by Kirt Lander
“A horse must have shoes to be ridden or put into work, and attempting to do so
barefoot may cause him to go lame and be ruined.”
You’ve probably heard this more
than once, but it’s a mistaken belief that arises not only from our inherent impatience,
but also from a lack of understanding about the natural Lifeway requirements of the
horse. It often leads to barefoot transitional failure and the perception that “going
barefoot” is not possible.
Having pulled shoes from hundreds of horses and guided them into performance
barefoot status, I would like to share some of my views about the reality of the
transitional phase and the associated requirements for a successful transition to barefoot
What exactly is transition?
Transition is the phase after pulling shoes when the horse rebuilds and restores his
hooves, achieving a level of comfort, soundness and usability generally expected
from a domestic horse. Not included in normal
transition is the horse recovering from laminitis/founder or other serious hoof aliments;
this should be viewed as a state of rehabilitation and is not specifically addressed in this
Will your horse get sore or go lame if you pull shoes?
Yes, no and maybe. The act of pulling shoes to go barefoot does not cause soreness or
lameness in and of itself. It does, however, greatly improve the circulatory system and
the firing of nerves, and this will bring to light the true state of health in a newly de-shod
hoof. It may manifest in the form of soreness and lameness during the transitional phase.
Genetics and bad trimming aside, it is the health of a horse’s feet at the time of shoe
removal that influences immediate soundness more than any other initial factor. Hoof
health therefore plays a big role in both the extent and intensity of the transitional phase.
It’s about time
You might be asking, “How long is this going to take?” Depending on the terrain, horses
with reasonably healthy hooves devoid of major wall flares and with relatively healthy
soles and frogs can go back to work immediately or in several days, weeks or a month.
Horses with less than healthy hooves may need many months or a year or more to
transition. In any event, one must not be overly critical of the horse’s way of going until
at least one new hoof capsule has grown out.
For some horses, it may never be possible to achieve a satisfactory level of comfort and
soundness without the use of hoof boots; for example, in the case of a horse with
extensive prior damage, debilitation or untreated metabolic disorders that can cause
perpetual low grade laminitis. It is my personal opinion that not all metabolic disorders
can be treated to eliminate all traces of laminitis induction.
Nevertheless, these horses still benefit greatly from going shoeless and should be
provided hoof boots to be comfortable when ridden. The use of hoof boots is a
tremendous tool for the transitioning horse and should be carried for use if needed when
out on the trail.
Abscesses are sometimes a necessary occurrence
Abscessing will sometimes occur during the transitional phase, resulting in much
discomfort and lameness. A common misconception is that abscessing is caused by the
recently de-shod hoof when in reality the now bare hoof is merely facilitating the
process of cleansing and healing.
Why does this happen? Iron shoes can restrict circulation, causing an accumulation of
cellular debris within the hoof capsule. Removing the shoe restores circulation and the
body goes to work removing the accumulated material. Unfortunately, some of this
accumulation will not readily absorb into the bloodstream so the body uses the
mechanism of abscessing to get the job done. (Think of a festering sliver in a human
I don’t view abscessing in an overly negative light but instead accept it as a possible part
of the transitional process. This is not to say it should be ignored or that I am happy
when I see it, but I don’t panic if it occurs.
Proper environment goes a long way
Footing and movement have an incredible influence on both the time for transition and the
eventual level of soundness and durability in the barefoot horse. If your horse lives in a box stall
on wood shavings and rarely gets out for exercise, then transition will take a long time. Don’t
expect him to crush rocks on the weekends without the use of hoof boots.
A horse that lives in
a large paddock on clean rugged footing where he can move many miles each day on his own
will promote a quicker transition to barefoot soundness and rock crushing capability.
A horse that is sensitive coming out of shoes may need more forgiving footing in the initial stages
of transition, but he should never be swimming in overly deep footing as this will reduce hoof
A combination of footing types, where some areas are more aggressive than others, is also
helpful. This allows the horse to pick and choose what is comfortable to him, and is beneficial
both physically and emotionally. It is also very important that the footing be kept clean and is
changed out when it becomes overly contaminated with manure and urine.
A natural diet and feeding schedule is another key to easier transition. The wild horse roams
many miles each day, constantly grazing and foraging for his meals. This keeps a near constant
flow of material moving through his digestive system. In profound contrast is the far too common
method of feeding rich intermittent meals a couple of times a day. This leaves parts of the
digestive system devoid of roughage for hours on end.
The cecum or hind gut of the horse is full of microbes that are necessary for digestion. Research
suggests that when these microbes die off, their exoskeletons release toxins into the digestive
system. These toxins can be absorbed into the bloodstream, triggering laminitis to varying
degrees. If a horse’s digestive system is perpetually unstable, it can induce perpetual low grade
laminitis, affecting the soundness of the entire hoof capsule.
Hint: some horses can be sensitive to alfalfa hay. A horse prone to laminitis should avoid alfalfa
or “cool season” grasses that can be high in sugar.
Vaccinations can be detrimental to healing
Vaccines are another area of great concern. I am not a veterinarian, but the
anecdotal evidence I have seen, I believe that vaccine
reactions may be responsible for a high percentage of laminitis cases which plague our domestic horse
Most all veterinarians would agree that if a horse gets sick he may develop
laminitis. It is therefore not a stretch to imagine that if a horse has a mild reaction to a vaccine, it could
trigger mild laminitis. If vaccinated semi-annually, he may never fully grow out the affected hoof
capsule. Time and time again, I’ve come to trim a client’s healthy footed horse only to be faced
with the results of a recent laminitic episode. When I ask the owner about the recent history of
the horse, vaccinations are often part of the picture.
Whether or not you choose to vaccinate your horse is a personal choice. We must balance
protection with vitality. Personally, I choose vitality.
The truth about trimming
So far, I haven’t covered anything about trimming a transitioning barefoot horse. That’s because
success with a barefoot horse is more about how we keep them than how we trim them. Of
course, aggressive or invasive trimming strategies are detrimental, but ignoring the natural Lifeway
needs of the horse has a far greater impact on overall soundness and level of performance than
exacting trimming strategies.
Education is power
The uncertainty of the transitional phase needlessly scares people from pulling shoes. I
encourage anyone who is contemplating going barefoot to educate themselves on the subject.
Most transitional failures arise from a lack of understanding rather than a horse’s inability to go
You must also be aware of your horse’s natural Lifeway needs and integrate them as much as
possible. This is how you’ll find a successful transition to high performance
Kirt Lander is a natural hoof care practitioner and educator based in Arizona. A trimmer
since 1999, he has helped hundreds of foundered horses. Kirt and his wife, Gina, enjoy
endurance competition with their herd of a dozen barefoot horses, including their
Arabian stallion Halim El Mokhtar, who received the nationally acclaimed American
Endurance Ride Conference “Jim Jones Stallion Award” in 2005. Kirt is developing a
new performance riding boot specifically designed for the natural hoof.
Although abscessing is a natural process, there are some things we can do to help speed
* homeopathic silicea 6x, given three times per day for three days to help the
body expel the material.
* soaking the hoof for 20-30 minutes in ½ cup of Epsom salts, dissolved in 1
gallon of warm water. Used once or twice, this can help draw out the damaged
* applying a natural clay poultice and covering with a hoof boot. Let dry for one
hour and rinse.