The why’s and how’s
I get a lot of questions as to why my guy is barefoot and what that transition looked like for him. I have FINALLY gotten around to doing a blog post with all the juicy details! So buckle up because I’m going to explain all there is to know about our story.
My first dabble into the barefoot world was an experiment. I was hoping to help improve Charlie’s proprioception in the hind limbs because he was a little bit ‘trippy’. I also saw that he had low under run heels, which can be a problem for some thoroughbreds. I started reading up on the matter and in my research I learned that the bare hoof is an excellent proprioceptive mechanism for the horse. I also read some Pete Ramey articles which talked a lot about the diet of the barefoot horse and how to help with heel growth. In order to help combat under run heels there is a strategy in which you rasp mm of the hoof/toe every other day or so in order to help promote caudal hoof growth. I made a point of learning how to do this and immediately started implementing this into our routine for Charlie’s recently bare hind hooves. Sure enough a couple months down the road I thought I was starting to notice a little more heel.
Pictured below are comparison photos: the left being just after we pulled the hind shoes (notice the nail holes) and the right photo was a good 8 months or so into our journey. These changes are not fast by any means.
After I got over the shock of the chipping while the nail holes grew out, I really felt like we were thriving with our hind bare feet. Charlie didn’t show any signs of discomfort and after the initial chips we didn’t have any other problems. I stuck to my routine of rasping the toes every so often and was very pleased with how things were going. I also started him on a trace mineral supplement (california trace).
Fast forward about a year. I started eyeing Charlie’s front hooves. I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on but something didn’t look right to me. His feet looked a bit cramped.. smaller than I had remembered them. Like they weren’t fitting into his shoes properly. I started digging through my phone and found an old picture of his R front. Sure enough that foot had gone DOWN a shoe size within the last year.
Photos L to R: remedial shoeing, photo showing contracted heel (L front), comparison photos showing larger shoe size in comparison to smaller shoe/hoof size one year later (R front).
So now that I had validated that I wasn’t crazy or just seeing things, I got to business trying to figure out what could be done. I spoke with my farrier about my concerns. I was noticing contracted heels, an unhealthy looking frog, a deeper central sulcus groove, under run heels and high/low syndrome. These problems were concerning to me because Charlie had already had an issue with some suspensory desmitis. I had my theories as to how much of that was caused by his feet. I knew that any imbalance or deep rooted issue with the feet could potentially cause ongoing problems in the distal limb/tendons/ligaments/navicular etc. We tried 2 cycles of corrective shoeing in an effort to try and let the heels expand. I noticed no difference, so in somewhat of a panic I decided I wanted the shoes gone before any more damage was done. I figured worse case scenario I could always put them back on.
This time around was a little more daunting. More weight is carried on the forehand so it can be less of a seamless transition when pulling shoes up front. I ordered a pair of scoot boots to help with the process which helped immensely. There was some initial chipping when the nail holes grew out, just like with the hinds. I also determined that at this point I was in a little over my head and I just wasn’t getting the proper support that I needed from my farrier. After all, I single handedly found these issues and had to push to have them addressed in the first place. So I decided to find myself a proper barefoot trimmer. Someone who exclusively trims barefoot horses and could help set us up for success.
Fast forward almost a year and we have some very obvious changes!
Improvements consisted of: widening of the heel bulbs, healthier frog and central sulcus, Improved growth patters and angles.
I plan on redoing radiographs this year so I can document the difference of the angles of internal structures as well as any changes in sole thickness.
A couple things that play a big part in the barefoot process besides just the intermittent rasping that I do and the monthly trims from my barefoot trimmer, are diet and turnout. Too much sugar in the horse’s diet can cause an inflammatory response which means sensitivity in the hoof. Horses that are barefoot also need to have access to varied terrain as they would in nature. This helps to build a strong and sturdy hoof. It can be tricky at first, using your judgement to try and determine when the hoof needs protection. In the beginning, I alternated every other ride using my scoot boots (USE CODE: abequine for a discount when ordering your pair). I wanted to expose Charlie’s hooves to harder ground, but I also wanted to make sure that we weren’t doing too much too fast. There was also a learning curve with figuring out what type of trim kept him most comfortable. This was mostly up to my trimmer to figure out, as I only do the bare minimum when it comes to rasping.
