What Makes it “Natural Hoof Care?”

It’s not unusual these days to hear horse owners, farriers, and even veterinarians talk about so-called “natural” approaches to a wide variety of equine health and management topics, including vaccinations, deworming, feeding, and hoof care. Since (as I explained in my first post) my equine expertise lies primarily in the area of hoof care, that’s the only one of these I’m qualified to discuss. Hopefully, any advice you’re taking regarding any of the other issues is coming from someone equally well-educated in that particular discipline, and not just the ramblings found on so many websites! After all, a lot of folks (from altruistic to opportunistic) have eagerly jumped on the “natural” bandwagon without any credentials or data to support their claims. As usual, caveat emptor!

Sometimes it’s more effective to describe something by giving guidelines about what it isn’t, rather than describing only what it is. When educating horse people in any of the myriad circumstances in which I find myself, I always try to impress upon them that true natural hoof care is never a matter of simply removing the horseshoes and trimming the hooves as if they’re about to receive another shoe; there’s nothing even remotely “natural” about that type of trimming! Yet, that remains an extremely popular misconception. For example, I had an opportunity to speak with a horse owner the other day who described how her friend’s horse, who had been without shoes for quite a while, has developed sidebone. Sidebone, for those who may not be familiar with it, is ossification – the conversion of cartilage to bone – of one or both of the two so-called lateral cartilages. These fairly large, vertical plates of cartilage are found at the rear of the hoof on either “side” of the coffin bone, as can be seen in the following illustration –

Lateral Cartilages

These cartilages are normally fairly pliable, like a stiff pencil eraser; if you put your hand across the two “bumps” found at the top, rearmost part of the foot and gently squeeze, you’re flexing the lateral cartilages. But repeated unilateral concussion (meaning primarily on one side) hastens the ossification process. And so it was completely predictable when the horse owner went on to tell me that it appears her friend’s horse has been trimmed to leave one heel quite a bit longer than the other. This is something farriers do on a very regular basis, allegedly to “correct” conformation “problems.” Regardless of whether or not you believe it can possibly fix a twist in a limb that originates in the shoulder or hip (trust me – it can’t), it definitely creates a source of unilateral concussion which sets the horse on a path towards developing sidebone and ringbone (more about that one later). The fact that there’s no shoe on top of the unbalanced trim does not make this “natural hoof care.” It only means the situation is not quite as dire as it would be if a shoe were added to the mess, because a shoe would further increase the concussive forces as well as completely defeat any chance of the horse wearing off the uneven trimming. Again – merely being without shoes is but one step towards true natural hoof care. You can still have exactly the same disastrous consequences to your horse if the hoof care provider doesn’t fully understand what he/she is doing.

When it comes to hoof care, “natural” can be defined only one way: natural hoof care is hoof care done in complete accordance with what nature demonstrates to be true about the hoof and the forces that shape it. Indeed, nature’s name is…”physics.” Friction, mass, inertia, centripetal force, levers, equilibrium – all of these concepts, and many more, come into play when trying to grasp the realities of what makes a hoof successfully perform its primary function of facilitating movement while protecting its sensitive inner structures. There are, of course, other important roles the hoof plays in the life of the horse, but if the principal objective of efficient movement while protecting is honored, the rest will follow – naturally!

I’ll have to get into the specifics of the characteristics of a properly-trimmed hoof (whether by nature or by human) at a later time, but for now, consider what the effects of traveling miles every day over extremely abrasive terrain would be on a hoof, such as the ones shown in the following photo I took of a horse on Tomas Teskey’s ranch in Arizona –

Real Natural Hoof Care

Under these circumstances there can be no question of proper balance, since, with every step of the horse, his way of going on the rough ground will shape his hooves for optimal efficiency without compromising his comfort. There will be no excessive length, and no sharp edges to be found.

Since most of our horses aren’t fortunate enough to be kept in arid, 100-acre “paddocks” like those at Dr. Teskey’s, we must make up the difference by trimming for those same characteristics as if they were. That, coupled with proper diet and adequate movement, will ensure the healthiest, most problem-free feet possible.

And that is the essence of natural hoof care. If your hoof care professional is doing anything else – anything contrary to what your head and your gut tell you is true – he or she is not providing hoof care that’s in your horse’s best interest.

Caveat emptor!



  1. Steve says:

    I just had a telephone call from another trimmer and friend complaining about the very thing this Post touches on – the growing number of so-called (and, in many cases, self-proclaimed) “natural trimmers” who are advocating and practicing some techniques that ol’ Mother Nature would have a major problem with. This includes followers of some very well-respected people in the trimming arena.

    But even those with the best of intentions can, and do, get off course. I can’t stress enough that it remains the horse owner’s responsibility to determine whether or not these folks – regardless of whom they are, or claim to be, affiliated with – are truly doing hoof care in harmony with what logic and the principles of physics tell us must be the case.

    And if they aren’t – for the sake of your horse – run!

  2. diane says:

    I too had a hard time getting rid of my farrier. I spent close to $10,000.00 in vet bills trying to figure out why my horse was slightly off. My poor horse was poked prodded and scanned for 1yr.and 9 months.I went to 2 bare foot classes , pulled my horses shoes , am using the natural trimmer ( guy who gave the classes) and have never looked back. My horse has never been more sound. He didn’t have shoes until he was 7. Even then he didn’t move properly because my farrier trimmed him as if he were going to wear shoes. To me that’s the difference between a sound horse and a lame horse. It took me 2 weeks to get up the nerve to call my farrier and tell him I switched. I ride him with easy boot epics on his front and easy boot gloves on his hind. If it’s nice footing he can go without hind boots. It’s wonderful to have my horse happy!

    • Steve says:

      I’m very glad to hear your horse is doing better. Unfortunately, I see this same scenario over and over again. I look forward to the day when the veterinary world figures out that horses weren’t “designed” to wear shoes, and, even with a properly-fitted shoe on top of a proper trim (a rare thing, indeed!), the negative consequences of long-term shoeing still outweigh any perceived benefits. If your horse needs genuine foot protection, put on boots!



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