Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Farriery...

   Okay.  Following the various equestrian communities lately, I've noticed some troubling notions about farriery that I'd like to address...

   SHOEING SHOULD NOT MAKE HORSES SORE.  Okay, to err is human.  Anyone can misread a foot now and then.  But it is not normal or acceptable for previously sound horses to be sore after shoeing or trimming.  If someone tells you otherwise, they don't know what in the hell they're doing.  (Note that making major adjustments in balance, such as trimming a severely overgrown hoof back to some semblance of normal, can cause ligament soreness if the horse isn't rested for a couple days afterward.  That is a different matter entirely.)

   IF A HORSE CAN'T GO BAREFOOT ON MODERATE GROUND, HE IS NOT SOUND.  A freshly shod horse should be able to have his shoes pulled and immediately go on normal ground without being tender-footed.  If he can't, the foot has been over-trimmed and the sole is too thin.  Shoes on sound horses are supposed to be an enhancement for heavy use, severe terrain, or high performance, not a necessity for light use on turf.

    NO HORSE SHOULD ROUTINELY BE SORE AFTER EVERY TRIM.  Some horses have weak, sensitive feet and thin soles, and are easier to make tender than others...  But a competent farrier should recognize such feet and trim accordingly, or, at the very least, realize that he over-trimmed after the first time and preserve more horn mass thereafter!  If trimming results in soreness, too much was taken-off.  Period.

    THE FARRIER NEEDS YOUR INPUT.  You can tell the farrier about the horse's history (especially laminitis issues), tendencies, past problems, and the kind of use you intend to put the him to.  This information will help the farrier tailor the work to the animal's individual needs.

   A FARRIER DOES NOT NEED TO BE TOLD HOW TO DO HIS JOB.  If you feel the need to give the farrier specific instruction on trimming and/or shoe application, you need to either get a better farrier or buy some tools and do it yourself, since you obviously know how better than the professional expert you hired.

   YOUR VET, TRAINER, RIDING INSTRUCTOR, AND STABLE MANAGER ARE NOT EXPERTS IN APPLIED FARRIERY.  Yes, vets have tons of formal training, but almost none of it has anything to do with trimming and shoeing the equine hoof.  He has no more business giving shoeing instructions than the farrier has dictating colic surgery technique.  Trainers are notorious for buying into fads... Wanting to believe that their horses lost because the competition had magic shoes rather than admitting the other guy had a higher quality horse with better training who would have won even with cinder-blocks strapped to his feet.

   SHOEING JOBS THAT LAST 12 WEEKS ARE NOT A BRAGGING POINT!  It is actually not difficult to apply shoes in such a way that they will stay on a long time.  But doing so is usually not good for the horse.  Shoeing for long intervals encourages shoers to take away as much horn as possible without spilling blood (to get a head start against the extra weeks of growth before the next shoeing) which weakens the sole arch and precipitates the collapse of the foot into chronic "thin soles".  Shoers will also fit the shoes short and tight at the heels, usually with the heel nails placed behind the widest part of the foot.  This can result in corns as the heels overgrow the shoe and the load starts to grind against the sole.  This fit exacerbates the tendency of the bearing surface to shift forward as the hoof grows out, stressing the flexor/navicular interface and the anterior laminae.  Most horses need a 4-6 week shoeing cycle.  And no, that's not just shoers trying to get more work.

   NOT ALL HORSESHOERS ARE CREATED EQUAL!  So many people complain that they've used multiple "farriers" with poor results.  But I know how a lot of horseowners choose their shoers.  Back when I was in the Yellow Pages (before switching to referal-only), I'd come home almost every day to find messages on my machine from people wanting their horses shod.  More often than not, when we returned the calls, they'd already got someone else.  Or they couldn't wait until we had an opening.  Or they developed a speech impediment when we told them our rates...  If you're selecting a horseshoer based on the fact that he's got nothing better to do than answer the phone in the middle of the day, and is in so little demand that he can come out on short notice and is willing to shoe for beer money, you are not likely to get a top-quality professional farrier.  Being the handy "barn shoer", looking good in jeans, and being buddies with the vet/trainer/etc. are also less than impressive evidence of competence under the horse.

   LOOKS AREN'T EVERYTHING.  Form follows function, so usually a good shoeing job will be nice-looking.  High, even, smooth clinches.  That sort of thing...  But too often horseshoers get carried-away trying to make the foot look "perfect", even to the point of doing structural harm.  "Cupping" the sole... Trimming away horn to create apparent concavity... Actually weakens the solar arch and promotes the devolution of thin, flat soles in the long run.  Everything taken from the bottom of the foot leaves that much less protection.  The goal is to keep the horse sound.  Not to make the bottom of the foot look like an idealized plastic model.

