Wednesday, January 14, 2009

If the shoe fits...

Today we're going to talk about shoeing vs. barefoot. I keep on encountering people to whom barefoot trimming is like a cult. They refuse to believe that any horse, regardless of condition or soundness, ever needs shoes to be sound. Honestly, it is like trying to discuss comparative religions with a born-again who believes everybody who isn't on his exact same spiritual path is going to burn in the fiery pits of Hell. So today, I am going to talk about that and yes, I expect there to be a lot of controversy.

I've been in horses for most of my 41 years and I know
why so many of you became barefoot aficionados: bad shoeing. All my life, there has been an overabundance of bad shoeing out there. Shoes smacked on without being shaped to the hoof. Shoes cranked in to pinch the heel. Shoes one size too small put on to try to force the foot into a tiny, narrow, trendy show-ring look. All racehorses seem to come off the track with long toes and underrun heels. (Why IS that? Is there some super seekrit Shitty Racehorse Farrier Training School somewhere? No wonder we have so many breakdowns. Stop worrying about the track surface and start investigating why these poor horses have no heels!) Don't even get me started on the shit they do to gaited horses.

And underneath that, bad trimming! Heels lopped off with scary long toes, or the opposite - so much heel left on that the horse looks club footed. Plenty of that around, too. Hey, I hear you guys on all of this. Many years ago, I acquired a lovely Thoroughbred gelding. He was a made polo pony and he jumped a three foot course. We got him for $1000 because he had just been diagnosed with navicular. This horse had as lovely a long, flat trot as you could ever hope to see. He had a stellar shoulder. I did not believe he was navicular, and advised my then-boyfriend to buy him. Pulled the shoes, and three weeks later, with no other care, voila, sound horse. The seller, who had darn near given away a horse who was probably worth $7000-$8000, was livid - but he kept using that same farrier even though I told him why the horse had been lame. Moron.

I agree that barefoot is both a healthy and low-cost way for a horse to live. The VLC has never worn shoes, but all of his riding has been in soft indoor arenas. He is a little ouchy on gravel. The barefooters would tell me to force him to walk on gravel and "toughen up" his feet. That's where I part company with them. I will be damned if I'm going to cause pain to a horse when it's not absolutely necessary to treat a medical condition and there's no other way. If we start trail riding, he's simply going to get a pair of Boa or similar type boots to wear. I'm assuming the trainer he eventually goes to will want him shod for showing, and I'm open to that as long as we use my farrier.

For many years, I left all of our polo ponies barefoot. They played in a soft arena. In the spring, we started going to arena tournaments, and some of those arenas were hard and unforgiving - so we shod them to prevent bruising. It worked great. After the tournaments, the shoes were pulled and they went out to pasture barefoot.

One of my mares, many years ago, had a godawful case of white line disease. She was probably our best tournament horse - a real superstar who also gave lessons and jumped. Very fortunately, I had a fabulous farrier, Red Renchin - if he is still in business in the Milwaukee area, you should use him. Red resected and packed the hoof with filler and of course shoes went on to hold it all together. That was in the early 1990s and that mare lived to be 29 - I just lost her last December. Without shoes and a damn good farrier, I believe that mare would have had to be put to sleep long, long ago. This was my first introduction to corrective shoeing that worked on an extreme case.

A few years earlier, I had been introduced to corrective shoeing that did not work. This was in 1991 when I took in and tried to fix a polo pony who could barely walk. He was wearing egg bars and pads - back then, egg bars and pads were the cure for everything! The problem is, the asshat who shod him never sealed the pad in the back. He'd been in a dirty stall and manure and urine had packed under the pad. Not only was he standing on rounded balls, but he was horribly thrushy. The frogs were gone. I had the shoes pulled, shot him up with Adequan and turned him out in the snow. Again, a few weeks later - sound horse. Another misdiagnosed navicular, by the way. He was arthritic but the Adequan and going from a box stall with no turnout to pasture board fixed that.

So like I say - I have seen both sides. I understand why so many of you are disillusioned with traditional shoeing and want to try something different, I just don't agree that "something different" is the answer 100% of the time, and sometimes "something different" is a train wreck.

That brings me to the Strasser method, which was mentioned previously in comments on another thread. There are no words to describe how deeply I disagree with Strasser. Strasser thinks it is JUST FINE to lame up a horse with trimming. This is routine in Strasser! She even recommends you put them on rubber mats for a few weeks afterward, 'cause God knows they can't stand without pain anymore. I am baffled by how otherwise intelligent people can think this is okay. I agree with this farrier's observations on Strasser. I mean, come on - the woman actually says that iron shoes always cause contracted heels? Is she nuts? I could show you
thousands of horses that prove that theory wrong. Bad shoeing causes contracted heels. Good shoeing does not.

