The Barefoot Horse
You may have noticed that more and more people are out and about on unshod horses. It is a common conception, even in our modern times that horses require shoes to prevent wear on the roads, and to cope with stones/gravel/grit etc. That may have been true for the Romans because their horses had no balancers, no track systems, none of the awareness we have these days on how the horse functions, or how to help the hoof do the job for which it was intended. But it doesn't have to be true for the modern day horse owner.
So how do those people who ride without traditional shoes manage? How do they get around XC courses with no traction? How do endurance riders go mile after mile after mile, with bare feet? How do all those cobs go out on the road without becoming lame, or wearing their hooves to the sole? What's the point? Horses are supposed to wear shoes.... aren't they?
The Wild Hoof Model
The wild horse has no need to wear shoes. it has evolved over millions of years to roam the wilderness, its feet unprotected with no hoof oils, hardeners or shoes.
So what makes the domestic horse different? Well diet, environment, smaller herds and paddock boundaries generally keep domestic horses from their "natural environment". They are designed to travel long distances and to forage on fibrous, hard stemmed, stalky plants. Wild horses live a life far different from the manicured pastures we put them in with bucket feeds and winter clips and worming programs.
But the simple fact is, horses are designed to cope just fine without shoes. They do not lack traction on wet ground or grass, they are not footy on the rocky plains and their feet are better conditioned to the terrain they live on. Don't get me wrong, wild horses dont all have perfect feet, but they do have a diet closer to what nature intended for them.
So what can we do to help domestic hooves even vaguely resemble the strong durable feet of the wild Mustang or the Arabian?
Well, we can improve the diet so the horse receives a balanced share of the vitamins and minerals he needs for healthy hooves. We can change his environment so he is encouraged to move around more, and provide less of the over-fertilised sugary ryegrass and clover that was planted to fatten cattle and sheep. We can trim in ways which optimise the hoof, to enable it to function better.
We should also remember that by shoeing him in the first place, we have taken the sole and the frog off the ground. We have made it more sensitive to stones and pressure because he doesn't have that ground contact any more and he is no longer used to his body weight crushing down on little painful bits of stone. The moment the hoof loses the protection of the shoe, it begins to feel the grit on the roads and the stones on the driveway.
And the frog and digital cushion, well they change with shoes too. But when the shoes come off, pressure stimulates growth - so the hoof will begin to adapt both internally and externally.
And that is where your transition begins.
Transitioning To Barefoot
Of course, some horses adapt far quicker to being barefoot than others. I know a few horses who were shod one day and hacking for miles on stoney tracks the next. And while this might be an ideal situation, it is not the norm. However, horses can and do transition well, if you have the right tools and a little patience. Take, for example, your average two year old thoroughbred who is raised on rich, sugary rye grasses designed for fattening cattle, and fed high calorie, sugary and starchy hard feeds which are full of energy to aid his performance. All of these things fuel the not-so-friendly gut bacteria, and lack much of the herbal diversity his gut was designed to digest.
That horse, in his first eighteen months has probably never had any real opportunity to develop strong, healthy feet. He's only ever moved on soft ground, or long grasses in the fields. And he has probably had a couple of pasture trims in his short life. Then he's brought out of the field as a two year old, had his first set of shoes on, been wormed, and suddenly is being fed rocket fuel. He has no strong foundation on which to grow strong healthy hooves. His gut suffers a big imbalance because of his diet. and he, like 80% or more of racehorses develops stomach ulcers.
And so, he becomes a typical racehorse and has "typical flat TB feet". And that's how his feet remain, because from the day he was backed he's always had shoes on, he is fed incredibly high energy feeds, for performance not for gut health or hoof health, and then eventually he comes off the track and is re-trained for dressage or showjumping and he maintains his reputation as a typical OTTB with flat, fragile feet, and he probably still has gastric issues.
It is worth noting that thoroughbreds who never had this start in life do not share the poor hoof "conformation" of those from the racing industry. I know several TB's who have absolutely beautiful strong, healthy feet. They have never worn shoes in their lives, and it shows. But once you start to help his gut to heal, give him the right balance of the things he needs, and condition his body from the inside, supported by a corrective trim to encourage the hoof to develop as it never could when he was shod so young, amazing things can happen.
A really good, balancing trim, with a trained eye and both short and long term goals, even working towards simply putting the frog back on the ground can make a world of difference. Hoof boots are a great place to start, they will enable your horse to go out onto surfaces they would otherwise be uncomfortable on. Even better, by using pads with your hoof boots, you will stimulate the frog and sole, which encourages the structures both internal and external, to develop and strengthen. Take baby steps where necessary, and remember: Rome wasn't built in a day.
Nutrition, environment and conditioning are really important factors, as well as a good balanced trim by a professional. The transition might take a while but once you're on the right track, the changes are in place, not just for the hooves but for the whole health of your horse.