An Interview with The Animal Behaviorist

I readily admit it: although I arguably have a large and diverse set of skills, I’m certainly no animal behaviorist. But as I’ve told students for many, many years, the smart person is not the one who knows everything about a particular subject, but rather is the one who knows where to find the right answers to his or her questions about the subject.

Dr. Bruce Nock is the person I turn to for those right answers about training and behavior. As an animal behaviorist and scientist with a research career spanning over 40 years, Bruce is the type of experienced, “data-driven” resource I can count on to give me unbiased and scientifically accurate information. I find that particularly important in the horse world, where incorrect theories and a general misunderstanding of the science of animal training seem to flourish. So please consider participating with Bruce and me in our upcoming Facebook Live Event discussion of animal behavior and training – I know you won’t be disappointed!

Calories 101 – Part 2: How Much Should I Feed?

UPDATE: I happened across some new information on approximating current and ideal (target) body weight based on research done at the University of Minnesota. Because they use different formulae for different body types, their method appears to yield more precise approximations than previous methods, so my advice would now be to use their method to determine the target weight for your horse. You can find a description of their research and method here; note they also have an app available for Apple and Android devices at a minimal cost. I decided to create my own MS Excel-based calculator using their formulae that can be used or downloaded from here at no cost. Here’s a preview –

Humorous as Jared Lee’s cartoon may be, the overweight horse is genuinely at risk for increased health and performance problems. Overheating, poor performance, and metabolic disorders are all common consequences of excess body fat, causing discomfort, pain, and even loss of use for your horse, plus costly vet bills, headache, and heartache for you as the owner.

In Calories 101 – Part 1, we looked at several methods for estimating a horse’s current and target weights, and calculated the total number of calories necessary for maintaining a horse’s ideal body weight. And now, equipped with that necessary information, we can next take on the task of planning a proper diet for your horse. But first, I want to reiterate that I’m not an equine nutritionist; I’m merely a guy with an extensive math background who understands and can explain how to do the well-established calculations necessary for the task at hand! For advice about specific nutrients and nutrient ratios, please consult an equine nutritionist – ideally (in my opinion), one at a university, who’s not likely to be employed by the feed or supplement industries, to minimize the possibility of any specific product biases. So let’s get started!

First of all, absolutely everything in diet calculations is measured by weight. Not flakes, scoops, coffee cans, bales, pudding containers, or anything else volume-related. Weight. Period. So you’ll need some reasonably-accurate method of weighing out forage and feed. Yes, we could do some get-it-in-the-ballpark volume-based “guesstimating,” and possibly get within a factor of 2 by the time we figure out the actual amounts to feed, but why knowingly add to the already-present inaccuracies in horse weight and exercise estimations? You’ll need probably two different scales – a small platform-style scale (like a kitchen or postage scale) to weigh feed, and a hanging scale (like a fish scale) with a bag or hay net to measure forage.

When we talk about things that go in your horse’s mouth, it’s important to understand the difference in calories between what we’re actually feeding the horse, known as as-fed basis, and the values listed on any sort of analysis, called dry matter basis. The idea is a simple one: Everything your horse eats contains some amount of moisture. Whether it’s cured hay, with a relatively small water content of around 8 – 13%, or grass pasture, with much higher moisture values of 60% or more, that water needs to be accounted for in any calculations. So for an apples-to-apples comparison, dry matter basis is the way to go!

Our calorie estimations depend on two numbers listed in an analysis: the digestible energy (DE), which is a measure of the number of megacalories per pound in the sample, and the percentage of dry matter (% Dry Matter) present in the sample. For example, suppose my hay sample analysis results state that all figures are on a dry matter basis, and list a DE (Digestible Energy) of 1.000 Mcal/Lb. and a % Dry Matter of 90.000. Since the DE on my report is listed as a dry matter basis figure (in other words, with no water), but what I actually feed contains water, I need to do a bit of math to figure out how many calories are in a pound of what I’m actually feeding. First of all, 1.000 Mcal is equal to 1,000 calories; we have to multiply by 1,000 (i.e. move the decimal point 3 places to the right) to convert megacalories to kilocalories, which are what we usually refer to as just “calories.” Next, we have to multiply the calories by the % Dry Matter to figure out how many calories are in an as-fed pound of hay, so 1,000 × 0.90 = 900 calories per pound. The easy way to help remember that you need to multiply rather than divide is that the as-fed calories will always be lower than the dry matter calories. And now I know how many calories are in a pound of my hay!

So we’ll begin by talking about how to plan a diet using already-provided average values for forage and feed, and then we’ll describe how to properly collect and prepare a forage sample for actual laboratory analysis. And this seems like an appropriate time to mention my general approach to feeding horses.

As with hoof care, I believe our feeding perspective should emulate nature’s process of feeding feral horses in their aboriginal environment to the extent possible. Even though our horses’ energy (calorie) needs may at times exceed those of the feral horse, what they eat and the method of delivering it can still be consistent with nature’s methods. By doing so, we can minimize or even eliminate most of the feeding-related problems; laminitis, choke, insulin-related metabolic issues, and colic are all examples of conditions most properly-fed horses rarely suffer from. So keep this in mind as I describe the diet planning.

The table below lists the average DE and % Dry Matter values for some of the most common forages and grains, including fresh forages like grass pasture. These values come from a fabulous and absolutely free resource: Dairy One’s Interactive Feed Composition Libraries. While not every possible thing you might want to feed your horse can be found in their libraries, most typical items – and even some seemingly-odd ones (for horse people) like fresh pineapple forage – are definitely provided! And, being the nice guy that I am, I’ve calculated the As-Fed Basis DE calories as well –

Let’s begin with dry forage (hay), since that’s crucial to every horse’s digestive health, and should by far constitute the largest percentage of any horse’s diet. The absolute minimum amount of forage required to keep a horse’s digestive system working properly is considered to be 1% of his Target Weight per day, on a dry-matter basis. That means my 15-hand horse with an ideal weight of 1,014 pounds needs at least 1,014 × 0.01 = 10.14 pounds of dry-matter-equivalent forage each and every day just to keep things operating properly. According to the above table, grass hay has a % Dry Matter of 92.255, so the easiest conversion to as-fed would be 10.14 ÷ 0.92255 = 11 pounds. Remember, the as-fed amount will always be higher than the dry-matter basis amount, so dividing by the percentage of dry matter gives us the increase in weight due to water. The table also lists an average digestible energy (DE) content of 864 calories per pound, so feeding the absolute minimum forage requirement for my 15-hand horse would provide only 11 × 864 = 9,504 calories. But if you remember from Part 1, my 15-hand horse requires 15,210 calories per day to maintain his target weight, so we have a calorie deficit of 15,210 – 9,504 = 5,706 calories. So let’s see how much additional grass hay I would need to take care of this deficit.

If we divide the deficit by the average as-fed DE for our grass hay, we have 5,706 ÷ 864 = 6.6 pounds. So, by feeding my horse 11 + 6.6 = 17.6 pounds of grass hay per day, we’ve provided all of the calories necessary for him to maintain his Target Weight – no other feed required! Admittedly, that was more complicated than it needed to be, because directly computing the forage amount from the required calories will always more than satisfy the 1% requirement. So, making certain to use appropriate values to end up with as-fed weight:

Required Calories per Day ÷ Digestible Energy per Pound of Forage = Required Pounds of Forage per Day, or

15,210 ÷ 864 = 17.6 pounds

Simple enough, right?

…but now I need to mention there are several caveats to keep in mind when using the information. Keep in mind that the Digestible Energy number, like all of the numbers, is an average value based (in this case) on 66,310 samples, and, in reality, the values can and will vary over a fairly wide range. For grass hay’s DE, for example, those samples had a Standard Deviation of 111 calories. Without getting into the statistics behind these numbers, let me just say this indicates that 95% of the samples tested actually had a DE somewhere between 715 and 1,159 calories per pound (dry matter basis), or 660 and 1,069 calories per pound as-fed. Let’s try to understand the implications of that on our simple feeding program.

