Friday, December 19, 2008

If you were involved in Wednesday's rescue effort....

If you spent time in the flood waters in the Tijuana River Valley on Wednesday, and you have not previously been vaccinated for Hepatitis A, please contact your physician, or call Passport Health in Mission Valley. We went today, and received a dose of Hep A immune globulin to immediately protect us against Hepatitis A. We're going back in 3 months (when the IG wears off) for our Hep A vaccines. The ladies at Passport Health were very helpful, and the cost was reasonable. Their phone number is:


Tell them Kirk & Maria sent you!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Flooding in Tijuana River Valley

Let me just start by saying that ALL OF THE SUN COAST HORSES ARE SAFE AND SOUND!!

Kirk & I arrived at the ranch at about 9 yesterday morning. We had debated about going down at all; it was raining steadily, and we figured there wasn't much we could do with the horses. But we wanted to see them and make sure they were snug, feed them their supplements, and come home. We left the house without my cell phone or Kirk's laptop, no water or snacks, anticipating a quick trip down and then back home -- maybe an hour round trip.

When we got to the ranch, it was wet, but not alarming; we fed supplements, and picked up what manure we could. Mike (the ranch owner) called at about that time, to ask if we could run to Chula Vista and pick up a couple of pumps he was renting to start pumping out ditches. (They own two large pumps which were already running.) We made the trip, and were surprised by how much more water was crossing Monument Rd when we returned half an hour later. Kirk and the Panchos proceeded to set up the smaller pump, while I tried to herd 4 loose horses from a neighboring ranch into a pasture. At some point in the next ten minutes, I heard water rushing. Through the pens closest the road, the river was literally running. Pouring.

The rest of the day was a blur...the water rose so fast, it was shocking. Horses that were on dry ground 15 minutes earlier were suddenly belly deep, and looking at us with wide eyes, trapped in their pens. With no way of knowing how high the water would rise, and with it rising at an alarming rate, we made one decision...get 'em all to higher ground. And so we did. Up the hill to Dana & Irwin's place.

Between about 8 people, we moved about 100 horses through water between knee and waist deep. Mostly it seemed to reach about to my hip. Let me tell you...dragging Wellies and jeans through water up to at least mid-thigh is no picnic. Doing it with a terrified horse -- and usually one on either side of you -- plunging through the flood is absolutely surreal. Shivering with cold, teeth chattering, legs cramping with every step, no feeling left in your fingers, time after time you reach dry ground with another batch of rescuees -- and have to turn right around and wade back in to bone chilling, filthy, debris strewn water.

More than one cell phone perished in a pocket that seemed high enough earlier in the day. I'm sure folks will be wondering why no one called them. But the truth is, between the waterlogged phones and the urgency of the situation, it just all happened too fast, and no one was being allowed in to the area at that point anyway. Kirk's phone is reviving finally after several hours, and so we have some pictures of the day below.

BTW...the -- ahem -- "rescue" workers were scarce. We were lucky to have one very kind border patrol agent leading horses out. The firemen didn't even give me a second glance when I wandered by at one point later in the evening, soaked to the bone and shell shocked. They were too busy scrubbing their rubber boots with disinfectant.

If you are on my trim list for the week, please accept my apologies -- I doubt I will be in any shape to work for a day or two (sort feel like a bus ran over me at the moment), but we'll catch up next week!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Barefoot Hoof Care means Diet, Hygiene, Lifestyle, AND a Good Trim!

The difference between what barefoot hoof care specialists do and what shoers do doesn't end with the trim and the absence of shoes. The new regime in hoof care has realized that diet, hygiene, lifestyle, and movement are paramount to a truly healthy hoof. We've made it our business to learn what it takes to build a robustly healthy hoof from the inside out. Keeping a barefoot horse 100% comfortable requires that the hoof is indeed robustly healthy; a nailed on shoe masks discomfort, and it's safe to say that that is likely the reason most of a traditional farrier's clients' horses are shod. But beyond comfort is the recognition of chronic issues that predispose the horse to long term unsoundness...issues that an alarming number of shoers will blythely nail a shoe over and never bring to the owner's attention. A shoer might recommend a biotin supplement, or will likely be educated on the impact of carbs and sugars on laminitis, but the truth is that an understanding of equine nutrition and its impact on the hooves has never been considered a prerequisite for farrier certification. With some of the most notable barefoot hoof care professionals -- and even hoof researchers -- enrolling in Dr. Eleanor Kellon's in-depth equine nutrition courses, it's likely that the associations certifying barefoot trimmers will eventually require and incorporate such education. But it's not just about diet, either -- the footing the horse spends most of his time on makes a huge difference too. Even different dirt can effect the hoof the horse living on it grows. And without lots and lots of movement, it doesn't matter how good diet, footing and trim are.

When you trim 100+ horses every month, and you look at hooves all day every day, you start to see trends pretty quickly. Horses in small pens at one barn with poor hygiene growing poorly attached wall, splay footed with lumpy, poor quality sole, white line separation and rotted frogs. Horses on high iron diets in stalls at another barn with chronic thrush, white line separation and shelly wall prone to chipping. And horses in large, well-maintained communal pens, on properly balanced diets, and sporting state-of-the-art bare hooves with gorgeous concavity, thick, waxy hoof wall, and wide, tough frogs. Get it all right, and see what a healthy hoof really looks like!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Trim of the Week!

Meet Sport, a 6 year old Paint Horse gelding. Sport's shoes came of at the beginning of May. His toes were so long, they were practically in the next zip code!

Sport has been completely sound and comfortable throughout his transition. We fitted him with boots and pads when we pulled his shoes, but he has not needed them at all. He is growing quite a bit of bar, probably because he has some thrush issues; the feeder in his pasture gets pretty deep in manure, which makes frog hygiene difficult. For the same reason, he still has just a bit more heel than I would like to see. Keeping him comfortable with a tad more heel height will benefit him more at this point than lowering his heels too quickly.

The coronary band injury that Sport had on his right front when we first pulled his shoes in May is growing out nicely. I'll be careful, though, to keep that quarter scooped and beveled to curtail a crack as it gets a little closer to the ground.

Measuring Uniform, Adequate Sole Depth Using the Collateral Grooves

I wanted to clarify this because it seems to be a sticking point for a lot of folks, and it's come up a lot recently. I'm borrowing an image from Marjorie Smith's website,, (thank you, Marjorie!) but I've relabeled the image because there were a few landmarks unacknowledged or labeled by a different name than I generally use in the original.

First and foremost, we need to distinguish between the COLLATERAL GROOVES, which run along either side of the frog, and the CENTRAL SULCUS, or the midline at the back of the frog, running forward from the heel bulbs.

The CENTRAL SULCUS is an important indicator of frog health. In a healthy hoof, the CENTRAL SULCUS should be no more than a dimple down the midline of the frog. In an unhealthy hoof, the central sulcus becomes a deep fissure, which can run deep into the heel bulbs. This contracted central sulcus is created by infection, as well as by mechanical heel contraction (can be caused by small shoes, eggbar shoes, etc.) A deep central sulcus, therefore, is a sign of an unhealthy hoof, and if your horse's hoof has this problem, you'll be instructed to start practicing a strict hoof hygiene protocol, including chlorine dioxide soaking and scrubbing with a stiff brush and dish detergent.

The COLLATERAL GROOVES, on the other hand, should NOT be expected to be shallow. The depth of the collateral grooves, measured at the apex of the frog and at the heels, give us the most accurate read on uniform adequate sole depth we can possibly expect without an X-ray. Shallow collateral groove depth indicates thin soles! A good standard for adequate collateral groove depth at the frog apex is about 5/8", measured with your hoof pick at the side of the tip of the frog, to the edge of the sole plane adjacent to the lamina at either side. A good standard for adequate collateral groove depth at the heel is about 1", measured with your hoof pick at the back of the frog, to the edge of the sole plane adjacent to the lamina in the heel triangle. The bottom line is the entire goal of a good trim: adequate uniform sole depth.

Keep in mind that not all horses will meet those standards. Those are the ideals, but trimming every hoof to those parameters immediately is usually NOT a good idea. Our goal is to EASE the horse through the transition, towards the ideal, while keeping the horse as comfortable as possible without compromising hoof mechanism. A good trimmer will know when and how much to allow the collateral groove depth to vary.

