Shoes to Barefoot for the First Time

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Well, today we're gonna go back to taking a horse barefoot, out of shoes, for the first time. The who, what, when, where and why's of it all ... 

So ya wanna take your horse barefoot, eh?  

YAY!  Good for you. Barefoot is natural and natural is way better for the horse! A barefooted horse has better traction, better brakes, better propioception, better circulation in the hooves and is easier to keep well and sound. 

So how to start with this? 

Well, it's pretty simple ... given there are not any major hoof pathologies (but even if there are its USUALLY best to pull the shoes and let the horse have its hooves back again for healing!) one simply pulls the shoes!  

Oh, but wait -- wait, wait, wait.  Your horse's hooves are chipped and cracking and shelly?  Won't they break down more without shoes? 

Nope. Uh-uh ... they're gonna get healthier and stronger!  AND ... you'll probably notice, too, that your horse will even come out of it more sure-footed than before!  That is IF you, as the owner, can take a few simple steps. 

So, how to prepare for taking your horses out of shoes?  There's really little to do unless you want to start right after the horse is shod and plan for the next appointment to pull them. If you do that you can address the diet, mostly, as well as the 'movement' of the horse until the day of *that* appointment.


What I tell my clients is to start feeding a raw 'salad' at least 3 times a week if not every day. The variation of the fresh greens, the fruits, the vegetables, nuts and seeds will help the hooves to grow stronger by the time your next 8 or 12 week shoeing appointment rolls around! I also advocated adding  raw, naturally chelated minerals to the diet -- given free choice along with celtic sea or himalayan salt, also free choice. As much grass hay as the horse will eat plus grazing on grass will only add to the essential nutrients for healthy, strong hooves.  In other words, feed forages and try to get off any processed feeds or supplements. Feed your horse like a horse! So, that could be your preparatory. Be sure to walk your horse daily or see to it that he gets plenty of movement on hard pack ground. That will help condition the hooves if the soles are bare with no pads.  Keep your horse's environment clean and waste-free. Keep your horse turned out near, but not with, other horses for maximum movement and healthy social life. (Don't want shod horses to be turned out together -- that's just asking for a disaster! Barefooted horses can be turned out in a herd but shod?  Nope, nope, nope ... not a good idea at all.) 

OK, so, you've done your preparations and the day arrives when your farrier is pulling the shoes.  Excellent! 


MOST shod hooves are left longer in the toes than what is desirable for barefooted horses. The nails will leave holes that allow bacteria and fungus to get into the walls. While we don't want long toes, its best to leave them with just a quick, smoothing rasp around for the first trim out of shoes and then a bevel of 45* from the white line out to the distal edge of the walls. Just enough to balance the hooves and maybe remove some of the nail holes. Then a quick roll around the edge to eliminate a sharp wall. We don't want to take the toes completely back as we would for a barefooted horse if the toes have been left too long with shoes. That can be done over the next 2 or 3 trims to get them where they belong. 

If the walls are very long then a bit of taking them down is preferable than leaving them long to start chipping and cracking further than they already are. But, too much, you'll have a sore horse. Have your farrier/trimmer leave a solid 1/8" "bead" all around the wall that the hoof will be able to compress and condense into the start of some nice sole callus. 

Most likely, too, the heels will have been rasped down to virtually nothing with each trim getting ready for shoes. Now, that can cause some discomfort when the shoes are removed. Having a pair of hoof boots handy to apply is a good idea, especially if you want to go out and ride after taking off the shoes!  That will help protect the sensitive heels.  Be sure they are fitted properly - according to each individual. 


For the first visit, when removing the shoes, I leave the heels alone except to possibly balance the taller one down to the lower one. That way the hoof can be stimulated by bare movement in a balanced way, thus encouraging better, more balanced growth of new heels. If the heels are TOO TALL, then they can be rasped down a bit and balanced. But again, not too much in the 1st visit. Leave at least 1" of heel buttress from the ground to the deepest part of the collateral groove in the back of the foot. Do not allow any more heel than that to be removed. Plan on getting the hooves in good, balanced shape within the first 3 to 4 months of being barefoot - high or low heels. 

