Review: Feet First

Desperate times call for desperate measures. For the better part of three years I have been trying to get and keep my Roxie sound. I have tried everything, including barefoot, in that time. Each new try brings some success, but within three or four cycles she’s back to being nearly crippled at the walk. I am exactly the kind of desperate client that the authors of Feet First deal with on a regular basis.

The book was recommended to me by a kind fellow from a Facebook group who offered to share his experience with managing his own “navicular” mare. We arranged a time, he in the UK and I in California, and he was most generous with his knowledge and time. It was on his recommendation that I purchased Feet First: Barefoot Performance and Hoof Rehabilitation. One of the authors of the book, Nic Barker, was instrumental in helping his mare achieve serviceable soundness – so he had first-hand knowledge of how the principles in the book worked.

Roxie before her foot troubles began

One of the first things that resonated with me with this book was the honesty with which the authors presented their initial experience with the barefoot “movement”.

“Over time a new movement – ‘barefoot’ – emerged from the US and from Europe, and its practice became notorious in the British horse world. … The problem was that although these ‘barefooters’ religiously kept their horses unshod, in practice they seemed seldom to ride their horses, because their horses were rarely sound. …

We found this early experience of barefoot very off-putting, because our horses’ welfare and soundness were of paramount importance to us, and of course we wanted to be able to carry on working and competing on our horses. It seemed to be clear that, in order to keep horses sound, and in hard work, one really did need shoes.”

p 20-21

This was exactly my own experience with the barefoot movement as it began. I have always had barefoot horses among my herd, those who were gifted with naturally flinty feet that seemed to stay ‘perfect’ in all conditions. So, I was well aware that it is possible for at least some horses to be barefoot and sound, even for competition. However, as the barefoot ‘fad’ grew, I watched people pulling their horses’ shoes for well-intentioned (as well as economic) reasons. Among these horses I mostly saw flattened, chipped, and cracked hooves that led to mincing gaits. Sure, there was often no head-bobbing, so the owners swore their horses were sound barefoot – but I could see the tender placement and the pull back in the shoulder from the full natural swing. That the authors, now fully converted to barefoot, were so honest with their initial experiences was refreshing. That they arrived where they are out of the same desperation I now face with Roxie was compelling.

Nic Barker operates Rockley Farm in Exmoor, a rehabilitation center specializing in equine hoof problems. She pulled her own horses shoes in 2004 and has been helping others rehabilitate their horses since 2005. She is still highly active in this area, as a search of her name reveals many recent videos in which she has been interviewed about her work. She also has written another book, Performance Hoof, Performance Horse, which I just ordered.

Sarah Braithwaite was a busy hoofcare practitioner at the time the book was published who since founded Forageplus LTD. a company centered on providing nutrition and support for the whole horse. (I have seen these products recommended on many horse groups from the UK.)

This is not a new book. It was first published in 2009. However, many of the concepts within the book are still only trickling into the mainstream of the horse world. In short, the authors argue that any horse can thrive barefoot – but it takes more than pulling shoes and a good trim. In fact, they argue that the trim is only 10% of a healthy bare hoof. Most of what goes into healthy feet is diet (65% in their estimation), followed by environment and exercise (25%). In recent years I have seen more focus on the whole horse, but it seemed for so long that (at least in the U.S.) focus was still on doing that magic trim that would ‘correct’ the foot to a ‘more natural’ form – though that form seemed to vary by practitioner. (Note that many practitioners still see the trim as critical in rehabilitating problem feet.)

The first half of the book focuses on the hoof itself: anatomy, structure, and function of the hoof. It includes examples of a healthy hoof, as well as issues that plague horses’ hooves (for which a troubleshooting guide is included). The book is filled with examples of horses who had problematic feet that were able to be converted to sound, healthy feet through changes to diet and environment. In fact, the end of the book is a series of specific case studies outlining the horses’ histories, actions taken, and outcomes. Anyone who has struggled with their horse’s feet will likely find a familiar example among these horses. Nothing gives you more hope than to see a concrete example of what you are trying to achieve.

The middle of the book delves into how you work toward those rock-crushing healthy hooves. The section on diet, the largest factor they credit for healthy hooves, is informative but not a clear ‘how-to’. Consider it a great guideline for getting started – just remember, as the authors themselves caution, each horse’s needs will vary based upon the base diet they are receiving. Not only do different forages offer different nutrition – but the same forage (e.g., grass hay) will vary based upon the location it was grown and even the time of year. Testing your forage and working with a nutrition expert (as recommended in the book) are optimal but not always practical options due to access and cost. Still, the authors offer a lot of guidance that can be used and adjusted for your own horses. I was able to make some changes for my horses (e.g., lowering sugar and starch and adding flax) and the total of the changes I’ve made have certainly helped lead to harder feet for our two who’ve tended toward soft feet.

It should be no surprise that the chapter on environment’s role in healthy hooves emphasizes movement. Horses evolved in lives that required a lot of movement during the day – covering ground for forage, access to water, and escaping predators. The life of the modern horse is far more restricted. Even in the ideal track system the authors recommend, space will be more limited than wild and feral horses historically cover. Still, it is an improvement over the small spaces many horses live in. It is even better than an open field for the amount of movement and varying texture it can provide.

The authors share some diagrams of possible layouts for track systems. The authors provide a helpful list of advice on creating tracks which is a very useful starting place if, like me, you are fortunate enough to be able to create your own track system for your horses. (Unfortunately it is not an option for those who do not have the land, money, or time to create and maintain such an environment.)

One of the diagrams illustrating layouts for multi-surface track systems for healthy horse living

What I like most about the book is that the authors are pragmatic. They have come to believe in the barefoot path for horses, but acknowledge the challenges to get there. They consider the whole horse, and not just the hoof; discussing how you support a horse who might be in discomfort during a transition to barefoot. They even acknowledge (as some barefoot supporters are unwilling to do) that there are cases where it just might not work.

In severe cases, very damaged hooves may never recuperate well enough to cope, and may always require protection in the form of shoes or hoof boots. This is rare, but it can happen, particularly if the horse has been lame or moving incorrectly for a prolonged period.

Pg. 114

The information on supporting horses in a healthy barefoot life have grown since this book was published in 2009, however I’ve seen little (if anything) that contradicts anything that the authors discovered in their journey and documented so well in this book. For anyone who is looking to make the transition for their horse, or just wants a good basic resource on the subject of supporting barefoot horses, this book is a very worthy investment. Well organized, easy to read, and a great overview to start your journey or review why things might not be going to plan.

At the time of publishing this review, the book can be purchased for just under $23 US dollars in paperback, or just over $35 US dollars in hardbound on Amazon. You can also find it at used book sellers, such as Abe Books, for less.

If you’re interested in more about my journey with my Roxie, you can read about it on my other blog, HorseCrazyAgain.com.

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