by Linda Chamberlain
I want you to meet a trained farrier – one that says he will never shoe again because of the harm it causes. He turned his back on the trade because separating the horse from the ground was the beginning of a destructive process. He became a barefoot trimmer because he was forever fighting against nature, causing the hoof to distort and break from constant renailing. With all our wisdom and technology, there had to be a better way…
His name is Nick Hill and he has a list of changes needed for the domestic horse that is shopping-list long. If anyone can make a few of these demands happen it is this quietly, committed man who travels the world educating owners about a new way of caring for the species.
There is more to looking after a horse’s hoof than the style or frequency of its trim. This animal urgently needs some changes in its care if it is to lead a healthy life.
Interestingly, he finds the same health issues affecting the horse in many different parts of the world. Domestication inevitably brings problems whether that animal is in the rain-soaked UK or sun-filled Kenya.
I have a picture in my mind of Nick fighting his way through customs with a hoof rasp and suspicious-looking knives in his bag; in reality he has met only a few raised eyebrows as he crosses international borders but I am astonished that he encounters the same equine issues in a long list of countries – USA, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Estonia, Italy, Portugal, Israel, Spain, France, Denmark, Netherlands, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Lesotho and the UK where he has held clinics aimed at improving the horses’ hooves…and lifestyle.
‘If inappropriate management is put in place and undue expectations are put on a species, then we shouldn’t be surprised when health becomes compromised. Domestication always throws up challenges, but it’s not a reason to simply say I can’t…better to ask how we can?’ he explains.
So, what is it we do to the horse around the world that compromises him so much?
Mankind has taken him from a herd-loving, free-roaming creature and given him a job to do. In exchange we offer a diet rich in cereals rather than forage and a small house of his very own to live in. To seal the animal’s fate we nail a shoe to his foot.
So wherever he goes, Nick sees laminitis, navicular and other man-made diseases of the hoof. He finds digestive upset, compromised immunity, mental distress from lack of movement as well as breathing problems thanks to confinement.
And yet Nick warns, ‘Shoeing unbalances the whole horse and over a period of time will further distort the hoof. An unbalanced body makes for an unbalanced mind, which in turn affects the immune system. To cut the contact between the equid and the ground is the start of destroying of what makes him a horse. Shoes just mask problems, they don’t solve them.
‘Most farriers that I know would rather not shoe. It’s extremely hard, skilled work and once heading down that path they are fighting against nature and trying to stop the capsule from distorting and breaking up from the constant renailing.
‘Barefoot is the footwear of choice when the horse is born, if allowed to fully develop in a good environment and access to a more natural lifestyle and diet, then it’s simple. Barefoot is normal. The abnormalities come from misuse/abuse of the equine.’
He believes that any horse can go barefoot. Not all will cope being ridden but most transition without difficulty and recover well from these human-inflicted conditions. ‘People’s expectations of what horses can and should do must be looked at. It saddens me that the equine has fewer legal rights than any other species. It’s hard to understand when most humans mention how amazing and wonderful the equid is, yet if they truly understood the needs of the species then there would be a massive upheaval of the diet, lifestyle and expectations, which would be legislated for internationally.’
He’s right, you know. No zoo is allowed to treat the zebra the way most people treat the domestic horse. Legislation ensures the zebra’s need for herd life is respected. The horse’s need to socialise has not been squashed by thousands of years of domestication but it is often denied him thanks to the widespread use of single-stall stabling. Sometimes around the clock.
I asked Nick about the ideal diet for a barefoot horse.
His advice is to keep it as simple as possible and away from monocultured grass paddocks.
‘I usually say that if a bag of feed is promoted as healthy for horses then don’t use it. (There are companies out there that are making better products now). You need to research whatever you feed your horse. Don’t just believe what’s written on the bag.
‘People have really got to ask themselves why they are feeding what they are feeding. Horses should be treated as athletes, you wouldn’t expect an overweight person to be able to perform as an Olympian, so why expect a horse to move properly with excess weight, let alone carry a human. An overweight horse is not a healthy horse.’
‘Just take a look at groups of feral horses around the world, you will then see how horses need to live, social interaction, movement (yes there are some groups of feral horses that just survive and are not in the best conditions). You will at least see how far removed a lot of domesticated horses are from what nature intended.
‘If you look at feral horses in ideal environmental conditions you will see athletes who are sound and strong, healthy, alert and full of life, living like nature intended, with strong physical and mental health, sound, with short toes and heels, running over all substrates without having to worry.
‘Try and emulate the above and you will get a healthier equine. If your horse can’t move, socialise, eat little and often, then guess what? You are going to have problems.’
Before I give you Nick’s shopping-list for change let me tell you a bit about his background. It includes agricultural college and working in traditional livery yards as a riding instructor. He trained as a farrier because his own horses were struggling to stay sound.
‘I was trained by traditional farriers who were using the Cyteck method of shoeing; they seemed to be getting good results.
‘This was in the Highlands of Scotland (before the Farriers’ Registration Council took control of the whole of the UK) and I also travelled to the USA.
‘I learnt several important lessons, both from the equines and other professionals. Everything pointed to the same conclusion – there must be a better way forward, for all involved in the industry.’
I often ask my interviewees about their vision for the horse’s future. Most give me a line or two. I love that Nick has been suitably ambitious.
As promised…here is the list…
- An end to remedial shoeing to mask lameness in competition horses.
- Livery yards/farms paying more attention to the needs of equines rather than the needs of the land, or what looks nice.
- Feed companies being regulated against selling bags of rubbish dressed up as healthy feeds.
- Horse owners recognising the true needs of the horse and knowing the difference between good and unhealthy hooves (as they do reflect the health of the horse).
- More open-minded vets.
- Shoeing being replaced by barefoot and booting technologies (the farriers have the necessary skills to make changes but it needs to come from horse owners and vets as well).
- Stud farms and breeders to take better responsibility for the formative years and allowing the horse to develop fully.
- The ruling bodies of all equine competitions to state that no horse can compete until fully mature.
- Professionals should aim to fix the horse’s diet, environment and movement and then implement mechanical changes to the hoof. This applies to some trimming schools of thought as well as traditional farriery and veterinary work.
- Having professionals and horse owners understanding better handling techniques, recognising that there’s a reason for every reaction. Patience, understanding and kindness bring greater results in my experience.
‘The list is probably longer but let’s see,’ he says.
So, dear reader, if you could choose just one thing from Nick’s demands for the horse, what would it be? Tell us what you think is important by clicking on ‘comments’ and leaving some feedback. Press the follow button to keep in touch.
And if you want to get in touch with Nick you can find him on Facebook or you can email him on email@example.com
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ABOUT ME – I’m a writer and a journalist who has a passion for horses especially if they are barefoot. A Barefoot Journey, is my honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. Horsemanship Magazine said – ‘The writing is charming, warm, and (gently) brutally honest about a subject which is so obviously dear to her heart and central to her life. The big issues of hoof trim, equine lifestyle and human understanding are all covered. From the agony of self-doubt to the ecstasy of equine partnership, it is all laid out here, clearly and thoughtfully. It really ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off.’
A Barefoot Journey is a small but perfectly formed field companion for my novel, The First Vet, inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago! Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelSociety. Here’s one of the latest reviews – ‘I work nights & this book made me miss sleep (which is sacred to me) – I could not put it down! I loved the combination of historical fact & romance novel & it is so well written. I’m going to buy the hard copy now – it deserves a place on my bookshelf & will be read again. 10 gold stars Ms Chamberlain!’
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