Monday, February 25, 2008

The Trim, or Not to Trim, That is the Question!

I have to confess that over the years, my opinion on whether the bars should be trimmed has run the gamut. Now, I believe that it depends on a lot of different things...first and foremost, what makes the horse most comfortable.

Early on in my learning, I gave some credence to the idea that the bars could become impacted, and that impacted bars could be a cause of heel pain, and even navicular syndrome. This thinking, for a while, had me frantic about keeping bars trimmed sloping tidily into the sole plane. But I kept looking at the dissected hoof capsules with purported "impacted bars" and I kept being bothered by it. Something just didn't work about that idea. As often happens, it came to me while I stared for about an hour at one such image on my computer screen (provided below, along with a beautiful sole/frog corium from Pete Ramey for your viewing pleasure). The thing is...the contraction of that hoof capsule is the problem. I don't care how short you trim the bars -- if the foot is contracted, the inner structures are still pinched and warped. I know people swear they've made navicular horses more comfortable after carving the bars down, but it's possible that what they've really addressed is retained/false sole. And the truth is, I've seen navicular horses that were making progress and were moderately comfortable with lots of bar do a serious backslide with their bars trimmed away.

At this point I backed cautiously away from my hoof knife...BACK AWAY FROM THE KNIFE...

A little later in my trimming career, I tried the exact opposite approach -- NEVER trimming bar, except to keep it level with the heel and walls at the quarters. I'd spent plenty of months battling to grow sole in a bunch of horses; once I understood that a good portion of the sole grows forward from the bars, trimming bar sounded like pure sacrilege! With this new sacred view of the bars-as-sole, my untrimmed bars self-trimmed most of the time; some horses kept strong, well-formed bars (young horses with immature feet, and lots of newly de-shod horses that are working hard to develop the back of the foot, tend to like good stout bars to help support the back of the hoof while the lateral cartilages are under construction), and some kept none at all. Horses with inadequate sole built up big wads of bar/sole which would quickly push forward under P3 -- the trick is leaving that bar/sole wad in tact without leaving it longer than the rest of the foot. The ones in between seemed perfectly comfortable, but often trotted around with ragged bars in varying stages of exfoliation. Which makes me crazy, I admit. So I've relaxed a little bit -- I will now trim bar that is downright raggedy. I will also do a one-time aggressive trim on horses with very pronounced bars that do NOT need to build sole. If the bars pop back by next trim, I leave them alone. Having trouble getting a horse to grow sole under the coffin bone? STOP trimming the bars!!! Just STOP!!!

I'm taking a similar approach to sole on horses that I know have a good calloused foot -- I will use my knife to flake out a shallow layer of the chalky stuff. If I find an area that is chunking out, I will usually go ahead and even it out. But NEVER to the waxy live layer, and never ever on a horse that is building sole under a carved, unprotected foot.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What are you feeding your horse????

Too much sugar? Too much protein?

Probably! Is he getting all of the nutrition he needs to be healthy and robust? With laminitis cases on the rise, it's worth re-evaluating your feeding program. Kathryn Watts, a professional agricultural contract researcher and consultant, offers up her expertise on the subject at You'll be surprised...and you'll probably change your horse's diet.

Is your horse fat???

Are you sure??? Most horse owners overfeed, and still think their overweight horses are on the thin side. On a scale of 1 - 9, with 1 being extremely emaciated, and 9 being dangerously obese, what would you rate your horse's condition? Now go read veterinarian Susan Garlinghouse's article, "How to Condition Score Horses." Bet you'll be surprised.

In a perfect world, we'd have total control over what our horses ate. But in boarding situations, and even as a hobby farm owner, it's not that easy. The variation in baled hay is considerable, even from the same grower. Follow Kathryn's advice on forage (C4 warm season grasses like Bermuda, summer prairie grasses, and other grasses of tropical origin are the best bet). A good supplement for overall nutrition is Strategy GX (grass formula); add a biotin supplement with both copper and zinc for hoof health and immune support, and a joint supplement (make sure you select one that contains BOTH chondroitin and glucosamine - studies show that they are most effective in combination!). If a condition score indicates your horse still needs more calories, beet pulp may be your best bet. Garlinghouse offers a great energy comparison chart in her article on the myths and realities of Beet Pulp here:

Now, let's get all that sugar out of Dobbin's diet!!!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Choosing a Competent Barefoot Trimmer

So you've decided you're ready to take your horse(s) barefoot. That's fabulous news! I applaud your decision. Now for the hard part -- finding a trimmer in your area who knows what they're doing.

