The Ins & Outs Of Natural Hoof Care For Horses

Sometimes the shoe fits—and sometimes it doesn't. Figure out if it makes sense for your horse to kick off its shoes for good.

by Leslie J. Wyatt
PHOTO: Ann Szolas

Horseshoeing is a time-honored tradition. However, natural hoof care is showing itself to be easier on the pocketbook, as well as a solid, viable option for happy, healthy horses. So let’s dive in and explore why some horse owners are ditching iron shoes in favor of a natural trim.

Natural Trim Elements

It starts with the hoof itself. Within the hoof capsule are the coffin bone and navicular bone, and surrounding and connecting these bones are tendons, ligaments, lateral cartilages, and a fibrous pad between the heel bulbs and under the frog called the digital cushion. Covering the inner structures are the parts we’re used to calling the hoof—hoof wall, sole, frog, bars and heel bulbs—and laying between the inner and outer structures are the laminae, which are the white lines between hoof walls and sole. The laminae function like living Velcro to hold the hoof wall to the coffin bone.

Also called barefoot or wild-horse trimming, the natural hoof trim addresses both internal and external structures of the hoof while considering the horse’s living environment, working conditions, conformation and all-­important diet. In an ideal foot, the heels are low and the toe is short, enabling the frog to fully contact the ground. This directs the majority of concussive forces to be absorbed by the digital cushion and frog. Also, the sole is allowed to thicken—within reason—forming a callus which protects the coffin bone.

A final, important aspect of a natural trim is the mustang roll, which gets its name from the ­natural beveling of hoof edges found on dry-land and ­desert-dwelling wild horses’ hooves. This bevel provides a breakover point as the horse unweights its foot, preventing stretching of the white line and allowing proper movement of the limb. A mustang roll also helps reduce the occurrence of chips/cracks and promotes integrity of the sole and toe callus.

The Hoof Mechanism

Robert Bowker, V.M.D., Ph.D., of Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and head of the Equine Foot Laboratory, has spent more than 10 years studying the hoof mechanism in his search to promote soundness in horses. What he has found is that in their natural state, a horse’s hooves work as a sort of hydraulic system to draw blood down into the foot as the hoof expands under the animal’s weight. Then as the hoof leaves the ground, it contracts, pushing the blood back up toward the heart. Not only does this mean that the horse’s heart doesn’t need to work so hard to keep blood circulating to its feet, the influx of blood helps dissipate shock to bones and joints.

While metal shoes allow the heels some expansion, with the hoof nailed to the rigid shape, Bowker feels this natural hydraulic system is compromised because it’s not just the heels that expand but the entire foot.
Alicia Mosher, a natural hoof care practitioner in Cottonwood, Calif., and a member of the Pacific Hoof Care Practitioners (, notes that barefoot horses are also extremely sure-footed because they can feel the terrain with every step, allowing them to judge the stability of the ground using the proprioceptors on the bottom of their feet.

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Wearing metal shoes will often result in an even gait over any terrain, but the downside is that the horse is not able to feel and therefore judge the hardness of the ground, nor are the parts of the foot able to move independently.

Also, because the frog and sole of a shod horse often don’t contact the ground, the hoof wall takes the brunt of the horse’s weight. This overload of stress weakens hoof wall integrity. Compare a natural trimmed barefoot hoof with one that is habitually shod, and the difference is visible. Shod hooves contract and deform over time: Hoof walls become thinner, heels are squeezed together and frogs drop lower in hoof capsules as if reaching for ground contact.

Getting Started

Change can be challenging, but getting started with natural hoof care is relatively easy as changes go. That said: Please don’t just remove your horse’s shoes and then wait for his feet to “toughen up.” The goal is for your horse to be comfortable throughout the entire transition.

Step 1: Find A Reputable Trimmer

This is where websites and organizations are a great help, as is word of mouth. Any reputable trimmer will give references to satisfied customers in your area. Do call and check them out.