By no means has this process been quick or without tribulations. Just like anything else in the horse world it takes dedication and patience to do it right. I felt like this was the best solution for my horse so I was determined to make it work. I feel he is in a great place right now with his feet. We still have a bit of chipping here and there, but it’s nothing a little rasping can’t fix!
The Equine Spine and Core Engagement
I’ve seen this photo circulating around social media recently so I figured I’d weigh in with some thoughts I have…
The information that goes along with this photo is far more valuable than the photo itself. In the study that this photo is from, radiographs were taken of the equine spine in both the engaged and neutral position. In this instance, engagement was achieved by asking the horse for a pelvic tilt or ‘butt tuck’. You can clearly see that there is an obvious change in the amount of space between the dorsal spinous processes in each photo. In the study that was done at U.C. Davis, it showed up to almost double (WOW!) the amount of space between the dorsal spinous processes when there was muscle engagement vs. a neutral spine position. The mid thoracic part of the spine was the area that showed the largest spatial increase between the vertebrae, which is also the most common area where kissing spine is present. This is KEY information to have in terms of rehabbing and also towards preventative care!
So what happens when the horse does not have the musculature to support the rider in a biomechanically sound way?
- The horse goes around unengaged-hollow through the back which can cause overriding dorsal spinous processes or ‘kissing spines’.
- Commonly I will see underdevelopment of primary muscle groups needed for organic movement/engagement and overdevelopment of secondary muscle groups due to ‘training aids’- this results in compensatory movement patterns, putting strain on joints, tendons, ligaments.
- In addition, the horse who does not have proper supporting musculature will bend to the rider’s hands resulting in hyperflexion of the neck. This can then lead to issues with the poll, TMJ, soft tissue damage, airway obstruction and depending on the severity, sometimes bony remodeling of the of the cervical vertebrae or mandible will be present.
These are just a few common examples, but the bottom line is, when the horse does not have the musculature to support the rider and the job he’s been given, it creates a myriad of problems – almost all of which result in the horse’s body breaking down.
When building the musculature to support the position of the spine (engagement)-so that you are imposing the least amount of wear and tear on the horse’s musculoskeletal system- you HAVE to factor in that whatever you’re doing WILL NOT be as effective if you have a rider on the horse’s back. That being said, as riders and owners what can we do to best set our horses up for success?
Well for starters, get used to the idea of working with your horse from the ground. No, this does not have to be all the time, but don’t be afraid to give your horse’s back a break.
An easy way to do this is through dynamic mobilization exercises that focus on core engagement. Things you will need to know:
- Which exercises engage what muscles
- What the proper body mechanics/positioning is
- How often they should be done
- How to take the horse through the mobilization
I outline these specifics in my ebook ‘Stretching & strengthening, a comprehensive guide for the everyday horse person’.
Some other useful techniques can include groundwork that focuses on building the proper musculature without restrictive training aids.
- Lunge work with poles
- Equicore system
- Hill work
- Working with obstacles/proprioception work
- Hydrotherapy/water treadmill
It may be an unpopular opinion, but taking the time to set your horse up for success on the ground WILL contribute to your horse’s soundness and longevity. After all, these are our partners and if we are asking them to learn something new or to perform a job they wouldn’t normally do in nature- we should prepare them to do so as best as we can!
Have you ever wondered what you should be feeding your horse or why? These are a few simple guidelines I like to stick to.
First let’s do a quick overview of the horse’s digestive system (don’t worry I’ll keep it simple). In order for the horse’s GI tract to run smoothly, it needs to operate as similarly as it does in nature. This means almost 24/7 foraging, grazing, eating. The horse in nature produces copious amounts of saliva from chewing all day. This saliva plays an important role in diluting gastric acid in the stomach. The horse in nature is also rarely hungry because they are free to roam all day in search of new food sources. This means the gut is always full, providing the horse with plenty of energy and hydration. When we take the horse out of nature and put it in a stall for half of the day or more, we are upsetting the balance. In order to compensate for this we have to tailor their feed routines delicately.
