MS-MR-2-Barefooting7432by Lorraine Strenkowski
Rodney Cone of Lebanon, CT started shoeing horses in 1989. The then 20-year-old apprentice spent three and a half years under the instruction of a mentor before he went off on his own.
It didn’t take long for Cone to become a desired farrier. With the freedom and willingness to take on the extraordinary clients, Cone found himself flying to an account on Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island), and to an Olympic Champion in Florida at times of competition, along with a myriad of destinations in Connecticut and the East Coast.
Cone continued his education. He was determined to understand all aspects of horse and hoof health. He traveled to seminars and read as much material as was available.
Being an experienced farrier led Cone to start investigating horses with hoof issues. A hoof issue can lead to leg and gait imbalances, stiffness in joints and lameness. Wearing a steel shoe restricts circulation and can hinder the hoof mechanics of their natural function, and therefore eventually weakening the foot. Pulling off the steel exposes and reveals any underlying problems, and can often answer the question, “Why are some horses doing great and some not so good?” A hoof should expand with weight/pressure and then contract on the return upward motion. “Barefooting” these horses proved to be a successful alternative. Their terrain could then strengthen the sole callous and density, (much like our feet “toughen-up” from a summer spent without sandals), and also wear the toes naturally, thus maintaining hoof balance.
Initially Cone was happy with his conversion to barefooting. “But shoes were only one piece of the picture,” he says. “I was noticing other issues.” Seeing that his horses were comfortable without shoes, he then watched them more closely, letting the horses lead him to solutions. Why was one horse suffering from founder, (an inflammation and breakdown of attachments inside the hoof capsule; a horse can founder with or without shoes) and another was frantically pacing their box stall.
Cone discovered a common factor that challenged him to investigate further — their diets. Horses have monogastric digestive systems. They evolved not only as foragers but browsers, continually moving from one location to another in search of simple foods. “Forward movement is key,” says Cone, “not only for naturally ridding their bodies of toxins, but for optimum break-over and minimal leverage.” With phone consults to a natural horse veterinarian, Cone applied a solution to his own homestead: a “track.” With just over a mile fenced 10 feet wide, his horse Lola must venture out to gather the necessities. Water is at one end, while hay is at another. Shade and a small grazing pasture lie somewhere in between. Cone allows full time access to this track, in hopes of a well-balanced environment through forward motion.

Along with a horse’s natural tendency for forward movement comes the instinct to search out simple foods. “Most people worry that their animal is not getting enough nutrition. That belief can lead to over-indulging the horse.”
Hay from the Northeast is not as deficient as other parts of the country. Unlike Midwest soils which have been depleted over the years by the elements, our land tends to naturally compost. We have leaves that add a great deal to the nutrients. Limestone can replenish as well. Smaller fields, with stone walls, hedges and trees are protected from the vast winds and rains. A horse can do very well with first cut hay and water alone, maybe even with a small portion of oats which offers a natural seed head.
With that in mind, Cone took it one step further — he decided to look into the supplemental feeds, on which many of his clients insisted. Cone challenged a few of those clients to “simplify” by taking away dietary supplements/processed grains that may be filled with greater risk impurities, or cutting carbs that turn to sugar. “I saw many improvements from this alone,” he said.
He admits he was even concerned with commercial fertilizers on hay land, but with experimenting, Cone finds that fertilizer applied to the ground and not directly to a crop, “is not the culprit I had suspected!”
“Everything you do with your horse adds to the level of respect they gain for their owner.” Cone believes. “Your animal will trust you to care for and feed them. By respecting and responding to their evolutionary environment, pain can be reduced and ultimately resulting in a better quality of life. Cone continues to suggest barefooting and simple diets. “It’s not for everyone,” he explains, “but it works for many. Whatever the case may be, I let the horse show me what is or is not working.”
Cone has a truck full of steel shoes and equipment that he no longer uses. “I’m down to a duffle bag that holds three tools and a leather apron — but I’m proud of my successes!”