An Interview with The Vet

Neal Valk

While in Tennessee recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes with Dr. Neal Valk, a board-certified veterinary surgeon, friend, and fellow clinician in Liberated Horsemaship’s hoof trimming training program. I’ve known Neal for six years now, and continue to respect and appreciate his contributions to my knowledge base when it comes to a veterinarian’s perspective on hoof care, which is his specialty. In fact, he is the only veterinarian I’ve met to date in whom I have complete confidence when it comes to matters of the hoof, and, should a horse of mine ever require hoof surgery, Neal would be the first person I’d talk to. And that’s why I refer to him as “The Vet” – because Neal’s made it his mission to go way beyond the boundaries of his veterinary education and undertake an in-depth study of the equine digit.

I asked Neal if we could do a very quick interview, because although I’ve now heard him express his opinion on these matters many times, I thought it would be more appropriate for my readers to hear it “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. So here are a couple of quick questions I put to “The Vet” –

Steve: As a board-certified surgeon, you’ve had training far and above what “normal” veterinarians have had. I’m curious: could you describe your education, specifically about the equine foot, and what you’re taught about the equine foot in vet school?

Dr. Valk: In veterinary school, beginning in the very first year while studying basic equine anatomy, we learn a lot about the anatomy of the foot, internal and external. We learn about the physiology of the foot – the nerve supply – and that’s pretty much it. As we proceed in veterinary school, we take courses in pathology, where we learn to recognize pathology at a microscopic level. And when we take courses in radiology, we’re taught normal radiology of the equine foot, and then we’re taught what abnormal looks like; we’re taught what pathology looks like on radiographs. As we proceed further into species-specific classes – musculoskeletal, for example, is the course where we learn about lameness and everything that has to do with the musculoskeletal system in the horse – we again touch on anatomy and speak more specifically about pathology as it pertains to the live animal, and do a bit of work with learning how to test – how to diagnose – pathology. It’s very pathology-oriented. And in the final year, in clinics, we actually see the horse’s feet, and do some hands-on work: hoof testers – that sort of thing. We do some nerve blocks; again, diagnostic procedures to try to identify pathology, which, in most cases, ultimately leads to radiographs, looking for more pathology.

Steve: So you don’t really receive a lot of formal education about what “normal” looks like in a foot, with respect to trimming or the form of the foot?

Dr. Valk: No. At least when I went to veterinary school, there was no mention at all of hoof maintenance or trimming or anything like that. At the clinical level, the final year on our clinical rotations, we talked about “corrective shoeing” for, again, pathology or certain pathologies. But no, we didn’t have any instruction on hoof maintenance or that sort of thing – not with horses. I remember having that with cattle, ironically, but not so much with horses. I certainly wouldn’t say that we worked with any normal feet. Pretty much everything that came through the clinic was abnormal for one reason or another; at least, that is, based on my view now. But I don’t remember having any kind of formal instruction in farriery. It was basically, well, “this is the pathology, that means this is the diagnosis, this is the disease, and ask the farrier to do this,” and that’s kind of the way we handled it.

Steve: Sort of a “cookbook.”

Dr. Valk: Yeah. Really no hands-on, as far as the horse’s feet went.

Dr Neal Valk

Steve: And these days, as a practicing veterinarian and as a practicing natural hoof care provider, are there circumstances where you recommend, you know, “this is pathology, and you’ve got to put a shoe on it”? Contracted tendons or laminitis or navicular disease? Broken bones? Anything like that where you feel that a shoe is the only or the best course of action for that animal?

Dr. Valk: I think the only situation where I could justify the use of a rigid, metal, semi-permanently-fixed shoe would be sliding plates on the hind feet of a reining horse. Strictly to reduce the traction of the bare foot, because horses can’t slide when they’re barefoot – they have too much traction. But as far as dealing with any kind of pathology or any kind of abnormal hoof condition, I no longer see a reason or a use for shoes. I used to think that a continuous rim shoe or an egg-bar shoe on a pad was necessary to treat coffin-bone fractures, but I’ve had the experience – at least one time – of treating a coffin-bone fracture with nothing. Just time and a barefoot, natural trim. I did put the horse in a stall for a couple of months, but it healed beautifully with nothing on the foot. So no, I made a big turnaround from the vet I used to be years ago, and I can’t justify using steel on feet. I just can’t do it. There are too many alternatives – too many better options, I think. I use a lot of hoof boots and pads and that sort of thing to rehabilitate horses, treat foundered horses, and I don’t have any of the side effects or the negative aspects of fixed shoeing that I used to have to deal with. So I’ve gotten completely away from using shoes of any kind.

Steve: Do you actually consider there being some benefits to shoes that are more than offset by the problems they create, or is it more of a “you just don’t need them – period” kind of thing?

Dr. Valk: I think there are benefits to using shoes in some scenarios, but not necessarily related to the foot or problems of the hoof. I think there are some situations where, for whatever reason, it’s inconvenient or it’s impractical for an owner to manage a barefoot horse. And in that case, I would rather see the horse be comfortable in shoes than be uncomfortable for lack of attention on the part of the owner. And, again, I don’t think that’s the best way to go, but this is the real world and that’s just the way it’s going to be some times. If you have an owner that’s not willing to put hoof boots on a horse that needs them when they’re riding or whatever, putting a shoe on is a fallback position. I wouldn’t do it personally, but I can see that there are situations where that’s necessary.