Step 2: Educate Yourself About Optimal Nutrition & Pasture For Your Horse

“These are the invisible elements of natural hoof care that absolutely determine the health of your horse’s feet,” Mosher says. Just like humans, horses require a ­balance of major and trace minerals for optimal nutrition, and those nutrients aren’t always in their pasture or hay. Too much sugar in the diet can affect the attachment of hoof wall to bone and result in tender-footed horses, often seen in animals on pasture in spring and fall.

Step 3: Give Your Barefoot Horse Plenty Of Room To Move

Horses were designed to move, traveling an average of 15 miles a day. The more a horse uses its feet, the more robust the digital cushion, the stronger the overall hoof and the rest of its body and mind, as well.

Natural Hoof Care FAQs

natural hoof care
Pacific Hoof Care Practitioners

Here are some frequently asked questions on natural hoof care.

Is a natural trim the same thing as a pasture trim?

No. A pasture trim is basically the type of trim a farrier performs before nailing on the next shoe. In contrast to a natural trim, a pasture trim often removes toe callus, thus thinning the sole, and the bottom edge of the hoof wall is left flat.

Will my horse be sound on gravel with a natural trim?

Maybe. Individual horses vary. A lot depends on the health of their feet, how long they’ve worn shoes and what type of work they’ll be doing. Newly barefoot horses may need transitional options such as hoof boots when working on rocky ground.

How often should I trim?

Every four to six weeks works for most horses.

The Natural Hoof Controversy

We horse owners love our horses, and we’re dedicated to doing what is the best for them. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to define just what is best for our equine friends. To further complicate the situation, while there are many generalities of diet and treatment, each horse is an individual. Common sense leads us to accept and adapt to this reality regarding diet, training and overall care, but somehow, when it comes to hoof care, we tend to polarize—natural hoof care versus metal shoes—as if one or the other is the one and only acceptable practice.

What we really need to do is embrace the bigger picture. Individuality pertains to hoof health as well as other areas, and to borrow a phrase, one size does not fit all. Some horses can handle all terrains barefoot and unbooted and never wince. Others will always need some kind of protection while being ridden.

If all this buzz about natural hoof care sounds like a new-fangled craze and you don’t think it can work for your horse, as your horse is doing just fine in metal shoes, rest easy in the knowledge that there are more ways to care for a horse’s feet than a natural trim and more ways to attach a shoe than nails. The important thing is that you assess your horse’s soundness, health of hoof and body and how you work him/her, and then choose what is appropriate for your particular animal, environment and circumstances.

You aren’t stuck. If you or your horse is not thriving under one particular farrier or hoof care regime, by all means change.

“There are professionals who truly are skilled at both farriery and natural hoof care,” says natural hoof care pioneer Pete Ramey, but he adds that not all horseshoers know how to trim a hoof to promote health. Just because someone learned from their father or grandfather doesn’t mean they’re good. Natural hoof care practitioner Alicia Mosher cautions that sometimes such situations perpetuate trimming errors, passing on from teacher to student certain trimming tendencies—long heels or toes, for example. If your horse happens to need something different from the norm, you’ll want to be confident that your farrier is open-minded, not afraid to adopt new technology and products as they become proven, and is a continual learner in his/her field, rather than simply applying a formula to every horse he/she shoes.

Educating yourself on the elements of trimming, hoof balance and correct shoeing will help you assess whether you’ve found the right hoof care professional for your horse. If you are familiar with healthy hoof practices, balance and protocol, you’ll be able to better ensure your animal’s comfort.

You are your horse’s best advocate and the one who is employing the farrier. Don’t be afraid to get a second and third opinion from a vet or other professional hoof practitioner before approving invasive or radical shoeing decisions.

If natural hoof care sounds good to you and your horse, consider joining the ranks of hobby farm horse owners, endurance riders, barrel racers, dressage enthusiasts and horse lovers worldwide who are discovering the option of natural hoof care.

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