Tuesday, July 7, 2015

At Freedom Farm, 'Freedom' Starts With the Feet

 By Mary Gallagher

At Freedom Farm our horses are our partners. We make every effort, and feel obligated to understand who they are. In nature, horses are migrating prey animals who depend on their feet to survive. And feet are what I’d like to address in this post: specifically, why we not only advocate, but require bare feet for all our resident horses.

At the Farm, our horsemanship knowledge is always evolving. Once upon a time we thought, as the majority of the horse community does, that horses need shoes to be ridden. However, as we delved into natural horsemanship and health, we came to understand how the use of shoes came about, and have tried to look back even further, to that time when horses survived comfortably without shoes.

Shoes became necessary when people took horses out of their natural environment and forced them to live in environments convenient for humans—oftentimes in stalls and other small quarters. Horses who live in stalls don’t grow great feet because they don’t have to, due to their lack of movement. Adaptability works both ways: we don’t exercise, we get weak; a horse is kept from moving his feet, the feet lose function.

Stalls are not the only means by which humans restrict the natural movement of the horse: shoeing restricts the biomechanical movement in the foot and leg that is necessary for proper circulation, limiting the blood that nourishes tissues and carries away inflammation. Often, people turn their horses out more in order to generate more movement, but it is not enough; the hoof mechanism must be activated as well.

The hoof consists of a dynamic, adaptable biomechanism that needs circulation and nutrients to maintain strong bones and produce good horn material. Good circulation not only provides nutrients to hoof tissues, it also cleanses them by carrying away toxins that cause inflammation. Once a shoe is nailed to the hoof wall, the hoof can no longer expand and contract against the ground, which hinders, if not freezes the biomechanism I just described. This lack of flexibility and movement causes inflammation, pain, and eventually disease to take over. In the long term, shoeing causes harm to the bones and soft tissues in the leg, shortening the years of quality life for the horse.

At Freedom Farm our unshod horses live in herds and are moving all the time as they interact with their herd mates. They are exposed to all types of material and terrain, causing more movement and stimulating circulation in the foot. It is not necessary to feed supplements to stimulate good hoof growth; nature provided the horse with hoof mechanism so as the foot wears through movement more hoof horn is produced to be keep up with the amount of wear. The more the hoof needs to grow, the more the horses own body will send effort to hoof growth, resulting in stronger hooves. Hoof care then becomes about hoof balance rather than trimming so the foot wares correctly and efficiently.

When I tell new visitors that all our horses work and live barefoot, they usually respond that their horse’s feet aren’t good enough to go without shoes. And the thought of having those shoes removed generally inspires great anxiety. But the process is fairly straightforward, and with care and time, the horse has much improved feet. We have special pens with rubber floors, and hoof boots to protect our transitioning horses, as well as any horse looking like they may need time to build hoof wall and strength.

Horses at Freedom Farm live, work and are actively participating in all our horsemanship programs well into their 30’s (and even 40’s!). If you look at what we do with our horses and what other people do with their horses, it is not that much different, riding-wise. We don’t have super horses, or special horses with awesome feet.  Really, the big difference is how our horses live.

I look forward to sharing more about barefoot hoof care in the future!

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