   FARRIERS SHOULD BE UNSURPASSED AT HOOF TRIMMING.  We tend to focus on forging skills because fire, sparks, heavy tools, smoke, and bending steel to our precise will are just plain awesome...  It wasn't that long ago that the ability to turn a decent shoe was a rare thing, helping to separate the real farrier from the backyard shoe-horser...  But trimming horses to go barefoot makes up a large portion of the typical farrier's trade.  And, for all the emphasis on forging fancy therapeutic and corrective shoes, the majority of practical therapeutic and corrective shoeing is applying fairly ordinary shoes onto properly trimmed hooves.  The bulk of farriery is about recognizing what the individual needs and balancing the hooves accordingly.  A good barefoot trimming specialist may be able to do it as well, but nobody should be able to do it better than a fully competent professional farrier.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Millwater's Farriery: Barefoot Movement III...

Horseshoe Alternatives.

   "My Natural Barefoot Trimmed horses get ridden nine-hundred miles per day, eight days a week, over broken glass and twisted scrap metal, and they're never lame and have beautiful feet!"

   That's the song many Barefoot Enthusiasts sang when prospective barefooters weren't sure their horses could handle working without shoes.  We still hear that sort of thing from a few of them today...

   Indeed, under the right conditions, some horses can develop remarkably durable hooves that hold-up well barefoot where one would expect shoes to be a necessity.  But not all horses have the genetic potential to become shoeless rock crushers, and not everyone has the option of providing the diet and lifestyle needed to produce optimum hoof capsule strength.  Eventually, the Barefoot Movement had to admit that some horses might need artificial protection for their feet...

   But, after going to great lengths to paint conventional farriery as the root of all hoofcare evils, they couldn't very well go back to horseshoes.  So alternatives were embraced.

Nothing new under the sun...
19th Century precursor to the Easyboot.
from Millwater's Farriery Historical Reference Appendix.

   Most of these alternatives actually have a place in practical hoofcare.  Hoof boots, for instance, can be handy 'spare tires' if a horse throws a shoe.  They also make sense if extra protection is only needed once in a while.  (Even though shoes need not be detrimental to the hooves, it just doesn't make sense to keep a horse shod all season long for the sake of a couple day-trips to the mountains.)

   For frequent, extended use, however, boots may not be such a great idea.

   First off, one of the supposed draw-backs of conventional horseshoes is that they interfere with hoof capsule flexing.  But the hoof sits on top of the shoe, and is attached only at the front...  Boots, hoof casting, and most glue-on shoes encase the hoof.  We only do that with a steel shoe (continuous clip) when we want to immobilize the hoof after a P3 fracture.  Otherwise, the conventional horseshoe is more like a flip-flop sandal compared to the alternatives, which are akin to tight-fitting full shoes.  Which really seems like it would allow more natural foot function?

   The hoof is more of a living, 'breathing' thing than most people realize.  One of the prime-movers in hoof capsule strength and function is moisture content and gradient.  The hoof gets plenty of moisture from within.  It evaporates moisture out through the wall and sole.  Ideally, the wall is relatively dry, rigid, and hard on the outside, while being wet, flexible, and soft inside.  The balanced combination allows maximum durability.  The sole can release even more moisture in less time, to regulate overall content in the hoof.  (You may have noticed that an apparently dry horse can leave damp footprints on white pavement after standing in one place for a few minutes.)

   Encasing the hoof capsule for extended periods interferes with the release of excess moisture, and can invert the moisture gradient of the wall.  A couple hours in boots for a rocky trail ride now and then won't do any real harm.  But extended, constant use of anything that 'seals in the juices' can eventually be bad news.

   Another frequent claim against conventional shoes is that they isolate the hoof from the ground, depriving it of the stimulation that would make it strong and tough.  But the conventional shoe only armors the bearing surface of the hoof wall and perimeter of the sole, leaving most of the sole and frog exposed to direct stimulation from the ground, and increasing their net elevation only by around 1/16" inch.

   Boots, casts, plastic, and synthetic rubber alternatives tend to cover all, or much, of the bottom of the foot.  They are also thicker than modern steel shoes, especially if used in conjunction with pads, as is popular practice.  They boast greater shock absorption than steel shoes, but is that really a good thing?  If a wafer of steel isolates the foot from the ground and prevents it from being as strong and tough as it could be, wouldn't having the horse walk around with veritable pillows strapped to his feet be much worse?

