by Linda Chamberlain
Imagine a time when it is widely understood that a horse might be a better athlete without metal shoes nailed to his feet.
Imagine sporting professionals acknowledging that a barefoot horse has better natural grip, greater speed and a quicker recovery rate after exercise.
Those of you whose horse has only recently come out of shoes might find such a scenario hard to fathom. Because of course you might be witnessing discomfort as your horse regains the health in his hooves. You might be forgiven for thinking your days of trotting on hard or rough ground are gone – but take heart.
You only have to spend a bit of time in the company of some endurance riders to discover just how much a barefoot horse can achieve given the right lifestyle and training. They can keep going for miles due to their high level of fitness. They don’t slip, they feel the ground (but in a good way) and they have an enviably deep relationship with their riders.
Can less sporting equestrians learn from their experiences?
Let’s meet some of them and impress you with some facts and anecdotes.
This year’s winner of the arduous 100-mile-in-a-day Tevis Cup in the United States DOES NOT WEAR METAL SHOES. Tennessee Lane rode the 17-year-old Arabian, called Farr, with glue-ons and carried Easy boot gloves as back up. The horse is barefoot when not competing.
In the UK, Dominic Smith finished in overall 46th place nationally on a barefoot and bitless horse. He has completed about 500 km in competitions without hoof boots and recently finished third in the open at the Red Dragon ride in Wales, the national championships. He was winner of the best rider/horse combination in the open, bagging a handsome trophy and the horse’s finishing heart rate was 44.
The fact that Dominic can tell me his horse’s heart rate tells you a key thing about the sport. There are regular veterinary checks for soundness and heart rates – horses aren’t allowed to continue unless they pass. A horse that is struggling or lame is ‘vetted out’. There is probably no other equestrian sport with such scrutiny.
Dominic’s horse, known as George (but with the full name George Bush) was bought by him as an unstarted five year old. He was barefoot and shoes were never considered. Boots were difficult to get a good fit for the 16.2 cob x IDTB so Dominic takes it more slowly over rough ground, making up the time where the footing allows.
‘I’ll push on where the going is good for feet, even if I’m feeling it myself. Then I’ll give him a breather where we hit gravel or tougher stuff for feet, so that he’s getting a break where he needs to go easy,’ he says.
‘We’ve been vetted out on two rides early this season. One was ‘out of time’ and the other was lameness, one sore foot which was fine the next day. Both times this was down to me, missing solid stop lines and therefore going off course, doing extra distance and having to double back to achieve the check points. Both times, sod’s law, were on challenging courses.
‘George is out 24/7 in a herd of six all year round, no one gets rugged (although I’m open to it on health grounds). They’re all barefoot, two of the ponies are wildies off the moor kept from slaughter. Shared hard feed and hay on tap.’
Life style, feeding and an exercise regime are all important.
‘They live out 24/7 on a 1000m2 bare paddock with shelter and hay in feeders. They are let out on grass for a snack for a couple of hours in the morning while I poo pick but previously they lived 24/7 on long grass without a problem. I’ve never keep them on short grass.
‘I ride every other day at the most and mainly trot and canter on all good ground on the flat and walk up and down hills (1-2 hrs LSD, Long, Slow Distance). Then usually every 3rd session I will do either continuous canters (30mins to 1 hr of canter, in intervals for less fit horses), hill intervals or fartlek intervals for a few weeks. (Fartlek training is another interval-type training for aerobic fitness) If I have no particular event coming up and they are already at the fitness level I want I will just do the LSD training. I always have a focus for the session so I train that aspect properly eg: fat metabolism, LSD, raising anaerobic threshold (intervals and fartlek), muscle memory (continuous canters). Every month or so I will go for a long ride just so they are used to being out. They always get at least a couple of months off in the winter with just the occasional ride for fun.
‘My aim is just to have sound horses that enjoy what they are doing. I am very sure Arco and QI are capable of doing 160 km at a respectable speed but I won’t push them for the sake of it. Elsa is capable of doing 120 km for sure but I would rather her do lots of 80 km because she thinks they are fun and she has a low boredom threshold!’