If you feed the originally-calculated 18 pounds of grass hay (yes, I rounded it up to the nearest pound) per day which used the average DE for the calculation:

18 × 660 = 11,880 calories per day with a DE at the lower end of the samples, leaving a deficit of 3,330 calories and thus underfeeding the horse by 22%

18 x 1,069 = 19,242 calories per day with a DE at the higher end of the samples, creating a surplus of 4,032 calories and thus overfeeding the horse by 27%

Conversely, if you adjust the forage amount for the lower and higher ends of the samples:

15,210 ÷ 660 = 23 pounds per day will be required if the hay is actually at the lower end of the samples measured

15,210 ÷ 1,069 = 14.23 pounds per day will be required if the hay is actually at the higher end of the samples measured

This same variability, of course, is present in the % Dry Matter numbers as well; more or less water present than the average value will have a potentially serious effect on the calculated as-fed amounts, thus throwing your feeding program off even farther! Hopefully, you’re starting to understand from this example why it’s so important to have your hay tested; you could very easily be underfeeding or overfeeding by a significant amount if your hay’s DE and % Dry Matter aren’t very close to the averages! Fortunately, hay testing is very easy and inexpensive, and will provide an in-depth look at the composition of your hay. A basic analysis from Dairy One, for example, will cost you only $23, and they’ll provide you with a postage-paid mailer for the sample, and email you the test results in very short order. The international handling fee is only an additional $7. Well worth the money! On to feed…

As we just saw in the above calculation, we were able to meet the calorie requirements of my 15-hand horse with 18 pounds of grass hay per day, and no other feed or grain. Horses are able to eat upwards of 2% of their body weight in dry matter per day, which translates to:

1,014 pounds body weight × 0.02 = 20.28 pounds Dry Matter

20.28 pounds Dry Matter × 0.937 Mcal/lb. DE = 19,002.36 calories

This means my horse is able to eat enough of this grass hay per day to meet all of his calorie needs even if he were being ridden or driven an hour every single day – no concentrates required! And in keeping with my philosophy about emulating nature’s process of feeding feral horses, let me also state now that I’m not of the opinion that horses should have unlimited access to hay – for a very simple and logical reason: Although feral horses have a theoretical 24-hour access to forage, in reality they must work hard to get that forage. Unlike our domestic horses, who can simply stand in front of a mountain of hay and gorge themselves, feral horses are eating sparsely-spaced dry, bunch grasses, and typically travel just under 12 miles every day to eat enough to satisfy their calorie requirements. While some domestic horses may eventually “self-regulate,” and eat only an amount necessary to meet their daily caloric needs, many others will simply continue to eat in excess – as evidenced by the tremendous number of overweight horses! So, your horse’s hay – whatever the required amount – needs to be parceled out via some slow-feeding method over a 24-hour period, thus emulating nature’s feeding method to the degree possible.

Feeding grain to horses came about at a time in history when horses were being used many hours per day, whether for farming, warfare, or transportation, and simply hadn’t enough time available to consume sufficient forage to maintain their body weight. So the use of “concentrated calories” came about to allow horses to meet their calorie needs and still be able to do heavy work. Unfortunately, that tradition has continued, and many horse owners believe or are told that their horses must eat feed or grain to remain healthy. That’s simply not the case; as you can see, most of our horses’ much lower calorie requirements can easily be met just by feeding hay. And because horses must consume at least 1% of their body weight (dry matter basis) in forage to maintain proper gut function, concentrate manufacturers generally list their feeding recommendations with that 1% forage + maximum concentrate as the starting point, followed by progressively higher amounts of forage + lower amounts of concentrate. Enough of that for now!

The following data was provided to me by Dr. Don Walsh, founder of the now-closed Animal Health Foundation, which supported laminitis research all over the world (thank you, Don!). Don collected this information directly from feed manufacturers because they do not list calories on their products; sadly, you have to contact them for calorie information. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it can give us a pretty good sense of the calories in most concentrates. I’ve listed them in order of ascending calories, as that’s more useful and interesting to me than the specific feed type –

As you can see, there’s quite a range of calorie values here – from a low of 900 to a high of 3,900! Incidentally, the feeds at the lower end are typically forage or ration balancers, which are products designed to make up for forage deficiencies in a particular geographic area. They aren’t intended to be major calorie sources, and are fed at lower amounts than complete feeds. If your forage analysis reveals deficiencies,  a ration balancer is the ideal way to make certain your horse’s vitamin and mineral needs are being met without adding a bunch of unnecessary calories to his diet.

Once equipped with the necessary feed calorie information (remember: you may need to call the manufacturer to get it), any feed component in your horse’s diet can be calculated in the same manner. Let’s use the numbers from our previous example: a 15-hand horse with a target weight of 1,014 pound requiring 15,210 calories per day, with 9,504 calories already provided by 11 pounds of grass hay. So if we use the most common calorie value for feed of 1,550 calories per pound (as-fed), our 5,706-calorie deficit can be met by:

5,706 ÷ 1,550 = 3.68 pounds of concentrate

So our entire diet calculates out to be 11 pounds of grass hay plus just under 4 pounds of feed per day. Remember that your horse must have the 11 pounds of hay; that’s a well-established absolute minimum! And with only 4 pounds more of feed – or just under 7 pounds more of grass hay – we’ll satisfy all of his calorie requirements. Anything beyond that is excess calories, which will be converted to fat! Based on what I see and hear on a daily basis, I’m certain these quantities seem quite small to you – especially the amount of feed. But keep in mind that that feeling exactly demonstrates my point: We’re grossly overfeeding our horses!

To wrap up Part 2, let’s discuss how to collect and prepare a forage sample for testing. The first step is to gather an appropriate sample, which needs to be collected in a random manner to be truly representative of our lot of hay. The table below will help you know how many samples to gather to create your final sample for submission –

This particular approach to sampling, including the numbers in this table, is called the Acceptable Quality Limit standard, and dates back to World War II and the manufacture of bullets for the armed forces. It provides a method of determining the characteristics of a group of items by testing a randomly-chosen number of items from that group; how many items need to be tested is a function of the total number of items in the group. For diet planning, the numbers can represent some unit of hay – either bales or pounds probably being the most logical. For example, suppose we buy 100 bales of hay from a dealer. Looking at the table, we see that randomly testing 20 bales will give us a very good idea of the characteristics of the entire 100-bale lot. For our purposes here, we’re interested in the two numbers we’ve been using to plan our horse’s diet: the Digestible Energy (DE) and the % Dry Matter.

I can’t stress the importance of a random sample enough. If we merely test the last 20 bales unloaded, for example, it might turn out they were leftover bales from an earlier crop, and therefore wouldn’t be representative of the entire lot. So we need to be a bit creative in our approach to picking the 20 bales. It’s really not difficult; for instance, as the hay is being unloaded, you could set aside every 3rd, then every 5th, then every 7th bale, repeating that pattern until you had the 20 bales. At any rate, once you have the 20 bales set aside, you need to reach into the center of each of the bales and pull out 2 or 3 handfuls of hay (you could also use a hay probe for sampling, which is like a long, small-diameter hole saw, but it’s not necessary). Take a pair of scissors, cut each of your handfuls into 2- to 3-inch pieces, and combine all of the cut samples in a clean, dry plastic bucket. Thoroughly mix the samples. Weigh out one (1) pound, place it in the sample bag, squeeze out the air, and seal the bag. That’s it!

And rather than have a downloadable file of the tables in this Post, I’ve decided I’ll create an MS Excel spreadsheet that’ll incorporate the content of all 3 parts of this series in one “spot,” and will automatically do all of the calculations for you!

In Calories 101 – Part 3, we’ll tackle what I consider the most challenging part of basic diet planning: the pasture. Stay tuned…

Calories 101 – Part 1: How Many are Too Many?

Thanks to COVID-19, most of us probably aren’t spending much time in restaurants these days. But many of our horses, on the other hand, may nevertheless be spending more time eating higher-calorie food than they should be! Yes, I realize I’m not an equine nutritionist, and I don’t pretend to be one. But I have spent a fair amount of time studying enough of the basics of equine nutrition with Dr. Jessica Bedore, my former equine nutritionist colleague at The Ohio State University, to feel competent talking about how to determine proper caloric intake.

My decision to discuss it now is being driven by three things: 1) the ever-increasing number of overweight horses we encounter on a daily basis, 2) the apparent lack of knowledge by horse owners and barn managers about how to determine how much a horse should be eating, and 3) the usual annual increase in the incidence of laminitis in the area because of the rapidly-growing (and sugar-laden) grass. And because truly comprehensive hoof care involves a great deal more that just proper hoof trimming (which, by the way, is why we spend a tremendous amount of time discussing other contributing factors to hoof quality and form in the Liberated Horsemanship Gateway Clinics), I feel compelled to share this knowledge in a sincere effort to help horses avoid the health issues that result from obesity.

Yes, I’m well aware many people find the idea of having to do any sort of calculations intimidating and even frightening. But the good news is the math we need for diet planning is extremely simple and straightforward, and can be done by anyone using even the lowliest of calculators, including the one on your phone. So let’s get started!

Part 1 of this series is aimed at teaching you to recognize whether your horse is too fat, too thin, or just right, and how to calculate how many calories per day he needs to maintain a proper weight. Probably the most standardized way of starting this process is to figure out your horse’s Body Condition Score, or BCS. This method of assessing the amount of fat on a horse’s body was developed in 1983 by Dr. Don Henneke at Texas A&M University, and the Henneke System has become the de facto standard for describing a horse’s condition.

