Getting On The Same Page About Barefoot Horse Care

I want my new clients horses to be as sound as possible, so as a friend, trimmer Geri White, says, "I educate my clients so that we are both on the same page regarding my trim, trim cycle, diet, and hoof protection."

These are basics you need to consider when choosing barefoot hoof care.

Trim Cycles

Most trimmers recommend a regular 5 or 6 week schedule. The goal of barefoot trimming is to enable horses to be ridden without the use of nailed-on shoes, either with or without boots. If it's done right, it can be cheaper.

Without regular maintenance, walls flare, chip and crack. Most horses have natural body imbalance that results in wearing some parts of the hoof faster than others. When this happens, the under-worn areas have excess wall accumulation.

When this wear pattern results in wall accumulation on either the medial (inside) or lateral (outside) edge of the wall, it's known as Medial Lateral Imbalance and, over time, this type of imbalance can result in ring bone. In some cases, as under used wall accumulates in the heel, the high heels become higher, in other cases long toes become exaggerated which pulls under-run heels further under the hoof. Medial toes on pigeon toed horses grow long faster exaggerating the pigeon toed stance. Medial walls on cow-hocked horses overgrow exaggerating the cow-hock stance. When walls spread and flare, boots also stop fitting.  If you sincerely want what's best for your horse, I recommend a 5 or 6 week trimming cycle.


Contrary to popular belief, horses don't prefer to eat what's best for them nutritionally, they eat what tastes good. So just because horses are thrilled with the taste of the hay you got last week doesn't mean its great hay, it probably contains a lot of starch or sugar. The opposite can be true; hay that horses take their time eating may actually be excellent low-carb hay.

Feed your horse what it needs to eat,
as opposed to what you need to feed it....

I ask that clients feed grass hay because it's the most appropriate forage for barefoot horses. Horses eating moderate carb grass hay grow a harder, tougher wall and sole with tighter wall connection. Unless your horse is ridden hard, you're better off getting a low-carb grass hay and feeding it in slow-feed hay nets so that it lasts longer and horses have something to browse on for several hours.

Occasionally clients ask about feeding alfalfa, rye grass, or oat hay. Those hays may be cheaper to purchase, but feeding them often results in wall separation, poor durability, cracking and tender soles. If horses need to be booted more often - or shod - is feeding that hay really cheaper? All of the horses I work with who switched from alfalfa or grain hays to grass hay diets have grown significantly better feet as a result.

If a horse is obese or IR, clients may have to go one step further to feed appropriate amounts of tested low-carb grass hay. and keep horses off pasture or in grazing muzzles..

Pellets, Grain & Complete Feeds

Most horses don't need complete or pelletted feeds except as a carrier for supplements, and I recommend a plain grass hay pellet like Mountain Sunrise Timothy or Bermuda Grass Hay Pellets or soaked and rinsed beet pulp as a supplement carrier. Many pelletted feeds contain high iron, cheap no-value fillers and unnecessary sugars.

When a horse is working hard enough to lose weight it's appropriate to supplement with pellets or grain, and the best time to offer it is within 30 minutes of the exercise.


Horses need vitamin and mineral supplements because most diets are based on baled hay, which is deficient in many nutrients according to the NRC for Equines

According to hundreds of annual hay tests, our hays tend to be high in iron and depleted in copper and zinc. Iron interferes with the uptake of copper and zinc, and adding more iron means we should add even more copper. There are other minerals that are deficient, and the unfortunate fact is that most commercial supplements don't seem to consider the NRC when creating supplements.

On autopsy, the livers of many performance horses are black due to the high levels of excess iron

How does Copper and Zinc supplementation help horses? Before I started supplementing Copper and Zinc, I had to use front boots when I rode on rocky trails, even though my horses were on a grass hay diet. Now, I rarely need to use boots on those same trails.

When I supplemented adequate amounts of trace minerals, I saw amazing changes in my horses, and I continue to see dramatic changes in client horses. Their skin stops itching, they aren't fly magnets. In some horses, swelling in legs, udders and sheaths resolves, their personalities change for the better and chronic problems like ulcers seem to heal faster. Hair coat, mane and tails get softer and smoother, and hoof capsules get thicker and more durable.