It's also important to understand that hoof shape varies from horse to horse, largely dictated by the shape of the horse's coffin bone and lateral cartilages. The collateral grooves will look wider or narrower depending on the shape of the internal structures, but the depth of the grooves is still a consistent marker.

Pete Ramey describes the importance of the collateral grooves best:

"How do we know when we have adequate thickness, excess thickness, or not enough? Easy. Nature gave us a trustworthy guide in the collateral grooves. If we learn to read them, we will never have to wonder what needs to be done or not done to the bottom of the foot. The very special thing about the collateral grooves is that they are very consistent in their depth to the underlying inner structures. If you cut the grooves deeper on a cadaver hoof, you’ll find that it is about ½ inch to the sensitive corium; whether the rest of the sole is too thick or too thin. This means that if a horse has too much sole, the collateral grooves will be too deep. If there is not enough sole thickness the collateral grooves will be too shallow. Only a sub-solar abscess can push the grooves farther from the coffin bone, and I have never seen or heard of a situation that brings them too close.

All we have to do is understand how deep the grooves are naturally, and we will immediately be able to tell if the inner structures are too close to the outdoors or too far away. This applies to the front of the foot and to the back. We can’t put exact dimensions to this, because different coffin bones have different amounts of solar concavity, and of course it varies by hoof size. A little bit too much sole bothers horses far less than having too little, so I tend to begin by erring on the side of caution. Wild hooves and healthy domestic hooves with uniform sole thickness tend to have their collateral grooves (at the deepest part) about ¾” off the ground at the apex of the frog, and about an inch off the ground toward the back (Near the termination of the bars). These measurements can be taken by laying a rasp across the foot and measuring down to the bottom of the groove."

Read Pete's article in its entirety here:

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How to Piss Off Your Horse in One Easy Lesson!

I take ALL the blame for this one. And in all fairness, nobody did anything really "wrong". The problem is that I had not prepared the horse appropriately for the group lesson I blythely rode him in to. Here is a nice little horse that I started in the way that I have learned, and which has turned out some very nice colts: soft, relaxed, self confident, and willing. My horsemanship in the recent decade has focused on the Cowboy of the Californios tradition, a la Bill Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, and other fabulous horsemen like them. The constant in this style of horsemanship is that the horse is taught to find a release from pressure; all pressure can be mitigated by just finding the correct answer to the question the rider poses. The amazing thing is, when this is done correctly, as training progresses, the amount of pressure necessary to elicit a "try" from the horse becomes increasingly subtle! I whole heartedly believe in this philosophy; it turns out a responsible, thinking, accountable horse.

Uninterested in working cattle or handling a rope, which are the more common pursuits of individuals who practice horsemanship through feel, I started to investigate classical dressage. I became more and more convinced of the similarities between this and the Vaquero style of riding. I decided that this was a good path to take my riding to a higher level. Mind you, the level of competitive dressage in this country left me a little queasy; I saw too much heavy-handed riding, too many unhappy, restrained, Rollkured horses. When a dressage rider came to the ranch that showed the sort of feel and finesse I knew should be what dressage is all about, and when she graciously agreed to help some of us improve our riding, you had better believe I was all over it like fleas on a dog. But in my eagerness, I forgot where I've come from, what I've learned, and the sort of partnership I want with my horses.

Well ridden dressage is spectacular. But there is no disguising the fact that it is complete control of every inch of the horse by the rider. With very, very rare exception, the task of making the horse accept that level of unmitigated mechanical control is embarked upon with an aggressive timeline. The ultimate goal is competition...and winning. The horse is quite literally secondary to the goal.

I handle a LOT of different horses every day, and I can make some broad generalizations that many folks won't like much, but are unfailingly true: many horses well educated for the dressage arena according to traditional methods have learned to expect minute direction, not just in the dressage arena, but upon every interaction with humans. Let me editorialize a little and tell you one thing: it is a FULL TIME JOB working with a horse like that. You know what I find much more sensible and enjoyable? A horse that knows what to do when I do nothing but give him a loose rein or a slack lead line. I find it infinitely more rewarding to bring along a horse that can think sensibly for himself, and STILL manage to do exactly what I expect of him, than to take entirely all of the autonomy out of the horse and develop a creature that is helpless to help me unless I dictate precisely what to do.

Now, don't misconstrue that to mean that I think dressage riders do not care about their horses. But suffice it to say a truly driven dressage rider will sell a horse to buy a more talented horse, to further their dream. (Likewise, a driven reining enthusiast, jumper, etc.) Maybe I'm a creampuff, but if my horse isn't talented enough for a particular career, well, then, I won't be pursuing that avenue. That said, I STILL want to evolve my horsemanship, and my horse's training.

I have this steadfast belief that ANYTHING can be accomplished with a horse without force or mechanical devices. So when a flash noseband was strapped tightly around Mixer's nose in the first two minutes of the group lesson, I was crestfallen. Undeniably, woefully disappointed. So was he...and I felt like a traitor for letting it happen. I gave it a fair shot, and to his credit, he settled and worked. But honestly? His heart wasn't in it. I had let him down in a big way. Why? Because a piece of equipment like a flash applies constant, unrelieved pressure. There is no finding the release. Mixer was thoroughly confused and unprepared; I thought he was going to flip over backwards trying to find the "release" he was SURE was there. I've spent the last five days trying to make it up to him, and unselfish creature that he is, I think I've been forgiven.

What now? Back to my roots. Back to Bill Dorrance, and Buck Brannaman, and Leslie Desmond, and true horsemanship through feel. And a remarkable relationship with a smart little horse who deserves a 50/50 partnership, and no less.

Monday, July 28, 2008

How Good is Your Horsekeeping Situation?

As I made my rounds today, I was depressed to find several of the horses in my care still suffering from nasty, chronic thrush. While a good trim is essential to grow a healthy hoof, it is utterly useless if the horse lives in conditions that literally rot the hoof...small pens that make it impossible for the horse not to stand in urine or manure; deep, soft bedding or footing that holds moisture and easily packs into the hoof; and minimal exercise.

It brought to mind the story often told about how horseshoeing became popular in medieval times: horses kept in stalls in the castle, standing in urine and manure, quickly developed soft, rotten, painful feet. An enterprising blacksmith nailed a metal semi-circle on the bottom of a horse's feet, lifting him out of the muck, and the hoof seemed much healthier. We didn't know then what damage that nailed on shoe was really doing (and never mind that it has taken us an embarrassing span of time to finally figure it out), but it did seem to solve the problem of the hoof falling apart in horrendously unsanitary stabling conditions.

Like we humans often do, we approached the solution from entirely the wrong angle initially, and are only now realizing the repercussions. Not only was the horseshoe a bad solution to the problem, it was only addressing a symptom of the problem. The problem, it turns out, is really the stabling of a horse in a very small space where he is forced to stand around in his own excrement. That's not to say that a horse in a 10 acre pasture won't walk through manure; but that is entirely different than standing in it for hours on end. It's as if the hoof melts. The wall flares. The sole grows in desperately, in lumps and ridges, but crumbles from the constant soaking in muck. The frog becomes mushy, full of flaps, black, stinky, and sludgy, not to mention painful.

If you love your horse, find a way to improve his living situation. Pay for daily -- and I mean all day -- turnout in a drylot pasture. Find pasture board (but be very picky about the forage in the pasture!). Rent two adjoining pens, make them into one larger pen; then invest in pea gravel and/or sand to fill it, do everything in your power to see that the pen is cleaned not just once but TWICE a day, and make sure the horse's hooves are cleaned daily. Be creative; think outside the 24X24 box.

Sound extreme? Not really. Just extremely different than the way we've done it for far too long. And it's not just about the horse's hooves. You haven't met a truly happy horse until you've met a horse that lives in a herd, in a pasture, where they can gallop for a quarter mile without having to think about turning.

When they'll gallop that quarter mile to the sound of your voice calling their names, just for the chance to go for a ride, then you've met a truly happy horse.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

I'm often asked if every horse can go barefoot...

