Natural Hooves The Strasser Way
In the previous issue of Natural Horse, we presented Dr. Strasser's insightful overview of the most important factors, and effects of, living conditions on the horse. In this continuation the focus is on the hoof - and the reasons for barefooting it.
By shoeing and stabling her horse an owner unknowingly subjects him to numerous evils.
"A horse living naturally, with an open shelter, large paddock, pasture access, and the company of equals has a far better foundation for good health in all respects than a horse subjected to the harmful environment of conventional boarding," says Dr. Hiltrud Strasser in her book, A Lifetime of Soundness.
"It must be understood, however," says Dr. Strasser, "that the damage being done to the horse's health and psyche by this utterly unnatural, harmful lifestyle is not the result of ill will toward the horse. Rather it is man's desire for convenience, his failure to understand the full ramifications of seemingly innocent actions, and more importantly, his tendency to humanize the creatures he domesticates and to assume they need what he needs. It is difficult to make the connection between the causative factors that have been going on for so long and the visible, resulting harm when the damage of the unnatural lifestyle may take years to become obvious."
Natural living, a biological requirement for the horse, is the cornerstone of natural hoof care. Hoof health and soundness involve more than just trimming; proper overall management and proper hoof trimming go hand in hand. It would be foolish to expect a perfect barefoot trim to make a healthy horse when the horse's living arrangements thwart his every effort to be healthy.
The Natural Hoof
It is often said that the horse has five hearts the one inside his chest and the four at the ends of his legs. Each hoof is a heart-supporting circulatory pump, as well as having the functions of protection of its inner parts, shock absorption, traction, and secure footing. The hoof is a highly complex organ that has adapted over millions of years to its natural environment, and a strong healthy hoof is essential to the horse's survival.
Basic hoof structure includes the protective outer wall, the bars (extension of the wall at the back of the hoof, which turns back on itself and ends about halfway along the frog), the frog and bulbs of the heel, and the sole. The hoof is composed of horn, soft horn, insensitive and sensitive tissues, soft tissues, nerves, blood vessels, and bone. (In A Lifetime of Soundness, a complete and thorough discussion of the workings of the hoof clarifies the function of the healthy hoof and all its components. See For more information at the end of this article.)
When observing the hoof from the side, the angle of the coronet (where hair meets hoof) with the ground should be considered. In a sound hoof, according to Dr. Strasser, "The coronet should descend in a smooth, straight line from toe to heel and should form an angle of about 30 degrees with the ground." The hairlines of shod hooves are commonly curved or uneven rather than straight.
When viewing the sound hoof from the bottom, the sole is a concave dish with the highest point at the apex of the frog. The wall is thicker in the toe area than the heels, and if lines were drawn from the apex of the frog along the clefts, the extended lines pass on the outsides of the bulbs and not through them.
In a sound hoof, the coffin bone is parallel to the ground. Because the angle of the coffin bone in the front hoof is naturally 45 50 degrees and the hind 50 - 60 degrees, the front hooves are never steeper than the hinds on the same horse. A commonly seen error in horseshoeing is for the front feet to be steep and the hind not as steep.
The front feet are designed for the abrupt bearing of great weight and are therefore more round. The round shape allows for maximum expansion on weightbearing. Dr. Strasser points out, "Any 'point' or deviance from this near-circular shape would make it susceptible to fracturing or breaking." The hind feet are designed not for bearing of a sudden large weight, but for propulsion and dig-in traction, and are therefore oval in shape.
Shod vs. Barefoot
Historically, the horseshoe has been used to protect the hooves of horses in captivity. Knights and royalty who kept horses within the castle grounds shod their stall-kept horses while the horses of the vassals and common folk, living more naturally, did not. The hooves of the castle horses, weakened by lack of circulation and ammonia exposure, could not hold up to the wear and tear from the rocky terrain while the horses living in large open spaces were strong and healthy and needed no such 'protection'.