Almost all of my clients are on copper and zinc supplements of some sort, and the change in their horses feet was significant. Most are on California Trace because it’s a good deal financially, and is balanced to complement hay sold in this area.. Several clients purchase zinc & copper supplements like those offered by Horse Tech, and Source HF. I test my hay and pasture, and have done custom supplements in the past but may move to CA Trace with extra copper and zinc in the future.

Copper and Zinc supplementation to resolve a deficiency helps to eliminate thrush and GI problems, too, horses coats, mane and tails are healthier. Their frogs grow thick and dense, and spread out to help support the back of the foot.

For more information on mineral balancing, check out the nutritional classes offered on Information on recommended supplements and trace minerals can be found on the California Trace, Horse Tech

Salt Licks, Salt & Mineral Blocks

Horses need between 1 and 2 ounces of salt a day. Commercially available salt blocks were developed for cattle's coarse tongues.. A horse's tongue is soft and they aren't able to get as much salt as they need from blocks. They will use licks when they crave salt, but often can't get an adequate amount to satisfy their needs.

Most colored salt blocks contain unbalanced minerals with very high iron levels, so aren't appropriate for horses; I recommend throwing them out!

Himalayan salt blocks also contain unbalanced trace minerals. and are made in Pakistan and Afghanistan, neither country has a history of good quality control. The tests on them aren't horrible, though, so if people love them I don't push back too hard, but I recommend that clients use regular loose white salt. It can be purchased in bulk quantity at big-box stores.

Reading Feed Labels

Feed content labels state the minimum guaranteed analysis, not the actual contents. Many feeds and supplements have higher levels of iron than is indicated on the label. You can see many Dairy One lab results for common feeds and supplements. in the Files section of the Whole Horse Health and Equine Cushing's Yahoo groups

Boots & Barefoot

I recommend using boots for trail riding unless horses are very comfortable without them. Depending on the horse and season, many horses only need boots on some trails, or during some seasons, and many horses are OK without rear boots.

Using a good copper and zinc supplement increases the odds that you will be less reliant on boots. Using Hoof Armor also helps coat the sole and make it more durable on some horses, but may not make the feet tough enough to go without boots.

I ask that clients buy front boots for all riding horses coming out of shoes, but even long-time barefoot horses sometimes need the protection of boots so I suggest that trail riders carry them when they ride. Our Rocky Mountain Horse and Arab are fine barefoot on most trails, but... we carry front boots just in case.

Environment & Hoof Conditioning

Healthy-footed horses on appropriate diets have feet that adapt to riding on surfaces similar to the environment they live on.

If you live in a cool coastal pasture with soft dirt, you'll probably have trouble when you take your horse out for days of riding on hard granite and gravel roads. Horses feet adapt to surfaces and conditions they are accustomed to, and when we ride them in other areas, we need to be ready to protect them.

Breed & Shoeing History Affect Soundness

When I first started trimming professionally, the only people willing to risk it fell into two categories; people who already owned healthy barefoot horses, and owners of horses with horrible feet.

These horrible-footed horses were my teachers; they amazed me with their ability to grow a hoof that gets healthier over time. Most of these horses had long toes and under-developed, contracted heels, and most of them developed a good healthy foot and stayed barefoot. But with these bad-footed horses, healthy barefoot takes more time, a year is reasonable, and often more.

Damaged feet get better, but they will never be as healthy as if the horse grew up on a good diet in a rough environment; I ask clients to have reasonable expectations.

Breed is another factor that can play a role in barefoot success. Most of the TB's, QH's and Paints I've worked with have very good feet, but the feet of performance horses who are shod very young never develop healthy digital cushions or lateral cartilages. These horses usually take longer to grow a healthy foot, and boots help make that possible. Occasionally these horses have coffin bone damage and have trouble growing a thick sole. There are many ways of helping these horses, but they are challenging.