For many, this will undoubtedly be the most difficult part of our task, simply because we horse owners can’t seem to look at our horses with an unbiased eye. But there’s no upside to convincing ourselves that our horse isn’t overweight if, in fact, he is – only a potentially horrible downside. Just make certain whomever does the evaluation is as objective as possible: someone with a discerning eye who’s willing to put aside all feelings and opinions and honestly assess your horse. And if you or your chosen evaluator isn’t reasonably familiar with the process of calculating BCS, I strongly suggest you both familiarize yourselves with this very useful process; you can find a good step-by-step article on Body Condition Scoring here, although there are a number of articles and video guides available. To help you with the actual process of Body Condition Scoring your horse, I’ve created the following worksheet and guide –

Incidentally, to make all this information a bit easier to read, use, and share with others, I’ve created a PDF file containing all of the tables, charts, and worksheets in this article for downloading and printing here!

Once you’ve determined the BCS, the next step is to find out how much weight your horse needs to lose or gain. The following chart should help; just look up your horse’s BCS in the column under his height, and compare it to the weight given for the same height with a BCS 5. For example, a 15-hand horse with a BCS 6.5 (extremely common, in my experience) has an approximate weight of 1,133 pounds and a target weight of 1,014 pounds; therefore, he needs to lose about 119 pounds. Of course, these are approximations, and are presumably based on average-build i.e. riding horses. But the numbers should be accurate enough to give you a solid feel for how much weight change your horse requires. This table is in hands and pounds –

This is the metric version, with the hands heights converted to centimeters and the weights in kilograms –

At this point you may be wondering why we don’t simply use the ubiquitous weight tape instead of bothering with figuring out the horse’s BCS. A couple of reasons: 1) we know weight tapes aren’t particularly accurate, and 2) we want to actually look at the horse’s body fat to assess his condition, and not base our diet decisions solely on a string of numeric approximations. Still, the weight tape is a useful tool when it comes to tracking changes in our horse’s weight, so knowing what your horse weighs in addition to calculating his BCS is useful. However, Texas A&M University has developed a far more accurate method of estimating a horse’s weight than with a weight tape, using an ordinary cloth tape measure and some simple math as described below. I’ve discovered, by the way, that most of us will need some assistance to measure the Body Length on the average-sized riding horse; my arms just aren’t that long!

Again – here’s the metric version, with lengths in centimeters and weight in kilograms –

So you now know approximately how much your horse weighs, and how much he should weigh. Now it’s time to figure out how many calories per day are necessary for your horse to maintain his target weight, which is probably not his current weight. And just as with the BCS, determining caloric requirements requires you to be absolutely honest about how much you actually ride (or drive) your horse, because the amount of work he does is key to calculating caloric needs.

This is really the easiest and most straightforward part of the process;  all we need is some accurate information about your riding or driving habits. You’ll need to collect some information about how much you ride, and then do some simple calculations using the worksheet below to figure out how many calories per day your horse needs to maintain his target weight –

Here’s the metric version, with the target weight in kilograms –

As an example, suppose I ride my 15-hand horse with a target weight of 1,014 pounds for 20 minutes every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Just for the record, I’ve not counted the 10 minutes it takes to collect my horse from the pasture, the 10 minutes it takes to clean and tack him up, the 5 minutes each of a leisurely warm-up and cool-down walk, or the 10 minutes to get to and from the arena and untack and put him away when I’m done.  So, following through the worksheet:

Steps 1 & 2 –

20 + 20 + 20 + 20 = 80 Total Minutes Ridden per Week

Step 3 –

80 ÷ 7 = 11 Average Minutes Ridden per Day

Step 4 –

11 = Less Than 15 = 15 Work Load Factor

Steps 5 & 6 –

15 x 1,014 = 15,210 Required Calories per Day

And now we know how many calories our horse needs to maintain a healthy weight! So take an objective look at your horse’s body and your riding or driving patterns, and figure out how many calories your horse should be consuming in preparation for the second part of this series.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss the potential challenges of selecting appropriate types and amounts of forages and feeds to meet, but not exceed, this requirement. Why will it be challenging? Primarily for two reasons: 1) in the case of forage, the calorie content of all of them, including green grass, varies by a number of factors, including forage type, maturity when cut or consumed (in the case of green grass), time of day when cut or consumed, moisture content, and storage conditions, and 2) in the case of feeds, manufacturers don’t generally publish the calorie content of their products so you have to directly contact the company to get the information you need to plan the diet. But in spite of all these apparent obstacles, it’s fairly easy to ensure your horse is getting adequate, but not excessive, calories.

All for now…

(Not Just) Another Hoof Clinic!

LH clinics logo

Although I’ve discussed Liberated Horsemanship’s Gateway Clinics at various times in the past, I’ve never really taken the time to describe exactly what happens at the clinics, just how in-depth they really are, and therefore why I firmly believe they provide the most comprehensive and correct information on hoof care currently available. And since there are once again not one, but two, clinics scheduled for this year (June 3rd-7th at The Ohio State University ATI in Wooster, Ohio, US, and September 2nd-6th at Stonegarthside Hall in Nicholforest, UK), I’d originally intended to provide a more complete look at the clinics’ contents and this year’s presenters.

However, my plan to write a short biography of the clinic instructors, followed by a description of the topics each will be speaking about at the clinics, was quickly foiled as I started to put the biographies down on paper. Why? Because I was attempting to condense literally dozens of years of education and experience in hoof care into a few short statements, which would obviously be unsuccessful and of limited usefulness to anyone. So instead, I’ve decided to try to describe what I believe the strongest contributions of each of us are with respect to the clinics, and animal and hoof care in general, and leave the lengthier biographies to someone else. So here goes…

Bruce Nock badge photo

I met Dr. Bruce Nock in early 2006 when he was teaching an Advanced Horsemanship clinic as part of the certification program for natural hoof care pioneer Jaime Jackson’s organization called (at that point) the American Association of Natural Hoof Care Practitioners (AANHCP). Bruce is first and foremost a working scientist with an extremely impressive academic and practical background in animal behavior, learning theory, and stress physiology, and his current “day job” consists of ongoing research at Washington University’s School of Medicine which is funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health and focuses on the transgenerational and epigenetic effects of morphine. But Bruce is an avid horseman as well, and has used his extensive animal behavior education and experience to not only teach horse training and dressage for many years, but to author several books as well. In fact, his “Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training” is what led Jaime Jackson to require AANHCP students to study with Bruce, and later to make Bruce a member of the AANHCP’s Board of Directors. He’s also very actively involved in using his expertise in animal behavior and stress management to “give back” to the animals, through his efforts with The Kerulos Center and the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. In 2003, Bruce founded Liberated Horsemanship as what he describes as “a diversion from the impersonal world of science and to put my background in the science of animal behavior and physiology to practical use helping people with their horses.” That mission greatly expanded in 2009 when he and many others decided to leave the AANHCP, and the Liberated Horsemanship Barefoot Initiative was born.

Given Dr. Nock’s background, his clinic contributions will focus primarily on health and management issues: the physiology of equine insulin resistance, Cushing’s Disease, and laminitis; understanding and coping with management and use issues that impact horse and hoof health; and the unnatural stressors that are inherent to life in captivity. This means that clinic attendees have the exceedingly rare (dare I say…unique?) opportunity to learn about these absolutely-crucial-to-the-well-being-of-every-horse factors that the overwhelming majority of horse owners, veterinarians, and hoof care providers are rarely even aware of, let alone educated about, from an acknowledged expert. In my opinion, that alone makes these clinics well worth attending for every horse owner! I will further add that one of the many other things I  greatly appreciate and admire about Bruce is his unwillingness to offer advice on subjects about which he is not an expert; that’s a rare quality indeed, particularly in a horse world fraught with self-proclaimed “experts” constantly teaching and dispensing advice about things in which they have no education, limited (if any) actual experience, and therefore very little understanding of the subject.

Ann Corso Badge photo

Ann Corso and I first met in 2005 at a Carol Brett saddle-fitting clinic in Kentucky. A trained educator, Ann studied natural hoof care with Jaime Jackson from 2003 to 2005, was a Field Instructor and Natural Trim Workshop Leader for the AANHCP, and eventually became its Director of Training and Certification during its heyday as the premier hoof trimming training and certification organization. She left the AANHCP in 2009 to co-found the Liberated Horsemanship Barefoot Initiative with Dr. Nock, of which she is the Director. In addition to her large and diverse hoof care practice, Ann is the logistical mastermind behind all of Liberated Horsemanship’s clinics, and coordinates the field instruction and certification efforts of the students as well. One of the things I marvel at, and most value about, Ann is her seemingly endless knowledge of most of the hoof research efforts going on around the world, as well as the problems with what I call the various “fad trim styles” being taught and advocated by so many; if you want to know why a particular trim “style” can’t work – just ask Ann!