The answer is physiologically, yes, every horse can go barefoot.

Unfortunately, barefoot requires a level of commitment from the horse's owner that not all owners are willing to accommodate. To grow and maintain a truly healthy hoof requires:

1. Adequate, proper movement, preferably over the same type of terrain upon which the horse will be required to work. That means as many heel-first landings as you can possibly encourage in any 24 hour period. Lots of steps that are NOT heel first won't cut it. Stimulation of the proprioceptors that generate healthy digital cushion and lateral cartilage in the horse's hoof requires pressure and release to the back of the hoof. If your horse lacks well-developed digital cushion or lateral cartilage, we CANNOT create them without hundreds of heel first landings. Hoof boots and pads are the only tool we currently have to help facilitate heel-first landings. They take a few minutes to put on, and they cost about as much as one shoeing, but they last indefinitely. You might break a nail putting them on. Your horse might need to get used to them. But they may very well be an absolutely critical element for your horse's rehablitation. Not willing to learn how to use hoof boots, and commit to getting your horse moving as much as possible? Then you are probably not a barefoot horse owner.

2. The right diet. Dietary imbalances and metabolic issues are always dramatically reflected in the health of the hoof. Obesity is very dangerous for hoof health. Not willing to cut the molasses, alfalfa, non-structural carbs, sweet feeds, oats, and green grass grazing from your horse's diet? Then you are flirting with laminitis, and you are probably not a barefoot horse owner.

3. Good, balanced physiological hoof trimming performed on at least a four week schedule. Trying to save some money by stretching trims to 8, 10 or 12 weeks? Then you are probably not a barefoot horse owner, unless you are willing to learn how to maintain the trim between your hoofcare professional's visits.

My goal is to build healthy bare hooves and promote the benefits of natural hoofcare, and expose the dangers of nailed on shoes and traditional farriery techniques. Trimming alone will help grow a healthier hoof, but if all of the factors are not addressed, the process is not only slower, but sometimes impossible.

So, yes, every horse can positively thrive barefoot. Just as long as his/her owner commits to the lifestyle required to make it successful. As your barefoot hoofcare specialist, I will prescribe diet changes, booting, and horsekeeping changes based upon the most recent research. I will also provide you with literature supporting my recommendations. Whether or not to follow my guidance is entirely up to you. But remember that my ultimate goal is the healthiest bare hoof I can create, and I consider my reputation, as well as the credibility of the barefoot movement, at stake with each and every horse. Your willingness to educate yourself on the topic, and/or follow my guidance, is critical, and I reserve the right to refuse my services to owners not willing to make the commitment.

"A bare, unprotected hoof that cannot function comfortably and properly in the terrain the horse normally lives and works in is no less “sick” than any other part of the body that is not capable of doing its intended job. When any other part of the body is not functioning correctly, we immediately try to fix it. When the hooves aren’t functioning correctly, tradition demands that we just try to cover them up. The problem is that it only works for a little while and actually brings the hooves farther out of normal function. "

-- Pete Ramey, Laminitis Update 3-20-05

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Still Think Horses Can't Go Barefoot? Check Out The Houston Mounted Patrol

As of April 2008, all thirty six horses of the Houston Mounted Patrol are barefoot, working on asphalt and concrete daily. Read the whole story here:

And check out some photos of the horses here:

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Thoughtful Horseman Newsletter Debuts This Week!

Our first issue will be making its way to your email inbox or tack room door this week! We hope you will find the barefoot, horsekeeping & horsemanship facts, news and tips useful and informative.

A big thank you goes to my editor and all-around assistant, Kristi Inzunza, for working her tail off to get the newsletter off the ground!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What part of I DON'T TRIM LIVE SOLE didn't you understand?

I guess a red flag should have popped up in my head when the subject line of the email included the phrase "high performance barefoot trimmer". That was exactly the terminology used by the last Strasser follower I crossed paths with. But this individual had found and, a logical person would have presumed by what she said in her email, read my website, which describes in detail my trimming philosophy and mentors. She was looking for a trimmer, was already on the barefoot path, and had some doubts about how her current farrier was trimming her horses. I got her on the phone and we had a fairly lengthy conversation, which included the subject of trimming toe from the bottom (bad) and beveling the wall, among other things. All tenets of a good barefoot trim. Her main concern was that several of her horses seemed to have gone flat footed after recent trims, which sang to me of a sole carved too thin, and a toe trimmed from the bottom.

It never crossed my mind to ask specifically whether she subscribed to Dr. Hiltrud Strasser's techniques; most of the folks I encounter have already ruled her ideas out. It's not a battle I generally expect to have. Why shoeing is unhealthy, well, now, that battle I have every doggone day. Why the typical pasture trim is not much better, except for the lack of nails, yep, I'm pretty used to that one, too. But my screening of new clients has not historically included a question to reveal Strasser devotees.

Now it will.

The first 3 minutes of our visit went pretty well. And then she whipped out Strasser's "text book". I immediately recoiled (lest I should turn into a pillar of salt on the spot) and explained that I find Strasser's invasive ideas unnecessary and at times quite detrimental to the comfort of the horse through the transition, and that her technique thins sole dangerously. I even warned her at that point that I might not want to get involved with trimming her horses if Strasser was part of the equation. But this gal had impressed upon me how badly she needed competent help trimming her horses, and my conviction in my trimming style is resolute, so I thought perhaps I could teach her. So I offered to at least evaluate one of her horses, explain what I saw, how I would trim and why.

The second red flag actually DID pop into my head when she brought the mare in and anchored her with cross ties. *Sigh*. Apparently the natural horsemanship aspect of my website was lost on her, too.

I then spent the better part of my afternoon being sneered at when I explained why I rarely invade the unexfoliating sole plane (sneer), why the heels and bar on a hoof with a diseased frog will grow back with a vengeance when lowered too aggressively (sneer), that treating the source of the discomfort was the most logical way to achieve healthy heel height in the shortest period of time (double sneer). I went through three of four hooves this way, doggedly ignoring her sour facial expressions and protests, pointing out what was good and bad; overall, the first three feet had adequate sole coverage; both hind feet were slightly imbalanced, but not badly; heel on the left front was a bit long, but not radically, with some contraction (hello, chlorine dioxide), and all in need of a serious beveling job.

Then I picked up hoof number four, the right front. Now, don't misconstrue this paragraph as a critique of this lady's trimming skills; my point is only how Strasser's technique struggles against what the hoof is trying so very hard to tell us. And this hoof was screaming. Aye, yay yay. Horrid contraction. Poor, sad, scrawny little blackened frog giving up the ghost in the middle. Pronounced mediolateral imbalance. Heels trying hard to touch each other, except for the fact that they had been trimmed literally almost to the bottom of the collateral groove, swooping like the runners on a rocking chair from the quarters (where she could rasp no further without quicking the horse) to bring the "length of the heel" into Strasser's parameters. The mare literally had no point of heel purchase. Opening cuts had been used to cut away and forcibly, artificially widen the heels. Aaaarrrgghhh.

I expressed concern over the way the heel had been trimmed. (Sneer.) I could not, due to the overzealous and unrelenting weekly-or-more trim jobs, tell where the hoof was wearing naturally, and suggested allowing a little more time between trims to listen to the hoof. (SNEER.) I quietly reasserted the effectiveness of chlorine dioxide soaking to eradicate chronic frog infection. When that again met with the impertinent little sneer, I cut my losses, gathered my things, and left. Enough time wasted for one day.

Much of Strasser's work which focuses on healthier horsekeeping and the evils of horseshoeing resonates with my philosophy. However, her aggressive "carve the foot you want to see" methods completely ignore the basic principles I believe are the most important to creating a truly healthy hoof, including doing everything humanly possible to make the transition comfortable for the horse. And above all, not invading the sole!!! No, you CANNOT carve concavity into the sole, unless you happen to own a mini, or a long ears, who just don't shed sole on their own. You can try, but until the sole plane reaches a healthy depth and mirrors the bottom of P3 on its own, you will fight a losing battle.

Not every horse trimmed a la Strasser will suffer. But too many do. A far less invasive approach works beautifully, with far fewer risks. Why fight what the hoof is telling you? Instead, read it, and gently fix the problem.

