Saturday, March 31, 2007

Barefoot In The Head

If you ask most horse owners whether horses should be shod, they'll probably answer "If it's needed". If you ask the adherents of the "Barefoot" movement, the answer will be a resounding and unequivocal "No! Under no circumstances! Ever!".

Personally, EoR believes horses should only wear shoes when required for a specific reason or purpose, not least because of the extra cost involved, but according to these "Barefoot" devotees, shoes are the source of all evils in horses and must never ever be used.

One example of this argument, which is high on rhetoric but low on evidence, is provided by Carola "Yarraman" Adolf NEP/SHP:

Unfortunately, with the nailed-on horse shoe, one of the most resourceful and ingenious inventions of the human mind (besides the wheel and the stirrup), also co-incides the appearance of pretty much all "modern day" hoof problems! Why? Because the hoof can not function if it is nailed onto a brace that restricts its physiological flexibility. [...] A "physiologically correct" barefoot trim is created almost like a "piece of art", it has "flow" and "balance" and most of all: Function. Its model is a healthy self trimming hoof as we would find it in the wild.

This article also states:

When looking at statistics, we see that almost 85 percent of usually teenaged performance horses have to be retired (or worse) due to problems with their movement apparatus.

There's also a scary graph accompanying that scary statistic. Except the graph shows "Reasons for the destruction of domestic/performance horses", not just retirement. Also, the "almost 85%" column is for "Movement apparatus", which presumably includes feet, bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves, and is not headed "Shoeing induced destruction". There is no citation for the source of this graph so EoR can't confirm what the sample was, how large it was, where it was and so on. Were the figures collected from veterinarians, from slaughterhouses, or both? Many racehorses, for example, are destroyed because they aren't fast enough, not because they have any actual physical problem. Is that classed as "Movement apparatus", since there's no "Other" category listed? Statistics on horse slaughter are difficult to locate. The Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation provide a document on Wastage in the Australian Thoroughbred Racing Industry which points out that any of its findings are not necessarily applicable to other breeds and disciplines, nor even to Thoroughbreds in other countries (due to differences in training, management and racing). While many injury risk factors are considered (age, sex, exercise intensity and racetrack surface and condition), shoeing is not one of them.

Wikipedia has a contentious article on barefoot horses (when EoR visited its neutrality was under question - it was also full of assertions and almost devoid of citations). The Wikipedia article on horseshoe is more circumspect:

Horseshoes have always been viewed, even by professional farriers, as an aid to assist horses' hooves when subjected to the various unnatural conditions brought about by domestication, whether due to work conditions or stabling and management. Countless generations of domestic horses bred for size, color, speed, and many other traits with little regard for hoof quality and soundness make some breeds more dependent on horseshoes than feral mustangs, which develop strong hooves as a matter of natural selection. Nonetheless, domestic horses do not always require shoes. There is near-universal agreement among professionals that when possible, a barefoot hoof, at least for part of every year, is a healthy option for most horses. Farriers usually agree that some horses may even be able to go without shoes year-round, using temporary protection such as hoof boots for short-term use. However, farriers are equally adamant that horseshoes have their place and can help prevent excess or abnormal hoof wear and injury to the foot.

This is about more than just being barefoot, however. It's a whole (or is that "holistic"?) way of life:

Dr. Strasser developed a method of horse care, and not simply a style of trimming. This seems to be frequently overlooked, as many people try to compare her "method" to current styles of trimming - which are, indeed, simply man-made "styles" of trimming the exterior of a horse’s hoof. Dr. Strasser did not invent the parameters upon which her method is based. These parameters were invented by the horse himself, Equus Caballus. This species of animal has distinct biological needs, for both lifestyle and hoof form, in order to be healthy. Dr. Strasser compiled and outlined these needs, and developed her method based solely on this scientific basis. She is a veterinarian and researcher, and her work will have far reaching effects upon the world. What, then, is the Strasser Method? It is simply a system of caring for the domestic horse with natural lifestyle and physiologically correct hoof form. [...] Dr. Strasser’s parameters for trimming are a reflection of the natural horse, and were also not invented by her; however she is the first in modern times to aknowledge these parameters. Healthy, wild hooves demonstrate 30 degree hairlines, ground parallel coffin bones, and low heels. Coffin bone measurements show a consistent 45 degree angle on the front surface of a fore foot coffin bone, and 55 degrees on the front surface of a hind foot coffin bone.