Besides making certain everyone has a ride from the airport, a place to sleep, and enough to eat, Ann will teach the fundamentals of proper hoof form and its importance, the underlying foot anatomy, and the theory of proper trimming. She’ll also discuss the various barefoot trim “models,”  and specifically why others may do certain things we don’t do – or not do things we do do – and the rationale behind those differences. Ann will also conduct the cadaver trim workshops every afternoon, where students not only receive extensive and specific trim instruction through hands-on learning, but also learn about the very necessary and practical matters of tool selection & use, hoof boot fitting, and horse handling.

Steve Hebrock badge photo

I don’t really enjoy writing about myself, so I’ll try to keep it brief. My rather diverse background includes music theory & composition, sound recording, and electronics/acoustics engineering, and I’ve designed products and one-off technical solutions for a number of companies over the years. Paralleling my engineering vocation was a career in education; I started teaching electronics classes in 1978 as an undergraduate student, and have continued teaching various technical subjects at several different universities since then. Most recently, I retired from nearly 20 years  of teaching at The Ohio State University ATI – the agricultural campus of the university – where I taught electronics, computer-aided design (CAD), and many different computer applications classes. More relevant to the subject at hand, I taught equine facilities management, sales preparation, and – yes – hoof care (which I still teach). You can read more about my hoof care journey in Why Me? and Horseshoes: A Means to What End?, but the bottom line is that the last 25 years of my life have been shaped by my realization in the early 1990s that the vast majority of horse owners, farriers, and veterinarians suffer from some very large misconceptions about how horses should bear weight and move, which drastically and adversely affects their care of, and advice about, horses. And I believe that my many years as a technical educator, natural hoof care provider, and hoof care educator have equipped me to share my knowledge and experience with others in a straightforward, logical, and extremely effective manner.

At the clinics, I’ll be discussing one of my favorite topics and ongoing areas of research: how and why the hoof should make ground contact as it does, and the importance of a proper landing to the long-term comfort and health of the horse. I’ll also be talking about the causes, symptoms, and management/treatment of the most common hoof pathologies, and be co-teaching the afternoon trim workshops with Ann.

So there you have it: three educated, acknowledged experts, each with lengthy and intimate experience with both natural hoof care and their individual areas of specialization, who also have extensive experience teaching their subject matter to people of every level of education and from every walk of life from all over the world! Whether you ultimately intend to regularly trim horses, or just want to take advantage of this unique opportunity to get your hoof, horse management, and behavior questions answered by experts, please consider joining us. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. But…time and spaces are short, especially for the U.S. clinic, so contact me ASAP if you’d like to attend!

The “Correction” Misconception

(Note: This is a much-expanded version of an article originally written for the 2018 edition of the Ohio Equestrian Directory.)

Radiograph of a hoof with sidebone because of deliberate long-term M-L imbalance

Radiograph of a hoof with sidebone due to deliberate long-term M-L imbalance

When a knowledgeable hoof care provider talks about a horse’s hoof being “in balance,” he or she is referring to a hoof making contact with the ground without rocking or twisting in either the side-to-side (medial-lateral, or M-L) or front-to-back (anterior-posterior, or A-P) direction as it comes under load. Why is this an issue? Because any horse that experiences significant movement on surfaces such as hard ground or pavement – particularly at speeds faster than a walk – will eventually suffer from health issues directly related to the extent of imbalance of their hooves. I’ve devoted quite a lot of space to describing the problems related to A-P imbalance in the form of heel- and toe-first landings in The Myth of the Heel-First Landing and Navicular Disease series, so this article will focus on medial-lateral imbalance and its consequences.

Understanding the basic construction of the joints of the horse’s lower limb, and how it differs from our own, is key to grasping why medial-lateral imbalances are so damaging to the horse. Try a little experiment: Stand up straight, and put most of your weight in one of your feet. Now, while keeping your opposite foot flat on the ground, but not shifting your weight onto it, try rotating that foot so the toes point first towards the 10 o’clock and then the 1 o’clock positions on the face of an imaginary clock on the ground under your foot with 12 o’clock being straight ahead. Not much of a challenge, right? Now try the same thing with your hand flat against a wall and your arm parallel to the floor. Again – pretty easy! That’s because in humans, the distal (farther away from our body) parts of our limbs i.e. the forearm and lower leg are constructed to allow that particular type of rotatory motion via the radius/ulna (forearm) and tibia/fibula (lower leg) bone combinations; in essence, their arrangement permits one bone to “spool” over the other.

If you then take a trip to the barn, pick up a foot, and attempt to either rotate the foot or tilt the foot from left to right, you’ll quickly discover that neither is really possible. A glance at the bones of the horse’s lower limb reveals why: Unlike our own wrists and ankles, all of the joints below the shoulders and hips of the horse are designed to allow for movement only in the plane defined by the centers of the unloaded and loaded fetlock joint and the center of the coffin joint (the center of the carpus and tarsus i.e. “knee” and hock also lie on this plane), as shown below –

The Plane of Movement

Thus, there is practically no side-to-side variation in how the horse presents his hoof to the ground; on any given surface, the hoof will always make ground contact in essentially the same way. This is very important to the health of the horse’s lower limb. As you can see in the above illustration, if the hoof were to make uneven medial-lateral ground contact, there would be considerable stress on the joints of the lower limb with every step, because they cannot articulate in a side-to-side direction.

Unfortunately, deliberately unbalancing the hoof is extremely commonplace, often advocated by veterinarians and hoof care providers in a well-meaning but misguided attempt to “correct” a limb whose foot points in a direction other than perfectly in line with the horse’s body. These methods leave one “side” of the hoof wall long with respect to the other side to twist the foot as it comes under load, sometimes giving the appearance of a straighter limb when the horse is standing still, as has been attempted by the hoof care provider for the horse in the radiograph at the beginning of this article. Since the “set” of the limbs is determined by the shoulder and hip joints, however, it’s simply not possible to truly correct such a condition through trimming or shoeing; the shoulder or hip cannot actually be changed, and the horse ends up paying a heavy price for the false impression of being “more correct.”

In most of the cases I’ve seen, no actual “straightening” has occurred; the shoulder or hip joint is sufficiently flexible to allow enough rotation of the entire limb from the torsion applied by the foot imbalance as it comes under load to make the toe point more forward while it’s on the ground, thus giving the appearance of a straighter limb. But as soon as the foot is unloaded, the leg “unwinds” and travels in the plane in which it was designed to travel. And in the much-less-common cases where actual limb twisting has occurred, such as when this technique has been carried out on a still-growing youngster, the turn is limited to the bones and joints of the lower limb, leaving a leg whose digit points in one direction but elbow or stifle points in another. The actual plane of limb motion, of course, remains unchanged.

The consequences of smaller imbalances may initially be subtle, and may show up as an unwillingness or difficulty in performing certain movements on harder surfaces, or being a bit “off” after doing such movements. But the damage caused by the stress placed on the joints with every step eventually takes the form of osteoarthritis – deterioration of the cartilage that lines the joint, often accompanied by calcium deposits (bone spurs) around the joint – and lameness. Larger imbalances may result in more pronounced lameness and a definite hastening of joint damage, resulting in career-ending conditions such as articular ringbone. And by the way, the good news for barefoot horses is that minor imbalances will eventually “self-correct” through wear; conversely, the bad news for shod horses is that no such self-correction can occur, and the effects of imbalances are actually intensified by the presence of the shoe.

Interestingly, in the course of writing this article, I had the opportunity to hear not one, but two, stories about so-called “corrective shoeing” that I think are useful to share.

The first was from a woman thanking me for writing Horseshoes: A Means to What End? who mentioned she is a believer in having horses barefoot, and is currently having some “corrective shoeing” done on one of her horses with the ultimate objective of having this horse barefoot as well. According to her, the horse is wearing one side of the hoof wall down faster than the other, and is therefore more comfortable with shoes on.

While this indeed may be true, her implied cause-and-effect between preventing the wear and the horse’s comfort is indeed a tenuous one. There are only two explanations for why the horse would be wearing as she describes: either the foot is not being properly balanced when trimmed, or something higher up in the horse’s limb or body is causing the horse to contact and load the foot in an asymmetrical manner. In either case, merely preventing the horse from asymmetrically wearing the foot by means of a horseshoe is not only not addressing the problem – it’s actually causing damage to the joints as described above. It’s certainly not “correcting” anything! So why is the horse more comfortable with a shoe on the foot? Almost certainly because the sole is being over-trimmed, the sole is not yet properly conditioned to be barefoot on the types of terrain being ridden on, and/or there’s a problem with the horse’s diet – none of which have anything to do with preventing uneven wear. And if one’s objective is to have a barefoot horse, the process of doing so is never going to include a horseshoe; we don’t “prepare” a horse for being barefoot by using what we’re trying to move away from! Sorry – not logical.

