Monday, March 9, 2009

The Barefoot vs. Shod experiment in West Cork

Every interest group has it's battle lines, and there is one between the barefoot proponents and those who believe horses need shoes.  I won't go into the arguments but just report the results of my trying to get my horses barefoot.

The biggest challenge here in West Cork is the endless rain and mud, winter and summer.  This makes the hooves soft and encourages thrush and infection in the frogs and heels.  It's all very well to show the wonderful hooves of horses in the mid-west of America, but you guys wouldn't believe the mud we have here!

I've been through the process of taking shoes off horses that are used to them, twice. The first month or so they get more and more sore and you really wonder if it is fair to put them through so much discomfort.  I would advise riding them in boots from day one, there is no advantage to them getting sore heels and soles.  Then they slowly start to harden up but it takes a good six months to get to the point of being able to ride them in a sand arena and occasionally on the road without shoes.  But I could never get their hooves hard enough and putting eight lots of boots on to exercise two on the road and going back to look for them when they fall off is just no fun.

I've tried all kinds of supplements and potions for the feet and found none made any noticeable difference.  The horse were in good condition anyway, shiny coats and out 24/7/365.

Re the boots.  Marquis are goodish but they do fall off, even just trotting on the road.  Easyboot Bares are better, but still fall off on the road occasionally breaking the gaiters, and they are black so not easy to find!

There are two major downsides to barefoot for me - chasing after the boots when they fall of and the need for studs when jumping competitively outdoors.  So I have reached a compromise.  When the horses reach serious competition level aged 5 or 6, the shoes go on in April, with stud holes.  And come off again in October for the winter.  This works well for me, and keeps the cost down (at €60 a set of shoes).  I have had no problems with jumping the younger horses all summer without shoes, no swelling or lameness or splitting of feet or all the other dire consequences of riding without shoes that I have been threatened with.  

But if a horse has had shoes for a number of years, don't underestimate the effort and discomfort you will cause the horse in getting him sound barefoot.  Get some good boots before you start.

Fred the ex-racehorse

Fred is a remarkably well mannered horse.  He wouldn't dream of lagging behind when you lead him.  If you ask him to pick up a foot, he snaps it up and holds it there for you.  A joy after my lazy lot, who oblige you, generally, but at their own speed!  But today, Fred showed the flip side of that anxious obedience.  His feet are very sore after some weeks without shoes and when the farrier started hammering on some shoes, Fred's fear of reprimand was overridden by his desire to get rid of the farrier.  With no warning at all, the farrier was thrown out the door. And this was the pattern for the rest of the feet.  He would stand for as long as he could and then bang!  He leapt forward or kicked back.  Racehorses are generally treated with a lack of patience and understanding by a wide variety of people so their expectation is that people are unpredictable and often violent and the best policy is to appease them, if possible.  Until anger and fear builds up to a point where the brain flips to fight or flight.  

My nags and I have a escalation ritual.  I ask quietly and politely, I ask more loudly, I shout and then start hitting with more show than effect and this is usually as far as it goes.  The nags start with a look, a snap of the teeth, a raised leg, a nip if pushed and on only one occasion have I annoyed one enough to kick at me (got me by mistake I think).  

It will be interesting to see if Fred can learn our escalation rituals.

After Fred, the farrier moved onto the two thoroughbred yearlings. It was time for them to re-learn that not only can we influence their behaviour, but they can influence ours.  Both these two had been handled when small and would lead and pick their feet up.  But in the last six months they have become a bit wild.  Their reaction to having their feet picked up was, "no thanks, I'm off".
 After patience and quiet has little effect a battle then ensues where the aim if to get them to a position where they discover that standing still makes the people relax.  It's difficult to ensure they are learning the right lessons, and all to easy to teach them that rearing and kicking earns them freedom.  But it's great when you see the light go on and they start to react to you as you react to them.  I think many horses have no influencing skills when it comes to people.   All they know is how to avoid trouble, how to run or how to fight.  If only horses had money, they could go on management training exercises.