Expert Exchange


Martha Olivo on the Hooves

Q. My 10-year-old gelding Vinnie was deshod a year ago. He was in shoes from the age of two. I believe that barefoot is best, but he still is ouchy over rocks! He has 24-7 turnout with other horses, and eats only hay and oats. What's the problem?

A. Vinnie is in the age bracket and circumstances that many horses share. Great that you've pulled his shoes and provided 24-7 turnout with others. I see two probable causes for the tenderness: Poor hoof form and too much bar.

Poor hoof form is from the distortion that so often results from incorrect trimming, shoeing ('correct' or incorrect) or from neglect - especially before the age of 5. Horses don't have fully developed bones until then, and the coffin bone is no exception. Stalling during foalhood will also cause the hooves to be weaker and more prone to distortion, due to a lack of movement that ligaments, tendons and bones need for healthy development. It can take several years for horses to overcome the effects of early life problems. Some horses are so damaged that they require rehabilitation. "Orthopedic" shoeing (unwittingly) only aggravates the problems while masking the ongoing destruction.

Bars are the internal support structures of the hoof. In nature, healthy, well-formed active hooves wear the bars constantly. Domesticated horses frequently are denied the opportunity to move enough to wear their walls, much less the bars! The sole and frog should be able to descend and spread when bearing weight. Bar can either lay down or stand up in the hoof, depending on the basic hoof shape. Overgrown bar causes painful pinching, bruising, and can even cause bone to degrade!

In Vinnie's case, since he is willing to go but is only ouchy over rocks, mindful tweaking (minimal trimming) with special attention to making the bars passive to the wall should make him more comfortable. Boots will help ease any discomfort until the hooves recover, and are a good idea for trail rides when a horse is habituated to living on soft ground. (Keep in mind that cautious placement of the feet could indicate that a horse is simply feeling his way on unaccustomed ground. When possible, putting stones in the pasture or wherever horses are fed and watered will accustom them to tougher ground.)

Remember: Trimming hooves (to mimic natural wear) and providing a natural lifestyle are our best compensations for domesticating creatures adapted to continuous movement.

About the author:
Martha Olivo was a farrier for 25 years before hanging up her hammer and committing herself to the Whole Horse Trim™. The Whole Horse Trim™ is a physiologically correct hoof trim that duplicates the parameters found in feral equine hooves. As an accomplished hoof care clinician, Martha currently tours the US holding clinics that help horse owners, farriers and veterinarians understand the benefits of High Performance Barefootedness. Martha is a Strasser Certified Hoofcare Specialist and founder of United Horsemanship, a membership organization committed to the application of natural equine care.
United Horsemanship is a growing company dedicated to advocacy, natural horsemanship and "helping horsemen become better horsemen." With her business partner, Tara Felder, Martha networks to support and educate people involved in the natural horse movement. Although United Horsemanship focuses on the care of horses' feet, it isn't just about trimming feet. It is a solidarity movement and a nationwide, for-profit membership organization that was born out of love and dedication to horses.
Committed to their company's vision - "to form a commonwealth of support, education, advocacy and information among those individuals and organizations who regard natural horse care as a sensible, humane and preferable way to initiate and sustain optimal health and well being in horses," Martha, Tara and a team of enthusiastic helpers work tirelessly to make United Horsemanship a self-supporting organization. For Martha's clinic schedule, to schedule a clinic and to learn more about United Horsemanship, log on to their website at To schedule a clinic, call (360) 647-7503 or drop an email to