That being said, some horses do remarkably well immediately following shoe removal!  The toes are in good length; the heels are good height and the sole is thick and conditioned. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Again, boots will help during the transition time. 

Boots will also help for thin soles. Often, when a farrier trims the hooves for shoes, he also pares away the sole callus and removes pads. This leaves the soles unprotected from the ground - rocks, pebbles, sand, etc. It takes a little bit of time to get the soles stimulated for forming solid, hard callus. Again, walking the horse barefoot on a tarred road or hard pack surface at least 10 mins a day will help to get them conditioned up in no time. If the horse is tender then boots can be applied for a few days and then removed for the daily walks. 

If the horse is uncomfortable after the first visit I can guarantee that, if the trimmer is skilled and knowledgeable, and the horse owner follows diet and exercise (walking on a tarred road or hard pack road for at least 10 mins a day totally barefooted), that within the latter part of 3 months after the initial trim, the horse will be totally sound on all surfaces! This would be with trims spaced 4-5 weeks out from one another. Occasionally one may find the transition time will extend further - this will depend on the internal structures of the hoof and lower limb and to what extent of damage has been inflicted to the hooves. It takes 8 months to a full year for a brand, new hoof to grow from the coronary band on down to the ground. So, while 4 months is what *I* found to be the norm, there are others that will need longer rehabilitation time. 

Marjorie Smith writes, Eliminating transition soreness

"Pete Ramey came up with a trim strategy for getting horses out of shoes and back to work (see Flares page). He is now able to do the "first trim" in a way that nearly every horse he pulls the shoes off can go to work within a few days. Most of them he fits with boots immediately.

Here are the trimming steps that allow the horse to transition without soreness (see Trim page for more detailed instructions):

-- Scrape out chalky, flaky, or crackled "dead sole" until you get to solid (so-called "live") sole.

-- Use the sole itself as the landmark or guide for trimming the hoof wall. Trim excess wall and heel length to the edge of the sole, no farther. [Gwen's note: see mention of the heel buttress and collateral groove depth above] Balancing the foot side-to-side is included in this step.

-- Shorten overgrown bars down to the level of the sole, or until there is no dirt line between the bar and the sole. [But do NOT "dig out" the bars! There may still be a dirt line but leave it if it means digging bars down further than the sole! It will be taken care of in subsequent trims as well as self-trimming during the horse moving around.]

-- Rasp off flares with a vertical cut (see Photo Gallery #13b and #18a); be sure to round-in in so that there are no bulges or corners in the outline of the footprint.

-- Where the white line (yellowish) is tight, bevel or "mustang roll" the bottom of the wall as far as the water line (white layer of wall). Where the white line is stretched or separated (looks dirty, or there is a groove between wall and sole), extend the roll all the way to the edge of the sole."  --

Transitioning doesn't have to be complicated. Nor does it have to mean months of discomfort for the horse. Of course, this is directed towards a horse that is healthy. Pathological hooves are not part of this equation and require different parameters depending on the individual. Marjorie Smith goes into more detail in her website as linked above: 

Before hiring someone to take off your horse's shoes, do some research on the particular hoofcare practitioner -- check out the horses on that person's work list. Are those horses sound? Do they move out in full capacity? Do they seem sound and happy? Or, do they have thrush or white line disease or other pathologies? Talk to the owners. Find out about the trimmer. What is the extent of that trimmer's experience with transitioning horses? What is his or her personal, working experience with equine hooves?  Don't just take someone's word ... find out yourself. Look, watch, ask questions. 

Not every trimmer is "created" equal to another. 


 Gwenyth Browning Jones Santagate is the best-selling author of 10 Secrets to Healthy Hooves as well as a noted author for various international equine publications includingThe Horses Hoof, Equine Wellness, Natural Horse Planet as well as a contributing author for the 2001 United States Federal Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual. For the last 37+ years, she has maintained healthy hooves with natural trimming on thousands of horses and specialized in pathological rehabilitation hoofcare for the last 18 years. She and her husband John keep a small herd of their own equine in SW Florida and continue to offer consults for horses in need. For further information please click here:



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