A question for you.

Posted on Posted in The Wild Blog

Are we becoming Farriers?

The extraordinary relationship between humans and the horse has been running since well before the birth of Christ. Indeed there is evidence our domestication of horses goes as far back as 3500 BC. And ever since we recognised the utilitarian value of the horse; there has been the horseshoe.

The use of horseshoes has become an almost unquestioned tradition. Humans have been nailing shoes onto horses’ hooves for well over a thousand years. Who can remember back to a time otherwise?

In this day and age, why do we continue to use metal shoes and now newer, higher tech composite versions nailed on horse’s hooves? Is it to the detriment or benefit of the horse or benefit to the human? Why our allegiance with traditional practices?

To fully understand this debate, we need to delve back into the history books to see why our ancestors deemed it necessary to shoe their horses.

The precise historical origins of shoeing remain unclear but current research suggests that as early as 500BC, the early Mongolians put primitive boots made of animal hide and woven plant material onto their horses. Around 100AD the Romans, inventors of the first paved roads, created the ‘hipposandal’ similar to the sandals they wore themselves, made of leather and iron and attached to the hoof by straps. These early boots would almost certainly have been used to prevent soreness and the rapid wear of the hoof due to the increased work- loads that the horses of the time would have been placed under.

Travelling to the colder and wetter climes of Europe, horses would have suffered a new problem. A combination of the natural porosity of the hoof, consistently wet ground and poor stabling in its’ own waste, would have overly softened the hoof leading to soundness disorders.

Horses had become as indispensable as the car is to us now. Owners needed them to be serviceable at all times. Strap on boots in the materials available at the time wouldn’t have lasted very long. A more secure and reliable shoe was needed.

Enter the ‘modern’ nailed horseshoe. Around 600AD the first nailed horseshoes were made of soft brass, eventually giving way to the by now, increasingly plentiful iron. By the time of the Crusades, no self-respecting Knight going into battle would be seen without them. Hot horse-shoeing became popular in Europe in the 16th century as a means of quickly bedding a shoe into the hoof. Apart from the more recent lightweight aluminum versions used in racing, the horseshoes’ design has changed very little in the last 1400 years

So if a nailed on shoe allows the hoof to last longer, provide more grip, prevent soreness and has the added bonus of helping you win the odd battle, why was there an advocate for change?

This was based on the growing evidence, backed by anecdotal and reasonable scientific fact that nailed on shoes have the potential to cause considerable harm to a horse. Horse shoes do damage. With negative physical changes to the hoof and body.

Change was based on the fact that times were different. With the advent of the internal combustion engine and mechanization, the horse has been relegated from indispensable beast of burden and essential mode of transport to one of almost purely, sporting pleasure. Probably much to the appreciation of many a horse.

Change was also based on increased knowledge, observation of wild horses and a fundamental social awareness of “animal welfare”. The horse now had “intrinsic” value rather than utilitarian. They no longer pull vast loads in carts and the last armored knights haven’t been seen since the middle-ages. Save perhaps for the odd Hollywood epic. In fact most horses are kept, destined for a life in paddocks. Their hooves barely ever getting a chance of being worn down on man made roads.

So there has been a growing movement both here and overseas to see a return to barefoot horses through the promotion of ‘natural hoof-care’.

Natural hoof care gains its’ inspiration from the wild horse. Like the Australian brumby, the American mustangs, the wild ponies of Mongolia, even the humble Zebra. All run freely and without pain over the roughest of terrains without the need for any hoof protection. Hoof disorders that plague their domestic cousins are virtually unknown to them

Jeremy Ford of Wild About Hooves has been a conventional farrier. As part of his job he had come into contact with wild brumbies in the outback of Northern Territory. What astonished him was the amazing condition of their hooves, the distances they were travelling for food and water. Not a shoe in sight.

So can our domestic horse be trimmed to emulate the natural wear of the wild? Yes it can! Ford attended a hoof care clinic run by American farrier, Pete Ramey.