- This means small amounts of grain at a time
- Measured exercise and turnout so they can maintain movement in their routine
- As much access to hay and forage as possible
- Added supplements if necessary
When looking at choosing a grain for your horse there are a couple things I like to look for. The first and foremost is the amount of fiber in the feed. Since the domesticated horse is not spending the majority of their day eating, providing a high fiber diet is the next best thing we can do for them. Fiber takes a long time to break down in the horse’s hindgut. While the hindgut is full of fiber, it’s providing a supply for the body to derive energy and hydration from. Unlike feeds with high sugar content, a high fiber diet is more of a ‘slow burn’ digestion which is healthier for the horse. In grains with high sugar content you may notice your horse has bursts (or outbursts) of energy, almost like a ‘sugar high’.
A feed with high fiber content is also likely to keep your horse feeling full longer. A horse that is hungry is more likely to develop boredom behaviors like
- Chewing on wood, fencing etc.
- Exhibiting food aggression
- Behavioral issues
The second thing I look for in a grain is added iron. Excess iron in the horse’s diet is a huge No-No for me. Too much iron in the horse’s system can contribute to immune issues, laminitis, liver problems, insulin resistance and other metabolic issues. There is no substantial way for the horse to excrete excess iron from their system aside from blood loss. Most horses, even domesticated ones, consume all the iron they need naturally. This comes from water, soil, forage etc. There should be no need to supplement added iron to your horse’s diet. Surprisingly though, you will notice that feed companies do this often (why?!).
Thirdly, it is incredibly important to provide your horse with as much forage as possible. If you are able to supply all the nutrition your horse needs from just hay and turnout then this is an ideal situation. Most performance horses require additional nutritional elements so this is not always an option. However, providing hay/forage around the clock is best. Like previously mentioned, keeping the horse’s gut full is the optimum way for it to function.
** Keep in mind theses are very basic guidelines for the horse who has no specific dietary needs or restrictions.
I Believe Introductions Are In Order
That horse girl blood runs deep, as we all know.
My story probably isn’t much different than a lot of other horse girls. Obsessed from an early age (I’m almost positive its genetic at this point). Something in my DNA just had horses on the brain 24/7 and I could never let them go. See photographic evidence below.
I grew up somewhat out in the country. The area where we lived was pretty undeveloped at the time, not too far away from Ocala (which is the horse mecca of Florida). I had a neighbor who lived across the street and she just so happened to have a decent amount of acreage, a barn and some retired polo ponies. By the time I was 8 I was exchanging barn chores for time in the saddle. I’d walk over to her farm in the morning, feed the chickens, try not to get chased around by the goats and take care of the horses. I grew up mucking stalls, picking hooves and giving endless baths only to turn the horses out and watch them undo all my hard work (That part still hasn’t changed). I’m a strong believer that some of the best values and character traits are learned in the barn. There is not a more responsible kid than the one that has horses under their care.
By the time I hit my teens I was a working student for my trainer. I absorbed anything and everything I could from her. I was lucky in the sense that she was, in my opinion, one of the most respectable horse women around. Her morals and work ethic were second to none. Her riding was like watching magic. She wasn’t fancy by any means. There was not the luxury of a high end barn. She would show up in her jeans and boots, but the second she got in that saddle the rhythm between her and whatever she was riding was completely in sync. I envied it. In my eyes she was the horse whisperer. I don’t think a lot of kids can tell that same story.
We didn’t have enough money to own a horse, or maybe that’s just a lie my parents told me because they knew better. I took lessons here and there and picked up rides where I could. The barn slowly but surely became the only extracurricular activity I had. I wanted nothing more than to own my own horse. I dreamt of endless green pastures, fence lines, growing my own carrots to feed said imaginary future horses. I was obsessed. No simpler way to put it.
I ended up taking a break from riding once I got to the age where work, school and bills took priority. I got acquainted with adulthood and all that comes with it. But the obsession never left. I would always think to myself, “If I could just be around horses all day I’d be happy.” Fast forward a few years and I was back in the saddle. I found a local barn and leased a wonderful little mare there for about a year. I was finally able to purchase my own horse in April 2019. Charlie is off the track thoroughbred who has had quite the story of his own. He’s proven to be somewhat of a little case study for me, but that’s a post for another day.