   Horseshoe alternatives actually predate horseshoes by centuries.  The steel horseshoe wasn't imposed on the horse world by arbitrary decree, nor did it spring fully-formed from the brow of Zeus.  It evolved and was refined over generations, competing with various well-established hoof protection devices all the while.  The horseshoe as we know it emerged as the standard because it was more effective, reliable, and practical than the other options.  

   It should also be noted that applying shoes does not inherently preclude the preservation of sole mass and the process of building concavity.  It's just a wear plate, and can be applied to hooves trimmed to the same fundamental parameters as a restorative Barefoot Trim.

   Some have wondered why farriers react so negatively to the Natural Barefoot Movement...  But, when you really look at it, the movement isn't that emphatic about "natural"  (synthetic rubber, acrylics, polymers, etc.) or "barefoot" (hooves encased in boots, casts, epoxies can't really be considered "bare", can they?)  It appears that the movement is really Anti-Farrier, rejecting conventional horseshoes primarily because they are conventional...  Even if that means relying on inferior, even counter-productive alternatives.

  The ultimate silliness of the 'ANYTHING but convention farriery' thinking has got to be the alternative solution based on affixing a steel wear plate with nails.  The Laser Tip!

"Then I'll ram my ovipositor down your throat and lay my eggs in your chest...
But I'm NOT an alien!"
(Tom Servo.)

   Seriously folks...  If your horse does well barefoot, terrific.  But if it needs shoes, find a competent farrier and have it shod.  Don't go to ridiculous lengths to avoid what works so well just because some think conventional farriery is unfashionable these days.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Millwater's Farriery: Barefoot Movement II...

   When the current wave of enthusiasm for shoeless horses crashed ashore some years ago, a lot of the Barefoot Movement folks displayed an almost disturbing, pseudo-religious mindset.  This seems to have largely subsided, but there is still tendency for Barefoot Enthusiasts to take the whole thing a bit overboard in some respects.

   Of course, it's only human nature to want to believe that the great new thing you're focusing-on is really, really special.  Complex.  Revolutionary.  And, if you're trying to make a trade of something, you naturally want to foster the perception that it takes extraordinary skill and know-how.

   We see a lot of this in hoof care.  Despite the fact that mustangs (not one of whom has so much as a high school diploma!) are able to do a pretty good job of it with nothing but abrasive ground, some folks are intent on making trimming into quantum physics.

   Truth is, there is only just so much you can do by subtracting horn.  And there are only three essential commandments for trimming sound hooves to go barefoot...

I.  Thou shalt always preserve the integrity of the hoof capsule.
   (i.o.w. Don't take off anything the horse still needs!)

II.  Suffer not an edge to live.
   (i.o.w. Round, bevel, radius the heck out of everything.  Leave no sharp corners anywhere.)

III.  Make not any catastrophic errors in fundamental balance.
   (i.o.w.  Seriously. Just get it into the ballpark somewhere.)

   You see, the dirty little secret of farriers (and now Barefoot Specialists) is that unshod hooves on reasonably sound and straight horses are quite forgiving and self-correcting if you just obey the Three Commandments above. 

    The so-called Traditional Farrier's Trim breaks the second and often the first commandments.  The original Strasser barefoot trim breaks the first and third commandments.  So both of these should be avoided like the plaque.

   The Four Point, Natural Balance, Mustang Roll, HPT, and most other barefoot trims do not inherently break any of the commandments, assuming reasonably competent implementation.  While there are some functional differences between the approaches, these are inherently limited and transient.

   Competent farriers have to be very precise about how they balance a hoof for shoeing, because we are going to apply a metal plate to 'lock-in' the trim job.  But, when trimming to go barefoot, the farrier or trimmer has a partner.


   That partner doesn't read any scientific research, cares not a whit for the teachings of the guru du jour...  And he gets to keep working on the hooves after we are finished!

   This is usually a blessing.  If the trimmer makes minor errors in hoof balance, it won't take the horse long to fix them by wearing off the overloaded part of the bearing surface while the underloaded areas grow down.  But there is a limit to how much the horse can fix.  And, if trimmed radically out of balance, limb function can be thrown so far out of whack that the self-correcting wear mechanism no longer works and the hoof gets worse over time...  But the idea that precise fine-tuning of the hoof trim has any great long-term effect is really kind of silly when you realize that the horse is basically going to overwrite the finer aspects of the trimmer's work in a matter of days.