Strangely, a 45 degree angle on the front hoof, and 55 degrees on the back hoof, are also part of "traditional" shoeing.

The slope of the toe at the wall varies with the conformation of the foot; it averages 45° to 50° on a fore-foot, and 50° to 55° on a hind-foot. [Colonel Reginald S Timmis, DSO: Modern Horse Management (Cassell and Company, London, 1949)]

Also, unlike a proper study, no failures of the Strasser Method are mentioned.

I had a recent email call for help from a woman who had purchased my HOOF-LINE and had a 10 year old horse that had recently gone barefoot because of farrier problems. ‘Horse coped fine barefoot, then had a Strasser trim, and went 3 legged lame a week later, refused to walk and had a digital pulse in off side fore. Vet was called. X-rays showed no bone movement, though did show slight pedal ostitis. Horse was put on 2 butes a day for week and improved significantly. Horse was Strasser trimmed again a couple of days ago and presented lame. I checked his feet with your HOOF-LINE and they measured up perfect. I have poulticed his foot. Should I put shoes back on him?' My answer to her was "Shoeing is not necessarily the answer. After your Strasser trim, is the hoof weight- bearing on the capsule or on the sole?" It was weight bearing on the sole. The poor horse! The horse should carry its weight evenly on the full hoof capsule with considerable frog pressure on the ground.

Other vets (who are not training students in their "method") are less didactic about shoeing:

In summary, many barefoot proponents have taken an extremist view that shoes and nails start the feet on a destructive road, purporting this belief without looking at the overall scientific and physiologic picture. There are advocates of the barefoot movement that claim through their research that applying shoes to the horse is detrimental and therefore all horses need to be barefoot. This research claims that nails placed in a horse's foot are toxic, that the bars in the heels should be removed as they impinge on the circulation and that all horses should be trimmed in the same specified manner. Yet I have never been able to find this research. I have never seen a scientific publication that states nails are toxic when placed in a horse's foot. If we think of the hoof capsule as a cone - one quickly sees the necessity of preserving the bars as they provide stability and allow the hoof capsule to expand which in turn allows the normal physiology of the foot to take place. Finally, if we consider the various breeds of horses, individual foot conformation, structures of the foot, phalangeal alignment, etc, it would appear highly unreasonable to trim all horses in the same manner. As all horses are not created equal, neither are their feet. Shoes have been known to cause lameness and change the hoof capsule; shoes have also been documented to treat lameness and improve the structures of the hoof. So when we decide whether a horse can be kept barefoot (and many can't), considering the variables involved, the answer may be "it depends".

This new method of horse foot care (based on wild horses) reminds EoR of the marvellous new method of horse foot care (based on wild horses) that was the Four Point Trim (does anybody else remember this?) which was the Next Big Thing that came along just before the Next Next Big Thing of Barefoot.