My new "Potential Client Questionnaire" will be available on my website soon...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Your tender-footed horse and that occasional pasture turnout..

I know I harp on feed issues a lot, and I'm sure plenty of you shake your heads and mutter "it's just ONE molasses cookie", "but he LOVES to be turned out to eat grass all day long", or, "she needs alfalfa to keep weight on her". I'm also sure that there are plenty of vets and trainers who will blythely tell you a little bit won't hurt.

But what we're seeing in the field, and what current research like that done by Dr. David Hood at the Hoof Project at Texas A & M is confirming, is that a little bit can hurt...quite literally. Horses that were toe flicking sound all winter are suddenly tender on hard ground or gravel; transitioning horses who finally have adequate sole coverage and healthy frogs start to tiptoe again. Trimmers across the country have seen it enough to know the solution: stricter diet. For committed barefoot horse owners, the solution is a really honest evaluation of what the horse is eating.

Those of you new to barefoot horses will inevitably wonder whether your horse really just needs shoes after all. The truth is shoes will only mask the underlying problem: too much sugar or non-structural carbohydrates in the horse's diet, causing inflammation of the laminae that bind the hoof wall to the coffin bone. Linda Cowles, a noteable and talented trimmer in Northern California (see her website, ) had this to say on the subject:

"People who aren't committed slap shoes on their horses when the trainer or vet suggests it, in essence ignoring a vital warning sign that could have long term consequences [laminitis, founder]. This happened at a stable I work at recently, where a known IR (insulin resistant) horse who had been barefoot for 8 years became tender and was shod. Her small paddock was surrounded on all sides with lush grass that had been nipped down methodically, and the base of her paddock had a liberal carpet of tightly cropped grass. When she became tender, the trainer advised shoes and she got shod. Is she sound? No, she isn't landing heel first, but her toe first landing is less pronounced, and the trainer is satisfied.

It's easier to assume that the horse is unable to go barefoot, or to choose the easy solution of metal shoes to boots and an optimum diet. People who are committed to their horses' health choose grazing muzzles and dietary changes, using diet and boots in conjunction with a good trim to pull horses through these tender periods. More and more people are thinking this way, but because vets and trainers often feel shoes are a very acceptable alternative, it takes nerve for the conscientious owner to go against their suggestions.

The real problem is that shoeing masks symptoms without addressing the cause, which is ongoing grass laminitis, or early onset of Insular Resistance."

I couldn't agree more. Lush pasture, sweet feed (oatmo, grains, ANYTHING containing molasses), and alfalfa are all potential triggers. I have a question for you to ponder: If you had a diabetic child, would you feed that child large doses of sugar on a daily basis??

Barefoot isn't just about pulling shoes. It is a whole horse care choice for the better health of the domestic equine. If you make the commitment....MAKE THE COMMITMENT.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Eight Belles' tragic breakdown after the Derby...

Well, as much as I have mixed emotions about horse racing, I watched the Derby today. Actually, I was very interested to see if they talked about the PolyFlex glue-on shoes worn by Big Brown and Pyro; while it's not barefoot, and still a peripheral loading device, it IS a break from the traditional nailed on aluminum shoe, and bound to make people -- even non-horse people -- think. Eight Belles' tragic breakdown was, I thought, rather downplayed...tough for the industry after all the negative publicity with Barbaro, I guess.

There are surely many issues with horse racing, not the least of which are the young age at which horses are raced, the high octane diet designed to grow them BIG at a young age (Eight Belles was a 17 hand 3 yr old filly!), the distance and frequency they are made to run, and the surfaces upon which they compete. But the relevance to barefoot hoofcare is, I think, bound to become a discussion. The horse racing industry funds much of equine research; if barefoot starts to make sense to them, imagine the impact to hoofcare everywhere. Just look at the millions of dollars being spent to resurface tracks across the country. If only that would be applied to hoof research!! The Northern California track vet recently advised the CHRB to consider allowing horses to race barefoot. (I'm sure they all smirked at her and moved on to the next agenda item, but hey, she gets major kudos for broaching the subject!)

That a shoe nailed to the hoof greatly reduces the shock absorption inherent in the bare hoof has been scientifically established. While I cannot find relevant research regarding aluminum racing plates and catastrophic injuries of this type, research does exist supporting the increased risk of such injuries when horses are shod with toe grabs. Is there a connection between shoes and catastrophic musculoskeletal injuries in equine athletes? It's hard to believe there isn't. Now if more trainers would just start training their horses barefoot, the rules that a horse must be shod to race might change, and we might see the can only hope...

Author's notes: reports that Eight Belles "...
suffered condylar fractures in both forelegs. The left was dislocated and opened the skin, contaminating the injury. She fractured "at least one sesamoid' in her right leg..." according to Dr. Larry Bramlage, the American Association of Equine Practitioner's on call veterinarian on site at Churchill Downs

Also from, the following paragraph taken from the article "Broken Legs Aren't Death" by Sharon Biggs, published May 21, 2006:

"The most common long bone fracture that Nunamaker the lateral condylar fracture. "Although this is commonly seen here at the University of Pennsylvania, fractures in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world are in fact different. It's all based on training, the surfaces animals race and work on, as well as what kind of shoes they wear," says Nunamaker.

ESPN ran a story on Big Brown's glue on shoes on May 1st. It quotes the trainer talking about the colt's feet having a heavier pulse and carrying heat in nailed on aluminum shoes -- two classic signs of laminitis. In his glue-ons, Big Brown's feet are cool and calm. It also talks about the flexibility of the PolyFlex shoes. Read the entire article here:

Frog Health Follow Up....

The barefoot hoofcare contingent is talking a lot about frog health these days, and I believe we are all starting to agree it is a MUCH bigger issue than anyone ever suspected. The consensus, after many case studies, is that bacterial/fungal infection attacks the entire hoof capsule, and treating the entire foot with oxine or chlorine dioxide can dramatically aid rehabilation.

In my March 5th blog entry, I pondered just how rampant, underdiagnosed and underestimated the gravity of the problem is, as well as what tools we can add to our arsenal to control it. After much reading and experimentation, my new favorite treatment is soaking with White Lightening chlorine dioxide liquid. The White Lightening chlorine dioxide gel is proving to be a good follow up to the soaking.

Just how insidious is chronic infection of the frog? And how dramatic are the effects of the White Lightening soaking? Have a look...this is my barefoot-from-birth 6 yr old Paint gelding, Mixer. I never really considered his frogs unhealthy until I became obsessed with the subject. On the left, solar view of his right front after his last trim 04-23-08. On the right, solar view of his right front after soaking with White Lightening on 04-30-08. The frog was NOT trimmed prior to or after soaking!

Click image to view full size:

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bad Hoof, Good Hoof...Side by Side Comparisons

I struggle daily with trying to explain to all of my clients the changes individual horses must undergo to have healthy, comfortable, balanced feet. For most people, who have yet to see a truly healthy equine foot in person, it is very difficult to grasp. Even if I pick up a very healthy foot and show them, and then walk over to their transitioning horse, it's tough to keep the differences in proportion, dimension and balance in your mind's eye. So I thought it would perhaps be helpful to do a little pictorial comparing some of my transitioning horses with a spectacularly healthy foot.

When you look at these images, bear in mind that every pathology we can see on the OUTSIDE of the hoof corresponds to a painful pathology INSIDE the hoof capsule. Underrun heels, long toe/low heel, radical heel contraction, sickly, atrophied frogs, and medial/lateral imbalances HURT. To help you visualize this, here is a beautiful photo of the sole/frog corium that lies just underneath the hoof capsule:

Also bear in mind that these things can, in the vast, vast majority of horses, be corrected. The hoof of the horse is nothing short of miraculously regenerative!!! I won't go into meticulous detail regarding HOW we effect the regeneration, except to say this much: bringing back the toe from the top, and eradicating frog infection by soaking with chlorine dioxide and applying Pete's Paste are key and critical. That said, here are four excellent comparisons of pathological to healthy. Click each image to view full size.