He said: ‘Endurance riders spend hours riding out with their equine partners… covering miles. Human and horse minds meet in the middle; human and horse learn to read the situation, no words are spoken but both rider and horse instinctively learn to understand how best to deal with the road ahead. How fast to go, where to place feet, get off my back and help here, think you’re best going over this bit. Yep, think you’re right, let’s go over there. I’m stopping, got a stone in my foot, have a look, can you? Sounds daft but this is the kind of relationship and understanding you start to get with your horse. It’s worth such a lot.’
Another rider, Sara Nichols Covington, said of barefoot endurance horses. ‘They are more comfortable. They can feel their feet (that proprioception thing), much less concussion with each and every footfall, and the owner is more in tune with natural ways of dealing with issues.’
Deb Morse had this to say: ‘This photo was a 50 mile (80 km) ride in Florida a month ago. Was a bit hot!! All three of these horses are barefoot, although the bay in the back has boots on his fronts. My guys get fed a high fat, sweet feed, supplemental alfalfa, as much green grass as I can get them on or ad lib grass hay. So basically everything you’re “not supposed” to give a barefoot horse. But they work hard enough that they need the calories and put enough miles on their hooves that they can do 50+ miles without protection in the terrain they train on. If we go up north to do a mountain ride, like I am this weekend, I boot all 4 hooves. The bay in the green has done 100 miles (160 km) in a day and was booted since it was in mountains.’
Emma Leigh’s homebred TBxID mare was awarded best condition by FEI vets after one ride. She competes up to 65 km and the mare is trained and competed completely barefoot. ‘Her feet aren’t the prettiest and her conformation isn’t great but it just goes to show that looks don’t matter. I think the distances and terrain covered in training is excellent conditioning for bare hooves. The time taken to do this builds a great partnership so you know each other so well. Having a good hoof care professional who understands the needs of a barefoot performance horse is definitely necessary although these hooves rarely need much attention due to the work they do. She is on restricted grazing due to being a good doer and is fed Allen and Page feeds as well as various supplements and hay. The right diet will always help but movement is key to a good bare hoof.’
Gemma la Coop has had great success competing with hoof boots. ‘I’ve done several 80 km (50mile) rides with my boy successfully booted, and did 100 miles through the Cairngorms over 4 days. The key is to make sure you have well fitted boots!
‘There are lots of successful barefoot horses and ponies out there, the winning Scottish endurance team this year had several barefoot horses on it!’
Jill Thorburn has two barefoot endurance horses. ‘My previous horse competed up to 65 km before I sadly lost him to colic. I have brought on my current horse and he has successfully completed 17 endurance rides up to 64 km in the last two years. He is sometimes booted in front. The key is good nutrition, good conditioning and regular trimming. I have recently backed my next endurance horse and will spend two years working him gently, building up the work and conditioning his hooves through work on all terrains. I think barefoot horses do so well because you never see riders trotting them along the roads when there is a verge available. Both horses and riders are more aware of where to step to protect from concussion. I give Pure feed and its always worked well for my horses. My trimmer says they both have great feet.’
Not all endurance horses are Arabs, although they are famously strong in the sport. This is Ally Knight’s fell x Arab who was previously shod for 10 years and has been barefoot for around 18 months. ‘I do boot on the fronts if I think there is going to be a lot of forestry.’
Danielle Glaister’s horse, Blackie, has completed regularly barefoot and booted. This year they did Cirencester 40 km Saturday, 40 km Sunday. She says: ‘He nearly always gets grade one as he did in riding club championships in Lincolnshire two weeks ago.’
Jane Impey says diet has been vital for her horse. ‘We have participated up to 40 km. For us, lower levels of sugars, reducing grass during summer and feeding ad lib hay with salt and a good balancer has helped and lots of hacking on varied terrain. Support of a good knowledgeable trimmer who also does bodywork has helped massively! Not a typical endurance horse but he loves it.’
Frauke Jurgensen said: ‘I have a metabolically challenged pony who has competed up to 80 km. He did lots of shorter distances bare, and 60 with front boots only, but now he wears Renegades/Vipers all round. We have muddy fields up here and granite tracks, and the combination makes it really difficult to get the hoof conditioning just right. Also, his metabolic issues mean that even with very careful management, his frogs are always pretty crappy and he feel stones more easily. Not a problem if you can amble along and choose your footing very carefully, but not conducive to speed. I’ve had people say that of course it must be easy to go BF for endurance if your horse has feet as great as Benji, but I have to correct them and say that it’s a testament to the quality of the trimmers that he can do so well, despite having metabolically-compromised feet!’