“It got me thinking. Shoes seemed so unnecessary. What the old farriers in the game told me about founder, softness, wear, bruising – the information at the clinic turned it all on its head. I’m now a professional hoof trimmer and have been for the past 15 years. I have hung up my hammer, stored the anvil and have a great business specializing in natural hoof care and education”

When describing the evolution of his business, Ford notes “The bonus is – because the owner can now take responsibility of their horse’s hooves, especially with increased education, they get a much better rapport with their horse and take more responsibility for their horse’s wellbeing”.

Owner’s interest in their horse’s hooves has escalated exponentially in the last 20 years.

This now means Farrier Schools and Magazines are encouraging the Farriers to embrace and work with the barefoot clientele and recognize them as a growing segment of the equine owning population. To not, means they lose a market share and missed economic opportunities. Farriers are skilled with the tools; some keen to evolve with the times and learn the technique and principles of the natural trim, and gain an understanding of the myriad of hoof boots.

But what is truly interesting, is that whilst Natural hoof care is becoming more mainstream there is a new emerging market returning to shoeing with composite shoes under various new labels within the “barefoot” realm. Composite shoes are headlining the hoof care industry for performance and rehabilitation.

Therefore, are we evolving or just going full circle? Is history repeating itself as we increase reliance on using hoof protection on horses – plastic, poly or the metal kind? The horse in our day and age has so much at their fingertips.

It begs the question – why are we returning to shoes?

Are we going back to shoes because of poor trimmers? Is the shoe just used as a band-aid?

Are the poor sedentary, obese lifestyles of our horses not unlike our own – causing poor hooves?

Are we not following through with the underlying principle of the “natural horse”?

There seems to be diametrically opposed philosophies with individual practitioners and how they view their role in the hoof care realm. Some are driven by tradition; others on instinct or gut feel following a “deep green” philosophy, and others simply by what they see as common sense.

The reliance on metal, plastic or composite shoes – is in direct contrast to the philosophies held by the “pure” natural hoof care practitioners.

If we look at the human health industry, few folks rely on alternative medical practitioners. We no longer let healing run its course, we are too impatient. We dislike having to take responsibility for our longer term health if there is an easier fix that requires less effort. If we have the flu, we shuffle to the doctor which will almost always guarantee a course of antibiotics. If we think we can take a multi vitamin versus making the effort of changing our diets, we pop a pill.

Dr Neal Valk, US Veterinary Surgeon and Natural Hoof Care Practitioner draws a parallel “We live in an age where people want a pill to treat for type 2 diabetes, not a menu or an exercise program.” Natural Hoof care is based on the premise of a holistic approach for the horse: its environment, its diet, it exercise and ability to move, the capabilities of healthy, sound bare hooves, how to recognize damage already done to the hoof and where possible, respect its natural ability to heal.

If the typical horse owner needs to rehabilitate their much loved steed, just as they would their own child, they want a quick fix, anxious for results.

Our current “instant gratification” society does not allow for Doctor Time in the paddock, for rehabilitation and healing to take place.

However, it is the horse owner, the client, that governs the hoof care industry. Decisions are made on capitalist driven marketing, the rules and regulations of equine events and most importantly, peer pressure. Humans are social creatures who need to follow others to belong.

And we now see that natural hoof care practitioners are filling their tool boxes with shoes for instant fixes, the latest gadgets and gizmos and prepped with a sales spiel whilst perhaps not looking at the long term picture.

There is growing dissension afoot. From the paddocks of the well-heeled thoroughbreds to the humblest pony club, bold voices are asking questions.

Is the natural hoof care industry becoming so large and competitive that it has lost it’s original purpose? Is it possible, in this era of fast paced lifestyles and owners with expectations to be at the next equine event, cannot allow the time it takes for natural hoof care to succeed?

Is hoof care merging or will the barefoot versus shod camp segregate further?

Are natural hoof care practitioners just becoming farriers?

If natural hoof care practitioners truly believe that nailing on horse shoes is detrimental to the long term soundness and welfare of horses then “history shows us that the only time the cycles of suffering, cycles of inherited thinking are broken – is when someone has the courage to take a stand and say in a loud clear voice, ‘we are better than this’”. Wise words quoted from Lyn White, Australia’s foremost animal activist.













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