A lot of folks, both farriers and veterinarians, are advocating a system of trimming horses' feet that involves just enough science to sound plausible; however, on closer examination, the methodology requires belief in the horsy equivalent of the Tooth Fairy. [...] Basically, the so-called "four point trim" or "natural trim" is a reflection of the wear of horses' feet in abrasive environments, but such wear cannot be demonstrated to be a Good Thing. Trimming a horse a certain way because they will eventually wear their feet in that manner is just as logical as rasping off the rubber on one's tires because that's the way they'll eventually wear. [...] Every few years, somebody attempts to relate the feet of feral horses to those of domestic horses. [...] Unfortunately, the latest jumpers-on of the feral bandwagon have failed to see the forest for the trees. They point out that feral horses have box-like, semi-clubby feet with broken-out quarters and, since it occurs in feral ("wild") horses, they assume this represents "natural" wear and is thusly a Good Thing. Which is okay, until they attempt to extrapolate that data to domestic horses. It doesn't work that way. The so-called "four-point trim" is bad science for several reasons. A domestic horse, used under saddle, is required to carry as much as 20% of its body weight on its back. Furthermore, 60% to 65% of that added weight will be carried on the horse's front end; additionally, many domestic horses, both ridden and driven, are required to engage in forced, repetitious exercise. Since these factors are not considered, observations on the foot wear of feral horses without regard for the relationship of anatomical form to efficient function become meaningless because they cannot be logically applied to domestic horses.

As far as EoR can see, Dr Strasser's beliefs are:
  1. Horses have only been shod for the last thousand years or so, and were successfully used without shoes prior to that period

  2. Putting shoes on horses is not "natural"

  3. Shoeing is the source of all health problems in horses

  4. Horses should not be stabled for large periods every day, but allowed freedom of movement

Apart from what has already been mentioned, there are a few other points to address:
  1. How long horses have been shod is not relevant to whether shoeing causes harm or not (though the British Museum states the Romans used nailed horseshoes). Nor is there a lot of information about how "successful" horses were prior to shoeing - were is the data about when or if they broke down, or how long they survived?

  2. Not being "natural" is not the same as not necessary - humans don't "naturally" drive cars and such activity causes pollution, accidents and death. Does Dr Strasser refrain from driving?

  3. There is no evidence that shoeing causes the vast range of conditions that Dr Strasser claims.

  4. Horses should be cared for in an environment that accomodates, as closely as possible, their biological needs. One care system is not universal. Performance horses in Europe, for example, can be stabled for 23 hours a day. Such a system would be remarkably unusual in Australia. Is shoeing acceptable then in Australia?

And EoR hasn't even got on to Dr Strasser's belief that metal anywhere on the horse appears to be dangerous (Metal in the Mouth. The Abusive Effects of Bitted Bridles, W. Robert Cook & Hiltrud Strasser, 2002, or an online article by Dr Cook) or her followers idea that rugging horses is also dangerous (apparently rugs can raise the internal body temperature to possibly fatal levels, while not wearing a rug will not have the same effect in lowering the internal body temperature to possibly fatal levels). Though EoR is fascinated by the claim made in The Harmful Effects of Shoeing by Dr Strasser (for those interested, that article is pretty much the Sacred Text of the Barefoot movement):

Luca Bein, in his 1983 dissertation in Zurich, measured the shock absorption of barefoot, shod, and alternately shod horses. He concluded that a conventionally shod horse shows an absence of 60-80% of the hoof's natural shock absorption. He demonstrated that "a shod foot on asphalt at a walk receives THREE TIMES the impact force as an unshod horse on asphalt at the trot." Bein also found that a shoe vibrates at about 800 Hz, damaging living tissue.

This is perilously close to altie beliefs in "vibrational medicine", though in this case the vibrational effect is harmful (in passing, EoR wonders how the practitioners of such healing ensure that they don't also cause damage to tissue?). In fact, it's more than close to it. Here's another "alternative" vet, Sarah Wyche (more nominative determinism!) in Foot Balance (Horse and Rider, UK, September 1998):

The electrical energy of these collective processes flows in characteristic channels; like all electricity it flows to earth. One researcher has found that metal horse shoes oscillate at 800Hz. What effect this has on the natural and healthy flow of bio-energy is unknown, but logically, the less well-balanced the foot, the more the physical properties of the horseshoe must interfere with these bioenergetic currents. Harmonising the flow of bioenergy is the principle of many alternative therapies, in particular acupuncture.