Steve: Given the best shoeing job possible – everything is as perfect as you can imagine it, based on what you know, do you see the shoe as a neutral thing in that case, or as a negative thing?

Dr. Valk: I think if you’re talking about a rigid metal shoe, then I cannot see that there’s any benefit, even in a perfect situation or an ideal situation. I think maybe my opinion would change If I had more experience with plastic shoes or some other type of polymer shoe that actually flexes and bends and functions more like the barefoot hoof does. I’d be interested to find out about things like that. But I really don’t think there’s a good justification to use rigid, fixed shoes on a horse. But I do want to add that I certainly have friends who shoe their horses, and I don’t have a problem with that. Ultimately, it’s their decision.

You can read more about Dr. Valk’s background and philosophy on his Natural Equine Podiatry website. He currently teaches a seminar through Liberated Horsemanship entitled “Natural Hoof Care and Veterinary Medicine Working Together Toward a Common Goal“. It’s highly informative and well worth attending.

Thanks, Neal!


  1. Sandy Judy says:

    this was great! I sent excerpts to my vet’s FB message. We live in Saddlebred country so there’s lots of built-up shoes and horses kept in stalls.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks. Yes, Saddlebreds are definitely one of the most abused horse breeds in this country. I once did a talk to a group of horse owners who largely owned gaited breeds. I began my talk as I usually do, by saying that my sole objective in hoof care is the long-term comfort and soundness of the horse. I was absolutely shocked when several owners pointed out that they don’t care about the horse’s comfort and soundness; they only care about winning! I truly hope that attitude disappears in my lifetime – wishful thinking, unfortunately…


  2. Lisa Ross says:

    Thank you for taking the time to interview Dr. Neal Valk. I’ve posted this link on FB for others to read. I found it insightful, as I’ve had a lot of the same questions in my mind about what DVM’s learn in grad. school about the equine hoof.

    • Steve says:

      You’re welcome! In talking with other professors and vets, I’ve discovered that Dr. Valk is by no means unique in not learning much about the equine digit in veterinary school; in fact, it appears to be the norm. And it’s especially disturbing considering Dr. Valk is better educated than the typical vet, specialized in horses, and yet still didn’t receive more of an education about hooves. Horse owners really need to be made aware of this, since we assume vets have this as part of their education, and we depend on their advice.


  3. Rachael says:

    Very interesting interview. I believe Dr. Valk is in Greeneville TN and even though I never met him I have heard many nice things about his expertise while I lived in upper east TN. I have people asking me frequently just what are those things I have on my horses’ hooves. Well, boots of course because I believe in the bf trim and all the good that comes to the horse because of it. Thank you Dr. Valk and Steve.

    • Steve says:

      And an article about boots and booting is in the works. They’re an extremely useful tool for situations where a horse needs extra protection, and offer every real advantage that shoeing only alleges to offer.


  4. Sheila Morlas says:

    Thank you so much Steve for this insightful interview. So refreshing to hear from Dr. Valk. More and more Veterinarians are getting on board!

  5. my daughter has started ,shoeless trimming,
    in australia, she will graduate in dec.
    can she have a chance for a new breed of Vet,s??

    • Steve says:

      I’d love to think so, but I fear that day is still a long way off. I do take some hope, though, from a story Dr. Valk related to me several years ago…

      He was attending a veterinary conference, and was in some sort of hoof-related seminar. At the start of the seminar, the presenter asked who in the room would never, under any circumstances, shoe a horse. Neal said he rather gingerly raised his hand, and discovered he was the only vet in the room with his hand up. But after the seminar, several other vets approached him and said that they, too, shared his view on shoeing, but were afraid to say so!

      So I do think a time when vets learn about hooves and nutrition (among other topics) is coming, but probably not in my lifetime.


  6. Jill Griffith says:

    Would love to contribute. I live in the UK where vets are constantly saying horses can’t go barefoot in our wet climate. Im in my final year of a BSc (hons)Equine science and have compared shod and unshod frog width to length ratio. Needless to say there is a significant difference.

    • Steve says:

      That’s a great study! One of the biggest problems in the horse world in general is the lack of studies, which is understandable because of the lack of funding. Those of us who are in a position to do some serious science should definitely take every opportunity to do so. Thanks for your efforts and your comments!


  7. Linda Barber says:

    Dr. Steve, I was really interested when I received an e-mail from a friend about your thoughts of shoeing. I have an older Paint mare that was used mainly as a broodmare because she had a very bad hoof injury. We wanted a older horse for pleasure riding, our vet has been working with her with schock treatments on her hoof to break up the scare tissue, which had become infected on her foot. He told us her foot was just like a person puttin on a leather boot and walking in water and as it dryed tightened up and caused pain and pressure. He has done about 3 treatments, seems much better, but my farrier has shown me how to trim her hoof where the frog of the foot is, because the injury ripped her foot and the hoof grows wrong and bacteria gets in hoof, causing thrush and infection. He also suggested a boot instead of shoes to help her. It was great to read your article, gives me more hope to correct my mares problem. Thank you, would love to hear to speak!!! Linda

    • Steve says:

      Thanks, Linda. It sounds like you’re getting some good advice, and I hope your mare has a swift recovery!


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