The other situation is a woman who’s spent the last year or so following the advice of her veterinarian and farrier to “correct” the turnout of one of her horse’s forelegs through deliberately unbalancing the foot. And now, guess what? Radiographs of the lower limb, which showed no joint damage a year ago, now show significant damage, and the horse is lame. And yet, she still can’t bring herself to accept that her hoof care provider and veterinarian have caused the problem, and haven’t “corrected” anything!

Remember: While the use of a horseshoe to prevent excessive even wear of the bearing surface of the hoof wall may be one thing, using a horseshoe to inhibit asymmetrical wear can only ultimately result in joint damage.

Composite Hoof & Radiograph

Composite image of a photograph and radiograph of a balanced foot

Determining whether or not your horse is in medial-lateral balance isn’t difficult, but it can require a bit of practice to develop a “feel” for it. Be aware, though, that the natural limitations of our vision will make small hoof imbalances difficult-to-impossible to see, especially in the less-than-optimal lighting conditions that are found in nearly every barn in the country!

On an unyielding flat, level surface, such as concrete or asphalt, and with as much light on the situation as possible, carefully watch each of your horse’s feet as he walks both towards and away from you. No part of the hoof or shoe should make ground contact before any other part, and there should be no rocking or twisting as the foot is loaded, although some horses will twist a (usually hind) foot just before it leaves the ground. Listening to ground contact is even more useful; the sound of a balanced foot will be distinct, with no “double-tap” or “smearing” evident. And slow-motion video is an even better and more definitive method: Video your horse at ground level from the front and back, and then either slow the video down to about 1/5 normal speed or step through each hoof contact frame-by-frame to determine if the feet are making even contact.

In addition to visual and aural observation of hoof landings, horse owners and hoof care providers can develop an “eye” for balance by understanding the relationship between the coffin bone and hairline at the heel bulbs. As illustrated in the composite image above, both the hairline at the back of the foot and the bottom of the coffin bone are M-L ground-parallel in an M-L balanced foot for the vast majority of horses. In rare instances (in my experience), the hoof capsule/coffin bone of certain hind feet will not be ground parallel, but will be tipped very slightly toward the lateral side for a proper (flat) landing; this, however, can only be determined by properly balancing the foot initially, and then carefully observing the consequent landings and adjusting the trim if necessary.

A potentially more serious imbalance condition referred to as sheared heels can occur when one heel buttress is left chronically long with respect to the other of the same foot. Rather than the entire foot tilting one way or the other, the entire half of the hoof capsule with the longer heel may instead end up vertically displaced with respect to the other. Although some limited research by others shows that the actual coffin bone position in these imbalances apparently remains unchanged because the coffin bone only occupies a very small part of the back part of the hoof, this type of  imbalance can nevertheless cause severe lameness, promote wall cracks, and contribute to frog infections, and should therefore be taken seriously. Although the horse in the following two photos taken before his most recent trim has been under our care for a relatively short time and has greatly improved, the evidence of years of improper M-L balance remains in the form of a “shoved up” lateral heel and quarters –

Photo of splay-footed horse

Horse with profoundly – but naturally – turned-out forelegs. Note that the carpus (“knee”), fetlock, and toe of each foreleg all point in the same direction.

Photo of sheared heels

…and a rear view of the left foreleg. Although some would consider this foot properly balanced because the heel buttresses and toe define a plane reasonably perpendicular to a vertical plane passing through the central sulcus of the frog, the hairline (among other things) indicates that the entire lateral side of the hoof is, in reality, (still) a bit longer/higher than the medial side. A work in progress, with some distance yet to go…

If the hoof had continued to be improperly trimmed, the hairline on the longer-heel side of the foot would have continued to be shoved upward. Imagine facing the horse and wrapping your hands around each side of the hoof – fingers on the bottom, with your palms against the sides of the hoof wall – and twisting in a vertical direction; that’s exactly what has happened! Yet, because many hoof care providers are taught that a foot is in balance if the bottom of the heel buttresses describe a plane 90° to the so-called “median plane” – a vertical plane passing through the apex of the frog and continuing through the central sulcus of the frog (i.e. through the “middle” of the foot – see the plane shown in “The Plane of Movement” graphic above) – they fail to recognize this form of imbalance.

To help check M-L balance, I’ve developed a simple tool that will allow both horse owners and hoof care providers to easily determine if a horse’s hoof has been properly trimmed. As shown in the photographs below, this Heel Balance Gauge can be used in two different manners to determine whether or not the heel buttress height is equal.

Heel Gauge - In Air

Heel Balance Gauge being used directly on the bottom of the elevated hoof

Heel Gauge - On Ground

Heel Balance Gauge being used on the ground behind the hoof

Eliminating M-L hoof imbalances can be challenging – not because of the actual trimming involved, but because many hoof care providers are simply unaware they’re not properly balancing the hoof, and the ones that are deliberately unbalancing the hoof are usually convinced they’re doing the right thing! So while it may be possible to explain to your hoof care provider that you want your horse’s feet to be in balance, it may ultimately be necessary to change hoof care providers to actually accomplish that objective. But your horse will thank you for it – by performing better and by staying healthier for a longer time!

“No one ever suggests we use some sort of tire to fix a crooked truck axle. Why would anyone suggest we use some sort of horseshoe to fix a crooked horse limb?” – Steve Hebrock

Horseshoes: A Means to What End?

Superhero Fiction graphic

Years ago, I was invited to speak at a “natural” horse training and care event put on by a large horse farm. I began my talk to what turned out to be primarily American Saddlebred owners with a phrase I’ve often used as an introduction to what I do: “My overwhelming concern in hoof care is for the long-term health and comfort of your horse.” Much to my shock and dismay, several of the attendees were quick to point out that the horse’s well-being was a non-issue for them; their only concern was to win at shows, regardless of what it might mean for the horse, and were therefore willing to do practically anything to their horses’ hooves in an effort to gain some alleged advantage in the show ring.

When I purchased my first horse back in 1993, I really didn’t have any opinion about horseshoes one way or the other; I was relatively new to horses, and figured some needed them and some didn’t. My new horse was a Peruvian Paso – a breed that is traditionally not shod, are reputed to have congenital “good feet,” and cannot be shown wearing shoes in a Peruvian Paso show – and so I just automatically put him in the category of “doesn’t need shoes.”

Included with the documents that accompanied the registration papers for my new horse was a sheet warning registrants about the importance of choosing a qualified farrier. Because the PP is a fairly uncommon breed (there were only 12,000 registered Peruvian Pasos in the U.S. when I bought him), and because they typically have a much lower pastern and toe angle than the more common breeds, the folks at the registry were concerned that an improperly-educated farrier might try to “stand up” the horse i.e. leave the heels too long and/or cut the toe too short in a misguided effort to make the horse’s feet look more like a Thoroughbred or American Quarter Horse.

And so, after consulting with my friend Tom Wolfe, the now-former director of the Montana State Horseshoeing School (and whom, I learned in the course of writing this article, was inducted into the International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame in 2011 for his contributions to farrier education – congratulations, Tom!) whom I’d befriended several years earlier on a riding trip to Montana, I decided I had more faith in the devil I knew than the devil I didn’t, and would therefore learn how to do my own trimming. As Tom said, “It isn’t rocket science, and you are an engineer, after all!” So I set out on a journey that’s now lasted 25 years, with no signs of slowing down.

I read books and magazine articles on horseshoeing and hoof care. I talked with every farrier and veterinarian I crossed paths with, hoping to glean some new and useful piece of information about horse feet. I spoke to other owners about their horses’ foot problems, trying to understand the various “treatment” options they’d pursued and rates of success. But mostly I just listened and pondered. And the little voice of the engineer in me soon started whispering in my ear, “You know that can’t be true; it’s not logical.” “His advice directly conflicts with her advice; both can’t be right.” “The laws of physics tell you it doesn’t work that way; the shoe couldn’t possibly be doing that.” And on and on, until I finally realized that with respect to what could or couldn’t be accomplished with a horseshoe, the only logical conclusion I could reach was that people really didn’t know what they were talking about!

I’ve spent a lot of time over these past 25 years trying to sort out fact from fiction for myself, for horse owners, and for other hoof care professionals. Not only has this meant trying to keep up with what little hoof research is actually being conducted, via academic journal articles, but doing my own research as well, in combination with many, many hours of discussion with both other academics in the horse world along with “non-horsey” engineers and other technical people.