This horse girl finally got her wish and although it costs me a lot emotionally, financially and physically, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Let’s talk about saddles
If there is one thing you should take away from this post, it would be that I implore you to ask questions. I think a healthy dose of skepticism can go a long way in this world. Often times we find ourselves not wanting to speak up or be the squeaky wheel. I think in the equestrian world, saddle fit is one of those things most riders feel out of place addressing. Due to no fault of our own, we are under the influence from an early age to believe that saddle fit is not that big of a deal. Our first real exposure to saddles/tack was probably an old lesson horse at the barn. Most likely that horse was ridden in a hand me down saddle that was never fitted to him and probably wasn’t periodically checked or reflocked. No one tells you that horses need to have saddles fitted, checked often and why.
Most riders know the basic anatomy of a horse but hardly any of them could tell you where the scapula is, where the trapezius muscle is located, or what the full range of motion of the shoulder should look like. Even trainers for that matter have limited knowledge on the subject. I’ve dealt with multiple trainers that are guilty of incorrect saddle placement, impeding shoulder movement of the horse. I would even go as far to say that most of the horses that I treat with reoccurring back pain, are triggered from an ill fitting saddle.
As horse owners we don’t want to hear that our saddle is the problem. It was an investment worth thousands of dollars that a ‘fitter’ aka saddle rep, informed us was a good match and would last for years! This is simply not true. While the saddle may be a good fit initially, your horse’s body is always changing. They lose weight, gain weight, they may have changes in their gait, they build muscle, their anatomy evolves over time. It’s madness to think that a saddle will fit your horse for the entirety of its career needing no modifications, even if it is custom. I urge you to include an independent saddle fitter, body worker, massage therapist, equine physio or someone in the field with extensive knowledge on equine musculature and anatomy when making a decision in purchasing a saddle AND to perform regular fitting checks on your existing saddle. An ill fitting saddle can cause irreparable damage to your horse both physically and mentally.
- Damaged sweat glands due to misdirected pressure
- Vertebral ligament damage
- Rubbing of the spinous processes (kissing spines)
- Subluxation of lumbar vertebrae
- Chipping of the scapular cartilage
- Damage to the dorsal ligament
- Blisters or permanent scarring from rubbing
- Muscular atrophy
- Irregular muscle development
- Nerve damage
- Psychological damage
- Behavioral issues
I’d like to point out that saddle reps don’t always have a great understanding of the horse’s anatomy. They may not even be a rider themselves! The first time I met with a saddle rep for an exclusive brand I felt immense pressure to buy from them. They have an agenda. That agenda is to sell you a saddle. The longevity of your horse’s health and musculature is not part of their checklist. Will they check basic saddle fit? yes of course. But the fact remains that not all brands fit horses the same. There are subtle differences. Just because a medium tree fits your horse in one brand does not mean another brand in the same size will fit just as well. A saddle rep for a specific company will NEVER tell you that another brand will fit your horse better than the brand they are employed by. It will simply never happen.
There are numerous negative effects that an ill fitting saddle can impose on your horse! Don’t just buy the fancy brand because your trainer is sponsored or all of your friends at the barn have one. Ask questions, educate yourself on what to look for and what will fit you and your horse best. If possible seek out an independent fitter who will have an unbiased opinion. You are saving yourself and your horse pain and potential lameness in doing so!
Massage for your horse of course!
There are several kinds of people in the horse world. You have those who go above and beyond for their horse, spending every cent they have on the necessities plus more. Their horse’s stall is decked out with stuffed animals, jolly balls, apple licks, salt blocks…you name it they’ve got it! We all know the type. Then you have the opposite end of the spectrum. The horse owners who don’t believe in hand feeding treats. The ones who are perfectly comfortable having their horses live outside 24/7 (I’m sure just reading that is making some of you nervous). Lastly, we come to the inbetweeners. Those of us who fall into a healthy medium of the other two categories. Now the point of my preface is not to shame either of these groups. To each their own…c’est la vie! I am here to educate. No matter what type of horse owner you are or what practices you believe in, that massage therapy IS beneficial for your horse. It is NOT an over the top luxury only for the eccentric and elite.