In fact, there's nothing logical about any of that. "Harmonising the flow of bioenergy" is a meaningless statement, even if it does sound sort of, you know, nice. In fact, it is the metal shod hoof that would have a better flow of "bioenergy" to the earth. Read that statement again, but replace "bioenergy" with "fairy dust". It's just as meaningful.

EoR was unable to locate any evidence of the "dissertation" by Luca Bein, other than repeated references on Barehoof sites. Luca Bein is now a South African winemaker. According to this forum post:

I spoke to Dr. Bein and his wife back in Feb or March [2005]. He is a wine maker in South Africa now afrer retiring from vet practice. I asked about his study showing that shoes cause damaging vibes, and he said that the barefoot only crowd has taken things out of context, and that he suports proper horseshoeing.

So why are the Barefoot Brigade still using him as a poster boy?

Of course, if you choose to follow the Barefoot movement, you should not trust any farrier who wears shoes. EoR also assumes that Dr Strasser and her followers also do not use any form of footwear. Humans evolved to be barefoot. Shoes (and even worse, some people wear clogs!) are restrictive of the foot's normal movement and action. We can see this most clearly in the example of Chinese footbinding. Having heels (or, worse, high heels) dramatically alters the function and forces applied to the limbs leading to all sorts of muscoskeletal problems and dis-ease. Just ask a chiropracter.

The arguments are just as applicable to humans as to horses. EoR suspects, however, that they will have various excuses from actually applying the argument fully.

Dr Strasser has a website in German. The English website is for promotion of merchandise only, and mercifully free of any scientific content whatsoever (unless you class "homeopathics" as scientific). Though you can buy bumper stickers there.

In conclusion, here's Tom Stovall, CJF again:

I have several times suggested a simple test of the efficacy of these claims relative to the veterinary application of Strasser's system involving a horse diagnosed with navicular syndrome and shod with bar shoes, only to be met with specious arguments claiming that it is somehow "better" for a horse to endure the pain of various pathologies affecting the foot (e.g., founder, navicular syndrome, P3 fractures, pedal osteitis, articular ringbone, etc.), instead of having the
pathology treated, or the pain associated with the pathology palliated, by mechanical means. Any competent farrier can easily demonstrate the efficacy of various traditional methods of mechanical treatment/palliation because horses shod with such devices become lame without them. When one considers that the pain of some incurable, insidious pathologies can be readily palliated by traditional farriery to such a degree that the horse is pain free for years, Dr. Strasser's credo of, "no horse needs shoeing", becomes an indictment of her hypotheses. [...] In terms of objectively quantified biomechanical efficiency, the current practice of shoeing/not shoeing horses according to the individual's needs and the dictates of their environment is clearly superior to the concept of "barefoot is best". When barefoot horses start outrunning shod horses, jumping higher, or pulling more weight, then an objective observer might begin to believe some of the claims emanating from the barefoot camp. Until then, a horse owner would be well advised to relegate the claims of the "barefootedness" bunch to the muck pile - along with gallium nitrate, magnetic doodads, Cytek, and all the other flim-flam scams that exist without scientific basis on the fringes of the industry.

Some horses need shoeing, some don't. Simple as that.


  1. I notice Barefoot missionary Jamie Jackson has a wiki entry which claims feral horses were even longer lived than domestic horses. Estimating age of horses after middle-age can be unreliable, and those grazed open-range appear relatively older because of wear on the teeth. So I'd like to know how he knows, but there's no citation offered.

    The idea of toughening up of the hoof by frequent trimming seems odd. You'd have to be pounding the feet for hours a day. To do things properly, really naturally, you'd better treat your horse to an overseas holiday in the Urals.

    I support EoR's challenge for the Barefoot movement to go barefoot themselves.

  2. No, you don't need to pound the hooves for hours a day or need a holiday in the Urals. You need to run the horse on rough ground...and bluestone gravel around the water troughs works a treat.

