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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