   This can also be a bit of a curse, if the horse 'wants' to adapt its feet in detrimental ways.  For instance, take a toed-out horse who wings-in and interferes.  A strong Four Point type trim may get him to breakover towards the center of the toe, setting the foot up for a straighter flight that avoids the interference...  At least for a few day to a couple of weeks, when the medial 'points' wear down and allow the horse to resume breaking over the insides of its hooves.

   Just as farriers are too preoccupied with forging the perfect specimen shoe, or being able to precisely perform a shoeing job to arbitrary standards in the fastest time, rather than mastering the practical fundamentals of giving the horse what it needs to work sound,  Barefoot Enthusiasts appear to be preoccupied with aspects of the hoof that the very nature of a barefoot horse renders pretty much moot. 

   When it comes right down to it, all you can really do is preserve the useful hoof capsule, get rid of the edges and corners which create foot-stressing leverage until they ultimately split and peel off, and try to get the foot reasonably into balance.  Even practical therapeutic trimming is usually based on trying to coax the hoof back into something akin to normal form. 

   And you know what?  These things are more than enough of a challenge for most people to master.  Look at all these reports of "my horse comes up sore after every trim", and "my horse has thin soles".  That's a First Commandment fail.  The jammed heels and distorted hooves we see pictured are not the result of someone failing to comprehend the latest super-scientific studies of hoof function on the microscopic level.  They're the result of someone breaking the Third Commandment in a big way.

   Before going all rocket science, hoof care providers (farriers and trim specialists alike) probably need to make a push to get the basics down-pat.

   Don't get me wrong.  I've got about a tractor-trailer load of books, trade journals, speaker's notes, videos, audio tapes, and other materials laden with advanced research and academic theory.  Before the Gestapo took over America's airports, I was a frequent flyer to cutting-edge events far and wide.  I love science for science's sake...  But I've also learned to give priority to knowledge that can actually be applied in a practical manner.  There are limits to how much you can accomplish with nippers and a rasp, especially when the horse is going to be free to tweak your work after you're done.

P.S.  I know that the Natural Horse approach involves dietary, environmental, and lifestyle adjustments for the horses as well.  Good luck with that.  It'll work with horses under your 24/7 care, but clients' horses are often a different story.  We can advise and hope folks will pay heed, but all we really control is what we do with our brief time under the horse.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Millwater's Farriery: Hardcover News...

   After a printer's mishap on the first proof, we finally got a proper copy of the hardcover version of Millwater's FARRIERY, and it looks great, if I do say so myself.

   For technical reasons, I can't do a introductory discount coupon code like I did with the trade paperback.  But you can get a copy for 25% on eBay for a limited time only.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Millwater's Farriery: On the Barefoot Movement...

...versus the "Traditional Farrier Trim"

   Not all horses need horseshoes all the time.  In fact, some horses can do everything their masters require of them perfectly well barefoot, and may never need shoes at all.

   The economic reality of today is that there is a shortage of truly competent farriers, especially when it comes to those available to 'small time' horseowners.

   These to factors create a niche for the hoof trimming specialist.  Competent trimmers to handle some of the horses who don't need iron, freeing-up the farriers to focus primarily on those that do. And saving the horseowners from having to rely on Cheap John horseshoers for trim work.

   So, just to be clear: I don't have a problem with some horses going barefoot, or with competent trim-only services.  (a.k.a. Barefoot Trimmers.)

   A bit over a decade ago, there was a wave of anti-horseshoeing zealotry inspired by the much-vaunted Strasser barefoot trimming approach.  To their credit, barefoot enthusiasts appear to have become somewhat less militant, and to have moved away from Strasser in favor of much more sensible trimming models in recent years.

   But there's still an anti-horseshoeing vibe out there.  In equestrian forums, people feel the need to be apologetic about having their horses shod.  Starting posts with "I'd really prefer to have my horses barefoot, but..."   And heaven forbid anyone suggest shoes as a solution to any hoofcare problem, as someone will usually feel obligated to jump-in and claim it's crazy to expect shoes to fix problems they insist were created by using shoes in the first place...  Or to push their favorite barefoot guru's protocol and/or shoeing alternative, despite it being an iffy and cumbersome way to do what appropriate shoeing could accomplish immediately.

   One thing that really rubs me the wrong way is the implied claim that Barefoot Trimmers have some sort special approach that is dramatically better for shoeless horses than the "traditional farrier trim"...