Let’s start by making a few healthy comparisons so that we can put ourselves in our horse’s shoes. I think we can all agree that most of the time we are asking our horses to do things that they wouldn’t normally do in nature. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a horse take a break from grazing to piaffe just for fun. Nor have I ever seen one passage over to the water trough and proceed to jump a 1.30 meter course in their spare time. For the most part, horses in nature spend the majority of their time grazing, traveling and sleeping with the occasional burst of energy.
That being said, we have to assume that these extraneous activities we’re asking our horses to perform put unnatural stress on their bodies. So what do these stressors look like?
- Muscle tension
- Strained ligaments
- Wear and tear of the hooves
- Mental stress
- Joint deterioration
- Affected energy levels
- Fascial restrictions
- GI issues
- Muscular atrophy
…. Just to name a few
So where does massage come in?
Everything in the horse’s body is connected. Every muscle works together to perform an action. Even the tiniest bit of tension in a muscle or restriction in the fascia can lead to problems with performance & under saddle. Massage therapy does for the horse what it cannot do for itself. We are manually manipulating the muscle tissue to release the tensional patterns that have become embedded within. Whether it be with acupressure, trigger point therapy, stretching, myofascial release etc. these are all modalities that can be used to treat muscular & structural issues in the horse. We can reset the negative ‘muscle memory’ in the equine body to improve performance and prevent tensional patterns from reoccurring.
Do you have a horse with sticky lead changes? Massage can fix that. Is your horse short strided? Massage can fit that. Do you have a horse that is ‘cold-backed’? Massage can fix that.
Massage & bodywork for your horse is more than just a gentle feel good rub down. We are making changes on the cellular level within their bodies. Bodywork positively impacts circulation, elasticity, joint mobility, demeanor, performance and lymphatic flow. Bodywork for your horse will not only help you achieve your performance goals with your partner but also increase their longevity!
Get your horse the massage… trust me, they deserve it!
Myofascial Release….what is it?
Most horse owners have little to no understanding of the practices used in the human massage industry and how they translate into treatments used for horses. I find the two worlds to be extremely parallel (being a licensed practitioner for both people and horses). One of the shared modalities used to treat both humans and equines is myofascial release (MFR). To understand the treatment of myofascial release, it is incredibly beneficial for you to first understand what fascia is and how it works.
Fascia is the three dimensional connective tissue that runs throughout the horse’s entire body. You may have heard an explanation comparing fascia to the layer of white fibrous ’tissue’ that lies beneath the orange’s rind. The comparison is meant to create a visual of how extensive the fascia really is.
Fascia in the equine body encompasses every organ, juncture, bone, muscle, nerve…and pretty much anything else you can think of. It creates a type of framework that stabilizes, supports and absorbs. If there is a fascial restriction present, this in turn can put stress and pressure on other areas of the body. Seems important right?
Fascial restrictions in your horse can cause pain, neuropathy, decreased circulation, muscular atrophy, decreased flexibility, structural changes, decreased stamina, changes in gait and movement, and even weight loss. To put it in layman’s terms, fascial restrictions cause somewhat of a ripple effect in the body.
So what exactly causes these fascial restrictions anyway?
- Repetitive movements
- Ill fitting tack
- Overwork/overuse of muscle groups
- An unbalanced rider
- Poor footing or shoeing
- Direct trauma or injury
- Compensatory movement patterns
- Forced unnatural muscular positioning (abusing training aids)
These are some of the common stressors that can cause fascial restrictions in the horse’s body.
Getting to the Root of it
Have you ever experienced a stubborn knot in your back or shoulder that just won’t go away no matter what you do? Do you ever notice that eventually your posture starts to compensate for said, ever lasting knot? This is because you have a fascial restriction.
The same concept applies to your horse! Perhaps you had the chiro out to adjust your horse and after the treatment you had a few good rides before your horse was no longer supple going to the left. This is because the fascial restriction is still present. Tension among the soft tissue structures such as muscles, fascia, tendons and ligaments are contributing factors to bony misalignments or subluxations. You must target the soft tissue to obtain a lasting result. This is where Myofascial Release (MFR) plays a huge role. During an MFR treatment, the therapist targets the fascial restrictions, treating the cause rather than the symptom. MFR is meant to be a non-invasive, deep rooted treatment producing long lasting results.
Hopefully this helped to shed some light on the concept of fascia, restrictions and the accompanying treatment methods!