The Emperor's New Clothes graphic

As a result, I can say with a very high degree of certainty that there are only four (4) parameters of a hoof that can be successfully modified by a horseshoe, regardless of the specific type of shoe utilized, that could arguably be considered advantageous over a properly-trimmed bare hoof under certain circumstances and with caveats. I’m not going to go into all the theory and rationale for these statements at this time, but I promise I will do so at a later date. In the meantime, please note that science tells us that in comparison with a properly-trimmed bare hoof, adding a horseshoe can only:

  • Eliminate wear of the bearing surface of the hoof wall
  • Increase clearance between the ground and sole/frog
  • Increase or decrease the foot’s traction
  • Delay the timing of, and increase the height of, the peak in the foot’s flight arc

This is certainly not to imply that other things cannot be negatively affected by the presence of a shoe, nor am I saying that a particular shoe may not have more or less of an impact on these four parameters than another type of shoe. The above is simply stating that any other hoof characteristic, conformation or movement characteristic, or pathology, alleged to be improved by the presence of a shoe, such as support, breakover, or navicular disease, is a complete fiction.

Each of these four possible advantages also has one or more trade-offs associated with the presence of a shoe. First and foremost on the list is that any type of shoe placed on an incorrectly-balanced hoof will put stress on the joints of the lower limb, with no chance of “self-correction” because wear has been eliminated. The consequences of that stress will be a hastening of arthroses of those joints, causing various types and degrees of unsoundness. This is far and away the most common cause of lameness problems we see in our practice: well-meaning farriers who either do not know how to properly balance hooves, or who deliberately unbalance hooves with the mistaken belief they can “correct” something by doing so.

Likewise, the shod horse will always have an increase in hoof length, weight, and concussive forces over the properly-trimmed barefoot horse – all of which intensify joint and soft-tissue stress any time the hoof is in motion. And the longer and/or heavier the shoe, the greater the stress, which means any shoe heavy enough to significantly affect flight arc peak i.e. “action” is going to cost the horse in terms of energy required and long-term joint/soft-tissue damage.

While increasing ground clearance may be advantageous for riding on certain terrain types, the loss of stimulation through ground contact causes the foot to produce softer sole tissue, which is why the horse who loses a shoe is often sore on rough terrain while his barefoot companion is not. This tissue quality difference is often dramatic, and can be particularly apparent on a horse that’s shod only on the front.

And even traction modification is a two-edged sword. Although it can be a useful short-term tool for specific situations (such as on ice, or in a reining show), it can also result in minor and even major (mostly soft tissue) injuries if the amount of traction isn’t appropriate for the terrain/application. Many horse owners are still astonished when I tell them a plain steel shoe provides less traction on harder surfaces than a bare hoof.

A friend once said to me, “Oh, that’s right – you don’t believe in horseshoes,” as if belief has anything at all to do with it! Please understand this is not some sort of “crusade” against horseshoes. These conclusions aren’t based on emotion; they’re based on science. On data. On logic. I’m simply acknowledging shoes for what they are – a piece of metal, a spacer, a wear inhibitor, a weight. And trying to get people to understand what they are not – a panacea for hoof and horse issues. I’ve generally come to regard them like this: A horseshoe is a tool for which I have yet to find a genuine need.

Revelation graphic

If a particular horse truly needs to minimize wear and/or have sole protection for a specific situation – things like: an endurance ride, a ride over rough terrain, sensitive feet due to flat soles/dietary issues, or an injury – then, by all means, protect his feet. He absolutely deserves to move pain-free. But if you decide to do it with shoes, the only approach that’ll guarantee minimal adverse effects is to do as my friend Don West does: Shoe the horse immediately before the ride, and pull the shoes when you return. And, to be done correctly, that will mean using the thinnest, lightest shoe available, placed on a foot trimmed in strict accordance with proper natural hoof care principles.

Doesn’t it sound like an impossible situation, since most of us aren’t trained to trim hooves, and shape and nail on a horseshoe? Yep. And that’s why hoof boots are the far better choice when hoof protection is necessary. They modify the same four characteristics as a shoe, but minimize or eliminate the trade-offs because they’re only used for the time period when the need for protection actually exists. Plus, because they cover the sole and frog as well as lift them off the ground, they provide superior protection over any horseshoe.

So what’s my point in all of this? Well, with that “logical thinking” thing in mind, consider the following –

Since a horseshoe is limited to modifying only the four characteristics listed above, and, even under ideal trimming/shoeing circumstances, there are long-term negative health consequences to anything but very short-term use, then why use them? Why not see them for what they are…and are not? Why not do everything in your power to give your horse every possible health and comfort advantage, and keep him sound for as long as possible?

Think about it…

You’re Killing Your Horse!

Jared Lee Cartoon "Big-Boned"

“You’re killing your horse!” I exclaimed. The woman had just related how her geriatric Morgan was on constant grass pasture, with continuous access to hay, and now also being fed what she described as “just over twelve pounds of feed a day.” “But the vet told me I need to put weight on him!” she protested. Dora and I weren’t concerned about his weight at that particular moment; we were worried about what we were seeing in his feet: flat soles, very stretched white lines, sore to the point of being unwilling to lift his feet, and – most disturbing of all – soft, squishy sole tissue directly beneath the coffin bones. And if he continued on that course, we knew it would only be a short time before his coffin bones penetrated his soles…

EL - Front Feet

The feet of this big warmblood may appear fairly normal, but…

Four years ago, I wrote an article entitled How Much is Too Much? that described research done by one of my university colleagues on the question of how much weight a horse can carry without evidence of muscle damage. And while riders too heavy for their horses continue to be a serious problem (for their horses, certainly!), overweight horses such as Jared Lee’s “big-boned” cartoon horse and the very real horse described above are all-too-typical examples of what we now see on a near-daily basis.

EL - Body

…the body suggests all is not right! A quick glance at the bottoms of the feet…

“So what’s the big deal about a few extra pounds on my horse?” you may ask. Well, it’s because these “big-boned” horses have taken the first (or second or third) step on the path toward a condition known as endocrinopathic laminitis – an extremely common form of laminitis now recognized as distinctly different from the laminitis caused by the sudden excessive intake of carbohydrates that occurs, for example, when a horse gets into the feed room. So when we encounter an overweight horse accompanied by word that he was “a bit sensitive” after his last trim, we can pretty well predict what his feet are going to look like before we’re even close enough to see them properly. Along with increased post-trim sensitivity, they’ll often exhibit:

  • A loss of solar concavity i.e. flattening of the soles as the coffin bone descends
  • Sole bruising, particularly below the coffin bone
  • Separation of the white line at the toe, eventually extending all the way around the hoof
  • Flaring of the hoof wall at the toe, eventually extending all the way around the hoof
  • Horizontal rings and waves in the hoof wall rather than normal straight growth
  • Frequent hoof abscessing

EL - Hoof Oblique

…reveals a near-complete loss of solar concavity…

Unfortunately, and to the disservice of horses and horse owners (and hoof care providers), many veterinarians have been slow to keep up with research on this condition, instead clinging to the outdated belief that horses presenting with clinical symptoms consistent with laminitis (some of which are listed above) but without an “obvious” cause for laminitis must actually have some other condition. Yet, as a recent article in The Veterinary Journal points out –

Endocrinopathic laminitis is now recognized as the most common form of naturally occurring laminitis in horses and ponies presenting primarily with lameness in developed countries….An earlier misconception that laminitis was predominantly associated with sepsis or SIRS arose from its prevalence in equids treated at veterinary referral hospitals, where laminitis research is concentrated….This misperception was highlighted by a large epidemiological study in the USA, which showed that grain overload, retained placenta, colic or diarrhoea accounted for only 12% of owner-reported cases of laminitis; the remainder were associated with dietary problems or obesity, or were of unknown cause. Subsequent, more convincing studies from the USA and Europe identified endocrinopathies (i.e. “hormone problems”) in 90% of cases of laminitis in horses/ponies presenting for lameness. (Patterson-Kane, J.C., et al. “Paradigm Shifts in Understanding Equine Laminitis.” The Veterinary Journal, vol. 231, 2018, pp. 33–40)

EL - Hoof Bottom

…and the beginnings of a stretched white line at the toe!

Please be aware that improper trimming can also cause some of these same symptoms, and it can occasionally be challenging to sort out the real culprit! But if you haven’t changed hoof care providers and your horse is now showing signs of having sensitive feet, you should first consider whether or not any or all of the following are true.

If your horse is:

  • Objectively overweight i.e. a Body Condition Score (BCS) of 6 or higher,
  • Regularly consuming more calories than are required to maintain his body weight,
  • No longer doing as much work as he was previously doing, but his caloric intake hasn’t been reduced,
  • Being fed differently than when he was sound, including treats and supplements, and/or
  • Consuming any grass,

there’s an extremely good chance the sensitivity he’s experiencing is a symptom of the early stages of endocrinopathic laminitis. Again – your vet probably won’t recognize it as such, because most veterinarians simply don’t have the experience or expertise to recognize the subtle (at least to them!) changes in the feet that signal potential disaster looming over the horizon. But the foot is a marvelous “early warning system” for dietary and other health/management issues, so if your hoof care provider is properly trained – admittedly a big “if” as well – he/she should see what the vet and others may not. So ask questions, and listen carefully to the answers. I can’t emphasize this enough: endocrinopathic laminitis, like any other form of laminitis, is an extremely painful condition, yet the condition can usually be avoided if the diet is properly managed. And while it’s definitely treatable, with full recovery possible, it’s certainly much easier to spare you and your horse by attempting to prevent it in the first place by ensuring your horse stays at a healthy weight (4.5 – 5.5 BCS).

