An interesting and informative Clinic was held Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at Hoofbeats Holistic located in Sharon Springs, NY. Host Melissa (Missy) Hatalsky welcomed the participants and introduced Clinic instructor Geri White, EqSC, Barefoot Hoof Care Specialist, ESA (Equine Sciences Academy) and AHA (American Hoof Association) certified, ESA field instructor. She explained that Geri’s philosophy (and the reason for hosting the class) was not just to teach hoof trimming, but all other things to do with the horse. It’s the whole paradigm that is important, and stated that everything they do takes into account a holistic/whole horse approach.
Geri began the clinic with informative Power Point presentations, one from the Equine Sciences Academy, and two of her own, to demonstrate the difference between the quality of life of wild horses around the world vs. that of many domestic horses, and to show why the wild horse life is used as a model for natural hoof care. Participants viewed photos of wild horses ranging in very diverse environs – from the Great Plains with its arid rocky conditions, to the Barrier Islands; the Camargue region in France where wild horses spent much time in a watery environment, to feral horses in the UK… different conditions, different horses, and yet all seemed to thrive in their natural environments. It is through the efforts of understanding the life of the wild horses that teaches us to learn how best to care for our horses. The wild horses that are not touched by humans are healthy — and the suggestion learned from this lesson was that humans may need to reassess their habits to properly care for their horses.
The elements of a natural living environment are what keep horses healthy overall, and include:

  • exposure to fluctuating conditions (heat, cold, wet, dry);
  • continuous movement – as opposed to being ‘stalled’ or shut in a pen;
  • herd life as opposed to being kept alone;
  • natural body posture while eating and drinking and moving (as opposed to being tied up and having to reach up or over to eat out of a bucket or stanchion);
  • vast nutritional variety (no one knows exactly all that a wild horse eats);
  • resting places in the open;
  • bare hooves that have intimate and direct contact with the ground;
  • and no artificial “clothing.”

This is directly in contrast with today’s domestic environment where we often find horses with:

  • a lack of psychological stimulation while being confined to a stall or barn;
  • infrequent natural movement;
  • abrupt temperature changes (such as being blanketed and unblanketed);
  • insufficient nutritional variety (being limited to eating only 5 to 7 types of food);
  • unnatural body posture while eating or drinking;
  • resting places in stalls or small enclosed areas;
  • living and working in uniform soft terrain, such as arenas, sawdust or woodchipped stalls, with no hard ground or obstacles such as trees, rocks, stumps and the like that enables the horse to move around and strengthen his hooves;
  • living with hard iron shod hooves rather than having direct contact with the ground.

The effects of shoes on a horse’s foot includes hoof walls that cannot wear naturally; added weight; and having the entire hoof mechanism impaired, as the natural expansion and contraction of the hoof as it bears weight cannot occur when there are iron shoes nailed in place. The whole hoof capsule is very flexible; and becomes damaged from the horseshoe nails. After removing shoes, the horse’s feet will look worse before they will look better, as the nails have caused physical trauma (deformation and contraction) to the hoof tissues. In addition, there is increased vibration and concussion to the shod foot — and after the shoes are pulled off you may find rub marks on the branches of the heel. Inside the foot the vascular system becomes damaged as the horse doesn’t get blood flowing in that part of the foot. It is through the natural movement of the foot and the gradual increase of weight over a horse’s lifetime as he grows that builds up and toughens the digital cushion. For a horse that has been shod regularly since it was a year old, those feet may never have developed properly and in many of these instances, the horse may be lame after removing its shoes. It is horse shoeing, along with unnatural boarding processes (being confined to stalls for the most part and traveling over only soft even ground) that is responsible for most lameness issues.
According to the American Farriers Journal of November 2000 (V. 26, #6), of the 122 million equines worldwide, no more than 10 percent are clinically sound! Eighty percent of these equines are considered clinically “somewhat lame” as they could not pass a soundness exam; and 10 percent are clinically “unusually lame!”
So what are the differences between the “Natural” hoof and the “Man Made” hoof?
The Natural hoof in a rugged terrain has a short toe. Most wild horses’ hooves measure less than 3 1/2 inches in length. They are more efficient and have strong hoof to horse attachments. The shorter length makes them easier to break over, resulting in less work for the horse.
In comparison, the Man Made hoof is long, with toe lengths frequently more than 4 inches. They are less efficient, and have weaker hoof to horse attachments. They are slower and more difficult to break over, which causes more work for the horse.
The Natural hoof walls are thick, smooth from the coronet to the ground; there is a consistent angle of growth from the coronet to the ground, and there are no bulges, ripples or flares evident. The Man Made hoof walls are often thin, shelly and brittle, with an inconsistent angle of growth from coronet to ground, and often showing bulges, ripples and flares. These can indicate that the horse has experienced episodes of laminitis.
The Natural hoof walls show a distinctive “mustang roll” — which goes all around the hoof wall’s ground bearing surface, and the outer wall turns in a distinct smooth radius. The Man Made hoof has no smooth roll, the outer wall is prevented from wearing evenly and becomes uneven with a sharp angle, and from having the toe long it thins the quarters on the foot, which are more likely to chip and split.
The Natural hoof sole, called the “Solar Dome” is concave everywhere, from the white line of the outer wall inward to the frog. It is thick, callous, tough and pain-free. The Digital Cushion of the natural hoof is robust and functional, while that of the man-made hoof is atrophied and dysfunctional, and much thinner. The Man Made hoof sole is frequently less concave, and is often thin and overly sensitive, with a lot longer sole making contact with ground.
In addition, the Natural Hoof has extremely low heels. The heel bulbs are flattened and engaged in weight bearing; while the Man Made Hoof has high heels; the heel bulbs are far from the ground and are never engaged in weight bearing, often resulting in contracted heels.
On the Natural hoof in normal/arid terrain, the back of the frog is worn level with the ground and surrounding heel buttresses; it has the consistency of rawhide. The frog of the Man Made hoof has no direct ground contact, resulting in having the consistency of Jello, and is often atrophied and diseased.
Missy interjected that the horse’s environment is very important in how the hooves react — she said this summer the terrain became hard and flat from hot and dry weather, which resulted in their horses’ feet becoming hard and starting to flatten out — but with the autumn rains coming, the horses’ environment starts to soften up, and their feet will begin to get that concavity back.
Geri discussed traction, with the natural hoof (barefoot) having secure footing on all terrain, due to natural shock absorption.
She provided excellent visuals, with beautiful photos in an easy-to-follow format. Participants in the class could easily see why they would prefer their horses to be barefoot (having a Natural Hoof) than to be shod. A discussion of Hoof Boots provided a perfect solution for a “bridge” from being a shod horse to a barefoot horse, as they protect fragile or damaged hooves during the transition to barefoot, even for hard riding, while allowing full functioning of the hoof mechanism.