Dear Clients,

I wanted to take a minute to thank all of you for taking the leap of faith to entrust me with the care of your horses. I am thrilled and hugely optimistic about the barefoot hoofcare revolution based upon the sheer numbers of owners taking the time to educate themselves on the subject, and then embark on the sometimes scary, sometimes lengthy, and still largely controversial road to barefoot rehabilitation.

Your continued trust and faith in me is critical through your horses' transition. The changes you will begin to see are often strange -- hooves start to look oddly misshapen, frogs that have been carved for years grow in weird and asymmetrical shapes and then shed out in one big hunk, soles become thick and lumpy only to shed out in great chunks, toe angles look startlingly different, toeing in or toeing out briefly (or permanently, if the horse's natural conformation has been "corrected" to the detriment of the rest of the horse by the previous farrier) is not uncommon, among other is all part of the process, and your patience and faith will be rewarded. Some horses weather the regrowth with hardly a bobble; some transitions are tougher. With your cooperation, the goal is to keep them all as comfortable and productive during their transition as is humanly possible.

Be patient not only with the process, but with your horse. He is HEALING; there is no other word to describe this process.

My dedication to barefoot hoofcare and to each and every horse I am blessed to be given the opportunity to help is no less than 110%. The fact that most of the horses I am transitioning are at Sun Coast or very close by makes it possible for me to monitor their progress very closely, and be available for your questions and concerns on a daily basis...that's something I'm pretty sure none of your farriers even came close to offering. That means that they are trimmed not a day sooner or later than is optimum, whether that happens to be weekly, every ten days, every two weeks, but rarely longer than every four weeks. I pay very close attention to their overall condition, not just their hooves. Please understand that I cannot possibly catch, halter, and examine all four feet of every horse on a daily basis, and must rely upon you to help expedite the healing process by cleaning, medicating, and booting your horse's hooves as prescribed. I absolutely welcome your questions, but encourage you to continue availing yourselves of the excellent resources available through Pete Ramey's, my own website, and other sites I've listed on my links page as well as below for your convenience.


Please BOOKMARK these links for your convenience:

Pete Ramey's site

Website of No. CA trimmer Linda Cowles
, who practices a very similar trim to mine

The website of trimmer Paige Poss has some excellent material, although her trimming philosophy differs slightly from Dr. Bowker's physiological trim, and therefore my trim:

And an excellent article by Pete Ramey on the subject of the politics of barefoot hoofcare that is a must-read.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Trimming the Horse with Limb Angulation (Pigeon Toed, Toed Out)

It is not an uncommon practice among farriers to straighten a crooked limb by leaving one side of the hoof longer than the other. The logic is that both heels should strike the ground at the same time. But if the whole LEG is crooked, which it will be to some degree in a horse that turns in or out with a medial/laterally balanced hoof, forcing both heels to land simultaneously cannot be healthy for the limb or the rest of the horse above it. I firmly believe that imbalancing the foot is NEVER a good way to address limb angulation issues. Not only does the imbalanced foot suffer, but forcing the crooked limb straight can cause serious issues elsewhere. Imbalances in hind heel height can cause serious hock, stifle, hip, and back issues. Imbalances in front heel height obviously impact the knees, shoulder and even the neck. The trick is trimming the horse with conformation faults so that the hoof is balanced, but also to minimize interfering and uneven wear.

Our goal is to trim so that the horse tracks as straight as possible, while creating no uneven wear to the hoof. So, even if he LOOKS toed in in front, or toed out behind, his movement will be as straight as is possible without tipping his coffin bone and lateral cartilages out of horizontal alignment with the ground. Watch closely for uneven wear between trims, or wall separation or flaring indicating pressure at a point in the foot. If the horse wears one side faster than the other, then we can safely leave one side of the wall less beveled (or even not beveled at all!), while beveling the less-worn side aggressively. If we have separation or flaring on one side, again, we bevel that side strongly to relieve the force. It won't totally straighten the foot, but it will keep the movement straight.

In any horse, wear pattern is a fantastic, reliable barometer, providing, of course, that the horse is getting adequate movement to wear his feet. It will not only tell you if your trim is balanced; it will also tell you if there may be a musculoskeletal imbalance elsewhere in the horse.

One of the tough issues when transitioning horses out of shoes is uncovering limb angulation that a farrier has been trimming out of the leg that the owner might not have been aware of. You start to balance the foot, and suddenly the horse toes in or toes out...the obvious assumption is that the trim is twisting the leg. Ultimately, the properly balanced, unshod hoof makes enough of a profound effect on the horse's health and overall way of going that the cosmetic flaw is unimportant. Feeling your way through the transition, listening to the hoof, and addressing uneven wear diligently are the keys to keeping these horses sound and moving optimally.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I'm not against horseSHOERS...just against what they're taught.

Some distinctions that ought to be made...

I spend lots of time reading everything I can dig up on the subject of hoof care. I have no bias in my quest for knowledge -- I devour horseshoeing texts and conventional hoof care information as well as barefoot. I do, however, have a clear bias in what I believe to be healthier for the horse. The more I learn, the more hooves I pull shoes from, the more "pasture trimmed" feet I become familiar with, the more I read -- the more I adamantly believe that the shoeing and trimming techniques used by farriers with conventional horseshoeing educations are detrimental to the health of the horse's hoof.

That does NOT mean that I think anyone who shoes horses for a living is an inherently evil human being. In all fairness, I believe many of them are quite conscientious and apply what they have been taught skillfully. I just believe that what they have been taught is hugely flawed. I certainly don't wish any shoer misfortune; I don't want to steal their business or turn anyone against them. But I cannot in good conscience support how they manage a horse's feet. I do get frustrated that so few of them are open to the new research and ideas that are quietly starting to revolutionize hoofcare. That I find lazy and irresponsible.

Many "barefooters" tiptoe around the issue, careful to never blatantly point a finger at the former farrier or at traditional farriery in general. But I think doing so is a mistake. I think the finger should be pointed, but pointed at the industries that perpetuate shoeing. At the American Farrier's Association, which could at the very least update their certification to include a better standard for barefoot hoofcare, or perhaps even a certification specifically for barefoot hoofcare. At the racing industry, which funds a majority of the research into equine health...seriously...I find it ludicrous that millions of dollars have been spent for improved track surfaces, but we're still nailing aluminum to the feet of million dollar racehorses and watching them suffer catastrophic breakdowns. (Thoroughbreds are not allowed to race without shoes, even though a growing number of trainers are demonstrating how succesfully and soundly horses train barefoot.)

There is no getting around the fact that shoeing horses is a lucrative career for someone with physical strength and minimal education, and no doubt this is exactly what attracts many to the field of farriery. Doug Butler, the author of the textbook used in the curriculum of most horseshoeing schools, also penned a short booklet entitled, "So You Want To Be a Farrier? An Insider's Guide to the Farrier Profession". He prefaces a section on opportunities in horseshoeing with the following rather ironic anecdote:

"There were two young shoe salesmen who went to the frontiers of Africa to merchandise their goods. Each saw the same situation, but each had a different response. After a week, one wired, 'Am returning home. No market for shoes. Everyone goes barefoot.' The other wired back, 'Send two shiploads of shoes immediately! Market unlimited! Everyone goes barefoot!' It all depends on how you look at things!"

Hoof care is health care...does a capitalistic approach have any place in your horse's hoof care program???

I can easily understand the urge to vigorously defend your profession. I can also imagine the fear of being ostracized by your fellow farriers should you dip your toe in the barefoot waters. I've read discussions on farrier forums dripping with disdain for the barefoot movement. They like to contend that they could make even more money if they stopped shoeing...that they could book more clients and boost their income by switching to barefoot. Sure they could...if they trimmed the horse every 6 - 8 weeks, and trimmed the foot as if to prepare it for a shoe. But barefoot requires a higher level of maintenance (I find every 4 weeks is even pushing it with some horses), and a more detailed trim.

I know I personally did not become a barefoot trimmer for the money. Nor was it the best job available to me; I spent a number of years with a fat salary in the life science and internet industries. Barefoot for me, and for many like me, is a passion. I believe in it wholeheartedly, and dream of the day shoeing is a thing of the past. I hope I live to see nailed-on steel and aluminum shoes banned, to see horses run the Kentucky Derby barefoot, to see Olympic equines competing naked hoofed.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Putting it all together...lightness, impulsion, lateral movement...