Then there's the fact that Strasser - and some other barefoot cultists - encourage owners to learn to trim their own horses. Personally, I think that's akin to DIY brain surgery. FARRIER WORK IS AN ADVANCED SKILL REQUIRING EXTENSIVE TRAINING. Anybody who has had a "new" farrier just out of school knows that they don't have the skill and good judgment of the person who has been doing it for five or ten years. I find the mere idea that an owner can somehow (often in the space of a seminar!) be trained to trim their horse's feet BEYOND LUDICROUS. Good God, that horse has to walk on those feet! He doesn't need some DIY-er
using him as a guinea pig. I have been in horses for 30 years and I would NEVER try to do my horse's feet. I don't think anyone who has not been to farrier school or apprenticed with a top farrier long-term should be doing feet, EVER. Rasping off a bit of toe, ok. But not an actual trim. A bad trim job can do a million kinds of evil, from causing mechanical founder to blowing out the horse's tendons. If you want to trim your own horses, go to school for it.

People trained in this method are being found guilty of animal cruelty. That should tell you something! Yup, DIY gone wild. Poor pony had to be put to sleep.

Now, the Strasser devotees argue that the extreme trimming is necessary to increase blood flow and promote healing, and the long-term effects are worth it. And indeed, this has worked for some horses. Others aren't here anymore to tell the tale. Again, it comes down to: why would you inflict pain on your horse when there is another way? And there is another way - for one, the Natural Balance shoeing which I am a huge, huge, huge fan of for horses that do require shoes.

As with all things, NB is only as good as the NB practitioner. Are some people doing it wrong? OF COURSE. But when it's done right, you can correct severe lamenesses without causing additional pain to the horse. My argument is that sometimes shoes are necessary - to take pressure off of bones or to support a tendon in the position required for healing for example. Removing pain promotes movement which, in my never humble opinion, does a hell of a lot more to increase circulation than a trim that leaves the horse standing gingerly on rubber mats. If your foot hurt, wouldn't you feel better with a gel pad on the bottom of it? This truly is common sense. Plus, you'll note that the NB people promote the use of radiographs to determine the shoeing prescription. HOORAY, common sense. How can you correctively shoe OR trim without seeing what you are trying to correct?

My farrier rescued a pony with the coffin bones coming through the soles on all four feet. Normally I assume that is a candidate for immediate euthanasia - past the point of rescue. How exactly would you fix that with barefoot trimming? You couldn't. She had the pony at home and was able to provide corrective shoeing and daily monitoring. A year later, that pony is alive, well and sound. Yeah, I can't believe it either. There are a lot of success stories with NB used on horses with prior histories of laminitis, navicular, chronic abscesses and white line.

Now, NB is not the only good kind of corrective shoeing, either. Here's another amazing story of a horse with a penetrated coffin bone returning to Grand Prix level dressage thanks to GOOD corrective shoeing. Sorry, but with barefoot? He'd have been euthanized years ago. You can't go barefoot when there's no sole to stand on!

Here is another very good example of corrective shoeing helping remodel the hoof of an old Thoroughbred mare with severely underrun heels. Again, how would you fix this without shoes? Good luck! You can clearly see how the support of the corrective shoes is helping this mare's feet return to a healthy shape that will support her legs for many years to come. Maybe she will be able to go barefoot in the future, but right now those shoes are essential.

I told you that I was going to show you scary x-rays of a horse that was sound with corrective shoeing. Here you go, below. This is another CBER special (yes, you're shocked, right?) Dumped at the lot by some asshat, who requested that she go to kill, she was rescued and shipped down to Southern California where she fortunately met up with a wonderful owner and a wonderful farrier. This mare maintains sound with shoeing and supplements despite this scary, scary radiograph. She trail rides and handles hills, rocks and varied terrain. She wouldn't be able to walk around the pasture if she were barefoot.

Bottom line, I think just leaving a horse barefoot with traditional trimming is great if that works for the horse. Many breeds, like mustangs and appaloosas, tend to have hard hooves and will never need shoes in their life. If that's your horse, congratulations - you're going to save a lot of money! I don't shoe horses that don't need it - but some horses DO need it and refusing to provide them with what they need is a form of cruelty in my book. You will never convince me that 100% of the horses in the world can go barefoot.

As for what they do in the wild, don't even start - the lame ones fall behind the herd and are eaten by cougars. That is what they do in the wild. It's not like everything fixes itself if only those pesky human being aren't involved.