Barefoot Rehabilitation

By Peter Laidely

Upper: Shod hoof with moderate forward toe and heel; good chance of complete recovery. Lower: After first trim



1. To restore to good health or useful life, as through therapy and education

2. To restore to good condition, operation, or capacity

Notice that the meanings include references to health, use, life, “good condition”, and operation (or function). I am afraid that over the last few years I have seen a lot of horses whose feet definitely needed a lot of restoration in some of these areas… The main reasons for this need seemed to be deformity, damage, and disease.

So, allow me to tell you a bit about how I go about restoring the results of the first of these problems - deformity - by correct natural hoofcare.

Hoof Deformity Origins

Almost always, the deformities I have found in horses’ feet have been caused by the way humans have managed the care of those horses. It seems to start very early in the horses life. I am amazed to find that almost all horse breeders choose to have their foals spend the first months, or years, of their lives in the softest, greenest paddocks, which is exactly the opposite to what is required to develop strong healthy hoofs and feet. At least some breeders do take care to ensure that the foals’ feet are trimmed each time the mothers’ feet are trimmed, but if this only happens once or twice a year it is very unlikely that the developing foal will be able to wear enough hoof away to ensure correct development of shape and function… basically both the toes, and the heels, of the hoof wall frequently grow too long and are bent forward from their natural position which can result in “forward toes” and “undershot” (or “under-slung”) heels.

Although good trimming can fairly easily address the forward toe problem, the heels are very difficult to ever restore to the ideal shape they would have developed if the foals were allowed to follow the mother over ten to twenty miles of harsh ground each day.

Of course the problems do not stop here; once the horse gets old enough to be shod (however old that is) the problem of overprotecting the hoof wall from wear, and only trimming at four-week intervals (or perhaps six weeks, or eight weeks or “who knows how many” weeks) also encourages the continued development of longer, more forward toes and heels.

Of course not all farriers do allow these conditions to develop or get worse, but many do.

Even the best farriers (and I personally know a few very good ones) have to work very hard to overcome the difficulties caused by the foot being totally protected from natural abrasion, and thus natural wear and shortening, between each resetting. And then, some farriers, having controlled the forward deformation of the heels then encourage unnatural height (vertical length) of the heel, which frequently causes the heels to become narrow, or at least not to widen naturally as the horse grows.

Shod hoof with extreme forward toe and heel. Good chance of restoring toe; heel will improve but may retain some deformity. Lower: After first trim

Addressing the Deformities

So how do we approach this problem? What can we do, when we at last start these horses on natural hoofcare?

Toes etc:

As I said earlier, addressing the “forward toe” is a fairly simple procedure. We just remove all flares, from the front of the hoof, and if necessary, rasping any “toe pillars” so that we have uniform hoof wall thickness around the toe. We then create a definite and effective “Mustang Roll”, perhaps from “nine o’clock” to “three o’clock” around the toe (or a little more or less as any particular hoof requires). We may also, possibly, even rasp a “small rocker” in front of the toe callus to shift the breakover back towards the front of the toe callus.[See related hoof articles in NHM Volume 7 Issues 1, 2, and 3.]

This will almost always make such a change that an “event line” will form at the top of the dorsal hoof wall and a new toe shape will start to grow down from the coronary band tight on the front of P3 (coffin bone). When this new growth has reached the ground level the “forward toe” just will not be there any more… seems simple, but it does, almost always, just happen!

Heels etc:

Restoring the optimum shape of the heel can be a little more difficult, but, in my experience, we should always expect to see improvement.

Lowering artificially high heels is relatively easy. I must emphasize that I do NOT normally use “hoof gauges” or “rulers” to measure hoof angles or heel heights, however, we can lower high heels until we clearly define the sole and white line around the corner of the heel, but take care not to invade natural sole. If the sole has become unnaturally thick at the heel it should defoliate naturally over several months (or several trims) and we will rarely, if ever, need to actually rasp away the sole material at the heel…

Actually I think we should be able to always think this way about sole… we may normally expect to smooth the sole, but we should very rarely, if ever, need to thin the sole anywhere… I know there may be exceptions but they are not common. I have seen a very few horses where heels or toes had grown unnatural vertical thickness which needed to be trimmed off, and in those cases I cheerfully removed the unnatural material, but it is not what we should expect.

The main reasons for this need seemed to be deformity, damage, and disease.

Finally let me try to describe the process for the heel that has been bent forward, so that the heel and bar material has covered the sole and the forward length of the heel has actually caused the sole to become thinner and the back of the heel to become lower. Often this condition is associated with the “weak heels” with under-developed hoof cartilages and digital cushions, so apart from just trimming the length of heel we must look to see an exercise regime, which encourages the development of strength and “fitness” in the flexible structures at the back of the hoof.

We do have to address the deformity of the wall and bar material covering the sole. But again we must take extra care not to thin the sole, which is probably under natural thickness because it has been completely protected from the abrasion, which is what stimulates normal growth. Again we should take a little extra time rather than damage the hoof and make the horse sore. If the wall and bar are still covering the white line and sole a little at the heel we may chose to allow that material to stay until next trim rather than remove it today. If it is unnatural, again it should be easier to define the natural sole plane in a week or two. If in doubt, leave it for next trim rather than reduce the horse’s movement because he is sore, or even very “tender”. But do be determined that the unnatural material will go, just not today. The end result will still be that the wall and bar will be an edgeto the sole, around the corner of the heel so that in future we can look to see growth of the wall, which allows more vertical height and so greater sole thickness.

Peter Laidely and Shasta doing liberty work

Exercise, Movement, and Function

And now, in the mean time, we must be prepared, if necessary, to protect these hoofs so that they can get enough exercise to develop the strength and fitness they need for whatever work the horse is required to do.

Often, in the past, I have resisted using hoof boots unless I thought it was absolutely necessary, because I noticed that boots had the same disadvantages as shoes, perhaps even more so in that they completely remove the sole and frog from natural abrasion and stimulation. The only good thing about the boots was how easy they were to take off!!! However I have recently been trying boots with flexible foam pads inserted in them, including, if necessary, an extra thickness of foam under the frog to provide more support and stimulation there. I heard Pete Ramey discussing this at a clinic (Pete is definitely one of the “Barefoot good guys” in my opinion, and he has been using this technique for some time.) and thought I would like to see the results. So far they have been excellent. We are seeing faster development of frog and heel structures and, to my great delight, better results with the hoof wall at the heel restoring to a more natural “heel angle”.

So, I am glad to say, we do not “know it all” yet, but what we do know is that good natural hoofcare can allow us to bring many horses back to better form and function. Continuing to learn from each other can help us to learn better how to rehabilitate many deformed or damaged horses. And, perhaps most importantly, if we can better understand the causes of the deformities in our horses’ hoofs, perhaps we can change our management, and improve our standards of hoof (and horse) care to ensure that the deformities do not happen.


About the author:

Peter Laidely has always done his own horses' hoofcare and kept them barefoot (except for one horse, shod for one month, over 40 years ago!) He lives in Mount Samson, near Brisbane, Queensland, Australia with his wife, five horses, six steers, nine alpacas, and one dog. Peter gives Barefoot and Natural Hoofmanship seminars and clinics around Australia and New Zealand, and soon South Africa. He practices natural horsemanship and enjoys teaching the horses to relax and enjoy hoofcare. Peter is an author and has produced the interactive teaching CD "Hoofworks: Barefoot Basics".;; PO Box 451, Ferny Hills Qld 4055, AUSTRALIA; phone: 07 3289 9988, from outside Australia +61 7 3289 9988