"The problem with protecting the hoof from wear, however," says Hiltrud Strasser, Dr. Vet. Med., Tuebingen, Germany, "is that the wall is allowed to grow longer than it would in nature. This causes unnatural forces and tensions within the hoof." A rigid steel shoe also impairs shock absorption and movement of the sole. When the hoof hits the ground and bears weight, the hoof capsule changes - the walls naturally move apart and the sole adjusts from concave to flat. The lower part of the hoof widens the most, but when a shoe is in place, it fixates the hoof wall so it cannot expand at the place it most needs to expand. "Horses shod with normal metal shoes lack 70-80% of their natural shock absorption because the shod hoof cannot expand and function properly," says Dr. Strasser.
The horn tubules of the wall also absorb shock in that they are spiral in shape and, in the healthy elastic hoof wall, act as springs that absorb shock individually. They are capable of conforming to uneven surfaces and reassuming their original shape. A rigid steel shoe is not. This natural ability to conform to uneven surfaces allows for maximum shock absorption and aids in secure footing.
Also aiding in traction is the ground contact of the bare hoof. The frog and bulbs being on the same level as the heel in the properly trimmed or naturally worn hoof allows for direct contact, and because there is a natural concavity of the sole, a suction-cup effect occurs on weightbearing. This makes traction on very slick or icy surfaces possible. According to Dr. Strasser, "The hoof lands and slides forward until it bears full weight, becomes virtually glued to the ice by suction, then is pulled up in the back so air can get under the sole, and the hoof is lifted again."
When shod, a horse cannot feel the ground as well as when barefoot. The rigid shoe distributes contact pressure evenly along its surface causing a distorted sense of feel and inviting tripping and stumbling. Shod hooves do not grow as fast as unshod hooves, due to impaired circulation.
Every day there are new findings from professionals and scientists documenting the harmful effects of shoeing.
Making the Transition to Barefoot
Removing the shoes is simple, but dealing with the aftermath can be challenging. For the sake of the horse, however, it is worth it. Dr. Strasser explains, "It must be pointed out, however, that after many years of shoeing it is not possible to simply remove the shoe and expect the horse to be immediately and fully sound and usable." Because the constriction of the shoe impairs nerve function, it gives a false illusion of 'doing better' with a numbing effect when shoes are put on. Says Dr. Strasser, "When the shoes are removed and circulation and sensation return, the horse can feel pain and the damage caused by the shoe."
After a shoe is removed, the hoof, which is usually deformed to some degree, goes through many changes in the healing and restoration process. As the once restricted circulation and nerve function are restored, painful sensations like that of cold, numb fingers coming back to life occur. Damage inside the hoof begins to go through repair and the dead tissue is either absorbed into the bloodstream or transported outside the body in pus (abscessing).
Dr. Strasser explains, "Depending on the amount of damage done inside the hoof, it can take a few weeks to many months for all of this dead tissue to be removed through abscessing." This can be painful, but it is a natural part of healing. "Also painful is the return of movement to the hoof the restoration of the hoof mechanism," says Dr. Strasser. "As a result of the hoof being inflexibly fixed in its narrow, non-weightbearing state while shod, the hair-bearing skin above the bulb has lost some of its capacity to stretch with the expansion of the hoof. This is especially the case if a degree of contraction is present, as it is with virtually every shod hoof."
The healing capacity of the horse, however, is great and given time, the proper living conditions, and correct natural trimming, many 'incurable' problems can be cured, including severe founder. (See NHM Volume 2, Issues 5 and 6, Case Histories: The Story of Inty Curing Founder Using the Strasser Method.)
The newly barefoot horse must also be given the chance, as must any horse, to become accustomed to the terrain on which he will be ridden so the hoof can match the hardness of the terrain. She adds, "Properly fitted hoof boots worn only while the horse is working - are a valid 'crutch' to help a horse get over this transitional period while still allowing the owner to ride."
Returning the hooves to their natural form and health is a process, and it may take weeks, months, or years, depending on the severity of the pre-existing damages. It takes about 8 10 months for the hoof to regrow completely, assuming there is minimal damage to the corium. At first, knowledgeable hoof care at weekly intervals is necessary. Also required for a successful transition to high-performance barefootedness is the overall health of the horse and correct, natural living conditions in terms of its biological requirements.
