I like my horses barefoot. I figure about 99% of the time they simply don’t need shoes. It’s that last 1% that’s the problem.
Case in point: In 2008, I took my Quarter Horse mare, Candy, on a five-day, 100-mile men’s ride in the hills outside Wickenburg, Arizona. Of 180 horses, Candy was the only one barefoot.
I planned for it. My hoof trimmer touched up her feet. I purchased a tried-and-true brand of hoof boots and let Candy wear them for a day at home before packing them in my saddlebags. I would slap those babies on at the first sign of trouble. I was ready!
The first day of the ride was relatively easy but day two was a different story: Seven long hours up and down rocky hills. I thought it would never end. By the time we dragged ourselves into camp, Candy and I were both frazzled. I treated her to a shot of bute and myself to a couple of ibuprofen washed down by a Bud Light.
Day three was spent in camp, so Candy got a nice rest. Day four was to be another long ride and, as we were about to leave camp, I decided to put the hoof boots on. It didn’t go very well. Candy was antsy and I was all thumbs. Most of the riders were gone by the time I was ready and they’d left the water crossing at the edge of camp a muddy mess.
You can probably guess what happened next. Both of those boots came right off, sucked up in the mire, and with Candy’s pals disappearing down the trail, I suddenly had two problems: retrieving my brand new hoof boots, and controlling a buddy-sour horse.
I managed to get the boots, scrape off most of the mud and stuff them back in my saddlebags. My trail buddy, Edgell, held Candy’s reins. If he were not a pastor, I’m sure I would have been cussing a blue streak.
By the time we caught up with the other riders, though, something else was weighing on my mind. How could I protect Candy’s feet now? We had a lot more miles to cover, with more water crossings, and I had no confidence in the boots. I did the only thing I could think of: I got out of Candy’s way. I stopped directing her and gave her responsibility for picking her own way through the rocks. She knew where to go and felt safe with all the other horses. This was one case where she didn’t need my leadership. My focus became to sit as lightly and unobtrusively on her back as I could.
My strategy seemed to work. Candy never took a lame step. A hundred miles over rocky trails wore at least a quarter of an inch off her hoof wall. Maybe more. I know some of the other riders were impressed that she’d made it. I was proud.
Then I got her home. For several days, she spent most of her time lying down. The vet came and did radiographs. There was no real damage but I definitely had one very sore-footed horse. And one very large guilt complex. What had I put her through? Several weeks and several hundred dollars later, Candy was back to normal and didn’t seem to hate me.
Still, this was a wakeup call. If I wanted to keep my horse barefoot, I had to be smarter about protecting her feet when they needed it. That started me on a quest for a better hoof boot, one that would really do the job, that would go on easily, and would stay on.
More than a year later, the quest continues, but I have zeroed in on a boot I like. Some of my very serious trail-riding friends swear by it. I’ve acquired a couple pairs to try with our horses and I’ll let you know how it goes.
This is all any of us can do, really. Just keep searching and trying and learning from our mistakes. I think our horses sense our good intentions and they forgive us when we fall short. They know we can’t help it. After all, we’re only human.