A Visit with Barefoot Trail Horses
By Marjorie Smith

I want to introduce you to some nice feet.

In the three years since I went barefoot with my two horses, I have had my share of difficulties and soreness. I would like to share a wonderful learning experience I had recently: 26 horses of all breeds and ages with the most beautiful and healthy-looking feet I've ever seen.

With two of my "trimming buddies" I went to visit Pete and Annette Ramey, who have a livery stable with a string of barefoot trail horses in Lakemont, Georgia. In addition they trim over 350 other barefoot horses on a regular basis. We hoped that they had been able to use this large number of horses to figure out what works and what doesn't, when trimming for soundness in barefoot horses. We had an inspiring visit, saw what we had hoped to see, and learned a lot.

We arrived late in the afternoon. The horses, turned out after their working day, were grazing their way up towards the house. Our first reaction was delight. These were beautiful, fit horses with rounded-out muscles and a happy, peaceful look in their eye. Every one was a horse you'd like to own. They ranged in age from 4 into the late 30's. About a third of the horses are old, and another third are recovered founder cases that people had given the Rameys for rehabilitation. On a trail ride the next day, I rode a 37-year-old gelding who looked 15. He gaily and sure-footedly kept up with the others on gallops up hillsides and over hard and sometimes gravelly ground.

We went over to look at their feet. Each horse stood quietly, unhaltered, while we picked up their hooves and stood around talking about them. The hooves were lovely to look at. It was 3 to 4 weeks since their last trim, yet with all the work these horses get on hard, rough ground, they were not overgrown-looking. The frogs were wide and healthy, heels fairly short, toes rounded, and their white lines were tight and healthy. There was a "typical look," yet each hoof was different, an individual.

Over dinner, Pete described his barefoot learning process and all the trial-and-error he has done, motivated by keeping the livery horses sound and working. We talked over our understanding of how the hoof works -- each part, and the whole. Out of this discussion, we came up with a draft version of "Principles: How do we recognize a Natural Trim?"

Next morning we visited the mountain pasture where the Rameys keep foundered gift horses until they are sound and can go to work. Several were due for a trim, so we got out our tools, discussed what each hoof needed, and trimmed. It was exciting to see each horse moving better afterwards.

One horse was ready to go down to the livery stable, so Pete used him to give us a lesson in fitting the Swiss Horse Boot. He feels that booting should be "part of the barefoot program" for most individual horse owners. This is because 1) most domestic horses don't put on enough daily miles to keep their hooves in top condition, and 2) many barefoot horses live on soft pasture, yet are ridden occasionally on rocky trails that their hooves are not accustomed to.

After lunch, we all went on a trail ride so that we could experience what it feels like to ride a sound, barefoot horse. It was as good as I'd imagined. The horses galloped confidently over rough ground and were impressively sure-footed in gullies and on steep hillsides. Pictured throughout are the feet of some horses we rode.


Again over dinner we discussed more of our questions about how barefoot hooves can be reliably sound for their riders, of all disciplines. Pete laid out his strategy for pulling a horse's shoes and trimming so that the horse doesn't get sore (unless there is previously unrecognized coffin bone rotation), along with his overall strategy for rehabilitating a hoof from shoe damage.

Our last morning, we went with the Rameys to do the first trim on a rescue horse with all four feet foundered (rotated) from neglect. The horse had difficulty walking out of his stall, but then was able to pick up one front foot for Pete to trim.


Pete shortened the heel a little and backed the toe all the way through the very stretched white line, rounding in along the quarters. The horse put the foot down, tried it for comfort -- and to our surprise was able to stand on that one so Pete could do the other. He couldn't pick up either hind foot, so we walked him slowly for a few minutes to start getting circulation to the front feet. Then he was able to pick up each hind foot in turn.

After the trim, we hand-walked the horse for a few minutes, then turned him loose in the pasture. Soon he was walking along on his own, still painful but obviously feeling better with every step. We were impressed by the immediate, substantial improvement in his condition.

In summary, our visit to the Ramey's was successful. We saw and rode on totally sound barefoot horses, discussed what we believe to be the principles of a natural trim (and are drafting guidelines), and learned a trimming strategy for transitioning shod horses to barefoot with minimal soreness.



Principles: How do we recognize a Natural Trim?
NOTE: This is a draft, to be improved upon as our understanding grows.

1) Our model is the hooves of free-roaming wild horses.

Wild horses move more than 20 miles (30 km.) every day. This gives their hooves excellent circulation. They grow fast and wear fast, and get shaped to a beautiful and efficient form.

An escaped domestic horse joining the wild herds changes its hooves gradually towards their ideal shape through growth and wear. Therefore we too can change the horse's hooves gradually, and in so doing minimize soreness.

2) "First, do no harm."

Our goal for each trim is that the horse feels better afterward. This holds for first barefoot trims and most founder cases, as well as for maintenance trims on sound horses in work.

3) Present comfort need not be sacrificed to longer-term rehabilitation goals.

Longer-term goals can be addressed after the horse is made comfortable. Our job is to make the horse as comfortable as possible so that he will move around, get circulation to his hooves, and maximize healing. Time is on the horse's side; the longer-term goals, too, will be achieved sooner if the horse keeps moving, because the hoof capsule regenerates faster and produces healthier hoof materials, which in turn allows for better trimming and balancing.

4) A natural trim does not follow a rigid formula.

Every hoof, every time we trim it, is different. We always have to look at what is happening in the shape of the hoof, and think about what needs to be done at the time.

5) When in doubt, let the horse be the guide.

The horse knows when he hurts. Any guideline or measurement from any trim "recipe" can be incorrect for a particular hoof. If something "should" make him feel better but doesn't, we should avoid doing that thing next time we trim that hoof.

A horse that won't pick up a foot to be trimmed is most likely not "being stubborn" but is telling us that the other foot is too painful to stand on alone.

6) Use landmarks rather than measurements.

It can be interesting to measure angles and dimensions, in order to observe changes in a hoof over time. However, using measurement to make a hoof conform to a formula can be misleading and can result in trimming an area that actually needed more growth. Landmarks on the bottom of the hoof indicate what that particular hoof needs.

7) Respect the proper thickness of the hoof capsule.

A natural trim does not over-thin any sole or wall horn. The integrity of the hoof structures depends on proper horn thickness.

About the author:
Once a teenage horse-story addict, Marjorie Smith 'rediscovered' horses at the age of 45. Soon she had her very own first horse and discovered some of the new thinking about horse training and health. A friend showed her how to look at horses' legs and hooves for balance, which led to her eventually pulling the shoes off her present two horses "because they were in my way." After a year of trimming on her own and two years of studying and practicing different methods, she now helps others understand trimming. She developed the website "Barefoot for Soundness" at www.barefoothorse.com which presents the idea that horses are better off without shoes.