1. First of all, keep in mind that there are a number of different barefoot philosophies; some are based on theory, some are based on guesses, others are based on scientific research. If barefoot makes sense to you, but you have not read enough to have an opinion about the type of trimming, I implore you to educate yourself. Ask which philosophies your potential trimmer has studied (the more, the better!), and which technique the trimmer is currently using. If they say "Strasser" and you have already decided you believe the Strasser trim is much too invasive (it is, trust me!) then move along. Even if you are DESPERATE to find a trimmer in your area, and feel you are running out of options, do NOT allow someone to trim your horse if they are doing a trim you don't think is appropriate.

This is the voice of experience speaking -- when I first decided barefoot had to be better, I was by no means ready to trim my own horses, but the only trimmer I could find was indeed a Strasser follower. She carved the living daylights out of my horses' feet. They could barely walk on hard took 6 months for them to be remotely comfortable, and I only let her trim them twice!!!! She never even mentioned the use of hoofboots. This was NOT necessary -- one of these horses was barefoot from birth, one was a 5 yr old who had worn shoes for 3 years, but outside of poor horn quality had no pathologies, and the third was an older horse with navicular changes; I could understand the navicular horse being uncomfortable, because he was already, but all 3 were downright miserable.

2. Make sure your trimmer has considerable experience! This one may seem obvious, but it is so, so important. And I mean BAREFOOT TRIMMING experience, not just equine experience, not farrier experience, not a vague familiarity with the research, not experience running his/her mouth off. Does the trimmer maintain his/her own herd barefoot? If not, then move on! Let him/her practice on someone else's horse! Find out how many horses the trimmer has transitioned, and what types of pathologies -- and when I talk about transitioning, I mean shoes pulled and feet maintained/rehabbed over the course of 8 months to a year. Ask for case study photos, and ask for references (long-term satisfied trim clients). Anyone can find a barefoot trimming guide on the internet and set off on their own, but it takes experience to know how to use the information effectively.

I personally know an individual who attended a single lecture in November 2007 (she was not even remotely familiar with the research or the technique prior to this, and this was not even a trimming clinic!), and then proceeded to book trim clients. This "trimmer" still hires a farrier to shoe all but a few of her own horses...when I asked why, she told me she didn't feel ready to pull their shoes -- she was afraid she didn't understand enough -- but here she was offering to use other people's horses to learn the ropes!!!!

3. Find out the trimming frequency the trimmer would like to implement. Unlike traditional hoof care providers, professional barefoot trimmers must be dedicated enough to monitor and re-evaluate your horse's feet much more frequently than every 6 to 8 weeks. Anything longer than 4 weeks absolutely defeats the goal of the barefoot trim, which seeks to emulate the constant wear the horse's hoof is designed to optimally function with. Every 7 to 10 days is often the best way to transition a horse; this way you avoid a sort of two steps forward, one step back situation, where flares, high heels, contraction, chipping, cracks etc. are much more difficult to grow out.

4. Don't be afraid to ask questions. A competent trimmer will be able to answer them; I will not only answer them, but I also like to provide my clients with literature pertinent to their particular horse's feet, the better to intercept any barefoot criticism they may encounter.

There is currently no national governing body for barefoot hoof trimmers, although there are a number of certifications available. The problem with the certifications is that they are self-governed...although the same can be said of the American Farrier's Association. Your very best bet is to educate yourself on the topic, and find a trimmer that can show you, livin' breathin' hard-working barefoot horses!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Bit Position...

I absolutely believe that the traditional "two wrinkles" bit position puts the bit in a constantly engaged position in the horse's mouth. Most traditional trainers will notch it up there; I've heard it explained that there is less slack to take up before the rider has contact with the horse's mouth; I've also heard people insist that it is the only way to keep the horse from getting his tongue over the bit. But how can this possibly induce softness? I don't believe it can. I think, actually, that if softness is the goal, cranking the bit up in the horse's mouth immediately makes softness a little harder to achieve.

I don't recall where I first heard the idea to do it differently; I do know I've heard the idea echoed by most of the really brilliant natural horseman, like the Dorrances, Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond. They all agree that the bit should rest comfortably in the space of the bars, neither so high that it pulls back the corners of the mouth (wrinkles), nor so low that it hits the horse's teeth. The idea -- and believe me, it works -- is that the horse then learns to carry the bit in his mouth. Not just pack it around, but take it up with his tongue and his lips and hold it in position, softly. The very act of holding it thus softens the jaw, promotes salivation, and teaches the horse to handle the bit softly on his end...which is the very first step to a soft feel, flexing at the poll and yielding the jaw...which is in turn what soft contact is built upon.