   The supposition being that farriers trim all horses as if we were going to fit them with shoes...  Flat, and with relatively low depth of foot.

   I spent my formative years in the coastal lowcountry, where a large percentage of horses go barefoot.  The humidity and moisture tended to keep hooves a little soft, and the ground was sand, black sod, clay, and limestone.  Abrasive, rather than rocky. 

   Early-on, I noticed that the barefoot horses with the best feet coming in for trimming didn't have flat bearing surfaces.  This was especially noticeable when someone had worked the horse enough to need shoes due to excessive wear.  Even after trying to flatten the foot to receive the shoe, I'd still wind-up with some daylight between shoe and hoof through the quarters, and a bit alligator-mouthed at the toe. 

   The non-flat, worn surfaces of bare hooves weren't too mystifying.  One problem a lot of rookie horseshoers have is accidentally "gutting the quarters" when they're trying to rasp the foot flat.  The structure of the hoof makes it easy to grind-away the quarters...

  It's also obvious to even a greenhorn that horseshoes typically wear thin at the toe first...  So the fact that worn, bare hooves had gutted quarters and beveled-up toes made perfect sense.

   It also didn't take long to observe that the non-flat bottomed hooves generally looked pretty good, even when due for a trim, while hooves trimmed neat and flat quickly split and peeled.  It's not great for business to have hooves look way worse a week after trimming than they did a week before you did them.

   So, when trimming horses to be left barefoot, I developed the approach of doing the main trim with three nipper passes, each done with the reins swung slightly to the outside, making the cuts at a bit of an angle.  One pass, heel-to-toe bend on one side of the hoof.  Another on the opposite side, then the third across the toe.  After rounding everything up with the rasp, this left the horse standing on four spots of the wall on each hoof.  One on each side of the toe, and one at each heel buttress.

   In mechanical terms, this trim reduces breakover resistance both when going forward and moving laterally (which is why I got less chipping and peeling), while maintaining good overall depth of foot thanks to the four loading spots holding the sole up off harder ground, so the horses weren't sore-footed.

    Fast-forward to the early 1990s, when I met Ric Redden and Gene Ovnicek, and attended symposiums featuring their Four Point and Natural Balance trimming approaches.  Gene, like Jaime Jackson, had taken an interest in mustangs, and had used his observations to guide his trimming technique.  The Four Point and Natural Balance protocols corroborated what I'd been seeing and doing all along...  And expanded my understanding of why it worked.

   Around that time, I was interacting with some of the elder statesmen of farriery. (Somehow, I had a lot more elders back then.  Funny how that works.)  Several of them told me the same thing.  They'd been doing bevel-based, three-pass, Four Point, Natural Balance trims for barefoot horses for decades.  It never occurred to them that it was really a 'thing'.  It's just the way that worked for them.

   Checking the leading farrier school textbook from over a quarter century ago, I find that extensive beveling, starting with using the nippers at an angle, is instructed under "trimming to go barefoot".  Even my 1898 textbook emphasizes the need to preserve extra horn and aggressively round-off the walls on horses who will be going without shoes.

   So, if the "traditional farrier trim" is flat and short, same as if the horse was going to be shod, it must be a pretty darned new tradition!

   I know that there are some horseshoers out there who do every foot the same way, whether shoes are going-on or not.  A decent Barefoot Trimmer would certainly be better for the horse than going with such a shoer.

   But the notion that Barefoot Trimmers have had some sort of divine revelation that showed them how to trim horses better than competent farriers is just an insult to generations of professionals.

   You see, when Barefoot Enthusiasts tell veteran farriers to go read-up on the teaching from the latest guru, we roll our eyes not because these approaches are wrong, but because you're trying to teach grandma how to suck eggs!

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Okay Bargain-Hunters...

   Millwater's FARRIERY: The Illustrated Dictionary of Horseshoeing and Hoofcare is out, and to get things rolling, we have some promotional deals you can take advantage of...

   There are promo copies of the trade paperback available on eBay with starting bids (and Buy It Now options) well under the Amazon list price.

   The 25% off discount code ( YPLFZ3CT ) is also still working on direct orders.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Millwater's Farriery: Official book launch...

Now that Hallowe'en is wrapped-up...

The Illustrated Dictionary of Horseshoeing and Hoofcare
Encyclopedic Reference for Professionals, Students, and Horseowners.
Available NOW!

*** Special Launch Discount ***
Use code YPLFZ3CT at checkout on the Trade Paperback for 25% off.
(Works only on the direct link. Not on Amazon.)

For more information see

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