard time? I decided to try it bare foot. I have read your blog and did some research of my own and went for it. Olly has been barefoot since Sept 09 and his feet are better than ever. We have done dressage, H/J and even some cross country. And always trail riding EVERYWHERE. I am glad that you are informing others of the barefoot wonderfulness. I may have wasted alot of time had I not read your blog. I am sure Olly is happier too ;)

Dressager said...

I had really grown up riding barefoot Western lesson horses and later working with barefoot rescues (it was hard to put shoes on some of the feet we got anyway... yikes!). I didn't realize the full details of barefoot vs. shoeing until I got Greta and dipped my toes into the super-cool-fancy-competition world haha. She's barefoot, and so are a couple of eventing and dressage horses at my barn. And for those that are still iffy about, I use you and Gogo as an example of just what a barefoot event horse can achieve.

But God, Metro's story is so sad! You are very brave for pulling through all of that like you did. I don't think I could've done it.

Patricia said...


I too scoffed at barefoot until recently. Even the vet thinks I'm crazy for pulling shoes off a horse that raced for five years. But you know what? When I see him trotting in the field, he's sounder than he's ever been. I don't hear the clicking sound he makes when he overreaches. Best of all, he cantered to the right on his own in the pasture. I love it already and I haven't even ridden much.

I'm sorry again about Metro. Poor boy!

RuckusButt said...

Your story is a very valuable one and I'm glad you're (re)telling it like this. I know I want to try my next horse barefoot but sometimes I wonder if "peer pressure" will get to me. More importantly, I have concerns about being able to find and/or recognize a good farrier for this approach.

I think reading your story helps me strengthen my resolve to learn as much as I can and to find a professional I can work with when the time comes.

Denali's Mom said...

Oh, your story of Metro is just so sad!! Denali is usually shod on the front, but I had them pulled right after she hurt herself. I'm hoping to keep them off! I have a lot to learn to be successful!! The part about Metro and the needle just breaks my heart! I couldn't imagine the pain you felt! He had a great momma!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to know that you had to learn abot barefoot horses in such an awful way. I feel for you and for Metro. I've been fortunate enough to find your blog as well as many others and websites that discuss the matter in depth so when I brought my overshod WB home last month, my research was done for me and his 4 shoes came right off. Your bad experiences and lessons learned have helped me and my horse to never have to experience something like thank you!

Golden the Pony Girl said...

I never thought too much about hoof care either I just stuck too the feet reigme my horses came with and I am currently blessed with a breed of horse that is not normally shod at this level of riding. I feel sheltered. So when looking at the feet of other horses at our farm it is terrifying to see how contracted and mushy they are.

I am glad you are on the barefoot track, and I am glad you are educating others about it.

Nic Barker said...

Its so interesting hearing the stories behind others' introductions to barefoot...Glad you have found the Rockley stuff useful in the past :-)

Val said...

Poor Metro. His life was not lost in vain, however. Beautifully written.

My first response to barefoot hooves was much the same as yours, except it was presented to me as "natural". This just did not sell it for me until I started reading and looking at pictures and x-rays. It was shocking how sturdy bare feet can be! I soon realized that even the pasture trim my horse was receiving was not cutting it in comparison to the barefoot trim. I cannot believe how little I knew and I much I still need to learn!

Sarah said...


You know Calvin and his chronic sore feet. I figured he was one who would NEVER go without shoes. I tried every single hoof treatment I could find with no luck. After I moved to TN I was forced to quit jumping because his feet were so sore. At the same time I realized that Chance, who had been barefoot since the beginning of his retirement in Ohio was able to crunch up and down the gravel driveway without flinching..something he couldnt do with shoes. This spring I pulled Calvins shoes for the first time. We are now about 4 months into his shoe-less life. He was very sore at first, and I was nervous because his conformation is...lacking at best. But he is SO sound now, sounder than he has ever been. We go on trail rides, do fantastic flat work, have done some jumping. Its an all around success. So I wanted to thank you because I'm not sure I would have been brave enough to tell the farrier "you know what, just leave them off" without knowing about Gogos success.


Sarah said...

Ooooh... Thanks for sharing this. I'm definitely looking forward to reading the following parts.

Sorry to hear about Metro's suffering. :(