No Scientific Basis for Shoeing
Shoeing in medieval times started with the nobility and gradually spread to the common folk. Says Dr. Strasser, "As is human nature, those things used by the 'rich and famous' quickly become desirable to the 'common man'." But there is no evidence that shoeing is good for the horse. Though it may be used as a crutch, to palliate, and to cover up symptoms, it does not correct the problem."
Dr. Strasser explains, "The statement, 'But my horses can't walk without shoes' is not a reason to shoe. It is a cry for help, a shameful testament to the actions of the farrier, who has brought the hooves into such poor shape that the horse can no longer exist without the use of these harmful crutches, and/or the owner, who has forced the horse into such unnatural living conditions that it can no longer exist without human interference. The horse owner," she says, " should change the living conditions and the hoof care so that the horse can once again be carried by its own feet."
The research on shoeing vs. barefoot exists, and has been in print since the early 1800's. Plaster casts of hooves showing before and after shoeing are evidence that the hooves go through much detrimental change when shod, even when done 'correctly' according to farriery standards. "While Bracy Clark was probably one of the first scientists to document the ill effects of shoeing, he was by no means the last," says Dr. Strasser. "Over the previous 200 years, the evidence of the damage caused by shoeing has been growing steadily though most of the more recent information comes from non-veterinary horse specialists, people who have not been indoctrinated with and blinded by years of misinformation."
"When beginning Shoeing: A Necessary Evil?, I set out to find scientific studies about positive effects of shoes on the hoof or the entire organism of the horse, since worldwide veterinary and farrier textbooks advocate shoeing," says Dr. Strasser. "However, years of research have found not a single scientific publication which shows any positive effects of the shoe on the hoof or other parts of the horse. In other words, shoeing has absolutely no scientific basis, but rests on purely medieval concepts, ideas and 'knowledge'. This makes it even more astonishing that all modern veterinary and farriery textbooks describe even prescribe shoeing as a method of treatment, even though they don't understand its effects on living tissue. Nowhere is a scientific explanation or rationale expressed for this choice though a vast industry has been built up around it," says Dr. Strasser.
The following points, excerpted from Shoeing: A Necessary Evil?, are explained in much detail throughout both Shoeing: A Necessary Evil? and A Lifetime of Soundness.
- The ability to use a horse on any terrain, at any time, without giving any thought to providing the horse with a proper lifestyle or hoofcare at the expense of the horse's health and life expectancy.
- The ability to temporarily do away with the biological limitations of the horse also at the expense of the horse's health and life expectancy.
- The ability to make a lame horse usable for a while longer (during which time the damage continues to worsen).
- Gradually deforms the hoof (contraction)
- Pain, changes in movement, tripping, muscle problems, joint ossifications, arthritis
- Deformation of coffin bone and lateral cartilage
- Damage to corium (preparation for coffin bone rotation, laminitis, etc.)
- Thrush, navicular syndrome, white line disease
- Desiccation and loss of elasticity
- Insulation of horn capsule breached
- Reduction in metabolism due to drop in temperature in cold weather, adversely affecting especially the laminar horn production and coffin bone suspension
- Protein imbalance
- Skin, liver, kidney problems, colic, etc.
- Damage to corium (Raynaud's Syndrome)
- Muscle and tendon problems, sidebone
- Horn cracks, white line separation, keratomas
- Ossifications, joint damage, arthritic problems
- Danger of injury to horse and rider, stumbling/falling
- Increases centrifugal effect during motion and sprains ligaments
- Increased risk and severity of injury for horse and human
- Unable to move safely in snow, on wet pavement, etc.
- Increased resistance when turning
- Joint, tendon, ligament damage, ossifications
- Hoof grows crooked, bone/joint alignment changes
"Today," says Dr. Strasser, "the biggest argument for shoeing is that it does away with the biological limitations of the horse. However, this is at the expense of its hooves and overall health. If all the damaging effects of shoeing are not reason enough to not shoe, then the fact that, even on difficult terrain, horses manage very well without shoes should be."
It must also be remembered that even after many years of shoeing, the damage can be reversed. "Horses have an incredible potential for healing," reminds Dr. Strasser. "If the cause of the disease is removed and ideal conditions for recovery and health are provided, they will virtually always heal. It is my fondest hope that now, in this present 'age of information', the knowledge of how to give a horse a lifetime of soundness will reach those who wish to apply it."