Rarely does a horse's training progress without having to go back occasionally to re-train or reinforce things that the horse had already successfully mastered. Usually it happens right when you have a work and work and work to get a better bend to the right, and suddenly the bend to the left that was the GOOD side is gone. Two strides forward, one stride back. Is this the natural progression, or have we missed something?

Sometimes it is difficult to focus on a specific behavior or element of a behavior without letting something "slide". I don't believe that is a fact I think it is frequently absolutely necessary for the horse to learn, and can be used as a tool for refinement. As long as you are aware, and promptly bring the issue into focus as soon as the breakthrough occurs.

I think a key to bringing a horse to his highest potential steadily is interspersing intense, focused work with relaxation. That means dropping contact. LOTS of breaks between concentration on a loose rein. I mean seriously loose. On the buckle. Get around the end of the arena with a beautiful bend, soft and supple, and drop the reins. Walk, trot or canter. I don't care. Drop them and let the horse go for a few strides. Then gather him back up. The softest, roundest, most beautiful collection comes right after those breaks. Continuous work demanding a frame is HARD. This is a workout. Treat it like one. If you go to the gym, you take breaks between strenuous sets, right? Same idea applies. Nothing makes me sadder than a good ride that ends with a heavy horse. And a tired horse is a heavy horse.

The one thing we DON'T want to strengthen or make dull are the bars where the bit lies; the quickest way to do that is to allow the horse to be heavy. It is a trick not to fall into the trap of allowing the horse to be heavier than you would like and continuing to work for the sake of achieving some small thing. It requires excellent finesse and, above all, restraint. NO goal is more important than preserving lightness. Lightness is the hardest thing to come by, the easiest thing to destroy, and the very basis for everything that is harmonious and exquisite about horsemanship. From lightness, that sensitive, soft responsiveness to the hands, the legs, the seat, comes impulsion, comes lateral work, comes refinement. Lightness is refinement. Let that be your mantra.

Hoof Angle, My Rasp!

A common thread runs through the thinking of the best of the best involved in the barefoot hoof care revolution: hoof function promoted by trimming that respects the internal structures. Traditional farriery relies heavily on angles and markers that can easily be misinterpreted. Dr. Doug Butler, author of “The Principles of Horse Shoeing II” (required reading for anyone studying for the AFA certification) stated recently in the American Farriers Journal that most farriers have difficulty visualizing the internal bone structures and their relationship to the hoof capsule. Not the fault of the farriers, clearly, but the fault of the methods they are taught.

While I am not a student nor a follower of K.C. LaPierre's High Performance Trim, I find much of his work regarding the equine foot and barefoot hoof care insightful and enlightened. This from a man who spent 24 years shoeing horses! (I love it when shoers go renegade! Come over to the Dark Side!! Heh, heh...) His paper in response to the common brush off often given to the success of physiological barefoot trimming (that it "is just the same as any other traditional trim, just applied well and that’s why the horses on it are going sound") makes a well-formulated, compelling argument. Read LaPierre's article here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Standard Pasture Trim vs. Physiological Barefoot Trim

I am frequently asked what sets the physiological barefoot trim apart from the barefoot trim practiced by most traditional farriers. Because many unshod horses suffer from the same sort of ailments the physiological trim successfully corrects or avoids, it is important to understand that there are a number of differences. It is a fact that farrier schools and texts seldom address the different needs of the bare hoof (although they ALL advocate leaving the hoof unshod whenever possible) and instead focus on shoeing techniques. As a result, many farriers simply trim the unshod horse exactly as they would trim the horse to shoe. Keep in mind that I have simplified these comparisons in that I have not gone into detail concerning any possible exceptions to the general idea in the interest of hitting the main points.

1. Farrier Trim (FT) trims toe from the BOTTOM of the foot, often taking a considerable amount of live sole with it. This is done to prepare a flat surface for shoeing. The Physiological Trim (PT) manages the toe by rolling the wall, mainly from the top. This dramatically improves breakover without creating thinned sole at the toe. Trimming toe from the bottom routinely can tip the coffin bone within the hoof capsule, create flared toe, and contribute to joint problems in the lower leg.

2. FT pares out sole material, carving concavity. This is done to raise the sole off of the ground and prevent bruising. Clearly, on some level, it is recognized that the sole of the horse's foot should be concave, but the erroneous assumption is that the concavity's purpose was to keep the sole clear of the ground. PT allows the sole to fill in, striving to develop an even sole thickness across the bottom of the foot. Healthy, adequate sole quickly takes on natural concavity, mirroring the shape of the underside of P3 (impossible to achieve with a hoof knife!). Recent research has shown that the sole is intended to be the primary loading surface on the bottom of the foot; the concavity is not there to lift the sole off of the ground. Carving sole weakens sole (support to the structures within the hoof is greatly compromised), makes sole tender, and disturbs the natural medial/lateral, anterior/posterior internal arch of the foot.

3. FT trims the bars level with the carved sole. PT lets the hoof decide the height of the bars. The bars generate much of the sole material that is then pushed forward under P3. In addition, the bars provide support to the back of the foot, particularly in young horses with immature hooves, and in horses with poorly developed digital cushion and lateral cartilages. Removing bar hinders sole growth, weakens the back of the foot, disturbs integrity of the internal arch.

4. FT trims a uniform flat surface around the wall upon which to fit the shoe. Farrier texts instruct the shoer to be especially careful not to trim the quarters even with the sole plane, or there will be a low spot which will not meet the shoe. PT trims the wall to the level of the healthy sole, where it is intended to be. The wall at the quarters will naturally be shorter, creating a curve up through the quarters. Leaving the wall at the quarters long produces pressure points at the quarters, disturbs even growth of wall, and leaves the quarters prone to flaring, chipping, and quarter cracks.

5. FT places high importance on toe angle, as well as dorsal wall height, and this is largely what shoers will base their trim upon. It is high time that we recognized the fact that trimming for toe angle is obsolete. It was probably invented as a "best guess" to match the angle of P3 within the hoof. PT uses the uniform thickness of adequate sole coverage and the depth of the collateral grooves at heel and frog apex to determine what to trim from the bottom. The wall is then rolled to prevent flaring, and the resulting tight, healthy connection of wall to P3 quickly becomes evident growing down from the coronet. This will hold P3 up within the hoof capsule, creating a short dorsal wall height and the optimum toe angle for the individual horse. Trimming for toe angle can quickly go awry and create runaway flare, coffin bone "rotation" (the hoof capsule is what has actually rotated - not the bone!), late breakover, and high, contracted heels.

6. As noted in #4 above, FT trims the wall (and edge of the sole) flat. PT creates a bevel, rolling the wall. Leaving wall flat creates a separation force, contributes to flaring, stretched laminae, laminitis; retards natural breakover; and makes wall prone to chipping and cracking.

7. FT frequently leaves the heels extremely long in an attempt to "fix" an unacceptable toe angle. PT trims the heels by gauging sole depth at the back of the foot, and puts the frog in contact with the ground. Leaving the heels long, or "growing heel" to change the toe angle, lifts the back of the foot (frog, digital cushion, lateral cartilages) out of engagement, contributing to heel contraction and atrophy of support structures at back of foot. It can also lead to underrun heels, where the point of heel purchase moves forward, away from its healthy position of support for the bony column.

8. FT routinely shaves much of the surface of the frog. PT only removes flaps and diseased frog material. Carving the frog exposes tender, untoughened tissue prone to infection; this can quickly lead to chronic thrush, which may be the leading cause of heel pain in domestic horses.

9. FT will often trim the foot in an attempt to "fix" angular limb deformities. For example, it is not unusual to see FT trim one side of the hoof shorter, changing the sole plane completely, to prevent a pigeon-toed horse from toeing in. PT respects that the angular deformity impacts the entire limb. The foot is trimmed for the optimum health of the foot. "Fixing" limb angles puts incredible stress on joints that are not aligned for a straight limb, and creates an imbalanced foot that will be prone to numerous problems.

