Are there any disadvantages to keeping your horse barefoot?
Yes. All things considered, it may be less convenient than having the farrier come by every six weeks and reset shoes. So you have convenience vs. your horse's health and comfort. One other thought about convenience: when your horse throws a shoe 20 miles from camp or 30 minutes before a competition, you may find yourself wishing he'd been barefoot, or that the "shoe" had been a boot you could easily throw back on yourself. You've said that keeping your barefoot horse turned out or otherwise as active as he can be is important to the success of a barefoot lifestyle...
Yes. Movement is critical, not only to growing healthy hooves, but to every aspect of overall health. The horse evolved to move, on average, 20 miles a day, and every part of him will generally function better if we can provide as much movement as possible. The best way I've seen to maximize the movement of a turned-out horse is being popularized by natural hoof care practitioner Jaime Jackson, who describes his method in his book Paddock Paradise. Basically, you use fencing to create 30-foot-wide "tracks" around the perimeter of your property or pasture/paddock area. Each day (or twice a day) you scatter hay around the track, which encourages the horses to make numerous laps. It really works, and horses seem motivated to move along the track even without the enticement of food. Horses that normally stand around in the paddock pasture all day will radically increase their movement. This aids metabolism, increases health, strength and endurance, helps process excess sugars and of course creates very tough, healthy feet One of the most important rules of thumb with hooves and equine health in general is, "Use it or lose it." These track systems can and will revolutionize the way we board horses. They're cheap and easy to set up, and they really work to the horse's benefit. What about nutrition--that's a key part of the picture, too, isn't it?
Yes. Nutrition is critical to growing healthy hooves. Mineral imbalances or shortages, or anything lacking in the diet dramatically affects hoof quality. Of greatest concern is excess sugar in the diet. Modern grasses and hays can fluctuate to over 30 percent sugar. Feeds are usually over 50 percent sugar, with raw grains varying from 50 to 80 percent sugar. In contrast, native grasses from the sparse rangelands of wild horse country usually peak at 12 percent sugar, and are usually closer to 8 percent. (For more information on this, see Kathryn Watts' safergrass.org.) Add this to the "less than natural" amount of movement domestic horses tend to get, and we have a tremendous "sugar plague" in the domestic horse world. As in humans, the horse's body produces more insulin to deal with the excess sugar. Recent research published by K.E. Asplin, et. al., in The Veterinary Journal indicates that high insulin levels constantly destroy the attachment of hoof to horse. This is why laminitis is on the rise, and also why it's so common to see a groove where the white line is supposed to be on most domestic horses. In summary, what are the most important new developments in the field of natural hoof care since '06, when we first visited this topic?
Booted horses continue to take over the endurance racing world, and barefoot horses are showing up in competitions everywhere. New research continues to back up what the horses have already shown us. Asplin's laminitis/insulin study; Dr. Bowker's studies on blood flow, energy dissipation, foot development and peripheral loading; and Kathryn Watts' studies on grass, feed and forage all point to the fact that it is time for change in feeding, boarding and hoof care. Also of great importance, the boot manufacturers are really stepping up to the challenge, and hoof-boot quality has come a long way in just the last year. These folks want to provide the "21st Century Horseshoe," and if they, as an industry, continue improving boot models and providing professionals and horse owners with better and better tools to work with, they'll accomplish that goal.