Sunday, February 21, 2016

Shoeing my Barefoot Horse

Steward clog

When I got my Quarter Horse, Candy, in 2001, she was five years old. I was determined to give her the best care I could. There was a lot of talk at the time about the value of keeping horses barefoot. I bought in. My brain told me that barefoot was the natural state of the horse and my heart told me there was something wrong about nailing a piece of metal to an animal’s foot. The clincher was that slip-on hoof boots could be used in rugged terrain. For some reason, the fact that horses had been shod for centuries did not strike me as important. 


Ten years later, Candy started showing signs of lameness. No amount of natural trimming or boot wearing relieved her discomfort and I couldn’t in good conscience ride her in that condition. Seeing her limp around her turnout area tore me up. About this time, I got to know farrier and inventor Gene Ovnicek. We had many conversations about lameness, how it can be analyzed, and how it can be treated. I realized that helping a lame horse is different from maintaining a healthy one. I thought enough of Gene’s approach that I did a TV episode about it, which you can watch here:


Gene suspected that Candy's soreness came from soft-tissue strain but he couldn't be sure. This is often the case with lameness since the structures involved are buried deeply inside the hoof capsule. Even without a definitive diagnosis, he was able to find a position in which Candy was comfortable and he built an appliance that would allow her to use her foot in that orientation. Sometimes it was a shoe. Other times it was a Steward clog. He told me something I’ve always remembered: “You can’t fix a problem while the conditions that caused the problem are still present.” By unloading the strained tissue, he was not only giving her pain relief, he was creating conditions under which healing could begin. In time, I was able to ride Candy again and she rarely showed signs of discomfort. There was something else I liked about Gene’s method:  he relied on Candy’s body language to tell him when he had a found a comfortable position for the foot. I saw him use this leverage-testing procedure on numerous horses and was always impressed with how he tuned in to what the horse was feeling and how grateful the horse was when relief came. Some went to sleep almost instantly.

I still believe that barefoot is the ideal state for a horse. Gene feels the same way, as do other fine horseman such as veterinarian Bob Miller. But we are all committed first to making the horse comfortable. Sometimes that means using shoes, at least for a while.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Showing a Tired Horse

Marilyn recently asked my opinion about the following scenario. I later found out that she was talking about her horse and her trainer,

"A Reining horse is hauled 13 hours to a big Reining show.  Once he is unloaded and put in his stall, the rider and trainer ties him in his stall so he can't lay down.  When questioned about his reasons for this, he replies he wants the horse to be tired so he will be more relaxed and listen to him as he runs the reining pattern. This seems to border on the side of cruelty to me.  Wouldn't you think after 13 hours in a trailer you would want the horse to relax before he is scheduled to show?  And isn't it true that horses are more likely to get injured when they are tired?”

Thanks for the question, Marilyn. First, remember that you are not only the customer, but also your horse’s number one advocate and last line of defense in a world where his natural self-preservation tools are largely denied him. You need to be ready to jump in and take charge if you see something happening that doesn’t seem right to you. That could mean changing barns or even pulling him out of a show at the last minute.

Second, let's be fair to the trainer. Trainers aren’t mind readers. When you hire a trainer, you need to be clear about the goal of the training and what is acceptable to you in reaching that goal. Don't assume anything. A frank conversation might still preserve this relationship. If not, pay the trainer’s bill, wish him well, and move on.

Third, horses adapt to unnatural conditions and treatment remarkably well. On the scale of unsavory training practices, showing a horse in a tired state ranks relatively low and your horse will probably be just fine. But again, this is your horse and you need to be comfortable with how he is being treated. Making sure your trainer’s values align with your own will go a long way toward avoiding this problem in the future.