Contrary to what most horse owners I talk to seem to think, it’s really neither difficult nor time-consuming to do the math to figure out approximately how many calories your horse requires to maintain a proper body weight for the amount of work he’s doing. But keep in mind that all calorie information and feed calculations are based on weight, not volume, which means that whomever feeds your horse should be weighing his hay and feed. And although you should only need to correlate weight with volume once for a given brand and type of feed e.g. “this orange scoop full of HappyHorse Brand SuprGood Feed has a net (feed) weight of 3 pounds,” hay varies tremendously and each feeding should be weighed!

Remember: In order to help prevent possible endocrinopathic laminitis problems, it’s extremely important that you be objective about your horse and his situation:

  • Be honest about your horse’s current weight and BCS
  • Be honest about how much work your horse is actually doing
  • Be honest about what your horse should weigh
  • Be honest about what and how much your horse is consuming

I realize many horse owners think horses are “supposed” to be round-looking, or that horses look “healthier” or “cuter” with “a few extra pounds.” But believe me: they’re not, it’s not, and they don’t! So please do the right thing and do right by your horse.

I intend to cover treatment options for the horse who does develop laminitis in a future article. But for now, let me just mention that putting shoes on a laminitic horse – even a mildly laminitic one whose only obvious symptom is foot sensitivity – is absolutely the wrong thing to do, and will actually increase pain and delay healing in spite of what others may try to convince you of! So if you find yourself in that situation, do your horse a huge favor and resist the urge to shoe him; I promise you I’ll provide a well-thought-out and logical explanation in an upcoming article.

And what of the Morgan described at the beginning of this article? Well, after a great deal of discussion with the owner, including assurances that her horse wasn’t going to starve to death any time soon, we managed to convince her to eliminate the “just over twelve pounds of feed a day” from her horse’s diet. And just as has been the case with other clients’ horses, his feet recovered fairly quickly. In fact, by the time his next trim came around a few weeks later, the sensitivity was gone and the sole tissue was a normal consistency with obvious returning concavity!

I do feel compelled to say that in this particular situation, I place a lot of the blame for the horse’s pain on the veterinarian’s lack of proper education, although I cannot say for certain whether the feeding regimen was the vet’s idea, the owner’s idea, or a combination of both. Regardless, even a few minutes of contemplation should lead any reasonable person to figure out that adding nearly 19,000 calories per day to any horse’s diet – particularly one whose caloric intake should be in the 13,000 – 14,000 total calories per day range – makes absolutely no sense at all.

As I keep saying: Question everyone and everything, no matter the source of the advice…and don’t overfeed your horse!

Remembering Vera

Vera Ellen Bremseth photo

Vera Ellen Bremseth 1939 – 2018

In 1982, as an unintended consequence of accepting an engineering position with Altec Lansing in Oklahoma City, OK, I had the exceedingly good fortune to become acquainted with the Bremseth family: three individuals who would arguably become the most important people in my life for the next thirty-some years.

I previously wrote about my relationship with the husband/father Gerald, a truly brilliant engineer and remarkable human being whom I continued to work closely with until his untimely demise in 2013, in my Post called Tribute to an Unsung Hero, so I won’t say any more about him here. Sadly, the focus of this Post must now be on his wife Vera, who passed away mere days before my recent trip to the UK to conduct a Liberated Horsemanship Gateway Clinic.

How do you sum up the granddaughter of a respected physician/state senator and princess of the Chickasaw tribe, and daughter of an Army lawyer stationed all over the United States with his family, in just a few sentences? Vera probably had the richest and most varied set of life experiences of anyone I’ve ever met! A teacher by training, she spent much of her life working with and for various arts- and education-related organizations such as the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the Ouray County Historical Museum, the Foothills Craft Guild, and the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, establishing education programs, managing gift shops and shows, and handling public relations and marketing tasks.

But mostly, for myself and for many, many others who were fortunate enough to have their lives touched by Vera, she helped people. Without question, she was the most generous person I’ve ever known; she would’ve given a total stranger her last dollar or the clothes off her back if she believed they were truly needed. But she was so much more as well – a genuine force of nature: always the polite, well-turned-out lady, intelligent, wise, and inherently benevolent, she was also fiercely loyal to, and supportive of, her friends and family. Being at odds with Vera was definitely done at one’s own peril (a position I somehow always managed to avoid).

In fact, the last time I saw Vera, we were attempting to have dinner together in Maryland at a very busy restaurant. The hostesses kept putting us off, and, after a very lengthy wait, finally told us our table was ready and then seated another party at it instead. By this time, I had complained to the hostess several times about the delay, and then about giving our table away, but without any obvious effect on the situation. Finally, Vera decided she’d had enough. I have no idea what she said to the hostess, but the next thing I knew, we were being shown to a table by multiple people who were practically falling over themselves apologizing! As I said, it never paid to cross her!

Vera and I had a wonderful relationship consisting of every positive aspect of one between mother and son coupled with that of the best of friends. We spoke multiple times each week, and, like it or not, I cherished her advice because I could always count on her to tell it to me straight and it was nearly always spot-on. And she definitely had a sense of humor as well, as you may glean from the photograph below. After all, how many people do you know who’d willingly pose for a portrait wearing a pink plastic raincoat while holding a friend’s stuffed Highland cow wearing a (custom-made!) raincoat?

Photo of Vera & me

Vera & Me at Niagara Falls, Ontario – 2015

This wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that Vera loved real animals as well, and at times they had as many as five dogs and two cats in the house. Most were strays of one sort or another; just as with people, Vera looked for opportunities to help animals too – to the extent that Gerald used to say he hoped to come back as one of Vera’s dogs because she took such good care of them!

But for me, one of the most memorable things about Vera was her laughter. The four of us – Gerald, Vera, their daughter Victoria, and myself – spent a great deal of time together over these past thirty-six years, and Vera would regularly laugh as I regaled her with one of my crazy stories about my own crazy life! I really liked that she said I always made her laugh, and I know she looked forward to those visits and conversations as much as I did. She was a very special person to me, and one particular kind of conversation we had many times over the years sticks in my mind. I’d frequently return to the house at 2AM or so, having been out listening to jazz in one or more of the clubs in Knoxville, and I always feared waking her as I came in through the front door and crept up the stairs to my room:

Me: “I hope I didn’t wake you up this morning. Sorry it was so late when I came in.”

Vera: “Nope. Didn’t hear a thing. And I’m not your mother.”

You’re absolutely right, Vera: you weren’t my mother. You were so very much more to me than that. Thanks for all the wonderful memories and everything else you’ve given me these many years, and I trust you can still hear my crazy stories and you’re still laughing…somewhere…

…and Always With Love.

What’s Next?

This coming year promises to be an exciting one, for a variety of reasons that should be of interest to my readers!

First of all, I’m extremely happy and proud to announce that my new Austrian-born wife Dora has completed her instructor certification in Straightness Training, making her only the second person in the United States to earn the instructor designation. This method of training, established by Marijke de Jong of the Netherlands, is all about working towards overcoming the horse’s natural asymmetry through carefully-designed ground and riding exercises to allow them – not force them – to comfortably achieve proper collection and movement. Having watched the profound improvements in my own horse and others, I cannot say enough positive things about this method of bringing a horse into balance; if you want the most from your horse in terms of performance and behavior, please consider checking out Straightness Training!

Dora working with a horse

Dora working with a horse

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, we’ve noticed that as the horse’s body becomes more symmetrical, the hooves become more symmetrical as well (Dora is also a Certified Hoof Care Professional). As I’ve said many times in the past, hoof form is the effect of movement and not the cause; long-term balanced movement will produce symmetrical hooves, whereas asymmetries in hoof form can nearly always be traced to conformation and movement, and/or improper trimming. This is but one of the research topics I hope to embark upon in this new year.

But there are lots of other exciting things in the works as well! I’m particularly looking forward to Liberated Horsemanship‘s upcoming hoof clinic in northern England in March, up near the Scottish border. People have been asking us to do a clinic in the UK for years, and I’m very pleased that we’re finally able to make the trip. We’ve put together a brief video about the Liberated Horsemanship clinics that describes the clinics and their content in more detail, with interviews with three of the instructors. And please share the video with your friends and associates. But…we only have a few UK spots left, so please register soon for what promises to be a great experience!

