A Strategy for Going Barefoot with Minimal Transition Soreness

'True' concavity; the white line tightens up and the coffin bone becomes snugly and soundly connected inside the hoof capsule. Notice the 'water line', the white un-pigmented layer of the hoof wall just outside of the slightly colored 'white line'.

By Marjorie Smith

This strategy comes from the work of Pete and Annette Ramey. It is not a 'recipe' for doing a trim. It is a way of thinking about what you are trying to accomplish and what you are going to emphasize when you go to do a trim.

Pete and Annette define the transition period as: The time from when you pull the shoes until the entire white line tightens up and pulls the coffin bone up to its sound position high inside the hoof capsule. You can generally tell when this happens because the horse goes sound on gravel.

We can think of the hoof gradually changing its shape and condition over the course of several months to several years. How long this takes depends on how much internal healing needs to happen, as well as how much movement (miles or km per day) the horse gets during the transition period. Not all changes need to happen in the first trim, and some changes can only happen after a certain amount of internal healing has taken place.

When you decide on a trim strategy, you choose a particular route to the goal of a sound, barefoot hoof, and give top priority to parts of the trim that help the hoof along that route. If something we do will hinder the priority, we omit doing that when we trim.

This is where Pete's experience is so helpful to us. He has worked out by trial and error: what are the first things to deal with in getting a foot rideable after de-shoeing; what things will mostly take care of themselves; and what can, or must, be left for later.

Pete and Annette ended up with white line and sole integrity as their top priority because they found that this route minimizes soreness and allows sound horses to go back to work quickly after pulling the shoes. For comparison, Dr. Strasser most often gives priority to maximizing hoof mechanism in her healing strategy, and emphasizes certain parts of the trim to accomplish that. Note that her trim can be modified to fit any priority, depending on the needs of the individual hoof and the terrain the horse is living on.

White line separation with little concavity; the white line is often a yellowish color, or sometimes a pinkish color due to blood serum seeping into it when it stretches; a separated white line looks dark or black.

The back-to-work strategy includes these points:

1) White line

The 'white line' refers to the laminae (like a layer of living Velcro) that hold the coffin bone firmly up against the inside surface of the hoof capsule. They look like the 'gills' on the underside of a mushroom. There is a set growing from the laminar corium on the coffin bone, and another set on the inside of the hoof wall; the two sides interlock for a strong connection.

Actually the white line is often a yellowish color, or sometimes a pinkish color due to blood serum seeping into it when it stretches; a separated white line looks dark or black. What you see that actually looks white is the 'water line', an un-pigmented layer of the hoof wall, which is just outside of the white line. In a naturally worn hoof, it is the water line that contacts the ground (on a flat surface).

When you pull the shoes off a horse, it's safe to assume that the white line is stretched and/or separated, and that the quality of the laminar tissue is poor, due to reduced circulation in the shod hoof. The white line suspends the coffin bone from the inside of the hoof wall, and 'holds the whole foot together'. It's painful when ground pressure on the hoof wall pries on it at every step, like lifting up really hard on your fingernail. The top priority is to remove ground-pressure stresses on the white line so that it is not painful and is protected from stretching any more.

The white line cannot re-attach itself where it is separated. A new connection must grow down gradually from the hairline (coronet). It takes about a year for a new white line connection to grow all the way to the ground. If there has been long-term damage to the laminae from many years in shoes, they can be slow to heal, and it can actually take two years or more before the white line connection tightens up completely.

As long as the white line is stretchy, the coffin bone will press down on the sole corium (layer of cells that make the sole). The sole corium gets inflamed, and the horse experiences pain on any hard or rough surface, such as gravel and/or pavement. (Remember how you don't like to bump into things with a sore finger.) If you want to ride your horse on gravel, pavement, or rocky trails before the white line has tightened up, you should provide hoof boots to protect the inflamed sole corium.

When the white line connection finally tightens up all the way, three notable things happen:

a) rather suddenly, from one trim to the next, you will see more concavity in the sole as the coffin bone is pulled up snugly inside the hoof capsule.

b) with feet that finally feel good, the horse is more 'forward' and spirited.

c) the horse is able to walk on gravel and/or pavement without pain.

Toe flare. The hoof wall, which should be straight, curves outward at the bottom like the bell of a trumpet. Where the wall is flared, the white line is also stretched or separated.

