By Pat Parelli
Whether to leave a horse barefoot or not is a question that arises a lot, and one of my mentors, Tom Dorrance, had the perfect answer for everything: “It all depends”.
Since we're talking about feet, we must remember that the horse industry is predicated on four things: wives’ tales, mythology, bovine fecal matter, and ego. For a lot of people, their ego gets in the way, and they believe the wives’ tales and mythology they've been raised on. For example: Horses with white socks have white feet that are always softer than horses with black feet. To the contrary, I've seen horses with white feet that had hooves as tough as nails. And I've seen horses with black feet that couldn't walk across a sandy arena.
Every horse has a Horsenality based on four things: innate characteristics, environmental influences, learned behavior, and spirit. All four of these elements impact whether and how your horse could go barefoot.
Consideration #1: Innate Characteristics
Every horse has an innate characteristic depending on their breeding, which includes both their lineage and their breed propensity. These innate characteristics can include feet that are prepared to go barefoot, like thick walls, a good arch in the foot, good frogs, tough soles, etc.
For just a moment, let's take a mental trip to all those wild horses living out in the middle of the desert in harsh conditions. Some of them have white feet, some of them have black feet. The horse that has innate characteristics to have thin walls and thin soles will never make it there. Nature has a pretty good way of not producing horses with feet that cannot stand the environment because they would never live long enough to procreate—to produce a foal with tender feet. Us humans, on the other hand, select the breeding pairs for our reasons: color, speed, athletic ability, pedigree, shape, etc., not always considering things like their feet. So, consider the innate characteristic of your horse’s breeding before deciding to go barefoot or not.
Consideration #2: Environmental Influences
Secondly, you’ll want to consider your horse’s environment. If a horse is raised in a stall and in a sandy arena, that’s what his hooves are going to be prepared for. Some people today are really getting clever about providing environments for their horses that have a track where they can walk across gravel, boggy ground, grass, and sandy ground on a regular basis—just like wild horses do.
Take myself for example: I’ve been wearing cowboy boots for the last six decades. When I was a little kid, I ran around barefoot. I could run across the gravel, hot ground, and grass with stickers in it and hardly ever flinch. But I couldn’t do that now. So, the environment has a lot to do with it.
Consideration #3: Learned Behavior
Another consideration when deciding to transition your horse to barefoot is learned behavior. If your horse has only learned to move his feet in soft ground or with shoes on, then his body has adapted to that. And then if you decide to take off the shoes and let him go barefoot, it would be just like me taking my cowboy boots off and deciding not to wear shoes for the next two months. It might work here and there, but I'd have to be pretty darn careful. And mind you, we have a say whether we walk on hot or rocky ground or not. In your horse’s case, someone is on top of him saying where he should go.
Do you feel what your horse feels when you're riding him? As the human, you’ll want to be prepared mentally to guide your horse through the adjustment period. In my case, 90% of my horses are all barefoot. At the moment, I only have one horse that wears front shoes, because his innate characteristics lend him to being a little bit flat-footed and do not have the natural propensity to go barefoot, no matter how much I tried. The rest of my horses, however, have never had shoes. Still, when I ride from one pasture to another across a little gravel road, I’m mindful of how it might be impacting their feet, getting across that area as softly as I can. Some days I feel like they’re thanking me for being considerate!
Consideration #4: Spirit
If you’ve been around horses a while, you likely know that some horses are as tough as nails and others are as soft as butter. Knowing your horse’s spirit will help equip you to know if they’re in a place where you can start going barefoot and how to best guide them through that process.
Final Considerations About Transitioning Your Horse to Barefoot
Be advised through this process that if you go from “normal” (shoes) to “natural” (barefoot) too soon, it may be hazardous for you or your horse's health. Hoof health has a lot to do with other factors, including nutrition. It is always a good idea to consult your farrier and even a veterinarian to evaluate your horse’s readiness to go barefoot. I will also always keep boots handy for all my barefoot horses. If go on a big trail ride, especially here in the Rocky Mountains in beautiful Pagosa Springs, Colorado, then I will be sure to put the boots on my horses.
So, when it comes to transitioning your horse from shoes to barefoot, Tom Dorrance’s advice was absolutely right: “It all depends.”