Of course the environment matters for keeping the ridden horse barefoot successfully. By environment, I mean all the places your horse works, plays and relaxes in.
Ask yourself honestly: Where does he spend most of his hours? And how helpful is that particular environment for building high performance barefoot hooves?
How many hours does he spend in a stable? That's x number of hours he's not moving. It's also x number of hours that's he's standing in/on bedding mixed with urine and faeces. And what is he eating while he's standing there?
If your horses are the fortunate ones that get plenty of turnout, exactly how many hours is that? What sort of surface are they turned out on? What are they eating while turned out? Are they on a track system or in a small individual paddock square? How many miles do they move while turned out? How far do they have to move for their food and water? And all this before we consider whether their social and behavioural needs are adequately met. If their social and behavioural need are fulfilled, they won’t be subject to psychological stress manifesting as sub-optimal health.
We know that the horses with healthiest barefoot hooves are found in the feral horse populations.
#friendsforagefreedom - the Carneddau ponies have the perfect life
In our part of the UK our nearest feral population are the Carneddau ponies of North Wales. This ancient herd of ponies are truly wild, and have frequented this mountain range in Snowdonia for thousands of years. Their numbers are controlled but other than that they are not managed in any way.
Photo by Hannah_morrellt - find her on Instagram
A recent segment in a wildlife programme featured a stallion in his prime chasing off an usurper- both ponies cantering effortlessly over the rough stony ground. The Mongolian ponies had similar skills.
Photo by Nasta, Zoologist on our SES Expedition to Mongolia, July 2018
Could you canter over rough ground in your bare feet without any training or conditioning? I know I couldn’t straight away. I do spend a lot of my time barefoot, and when I was travelling through Israel and Australia and shoes were mostly optional, I could run miles barefoot on packed dirt and tarmac. But it did take some time to toughen feet up, like human like horse. And now they have softened up again.
If your horse spends most of his time standing in a field of soft mud or working in a soft arena, of course he won't be able to march briskly down a stony track. Just like muscles, bones and tendons, feet need gradual conditioning.
A good diet sets the barefoot horse up for success https://scootbootseurope.com/blogs/blog/keeping-the-ridden-horse-barefoot-the-first-step
while doing the miles will build and shape the feet https://scootbootseurope.com/blogs/blog/the-journey-of-a-thousand-miles-keeping-ridden-horses-barefoot-part-2 but at the end of the day the feet will perform best on the surface to which they have become most accustomed.
If you want your horse to be a regular rock cruncher, then he will have to crunch some rocks!! He can be exposed to first gravelly then rocky surfaces, bit by bit, building tough feet incrementally.
Photo by Jason Davies
So yes of course the environment matters. Track systems are great because they encourage movement, limit grass intake and in summer, the earth tends to pack down into hard dirt. You can enrich sections with more challenging surfaces; with pea gravel or even hard core. This is best done on the horses' route to a favourite spot so they traverse the surface regularly but don’t stand and pooh in the pea gravel, or just cheat and avoid the rougher stuff.
Google Earth snap of the first Nelipot track
Be realistic out hacking. Build up the exposure to challenging surfaces gradually, initially at slow speeds, possibly hop off and walk yourself over a challenging section. At least let the horse pick his way, as slowly as required. One of the major benefits of keeping your ridden horse barefoot is the increase in proprioception and the way that allows him to adjust his balance over challenging terrain and thus protect his joints- give him the time to learn the skills.
If you only ever work on a beautifully level surface, be that grass, dirt or arena footing, how will your horse learn to dodge tree roots, deal with funny camber or adapt instantly to undulating terrain? It's like the difference between road running and cross country running- in human terms it's a different sport!
Photo by Hannah_morrellt
So of course the environment matters for keeping the ridden horse barefoot. It absolutely matters for both physical and mental health.
The way we keep horses is profoundly unnatural, even when we are doing our honest best by them. Every human-horse husbandry arrangement involves some form of compromise. That’s fine, as long as we acknowledge that and analyse our choices for each horse. Horse generally love to have a job and thrive with appropriate human interaction; for some that is enough to make up for lack of species specific husbandry arrangements. Some horses tolerate certain aspects of domestication better than others. Other horses find domestication so stressful they will never be happy “in captivity”. Others seem healthy and chilled even in the most limited accommodation.
Low level stress and gut dysfunction, from stress and inappropriate feeding, are often contributors to poor hoof performance- as well as the physical, you could think of the hooves as the most sensitive barometer of your horses mental and psychological health.
So does the environment that your keep your horse in meet all his needs? And I don't mean shelter feeds and water here- that's the minimum to keep the RSPCA inspector away; I mean his species specific needs for mental and psychological health. Is he living a full and satisfying life in horse terms?
Many thanks to Jason Davies, Jan Ruth and Hannah Morrell-Tickle for allowing me to use their photos of the Carneddau ponies. Please look up Hannah on Instagram Hannah_morrellt
My name is Fran McNicol and I am an amateur equestrienne living in Cheshire, UK. I am a doctor, specialising in colorectal surgery, and my MD research thesis was on inflammation and sepsis.Through my day job, I understand and fix the human digestive system, and I know a huge amount about inflammation and the human animal, but the most useful thing about becoming a “Doctor Doctor Miss Miss” (MBChB, MD, MRCS, FRCS) is that I have learned how to read other people’s research, evaluate the evidence and then critically test apparently good theory on my own horses. My writing is therefore my opinion, and current state of learning, from 25 years of full-time doctoring, a few years working as a polo groom around the world and many years of keeping my own horses. I love training young horses, and focus on riding the sport horse both classically and holistically. I compete regularly in all disciplines at our local riding club especially one day eventing. I started blogging as a way to share the experience gained from taking a selection of horses barefoot and working towards the dream barefoot property. I blog regularly at www.nelipotcottage.com