Want to know more about bits? Here is a fabulous, detailed article by Theresa Sandin at Sustainable Dressage:

Dispelling the Myths about Barefoot Horses

A little perspective is sometimes needed to combat the farriers vs. barefoot trimmers rumor mill. We find ourselves in a bit of a disadvantaged position, simply because the barefoot movement had some serious growing pains along the way. How couldn't it? No one had done the research. We were feeling our way along with little more than guesses and experimentation...some educated, some not so educated. By far the biggest transgression of the barefoot revolution to date, in my opinion, has been invading the sole. But the Strasser trimmers are still at it. Even a lot of the folks claiming to do a "wild horse trim" still do it: the "ground parallel coffin bone" idea had a lot of folks trimming heels well past an optimal collateral groove depth; a lot of trimmers still advocate rasping from the bottom until you reach "tight" white line; and the "toe rocker" idea persists as well, with trimmers invading the sole at the front of the foot.

With some of the fantastic research that has become available, we now know better. The collateral grooves were there all along, and somebody (thank you, Pete Ramey!!!) finally figured out what a fabulous gauge they are to calculating sole depth at both the toe AND the heel. If only that better information was more readily available; the truth is that it takes a fairly intrepid internet geek to rustle up the good stuff. (You certainly won't find any books on the subject at your local tack shop or Barnes & Noble. I'm personally chomping at the bit for Dr. Robert Bowker's promised book.) A Google search on "barefoot horses" or "barefoot trimming" yields so much outdated information that surely new barefoot converts are still learning the wrong way. Some of the sites that were my bibles when I first decided to go barefoot, sites that were cutting edge at the time, still teach the ground parallel P3 notion, "rasp to the tight/healthy white line" and toe rocker ideas.*

All of which leaves the lot of us frequently defending the barefoot idea in general, and often answering very specific allegations. Of the more serious charges I've fielded are that barefoot horses are prone to coffin bone fractures and pedal osteitis (thinning/degradation of the coffin bone). I have found NO research on coffin bone fractures OR pedal osteitis that indicate "barefoot" is suspected to be a cause. I strongly suspect this (susceptibility to distal phalanx fracture) is something that holds true with trimming that pares away sole, or with horses being transitioned from shoes that have thin/flat soles (boots and pads!! we love boots and pads!!). I have no trouble believing horses trimmed a la Strasser, or like I see many farriers trimming, with aggressive carving of the sole, would be at greater risk.

Simple logic quickly discounts the idea that nailing a shoe to the wall somehow protects the coffin bone. Fractures of the distal phalanx are not all that uncommon, in general. They are generally caused by trauma -- kicking a wall, stepping down hard on a rock on hard ground, etc., although racehorses (who are rarely barefoot) and horses frequently worked at speed over hard ground are seen with stress-type fractures. Until relevant research becomes available, I'll stick with building 3/4" to and inch of healthy, calloused sole, and protecting hooves that haven't developed that yet with boots and pads. The only time a shoe protects the foot from a rock is when the shoe itself is the part that steps on it!

* Don't misunderstand me here, there are instances when a toe rocker is indicated, but not for every horse!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cutting Edge Research on the Equine Foot: The Role of the Sole

The overwhelming resistance to the idea of barefoot hoofcare is discouraging, but not surprising. After a thousand years of shoeing horses, people want science. After several decades of less scientific barefoot ideas, including the four-point trim (which continues to invade the sole plane at the toe) and the Strasser technique (which literally carves the sole into the desired shape) I don't blame the general horse-owning public for being wary. It still strikes me as ironic that they did not, and still don't, demand science to support horseshoeing in the first place. But, hey, a thousand years* can't be wrong, can it???

Guess what kids...research is gaining on the farrier industry. Ponder this one for a bit: studies by Dr. Robert Bowker at the Equine Foot Lab at Michigan State University AND Dr. David M. Hood at the Hoof Project at Texas A & M conclude that the sole of the foot, and NOT the wall, is the primary loading surface of the equine foot.

With that single piece of information, you shouldn't find it difficult to embrace the idea that nailing a shoe to the wall, lifting the sole out of reach of the ground, and peripherally loading (forcing the wall to bear the load) the hoof is NOT healthy for the horse.

