Keeping horses barefoot is gaining in popularity because of the benefits in hoof health and movement it can provide some horses.

Barefoot hoof trimming is designed to maximize the biomechanical efficiency of hoof function. It is favoured among horse owners who prefer more natural management of their equine companions.

When the barefoot hoof is in contact with the ground, blood flow increases within the hoof because the heel can expand in an unrestricted manner. In contrast, shoes prevent the natural expansion within the hoof capsule that occurs with ground contact.

Horses with barefoot hooves may develop a deeper digital cushion and thicker sole in comparison to those that are shod.

Because of these and other changes in their hooves, concussive energy is more sufficiently dissipated within the hoof rather than being transmitted into soft tissues and bony structures.

Transitioning horses to barefoot takes time. Working in conjunction with a certified trimmer and veterinarian is recommended to facilitate a successful transition.

Equine Hoof Anatomy

The equine hoof is a living organ that is designed to flex and absorb shock. It contains several structures that synergistically work together to enable movement of the foot.

Equine Hoof Anatomy Graphic | Mad Barn Canada

The hoof capsule protects the coffin bone, also referred to as the pedal bone or P3. This capsule consists of highly vascular soft tissues on the inside (the corium).

The outermost layer of the hoof structure is comprised of a hard wall that protects the inner tissues including the laminae (laminar layers) of the foot. This outer layer also includes the sole of the hoof which protects the inner structures.

Multiple structures of the hoof are responsible for absorbing the impact of the hoof hitting the ground. They work together to distribute these concussive forces to prevent stress in the joints.

The frog, a soft pad located on the centre of the hoof sole, reduces shock forces within the hoof.

The digital cushion is a tough, fibrous structure that also absorbs concussive energy. When bearing weight, the heels and bars of the hoof expand in a sideways direction to facilitate additional shock absorption.

Barefoot Trimming

Attaching shoes to the equine foot to protect the hoof capsule is a centuries-old practice carried out since at least 400 B.C.

Most competition and pleasure horses are shod with shoes made of metal or another dense material to protect hooves from damage, provide support to the foot, and provide optimal traction.

Recently, there has been a trend among owners and riders to keep horses barefoot instead of shod.

Proponents of barefoot hoof care regimes believe this approach stimulates better hoof growth because the hoof in its natural state makes direct contact with the ground surface that horses are working or performing on.

Barefoot proponents believe that the sole of a horse’s foot reflects his or her health status.

According to barefoot trimming experts, a healthy equine foot should exhibit a slight concavity. This is naturally achieved if the epidermal and dermal layers of the hoof laminae are tightly connected. [1]

A barefoot trim, also referred to as a physiological trim, aims to promote healthy hoof development. This hoof care regime typically involves trimming the bars and walls of the hoof above the live sole and blending any flares in the hoof. Loose or dead material on the sole and the frog are also removed.

Hooves trimmed according to barefoot methods are bevelled on the bottom edge of the hoof wall to create a mustang roll. This roll on the edge allows for the hoof to easily break over the ground when contact is made.

Research

Research studies have examined the functional and morphological differences between shod and barefoot hooves. Multiple differences have been observed.

One study investigated the effects of barefoot trimming on hoof morphology in seven horses over a 16-month period. Morphology was measured with lateral, dorsal, and solar view photographs and lateromedial radiographs taken at 0, 4, and 16 months. [2]

Bevelling the toe and involving the frog and bars in the weight-bearing function of the hoof resulted in the elevation of the heel angle and the angle of the pedal bone in relation to the sole.

Researchers concluded these changes may be beneficial in treating under-run heels and achieving an optimal angle of the pedal bone. [2]

A separate study of 98 shod and 69 barefoot-managed hooves showed significantly fewer underrun heels, steeper heel angles, wider heels, increased splaying, increased flaring, and larger frog size compared to the hooves of shod horses. [3]