    My name is Rebecca Scott. I'm a barefoot trimmer. I don't trim in the STRASSER style. I agree, it lames horses and keeps them lame. I've ridden hundreds of kilometres in endurance competition barefoot. Not booted. Barefoot. I don't have a problem with boots though, because I can see how the horse's hoof can function (expand and contract) in boots.

    I'm happy to debate this topic with anybody but prefer to do so with REAL people who will put their own names to their point of view. For more information about me or my views on barefooting horses you can go to my website which is

    As for the challenge for humans to go barefoot. I think that ignores the differences between equine and human physiology. Horses evolved very differently from humans. They have different gastro intestinal digestion, four not two legs, totally different circulatory systems et al.

    Anyway, if you want to chat about this further you can email me thru the website.

    - Rebecca

  3. There are a couple of things I should have added. I'll do so here.

    (1) There is some science to support the barefoot approach. Try JAMES ROONEY (DVM) "On Lameness". This is a text used in uni vet science faculties around the world. Rooney is considered an authority on lameness.

    James Rooney. DVM writing in “The Lame Horse”

    You have probably guessed that I am an advocate of the barefooted horse.That's the way he was made; that's the way he should go. All too little attention has been paid to that “natural” foot. Certain ideas have developed over the centuries as to what the foot should look like and too many feet are forced into that mould.” Pp 135

    Talking about screwdriver fractures or major lesions of the proximal phalanx:

    “Obviously, this type of fracture is seen with slippery, wet going. It may be more common in England, for example, than in the US because English horses work and race on turf, and wet turf is slippery. In Newmarket, England, one of the favourite training gallops is a lovely stretch of heath called the Limekilns because the soil is a porous, rapidly drying limestone. The veterinary surgeons and trainers know that after a dry spell followed by a light evening rain, horses training on the Limekilns in the morning are liable to fracture the proximal phalanx. The limestone soil dries quickly; the light rain moistens the grass, and a slippery surface is created. Add to this the rolling, uphill nature of certain sections of the gallop, and screwdriver fractures become virtually a way of life. It is sadly true that training these horses barefoot would markedly decrease the incidence of screwdriver fractures because slipping would be largely avoided.” Pp 104

    “The best shoe for a horse is no shoe at all.The only reason for putting on shoes is to prevent excessive wearing of the bearing surface of the hoof wall. The horse left to his own devices and nature will grow hoof wall at a rate commensurate with the rate of wearing. If the surface is very hard, the hoof wall toughens to decrease the rate of wear. All that is built into the horse system.” Pp 242

    (2) At one stage in the 17th Century, Galileo Galilei was persecuted for his research and dissemination of the fact (but it was regarded as heresy back then) that the earth revolved around the sun. The research and ideas surrounding this were suppressed by the Catholic church. Of course we all know now that Galileo was correct. I think there is an analogy here.

    (3) All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. - Arthur Schopenhauer
    German philosopher (1788 - 1860)

    - Rebecca Scott (

  4. @rebecca: Are you saying Dr Rooney opposes shoeing altogether, like the anti-shoing brigade?

    EoR isn't sure what the difference in equine and human gastro-intestinal tracts and functioning (not that different, actually) and "different circulatory system" (different how?) affects locomotion. You may be surprised that humans evolved to go barefoot also. Any form of (human) shoe affects the footfall and gait pattern and is, ergo, altering evolution and nature. Humans would be better off without shoes.

    EoR agrees that there are reasons to shoe, as well as reasons not to shoe. Each case is different. A dogmatic approach, as the anti-shoeing brigade presents, is a form of blind fundamentalism.

    The Galileo Gambit you posit is wrong and irrelevant, and does your argument a disservice.

    Misquoting Schopenhauer doesn't make that statement correct, or prove that the quoter has the "truth". Schopenhauer also said "Women are suited to being the nurses and teachers of our earliest childhood precisely because they themselves are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children, their whole lives long" (Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms, Penguin Books 1970 p81). Do you also support that as a "truth"?


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