Stonegarthside Hall - site of the upcoming LH clinic in northern England

Stonegarthside Hall – site of the upcoming LH clinic in northern England

We’ve also produced a version of the video for our German-speaking friends, featuring Dora speaking her native language with the instructor interviews subtitled in German. As I discovered while doing hoof lectures in Austria, there is a great deal of interest in natural hoof care in both Germany and Austria, and I’m hopeful that some of our German-speaking friends will consider joining us in the UK, especially since Dora will be along to offer language support as necessary. Links to the English and German version videos, respectively,  are below –

For those of you who aren’t able to join us in the UK, we’ll once again be offering our Gateway Clinic in the U.S. this June, in our fourth appearance at The Ohio State University ATI in Wooster, Ohio. Please consider joining us for one of these clinics; I promise you won’t be disappointed!

And I have several research projects I hope to be able to report on this year, including my ongoing movement and landing analysis, some product reviews, and several new products of my own aimed at both horse owners and hoof care providers. Plus, I’ve resolved to get back to writing more articles.

That’s enough resolutions! All for now…

What Are You Really Paying For?

I love numbers! More correctly, I suppose, I should say that I love the fact we can always learn something useful from numbers because they can be relied upon to tell the truth if we let them. But when things don’t make sense – when the numbers don’t “add up” – it’s time to start asking why!

This all began when recent events prompted me to revisit a topic I touched upon several years ago in The (High?) Cost of Hoof Care: the huge disparity between what farriers charge to shoe a horse, and what farriers (and, consequently, horse owners) perceive to be the value of a properly-done trim. Part of the impetus comes from a client in the process of opening a small full-service horse retirement facility who wanted to offer her boarders another hoof-care option; problem was, the farrier she contacted wouldn’t come out just to trim a single horse! So I decided to do a little investigating into pricing strategies, looking first at data for shoeing versus trimming costs.

According to a survey conducted by The American Farriers Journal of its readers last year, the average nationwide price for trimming four hooves and applying four keg (machine-made) shoes by a full-time farrier was $131.46, while, interestingly, the same work performed by a part-time farrier averaged $94.49. Trimming and resetting those same shoes by a full-time farrier averaged $125.52. To trim a horse, full-time farriers charged an average of $43.13, while part-timers averaged $37.22.

A couple of things to keep in mind about the people who subscribe to The American Farriers Journal i.e. participated in this survey:

  • They’re farriers, not hoof trimmers. I often read this journal in the university’s library – mostly between 1997 and 2014 – but stopped reading it due in large part to the obvious disdain for so-called “barefoot” hoof care and its providers that permeates the magazine’s articles and letters.
  • About 70% of full-time farriers went to a farrier school, for an average of 12 weeks, according to this same survey.

I also found the following results of an earlier survey conducted by the same journal, along with one farrier’s explanation of how he prices his work. Note that the article was published in 2015, but the survey results shown on this graphic from the article are for their 2014 survey –

– from Costa, J. “Pricing for Success.” American Farriers Journal. 11/30/2015

Armed with Mr. Wynbrandt’s formula and numbers, and the 2015 average nationwide shoeing price of $120.19, we should then be able to calculate the 2015 national average cost of trimming a horse. But first let’s find the national average hourly wage for shoeing –

So to obtain the national average, we have to reduce the Hourly Wage to $35.56 per hour. Note that nothing else has changed, because everything else on the list is essentially independent of location.

Armed with our new national average Hourly Wage, we can now calculate the cost of a trim, but first we need an idea of just how long the typical farrier spends trimming a horse. Although I have no hard statistics on that, I’ve often had new clients remark that their previous hoof care person already had the horse completely trimmed in the five minutes or so I spend on each foot! In fact, years ago I asked an experienced farrier how long she takes to trim a horse, and, interestingly, she replied “Five minutes!” And so I’ve used five minutes as the average time it takes for a farrier to trim a horse, which admittedly may be a bit short, but I’ll talk more about that later. So here’s our new average trim cost –

A couple of explanations are in order:

  • I’ve left the Rasp and Tool Replacement amounts the same, although one might argue that the tools required for trimming-only are fewer than those needed for shoeing. However, the tools that wear and need to be regularly replaced – the hoof knife and nippers – are the same for both situations.
  • I’ve calculated the Total Miles by dividing the Vehicle Cost by the 2015 IRS mileage allowance of $.575/mile.

As you can see, even with a severely-reduced labor time, the calculated average cost of a trim still comes out to over $75; yet, according to the survey, the national average that year was only $42.06! Let’s see what we’d have to do to make our trim cost total that number, still pretending that it’s possible to properly trim a horse in only five minutes –

Wait! So in the above scenario, collecting the national average cost of $42.06 for trimming a horse entails driving for an hour and wrestling with a horse for 5 minutes (ha!), but, ultimately, pocketing only $4.92? I’d do far better at MacDonald’s, and (probably) wouldn’t even have to risk my life! That would explain why farriers don’t want to drive to a barn to trim a single horse, but what it doesn’t explain is why farriers themselves believe that (only) trimming a horse is so much less valuable and/or important than trimming and shoeing. After all, the cost differences come down to shoes, nails, and the time required for the actual work, with the “hardware” costs representing a rather small portion of the total picture (contrary to what many horse owners are led to believe, by the way!). So why the huge disparity; why not charge the $75.67 common sense and their own formula prescribe?

One possible answer may be hinted at by an examination of the course of study undertaken during that 12 weeks of farrier school by some 70% of full-time farriers: At what many consider to be the best farrier school in the U.S., anatomy, conformation, and biomechanics appear to comprise only about 3% of the total course content of their Advanced Horseshoeing and Blacksmithing program, with no study of trimming apart from shoeing even mentioned on their web page. And yet, I daresay not a single instructor at this or any other horseshoeing school would argue that the best handmade shoe in the world could possibly make a correctly-balanced hoof when placed on top of an unbalanced trim!

As an interesting contrast, I know that in the Liberated Horsemanship hoof trimming training program, for example, the introductory clinic alone consists of approximately 40 hours of trimming theory along with directly-related topics such as biomechanics and nutrition, and practice. From there, students go on to study individually with field instructors for another minimum of 24 hours, and then typically spend another year or more trimming their own client horses to gain experience before final assessment for certification. When it comes to understanding the hows and whys of proper trimming, that’s a pretty marked difference in education and training as compared to the horseshoeing school’s 12-week advanced training program. And when it comes to the actual process of proper trimming, it also makes it extremely difficult for horse owners to compare skill sets between those who have gone to farrier school and those who have studied in one of the (admittedly very few) dedicated natural trimming training organizations. More recently, the problem has been further compounded by the ever-growing number of “weekend-style” trimming workshops that allege to teach proper trimming in a scant few hours. But, back to the numbers!

So, one might argue that perhaps farriers devalue trimming as much as they do simply because it was only a small part of their studies, and instead see their value as being more directly in the area in which they received the overwhelming majority of their education – making,  modifying, and applying, horseshoes.

Likewise, I might also argue that the work of those hoof care providers who have gained their knowledge about proper trimming techniques through a similarly-in-depth course of study should be worth just as much (minus the hardware costs, of course!) as the farriers’, especially when a more realistic figure for performing a proper trim is considered.

In my opinion – and this is after doing thousands of trims myself, as well as training hundreds of other trimmers from all over the world – one cannot do a proper trim in less than 20 minutes, even on a quiet horse with a minimum amount of hoof to trim. Realistically, I’ve found the average trim time to be somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes, so here’s another look at our numbers with the Labor at 30 minutes and, consequently, the Hourly Wage necessarily adjusted downward again to maintain our national average of $42.06 –

So, realistically, the hopefully-well-trained hoof care provider working for far less than minimum wage still only pockets $4.92 for his/her hour-and-a-half time commitment!

On the other hand, if horse owners (and farriers!) were to consider the skill set of the properly-trained hoof care provider to be commensurate with those of the advanced farrier, albeit in trimming rather than metalworking, the numbers would/should look more like this –

So, what do you think? Is the expertise of your hoof care provider worth it? Would you expect to pay less for a doctor’s visit for a cold rather than a case of bronchitis? Doubtful, because you’re not paying “by the disease;” you’re paying an expert in his/her field for the best diagnosis and treatment possible, regardless of the disease. On the other hand, you would (and should) probably balk at paying the same amount to a dentist for his/her diagnostic abilities with regard to your cold, because there are significant differences in their educations. In fact, I suspect it’s highly unlikely you’d even consider going to the dentist about your cold!

So if the best and healthiest option for your horse turns out to be “only” a trim, then it seems logical that it be carried out by a properly-trained hoof care provider. And if the cost of shoes and nails is really just a few dollars, why would/should you expect to pay the trimmer significantly less than the farrier?

Just some food for thought…