What to do to assist white line recovery:

-- Rasp off flares, including 'slippered' or 'duckbill' toe, to the inside edge of any stretched or separated white line. This prevents further stretching of the white line during weightbearing. 'Flare' means a hoof wall that curves out wider at the bottom, like the bell of a trumpet.

-- Do not thin (artificially concave) the sole. A thin sole stretches and flattens too easily when weighted, which allows the hoof wall to flare out more.

-- Shorten overlong heels to where the sole meets the wall in the seat-of-corn. This changes the mechanical stress on the hoof wall to a direction the laminae are designed to handle.

-- Do not try to widen contracted heels. Pete doesn't notch the heels, and he trims the bars only to the level of the live sole. The heels will gradually de-contract by themselves if you consistently keep the toes appropriately backed or mustang-rolled.

2) Heel height

In Pete's experience, the horse is most comfortable when the heel is shortened to the present level of solid sole in the seat-of-corn when you have scraped off any chalky, crackled material. If you shorten the heel so that you are rasping into the sole, this makes the horse sore.

Some horses with long-term heel contraction seem to need longish heels to be comfortable. The Rameys have some fairly contracted hooves that stay sound if they leave the heels 'a little longer than normal', but go lame whenever they try to shorten them.

3) Sole thickness

The healthy sole forms a tough, slightly flexible dome shape underneath the coffin bone. It flattens a little during weightbearing, then springs back into the dome shape and helps to pull the hoof walls closer together during the non-weightbearing phase of the stride.

The sole needs its full thickness to keep its dome shape and to protect the hoof from injury. It also needs the hard surface that develops with sufficient movement. Any time you trim the sole, you remove this crust and prevent full sole thickness from developing.

4) Sole concavity

When the white line finally tightens up, after a year or more of a natural barefoot trim, the coffin bone gets raised up snugly inside the hoof capsule. There will rather suddenly be much better concavity in the sole. It will look like your slightly cupped hand. We call this 'true concavity.'

Healthy front feet are a little concave (matching the underside of the coffin bone) for hard landings.

Healthy hind feet are more concave, matching a deeper-shaped coffin bone. They provide traction, like tractor wheels.

5) Mustang roll

Wild and free-roaming horses wear their hooves to a beautiful, rounded bevel around the edge, which Jaime Jackson calls the 'mustang roll.'

I have gained a lot of respect for the mustang roll. It sets the breakover well back under the hoof; keeps flaring to a minimum; protects the white line from stretching; and by removing the toe lever, allows contracted or underslung heels to ease toward their normal position. During white line recovery, it's good practice to renew the mustang roll between regular trims.

6) Balance

If one side of the hoof gets longer than the other, several things happen:

-- One side has more tendency to flare (can be either the shorter or the longer side). This is painful, and stretches the white line on that side.

-- One side will tend to lean underneath the hoof. This is painful, and can lead to a deformed coffin bone on that side. Once started, a hoof wall that has gotten 'inside the vertical' can be hard to reverse.

-- There is sideways stress on the pastern joints. This gives the horse an incorrect sensation of exactly where his limbs are; correct sensation is a survival issue for the horse, and probably more important to him than pain.

Therefore it can be important to balance a hoof, even though you have to trim the bottom of a hoof that is already too short. Pete and Annette always have a discussion before making a decision to do this. The horse's overall comfort is the deciding factor. Whatever will help him to move around the most is the way to go.


All transition strategies agree on this point:
Do not underestimate the importance of 24-hour turnout in your transition strategy.

The hoof needs a huge and constant supply of fresh blood to keep itself in top shape. When a horse stands in a stall, the hooves quickly become congested. Metabolic wastes build up in the internal hoof tissues. Areas that are healing are deprived of oxygen and nutrients. I have seen hooves that were doing well during the day become sore overnight in a stall.

Currently it's difficult for many of us to arrange 24-hour turnout for our horses. Begin with the best you can do, and keep working toward more turnout/ less stall time. As more people come to understand the importance of continual movement, boarding conditions for many horses will change.

About the author:
Once a teenage horse-story addict, Marjorie Smith 'rediscovered' horses at the age of 45. Soon she had her 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 information on how to 'go barefoot' with a previously shod horse.