Hoofcare Highlights


Can You Overload A Barefoot Hoof?

Many horses, especially competitive horses, are typically shod when they would be better off on healthy bare hooves.

Opinions of Dr. Hiltrud Strasser

To speak of a barefoot hoof, we must first describe what we mean by this. A barefoot hoof is not one that is just "missing a shoe". For this discussion, it is either a wild hoof, naturally optimal or it is a healthy hoof trimmed to certain specifications that replicate this natural, physiologically correct form. Correct form and function yield correct horn production and therefore coffin bone suspension. In such a case the horse exhibits no locomotion problems, does not go lame, stumble, walk with shortened strides, etc. This also implies that there is sufficient movement on appropriate terrain to place consistent demand on the hoof and its tissues. Any neglected, improperly formed or recently shod hoof will not have physiologically optimal horn and tissue production or ideal hoof function.

Can a healthy hoof in a physiologically correct state, with an environment based on a natural, wild model, be overloaded? Let us keep in mind under what circumstances the horse has spread over the world in the last millennia after the Ice Age. Almost without exception the horse has survived on rocky mountainous tundra or desert where the hooves are submitted to the most extreme conditions and demands. From this already it is easy to assume that the hoof can indeed hold up to the rigorous demands placed upon it without being overloaded. Anyone who has seen horses on the move through the rugged terrain, in which most of them live, will attest to the surefootedness and obvious ability of the foot to carry the horse.

By looking at the anatomy and functions of the hoof, we can see that the hoof grows faster the more steps it takes. It is not that the hooves wear down faster the more they are used. Horn is being produced in relation to movement and the degree of hoof mechanism. The more the hoof pumps, the more horn is produced.

There are documents in existence about the training methods of the Hittites (a high culture between 5000 and 1000 BC) that tell about the horses not only receiving a well-founded dressage training but also thorough training in endurance. Over several weeks at a time the horses had to endure a daily 150 - 250 km chariot ride. The Hittites knew no form of hoof protection, yet lived in the areas of present-day Turkey, North Syria, Iran, and Caucasus - mostly arid rocky terrain.
These and many other cultures for thousands of years have shown that the hooves stand up to the wear and tear placed upon them.

In the present day lands of the Hittites we currently find mostly donkeys. In principle the same goes for donkey hooves since their construction is the same as the horse. In most of these countries today, the animals are unshod. Those that are barefoot have generally very good hooves, whereas most of the shod animals have terribly unhealthy hooves. I have seen this for myself. It is not the animals who live and work in the mountainous areas that have unhealthy "overloaded" hooves, but those living in the city or otherwise unnatural circumstances, not having enough exercise, being shod, etc. It is not the natural circumstances that will create a poor hoof at risk of overloading, but the unnatural.

Considering the equine sports activities undertaken by humans it is hard to imagine that dressage would overload the hoof. Nevertheless most dressage horses are shod, because it supposedly cannot be done without shoes. This is nonsense and evidence of ignorance pertaining to the functions and biology of the hoof. Hooves are perfectly capable of performing as well as bones, joints, tendons, ligaments and muscle do.

Any show jumper could perform the task much easier having his healthy bare hooves that provide him with enough shock absorption at the point of impact and thus provide protection to the skeleton. An impact too great for the hoof would be too great for the skeleton and other internal structures. It is far more incredible that the hoof withstands the strain and concussion of competition while shod, without being able to properly expand, having poorer horn quality, and having reduced shock absorption and traction.

More and more riders today, like endurance champion Darolyn Butler Dial, are proving the ability of the barefoot hoof to not only equal, but surpass the performance of the same horse when shod. A 22-year endurance veteran, Darolyn just recently surpassed 22,000 miles of lifetime Endurance competition. She rides internationally and is a four time National

"I've been running 50 - 100-mile races on barefoot horses for over a year now, with two of our horses placing 1st and 2nd in a 100 in Florida in February 2002," says Darolyn. "We also had 6 of 7 successfully complete the 100 in a Texas ride in February and we'll be taking10 barefoot horses to the Fox Fire FEI Endurance ride April 6th. Other 'barefooters' and I feel that the horses not only feel better with the extra added circulation in their feet, but it gives them a quicker recovery in the vet checks, which is of paramount importance in the competition itself."

Darolyn adds, "If someone had told me 2 years ago that I would be running 100-mile races totally barefooted, I would have laughed out loud."

Bare hooves can only be overloaded if unhealthy from the start through deviations in natural physiology - their angles, proportions and solar profile. Hooves deviating from the physiological state will become overloaded very soon or will wear unevenly, becoming too steep, crooked, etc. Such pathological situations are more often than not additionally compounded by unnatural living conditions. All of this is almost solely due to a lack of understanding of the connections between hoof anatomy, hoof form, and environmental conditions, by professionals as well as horse owners. A healthy, physiologically correct hoof cannot be overloaded any more than the rest of the horse could be overloaded. On the contrary, a healthy, barefoot hoof will provide the optimum conditions to withstand load.

About the author:
Dr. vet med. Hiltrud Strasser is a veterinarian who, for nearly twenty years, has been studying and researching the causes and cures of lameness and other common health problems of domestic horses. She has based her research on the wild horse and has defined an optimum barefoot model. Using her research she has developed a complete system for the care of horses in a manmade environment, which minimizes the many health problems currently found in conventional boarding. The orthopedic methods she has developed have yielded unprecedented success in equine lameness rehabilitation. More importantly her techniques are successful as a daily method for maintaining horses in optimum health. In 1993, she opened the "Institute for Hoof Health" and "ESHOP" (European School for Hoof Orthopedics), a center for study and learning. Having established her methods in North America, Europe and Britain, Strasser has opened 2002 to sold-out audiences in Australia and New Zealand. Dr. Strasser is the author of several textbooks on lameness and healing, reference books on natural boarding for horses, and many articles for both horse and veterinary journals.

Dr. Strasser will be presenting at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts, Saturday May 4th and Sunday May 5th, 2002 at an exciting two-day symposium, co-hosted by the Hospital for Large Animals and the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts. Special emphasis will be placed on discussions of navicular disease and laminitis. For more information regarding registration, contact:
Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine
Office of Continuing Education/Conference Planning
200 Westboro Road
North Grafton, MA 01536
508-839-5302, 508-887-4723
email: susan.brogan@tufts.edu