Natural and/or orthopedic hoof care is a highly specialized skill that should be practiced by trained and certified Hoofcare Specialists or persons under their supervision.
Natural Horse Magazine thanks Dr. Hiltrud Strasser and Sabine Kells for their valuable assistance in preparing this series of articles.
Dr. Vet. Med. Hiltrud Strasser operates The Institute for Hoof Health and ESHOP (European School for Hoof Orthopedics) in Tuebingen, Germany, a center for study and learning in which the hoofcare specialists in Europe obtain their schooling. In this first holistic hoof clinic, equine patients from around Europe are routinely healed and restored to a fully active life after being given up as hopeless and incurable by conventional veterinary medicine. Dr. Strasser has authored several textbooks on lameness and healing, reference books on natural boarding for horses, and many articles for both horse and veterinary journals. Only two books have been translated into English.
Sabine Kells, translator of Dr. Strasser's books, is currently the only Strasser Certified Hoof Care Specialist in North America. She is based in British Columbia, Canada and is available for consultation at PO Box 44, Qualicum Beach, BC, V9K 1S7, Canada.
A Lifetime of Soundness by Dr. Hiltrud Strasser
Shoeing: A Necessary Evil? By Dr. Hiltrud Strasser
Horse Owner's Guide to Natural Hoof Care by Jaime Jackson
www.hufklinik-strasser.de (Dr. Strasser's German website)
Star Ridge Publishing, 870-743-4603
Newsletter: The Horse's Hoof
(Books by Dr. Strasser are available through this site)
The Hoofcare Specialist Certification Course textbook will become available to the public in November.
As often happens with the pioneers who find that something other than the conventional really works better and therefore utilize it, Dr. Strasser has been 'negatively received' by peers more than once however, her concern for the welfare of the horse and the success of her methods shine through it all, as is depicted in this court case ruling:
An article about Dr. Strasser's method of hoofcare and her hoof clinic, which allows conventionally "incurable" horses to be restored to soundness, was published in a Swiss equestrian magazine. She was thereafter accused of "illegal advertising." She was acquitted of any charges, and the following was noted in the findings:
"It must be kept in mind that hoof care is not a typical veterinary activity; the veterinarian only then becomes active as a doctor when real hoof diseases, not normal wear and tear, are present.
"The basic tenor of the interview deals with the fact, known to the veterinary members of the Landesberufsgericht [court], that horses which, as a result of unskillful hoof treatment, excessive demands, or age, have acquired lameness problems, are even today more likely to be slaughtered than given humane treatment (which is costly both in time and money).
"The accused, committed to the prevention of cruelty to animals, has made it her mission to change this. This is why her profession of veterinarian is placed in the background in the interview, and the thoughts about the prevention of cruelty to animals are placed at the forefront. In so far that one can also see advertising in this information about the treatment methods of the accused, it is not advertising in a commercial sense, but rather advertising for the creature, in other words, an appeal to the horse owners and veterinarians to treat animals with sick hooves and legs according to her (differing from conventional) methods, and thus extend their lives.
"The Landesberufsgericht [court] is therefore convinced that the accused, as one committed to the prevention of cruelty to animals, did not pursue financial interests with this interview. The slightly exaggerated references to the still commonly practiced, hardly effective treatment methods in the area of the hoof, with the result that the animals in question are prematurely bound for slaughter, are in the eyes of this court not unprofessional, since they do not contradict the truth, and therefore can be presented in a somewhat more pointed manner, without degrading the veterinary colleagues and their methods..."
So, basically, the court ruled that Dr. Strasser's methods are humane and in the best interest of the animals and are, in fact, a means of preventing cruelty to animals (premature slaughter); plus, the lack of effectiveness of conventional methods in matters of the hoof is openly acknowledged.
Translated by Sabine Kells
Editor's note: The accusations about Dr. Strasser are slander and libel, and can and should be legally prosecuted. Because of someone's erroneous and vicious accusations in an attempt to discredit the work of Dr. Strasser, a horse is now dead. If there are any questions about the legality of Dr. Strasser's license, anyone can obtain confirmation with the German veterinary board: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, fax 011-49-711-72286-3220.