Karen Schafer has completed a 160 km endurance ride on her barefoot Arabian, no boots. ‘He has won and placed in several rides between 80 – 120 km, I found everything depended on the footing, if it was good there was no limitation no matter what distance and if it included gravel roads and stony riverbeds I would usually get around the first 40 km fine and use Easyboots in front after that. My horse became an absolute pro at picking his speed according to the footing and never vetted out due to being barefoot. He was out on pasture (green and lush most of the time but old fashioned varieties) all year round with a little hay and no more than 1 kg of oats plus minerals and salt when in full work. He was always in excellent condition.’
Sam Hunt has competed two Arabs up to advanced level (80 kms) over the years, completely barefoot, never been booted. ‘Miri, pictured, is now 17 and will compete again next season. We’ve done all kinds of terrain, from fast and flat, to steep and rocky. Their proprioception and therefore balance is great. As long as we’re on the right course, I let them pick their preferred bit of ground (not always what you would expect them to choose!) If the going’s particularly tough, we simply slow down accordingly.’
Tracy Helen Ryan reports: ‘This year between 18 February and 17 September Connie and I have completed 1170 km. Longest distance has been 33 km. We have ridden nearly every weekend sometimes both Saturday and Sunday. We have never been vetted out. My horses live on a track system with free access to a barn with a big straw bed and hard standing. There is access to two half acre grass paddocks through the summer and I feed adlib hay all year and Simple Systems grass nuts and purabeet with micronised linseed twice a day. I always allow Connie to choose her own speed over any terrain. If I ask her for a higher gait and she is reluctant we stay with what she is comfortable with. Listening to Connie is my highest priority and in my humble opinion what keeps her sound.’
Finally, another Arab, with Jane Adams. ‘I competed up to 64 km on my little rescue barefoot Arab. Sometimes with front boots but mostly bare. Lives on a track system, ad lib hay 24/7, 365 days per year. Fed always on Simple System feeds. Retired now for a few years due to Cushings but is sound at 24.’
Thanks to all those who have helped me with this article and shared their success stories – and apologies for the time it has taken for me to put it all together! I blame a series of interviews that didn’t happen, evidence that didn’t materialise and my own horse’s battle with niggling injuries. Sophie had a strain on her tendon requiring full-time worrying and nursing. No doubt, the experience will supply me with anecdotes and articles about how to heal such things but I could have done without it. No doubt, she felt the same. I’m not a lover of box rest because the poor horse frets and loses muscle and condition and unfortunately rest is recommended…fortunately I have my own version. Here is my sick bay – big enough for two horses, room for a lay down and to potter about. They can even walk around the outside of it. Difficulties hit me every time I thought she was recovered enough to cope with more space. Turning her out renewed the strain. So I have established an injury recovery area – a level concrete circular track which allows more movement than the sick bay. No slipping and straining, no running. There is a softer area amid some fir trees for lying down and rolling, shelter thanks to their cover. And it’s working – she’s walking happily and being led. Wish her well…xxx
My latest book has just come back from my editor who has given me work to do but some praise to fuel my typing fingers – she says: ‘Your writing is truly remarkable and your skill with words just takes my breath away.’ Wow…but that’s enough about me – book links and reviews are below…
My non-fiction book – A Barefoot Journey – tells the story of riding without shoes in a hostile equine world. Mistakes, falls and triumphs are recorded against the background of a divided equine world which was defending the tradition of shoeing…with prosecutions. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p.
My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago but was mocked by the veterinary establishment. His battle motivated me to stretch my writing skills from journalism to novel writing and took me to the British Library and the Royal Veterinary College for years of research. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society.
‘Fantastic read, well researched, authentic voice, and a recognition of the correlation of our best slaves- horses- with the role of women throughout history. If you are into history, barefoot horses, and the feminine coming of age story, then this book is a must read’ – Amazon US reader.
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