10. FT rarely maintains the trim more frequently than every 6 weeks. PT trims as needed: at the outside, 4 weeks elapse between trims, and often trimming is on an even more frequent schedule. PT attempts to mimic natural wear. Extended intervals between trimming force the hoof and leg to adjust to the radically longer or shorter hoof.

That's a mighty long list, and I hope it makes the distinction between simply pulling your horse's shoes, and enlisting competent barefoot hoof care clearer!

Getting a horse good with his/her feet

Whose responsibility is it? And how do you go about making it happen?

A good trim is critical to your horse's hoof health. But a horse that has not been schooled to balance and give his feet for as long as one needs them makes it much more difficult to implement. Of course, sometimes it's hard to discern whether the horse has not been properly taught to help the hoofcare professional, or the last farrier made the experience less than pleasant for the horse. If the process has been painful, rough, or disrespectful, you certainly can't blame the horse. And generally, horses like this quickly figure out that there are no nails or hammering involved when I handle their feet (nothing makes a horse more reluctant to give his feet to a farrier than a nail driven through the laminae), and that I will work hard to find the position that is most comfortable for them.

The simplest single thing you can do to get your horse more relaxed about having his feet handled is to pick them up every time you get a chance. Don't just pick them up and immediately drop them. Pick them up, hold them braced against your thigh, move them into different positions as your trimmer will need to do. If the horse begins to resist, rock or circle the leg gently until the horse relaxes again. Only give the foot back when the horse is relaxed, and then let the hoof down gently. I like to put one hand behind the knee, or in front of the hock, as I take the other hand off of the foot, and let the leg down softly.

Some horses have a difficult time holding a hind leg up, due to pain in the hip, back or haunches. If that's the case with your horse, teach him to cock a back foot for you, resting his toe on the ground, and get him used to having the foot handled in that position.

Be mindful, also, that frog infections can be painful and cause a horse to yank his foot away when the hoofpick hits a tender area. If that's the case, we absolutely understand, and do our best to be extremely gentle cleaning out the frog.

A horse that will allow his foot to be picked up, but then becomes impatient and yanks it away should be taught that grabbing the foot away before you give it to him results in more work for him. Take him in a roundpen. You can work on this with a halter and lead rope on the horse, or, if the horse is reliable enough and you are competent enough, do the exercise with the horse at liberty. Ask for a foot. If the horse yanks it away before you're ready to give it back, immediately and vigorously drive him out around the roundpen (or in a circle around you, if you have him on a lead rope). Don't be unreasonable about how long you try to keep the foot at first, but gradually build the length of time. Give the foot back occasionally and then ask for it again. When you drive him out, it doesn't have to be a marathon; a lap around the roundpen at a good brisk trot is fine; then draw him back to you and try again. When he yields the foot and is standing comfortably and relaxed, praise him verbally, and by stroking him (not patting him -- I hate it when people do that -- horses are very tactile creatures and respond much more favorably to a caress than a smack!)

Kicky horses are not only frustrating, but dangerous. The safest way to work through that issue is by roping a hind foot with a soft cotton rope. This is not something you should try without supervision, if you have never done it, as it can be dangerous for both horse and human. Many of the better natural horsemanship clinicians teach this method of teaching a horse to yield all four of his feet. If you're not sure how it works, find someone experienced and don't hesitate to dig in your wallet to have them handle the issue for you. If you're confident you can handle this, you can buy a nice, soft cotton foot rope from Houlihan Horse Gear here:

Soft Cotton Foot Rope

Some barefoot trimmers may offer to teach the horse good foot manners if the horse is difficult or young. Be prepared to pay them an hourly rate beyond their trimming fees -- this is training, and who better to teach the horse to have his feet handled than a professional hoof handler?

The bottom line is, no matter how you accomplish it, it is your responsibility to make sure your horse is reliably safe and compliant with his feet. Please don't expect your trimmer/farrier to train the horse at the same time he/she is supposed to be applying a balanced, healthy trim to your horse's hooves!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hoofcare Mythology: Growing Heel and Fixing Toe Angles

Now there's a recurring theme with new barefoot clients.

"My old farrier was trying to grow heel."

"Don't we need to grow heel to stand his foot up and correct the toe angle?"

Here's what I want you to do:

FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT THE HOOF. Especially anything your last farrier told you. Please. I'm sure he was a nice guy. He may have even been well trained in farrier science. But if we're sitting here having this conversation about growing heel, your farrier was trying to fix something. And if he was trying to fix it by growing heel, he was barking up the wrong tree.

Okay, let me edify that before I get flamed up one side and down the other:

If he was growing heel to allow the sole to fill in to an adequate depth at the back of the foot, then he was barking up the right tree. If he was growing heel because the posterior internal structures were still developing and the horse needed a little extra heel height (beyond about 1/16" longer than the healthy sole plane) to land comfortably heel first, he was barking up the right tree. If he was growing heel for ANY other reason, he was on a fool's errand for sure.

Most of the time, growing heel is an attempt to create a steeper toe angle. Let me state right here that I disagree entirely with the practice of basing how much and what to trim off of the hoof by looking at the angle of the toe. But the real problem with growing heel to create a steeper toe angle is this: if the toe angle is too low, then the hoof capsule has been distorted forward. If the hoof capsule is distorted forward, the heel will have migrated forward as well. The heel purchase -- where the back of the foot lies flat on the ground -- will be pulled forward along with the rest of the capsule. At this point, growing heel will only result in the heel purchase moving even farther forward.

A really classic example of this type of foot is the typical racehorse foot. All those flat footed Thoroughbreds, right? Right, but not because they were born that way! Gallop training, it has been shown, "flattens" the hoof capsule, by pulling the toe forward, and dragging the heel along with it. (1) (Keep in mind that they were galloping in aluminum racing plates! By the way, there is a growing community in the racing industry training their horses barefoot with great success. In fact, the California Horse Racing Board was recently advised by Northern California track vet Dr. Diane Isbell that some trainers have had success training their horses without shoes and urged the CHRB to allow horses to race barefoot.(2))

So how DO we fix what has been dubbed "forward foot syndrome?"

Pretty much the same way we fix everything else. The image below illustrates how it works. We roll the toe aggressively, so that the wall can grow down without being stretched forward with every stride. We allow the sole to find its optimum depth, and we trim to that guide religiously. Sometimes a slight bevel at the point of heel purchase helps; possibly the heel bevel simply relieves some of the pressure pulling the heel forward under the foot, or maybe it encourages the foot to acclimate to a more natural plane; either way, it can be very effective with stubborn under run, or crushed, heels.

1. Peel JA, Peel MB, Davies HM, The effect of gallop training on hoof angle in thoroughbred racehorses. Equine Vet J Suppl. 2006 Aug;(36):431-4.

2. Ganz, T, Santa Anita to Replace Surface. The Bloodhorse; Feb 20, 2008

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Addressing Flare

Flare is bad, we all know that. Flare left unchecked literally pulls the wall away from the inner structures, and stretches and weakens -- sometimes even tears -- the laminae. It is critical to keep any portion of the wall that is flaring very strongly beveled, in order for the wall to grow down from the coronary band with a healthy, tight laminar connection.

It is also important to preserve the integrity of the hoof wall, and this is why I strongly oppose "dressing" flare above the mustang roll. The wall is, as Dr. Bowker and others will remind us, simply a protective covering, like an eggshell. But also like an eggshell, part of its' job is to hold the inner structures in place. I absolutely believe that rasping all evidence of flare from the wall can considerably weaken the wall and compromise the overall integrity of the hoof capsule. Not to mention the reduced protection from kicks and blows offered to the inner structures.

I am often shocked at the amount of wall that is removed by some farriers and barefoot trimmers. Owners are effectively fooled into believing that the horse has "nice feet", because the wall is aggressively removed to shape the hoof the way it should be shaped; the way it would be shaped if the flare was addressed properly, and allowed to grow out. Rasp marks less than an inch below the coronet are not uncommon. Look at some of the case studies on my site, and you'll see that most of the horses just out of shoes have considerable rasped reshaping, some of them clear from heel to heel. It takes months to grow full thickness horn down from the coronet on hooves like that.

