Text by Marjorie Smith

Horses have been shod for hundreds of years, and the majority of domestic horses today wear shoes. Many owners don’t even question the shoes, and prefer to just leave the horse as they got him. However, barefoot is the natural and healthier option, and some horses are truly better off without shoes.

Taking a horse barefoot can also correct a number of faults in the hoof, where corrective shoeing can’t really help. If you’ve got a horse with bad feet, or you think your horse’s feet are strong enough to go barefoot, consult with your farrier and ask his opinion about losing the shoes. Be advised, however, that the transition to barefoot is a long one and has to be managed with knowledge and patience.

What is the transition period?

After you pull the shoes off, there is a rehabilitation period of several months to well over a year, depending on the amount of internal damage in the foot. Increased blood flow starts to rebuild internal structures that were damaged by the shoes. Until the rebuilding is complete, most horses are ‘sore on gravel’ and will need hoof boots to ride on gravel roads, rocky trails or very hard ground.

The transition is the reason why so many people have said, “Barefoot doesn’t work for my horse.” It is admittedly a time of inconvenience for the rider. However, once we understand that horseshoes do weaken the hooves, we can do certain things to make the horse rideable while he grows out a new, better hoof.

The transition period is over when the sole regains concavity (due to the white line tightening up completely) and the horse walks on gravel as if it were grass. 

Being realistic about transition

The white line is a layer of interlocking laminae. Like a sort of living Velcro (hook-and-loop tape), it connects the hoof wall securely to the coffin bone. When the foot is weighted, the white line takes most of the weight off the horse, shared somewhat with the sole. It takes an enormous supply of blood (nutrients) to keep the white line strong enough to handle this awesome job. Horseshoes reduce circulation inside the hoof; the ‘starved’ white line becomes weak and stretchy.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse who was shod for more than a year, who didn’t have white line damage. Anyone who helps lots of horses return to a barefoot condition, comes to recognise that horseshoes (plus infrequent trimming due to shoeing) do damage the feet. Most feet are going to be sore for a while after you pull the shoes – the front feet much more than the hind, because they carry more of the horse’s weight.

It can be very hard to admit to ourselves that we have caused this much damage to our beloved horses’ feet by doing what we thought was best for them – keeping them shod. I know how hard it is from personal experience, as well as from ‘holding the hand’ of horse owners while they go through the early part of the transition. The truth is, we made them sore; and so we get to live through the recovery time with them, including not riding for a while if necessary.

How long?

In general, it takes about a year of correct care before the de-shod hoof returns to the complete soundness it had before shoes. The issue when you pull the shoes is not, ‘Can I take him on a long, rocky trail ride tomorrow?’ but rather, ‘What’s a good programme to rehabilitate his feet?’.

The ‘white line strategy’ trim dramatically shortens the early part of transition; in some cases months of unrideability can be reduced to days. Generally it will not mean the week after the first trim will be totally pain-free.

Hoof boots are an important tool for the transition to barefoot; the comfort they provide will ease your state of mind as much as they help the horse. Another tool is your decision to be patient and trust the horse to heal. They do heal. They get better than you can imagine.

All the de-shod horses I know became barefoot-rideable within a few days to about a year, given these conditions of care:

  • A non-invasive, ‘natural’ or ‘wild-horse’ trim.
  • White line strategy used wherever there is white line separation (flaring).
  • A consistent trimming schedule so that the walls never get more than the thickness of two credit cards longer than the sole.
  • Hoof boots used on the front feet when riding on gravel, rocks, pavement or very dry, hard ground.
  • The most turnout as possible (24/7 is most effective).
  • A lot of hand-walking (if unrideable) or riding on firm footing.

What is the ‘white line strategy?’

‘White line strategy’ is a type of trim used for horses who have just had their shoes pulled. The type of trim prevents the white line from stretching out, and tightens it up rather, thereby shortening the transition period.

Why horses in transition are ‘sore on gravel’

The transition from shod to barefoot is not about ‘toughening up’ the sole. It’s not the sole that is sore, it’s the corium – a layer of living tissue on the bottom of the coffin bone that grows the sole. Iodine or other drying treatments do not speak to the actual problem. Putting gravel in the horse’s turnout to toughen the feet will work against you; wait until after transition is completed.

When we have a stretched white line, due to the lack of nutrition in a shod hoof, or due to the mechanical forces of a flare, the coffin bone sinks away from the hoof wall and presses down onto the sole corium. The corium gets inflamed by the constant pressure of the bone. When the horse walks on gravel or rocks, it hurts. It’s like when you have an inflamed finger; you’d rather not bump into sharp corners with it. 

The horse will not go sound on gravel (or other hard, uneven terrain) until the white line has healed and tightened up, and the coffin bone is held firmly up inside the hoof wall. This should generally happen within a year, with a consistently renewed mustang roll (rounding of the edges). Do not expect to ride your horse on gravel, rough pavement, very dry, hard ground or rocky trails without front hoof boots during the first year after pulling the shoes.

Winter is a hard time for transition horses. Expect that your horse will be sore when the ground is cold, dry and hard, through the first and sometimes the second winter after pulling the shoes, even though he is sound on soft ground. You may need to provide boots for turnout on cold or hard ground.

Some transitioning horses go sore on deep sand or very soft arena footing. This is because the soft landing doesn’t provide enough concussion to flex the hoof, so that there is reduced circulation and the feet become uncomfortably congested. The best solution I can suggest is to ride at least 10 minutes on firm ground, before and after the arena work, to get lots of circulation inside the hooves.