Pete Ramey provides an excellent overview of the importance and care of the sole in his article, "UNDERSTANDING THE HORSE’S SOLES"

A recent teaser from the publication Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science:

"DR. DAVID HOOD of “The Hoof Project” at Texas A&M University hardly seemed to take a breath as he recounted his most recent research on weightbearing and an experiment he had performed on a group of horses kept both on sand and on concrete, and how the weightbearing changed. Agreeing with Dr. Bowker, Hood discounted three main tenets of traditional hoof study: 1) that the wall is the primary loading surface; 2) that the frog should or should not touch the ground; and 3) that P3 is “suspended” within the hoof capsule. He exhaled more thoughts in 20 minutes that I could absorb; most of his findings were applicable to “natural hoof” material published in issue #69 of Hoofcare & Lameness"

* "While the inventors of the first nailed shoe may always remain a mystery, horseshoeing became a mainstream practice in Europe around 1000 AD. Cast from bronze, these early shoes were lightweight and had a scalloped outer rim with six nail holes."
"The History of Horseshoes,"R. Cohen, Dressage Today Magazine, Feb 1996

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Martingale & a Bigger Bit

I have been riding a beautiful little Paint mare for several months now. She is an absolute sweetheart…lovely on the ground, affectionate, soft in the bridle. She is also a young 7 years, and recently came off of a six month lay-up...she needs miles. Somewhere along the line, she has been taught – yes, taught – to fling her head up and fight the bit. She’s mostly stopped that reaction when I ride her around the ranch, or in the arena. But she still gets a little excited and worried on trail rides, and will want to hurry home…the more excited she is, the more likely she will raise her head and fight. It is less an effort to evade the bit, I think, than to find a release where she has long learned there will not be one, and an effort to escape excessive pressure from hands that do not understand how to be soft.

Another trainer recently recommended that the owner ride her in a martingale. Harsher bits have also been recommended. I believe this is not an appropriate way to handle the problem in general, and especially in light of why the mare fights to begin with.

A quick fix is rarely a way to achieve a truly supple, relaxed and attentive horse. What this little mare needs to learn is that the correct behavior results in a reward, instead of the wrong behavior resulting in punishment, and that reward is the release from pressure that she is seeking in the first place. How do we do this?

1. Don’t fight back. Don’t pull harder on her mouth. Instead, sit very still, very deep and relaxed, and breathe deeply. Smile, even. Keep your hands very low and wide, down on either side of her withers, and offer her a little feel down the reins…”play” with the reins, softly. Don’t grip hard and yank back, and don’t let her pull you forward out of your seat.

2. Give her a job to do. She needs to move her feet. So let her. Do figure eights, circles, leg yields. Let her trot, even let her canter, but don’t let her head towards home – keep her circling, but keep it interesting – not just mindless circles.

3. When she flexes at the poll and yields her jaw, give her a release – let out your reins, YES, that was what I wanted! – and then ask again for her to yield. Don’t just hold her there. Ask and release. Ask and release.

4. Give her an opportunity to slow her feet to a walk. Keep her soft in the bridle by keeping your hands low and wide and continuing to ask and release the soft feel of her mouth.

5. Finally, when she is soft in the bridle and walking in a more relaxed and focused manner, let her walk towards home. Again, we’re giving her the reward she was looking for. If she wants to speed up and starts to fight again, go back to number one and repeat all of the steps.

A very effective way to get a horse over the anxiety of long trail rides is take long short rides. Ride her out a short ways, and come back. Immediately ride her out again, in a different direction. Come back. Out again. If, and as soon as, at ANY point she comes home relaxed, walking and soft in the bridle, YOU’RE DONE. Reward her by ending the ride. You can even take it one step further – if at the point that you turn for home, she does NOT get excited and fight, for pete’s sake get off her and loosen her girth, pet her like crazy, and lead her home.

It is so, so very important to stay unemotional, don’t get angry with her, and stay calm. If deep breathing doesn’t work, try singing out loud. Seriously. It forces you to breathe more regularly.

Keeping your hands LOW AND WIDE is critical also. Shorten your reins enough so that your elbows never come behind your ribcage, but not so short that your arms are straight.

Allowing her to move is the only way to diffuse her anxiety. A horse is equipped with a very strong flee instinct, and denying them the movement of their feet escalates the chemical reaction that drives it. The movement of the feet and the lowered head and relaxed jaw induce a calming effect.

Tying the mare’s head down traps her. Putting a bigger bit in her mouth attempts to control her by making her fearful reactions painful. Both will be bewildering and confrontational. Chances are that the problem will only escalate. Bigger bits. More devices. And one confused, unhappy horse that will NEVER enjoy a trail ride. You might succeed in shutting her down. And if she is a strong individual emotionally, enough long trail rides in shut down mode might show her that there is nothing to fear on the trail. But it certainly won’t teach her to trust you.

Sometimes…often, actually…what the horse needs is not particularly convenient for owners. We want to go on that long trail ride TODAY. It is selfish at best to expect the horse to cooperate for our convenience. What if, instead of forcing the horse to be terrified and confused for our convenience today, we take the time to work through this in a way that will make sense and reward the horse for the desired behavior? Ask yourself if that’s really too much to give in return for a truly happy, relaxed equine partner.