If you are an owner, be very critical of "dressed" flare. Your hoof care provider is trying to hide the problem, rather than correct it. If you are a hoof care provider, don't be tempted to make the wall pretty by rasping off anything above the mustang roll!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Breaking it down for the horse -- Mixer's right lead.

So my very favorite-est horse (and I only feel comfortable writing this because I'm pretty sure my beloved herd does not read my blog), my 6 yr old home bred Paint/Quarter cross, Mixer, and I are currently on a little learning journey. Mostly -- historically, anyway -- I haven't been one for doing much arena work since my days riding hunt seat as a teenager. And Mixer fairly early on had expressed his enthusiasm for exploring -- he was bred to be my trail horse, and he definitely excels as such. He will literally gravitate to new trails he has not been on yet, and unlike his predecessor, Johnny No Spots, Mixer actually -- slows down -- when he realizes we are heading back home. But it was time to advance his education, and I thought it would be fun to see him dressed up in dressage attire, plus we had never settled this right lead thing, so off we trotted to the arena.

I have to say -- boy is he adorable in his new outfit. Well, okay; he's adorable to begin with. But seriously. He is the freakin' bees knees in tux and tails.

He absolutely thoroughly enjoyed his first dressage "lesson". I swear. Not being one to force a new vocation on my horses, I gave him a couple of opportunities to choose the arena or not in the week following his first lesson; mind you, he had studiously avoided the arena up until this point, and even expressed a STRONG disdain for anything involving a roundpen about 3 rides under saddle. He is that sort of horse...I don't believe in drilling my horses, and I'm very careful not to, so I'm pretty certain it wasn't that I bored him to tears in either venue. Mixer is just very sure of himself. If he is ready to move on, he says so. And he is very often quite right.

So we set about re-establishing this thing called BEND, which he had learned the rudimentary elements of in his earliest days under saddle. We worked on cadence. We started "talking" about lateral movement. And we REALLY started discussing the right lead.

Now, it's not that I didn't think leads were important. But honestly, I wasn't entirely sure he COULD pick up a right lead with my weight on his back. My brief sojourn into the breeding shed panned out fabulously in regards to temperament (which was my number one criteria), and color (which I really gave not a rat's ass about), and pretty good, but not completely spectacular in the conformation area. All bias aside: he is actually very nicely put together: lovely neck, nice shoulder, back not too long, nice hip without being a "baby got back" QH type. His hocks are better than adequate from any angle. Good pasterns. Flat knees, not back nor over. Big feet (good, in my book!). Good chest. But gosh darn it, in spite of a beautifully straight legged daddy, he got momma's reeeeeallly turned out left front foot. *Sigh*. And while he canters all over the pasture, changing leads fluidly, he refused to pick up the right lead in the round pen at liberty, or under saddle. I just had a niggling feeling that maybe it was easier on the joints in that left front leg to be the lead, instead of the support. But we had to try.

In the past, I have used all of the common methods to get proper leads; one that always worked well was putting the horse over a cavalleti placed just before a corner. I tried that a couple of times with this horse; he would get the lead with the cavaletti, but never without it. So somewhere there was something missing. Bend was surely part of it, but there were still plenty of times when he was supple and curved around my inside leg, but STILL took the left lead. Clockwise counter-canter will not be a problem for this horse!

After about four more sessions, the right lead was still elusive at best. And then it dawned on me. The back feet -- the hip. That was the missing variable. After all, the lead starts with the outside hind. We went back to kindergarten -- pick up a rein, ask for a bend in the neck and disengage the hindquarters. I tried it first with my right rein, moving his hip to the left. No problem. Step across with the inside hind, step over with the outside. Then I tried the left rein, ask for a bend, and step the hindquarters across. Well, I'll be darned. He had a tough time with that. Couldn't get his hip up under himself and step across. No wonder the right lead wasn't available to me. I gave it another shot, hung in there and waited for those back feet to find their mark. He finally got it -- step across, step out.

I went back out on my circle to the right. Circled at the walk, very supple, and then asked for the right lead canter. And there it was.

It's still not polished -- most days I need to do the hindquarters stepping across exercise first -- and when I do, the right lead is at my disposal! Breaking it down into its fundamental pieces set us up for success.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Can you identify a healthy frog? You may be surprised.

So, remember when we all thought your horse only had thrush if his feet smelled nasty and he had that oily black sludge along his frogs? And that it usually meant your horse was living in soggy, less than adequately clean conditions?

(Crickets chirping.)

You mean that's still the only thing that tips you off to frog infection??

Wake up, kids. This is a freakin' epidemic. Probably one in five horses that I trim DON'T show signs of chronic thrush, and we live in the desert! Some studies indicate as many as 90% of our domestic horses suffer from some degree of bacterial/fungal hoof infection related to thrush. And it's not just a cosmetic issue, or a can be excruciatingly painful...painful enough to make the horse toe-walk to avoid weighting the tender, infected heel. Painful enough and so easily ignored that it may very well be one of the leading causes of heel pain. And heel pain is the first flake of snow in the monstrous snowball generally diagnosed as navicular syndrome. Are ya pulling on your muck boots to run out and check for deep fissures between the heel bulbs yet??

Thrush is an infection of the central and lateral sulci (clefts) of the frog of the horse’s foot. Although the name "Thrush" implies a fungal infection, what we call thrush in a horse's frog most often involves bacteria, although it is occasionally a fungal infection. One species of bacterium (Fusobacterium necrophorum) is particularly aggressive, invading and destroying the frog, sometimes exposing the deeper sensitive tissues.

(click image to enlarge)

If you see a deep crease between the heel bulbs, with or without heel contraction, start treating for thrush infection. You probably have seen more hooves with this type of pathology than you have seen hooves with healthy frogs. There is some debate as to whether heel contraction predisposes the hoof to thrush, or whether thrush contributes to heel contraction. I'm decidedly leaning towards the latter, because eliminating the infection causes the frog to widen, and the heel with it, providing the hoof is trimmed to allow it. But before you reach for the bleach, or the Coppertox, think about what you're about to pour those very caustic substances on: living tissue! Let's be aware that the very best way to invite thrush is to provide it with some dead tissue, or some very tender live tissue, to feed upon.

Keep in mind, too, that while it is best to keep the frog free from flaps that could harbor thrush, trimming the tough, calloused layer off of the frog reveals tender tissue that may be more susceptible to infection. So be diligent about keeping the central sulcus open, and the flaps over the collateral groove trimmed back, but leave as much of the tough stuff as you possibly can.

An effective remedy is "Pete (Ramey)'s Paste," a 50/50 mixture of 1% clotrimazole cream (labeled for athlete's foot, jock itch, or yeast infections) and triple antibiotic ointment (like Neosporin). Since we're not likely to culture every infection to determine whether we're dealing with bacteria or fungi, this may address either problem. At this point, all I can tell you is that it WORKS. I'd like to say I'd taken the time to test each ingredient seperately, but I'd rather eradicate the infection as soon as possible, so I'll stick with the combination for now. Use a 60 mL, catheter tipped syringe to penetrate deep into the groove, and use your thumb to push the goop deep up into the central sulcus daily for 4 to six weeks. I've found that with really stubborn cases, booting the hoof for at least an hour (or even leaving the boots on around the clock, but be sure to remove the boots and clean both hoof and boot thoroughly daily, checking for rubbing) after applying the paste hastens healing.

(click image to enlarge)

Read Pete Ramey's article for an in depth discussion on frog management.

An interesting footnote to this blog entry: after writing this post, I was really bothered by the idea that the most common underlying cause of thrush is the SAME bacterium responsible for "foot rot" in cattle and sheep. Foot Rot, or interdigital dermatitis (which, by the way, is the same technical name for equine thrush) has long been identified as a cause of severe lameness in cattle and sheep. It is also widely accepted that overtrimming the soft tissue of the feet of sheep and cattle predisposes the hoof to the disease. (Read this page on Foot Rot in cattle and sheep.) And yet most farriers still pare away frog tissue with aplomb. That thrush has not been more aggressively treated, or more widely recognized as a possible cause of foot pain in horses is more than a little baffling. I'm off to do a little more research, and to see if perhaps there is an even better over-the-counter anti-bacterial for Fusobacterium necrophorum. I'll let you know what I find out!