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from Millwater's Farriery Historical Reference Appendix.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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