A Matter of Conscience

This started out as what I had envisioned as a fairly straightforward post, written in response to some comments made by a reader and by a local horse owner. Instead, it turned into an extremely challenging one to write – I suppose because I have so much to say on the subject that the difficulty became knowing what to include and what to leave for another time. So it’s somewhat longer than I’d like, but here goes…

The first of these comments was from “David” regarding my “Promises, Promises” post –

Well written article. Any chance you will be writing an article on how horse owners can find a farrier who truly understands natural hoof care? For example, are there any specific questions that might indicate his or her level of experience/understanding in this area?

Right on the heels of David’s comment came some remarks from a woman who suggested I write more for those who are, in her words, “forced to shoe their horses” because of shoeing requirements (real or perceived) imposed by various equine disciplines, and who also wanted to know why I won’t train horseshoers how to do natural hoof care.

Thanks, David, for the kind words! Let me begin by saying, though, that people who do what I do generally don’t refer to themselves as “farriers” because a “farrier” is generally understood to be someone who shoes horses – a “horseshoer.” We, on the other hand, usually refer to ourselves as “hoof care professionals,” “natural hoof care providers,” or something similar, because the overwhelming majority of us won’t shoe horses. So, yes, although I can give you some basic guidelines on what to ask, I also have to tell you that I’m highly skeptical of anyone who claims to be doing natural hoof care and will also put shoes on your horse if you prefer. More on that in a moment, but here’s the list. It isn’t in any particular order, and isn’t comprehensive, but it should help you sort things out –

  • Determine whether or not the individual is certified as a hoof care provider by one of the two main organizations who do training and certification in natural hoof care: Liberated Horsemanship and the AANHCP. If he/she is, they’ll be listed on the organization’s website. These two groups teach strictly non-invasive hoof care as pioneered by Jaime Jackson. Although some other organizations have recently emerged, I can’t vouch for their training programs; these two, I can. There are also some groups who teach a very invasive form of trimming; be careful of them as well.
  • Find out how he/she feels about so-called “corrective” trimming. If they advocate it, run – fast! Because in spite of what anyone else may tell you, you cannot correct conformation issues through trimming or shoeing. You can certainly cause a lot of damage, though.
  • Talk to their clients. If you encounter anything other than a 100% success rate with their trimming, they may not understand the hoof as well as they think. But be careful with this one for two reasons: first, no trimmer has control over every aspect of the horse’s management, and clients, in spite of repeated warnings to the contrary, do some pretty harmful things; and second, because not every horse can be fixed by natural hoof care. Although proper natural hoof care offers every horse their best possible chance at comfort and long-term soundness, it can’t cure every problem. And if someone claims it can, it’s a good reason to avoid them.
  • See what they say about their trimming methodology. If they mention angles and lengths and matching pasterns – anything other than using the bottom of the hoof as the sole (no joke intended!) guide for trimming – they definitely don’t understand the hoof, and you should avoid them.
  • Ask them what makes the hoof look the way it does. If the answer is “I do,” look for someone else.
  • Inquire about what they remove when they trim a hoof. If the answer is something along the lines of “only the junk – nothing more, nothing less,” or “only what nature would remove under optimal environmental conditions,” that’s a good sign. If they say “only hoof wall,” “I never touch the frog (or sole or bars),” or “I pare out the sole,” they’re not doing natural hoof care.
  • Discuss how the hoof should land. At the walk, a proper landing is flat or very slightly (imperceptibly) heel-first. If they say otherwise, keep looking.
  • Visit a client or two and look at the work. Do the hooves have the characteristics of the feral mustang photos or client photos shown in some of my other posts?

Not counting the first one on the list, the remainder will eliminate over 99% of the farriers whose work I’ve seen, so don’t be surprised if it takes you a while to find someone! And for those who’d like to know a bit more, here’s some additional information on shoes and shoeing…

The whole “shod vs. barefoot” subject is a difficult one for me – a “matter of conscience,” as the title of the post says. If horseshoes actually provided the benefits people believe they do, there would be a great many happier and healthier horses and writing this would be easy. But the plain truth is, they don’t. After devoting the last nearly 18 years to working with the hoof at both the theoretical and practical levels, studying the research results of others, and talking to veterinarians, other hoof care professionals, and horse owners from all over the world – all viewed under the critical microscope of my 30+ years as an engineer – I can assure you the data absolutely convinces me of two things:

  1. Horseshoes do not truly offer the benefits they are alleged to offer by nearly every veterinarian and farrier, and,
  2. Any genuine benefit provided by a horseshoe, of which there are shockingly few, is nearly always more than offset by the negative consequences of shoeing a horse.

Yes, I’m well aware that horses have been routinely shod for hundreds of years, and they obviously haven’t all been lame. That’s the usual argument offered up against what I’m claiming here. But in the horse world (among other places), we have the unfortunate habit of confusing correlation – when two or more things are found together – with causality, which is when the presence or action of one thing results in an effect on another. And the gigantic assumption about horseshoes is that they cause soundness (or, at least, prevent lameness). So let me say that, in general, horses are sound not because of what’s typically done to their feet, but in spite of what’s typically done to their feet. In fact, they’re remarkably resilient animals in many respects. Nearly every day, I see horses putting up with absolutely lousy trimming and shoeing (which, by the way, I do my best to ignore so I can sleep at night – I don’t butt in where I’m not asked). The owners, unfortunately, often don’t recognize the problems because their horses seem to be ok and because some so-called “expert” told them that’s what the horse needed. Problem is, most of those “experts” really don’t have a sufficient understanding of the task at hand to not cause more harm than good. That’s not just my opinion; look at what Dr. Deb Bennett, well-known equine anatomist and author, has to say on the subject in her paper entitled Principles of Equine Orthopedics

What concerns me – and it ought to be of concern to every horse owner – is that a person with little or no training in physical assessment; no knowledge of the development or physiology of body tissues; a vague or incorrect concept of what is normal in stance; who is unprepared to relate the principles of physics or biomechanics to his work; who has never been taught how to develop a long-term treatment plan, or even that this would be of importance – THIS person is going to be asked to design, manufacture, and apply an orthotic device (a horseshoe) to my horse’s limb….When the farrier does not know why to proceed, he cannot know how to proceed….if good work happens, it happens by chance.

Dr. Bennett goes on to say that this lack of understanding and training is what’s responsible for the many, many “schools of thought” about trimming and shoeing, and why they all seem to have less-than-wonderful success rates. If you don’t believe me, just ask five farriers how they’d shoe a particular horse – especially one with any sort of “issues” – and then try to sort out the five different answers you receive! But isn’t it only logical that if the horseshoers truly understood the forces that govern the horse’s movement and consequent shape of the hoof, there would be only one answer to that question? Proper trimming and shoeing is not a matter of opinion; there’s a correct way, and then there are all the other ways. The correct way is the one that takes into account all of the factors that cause the hoof to look and function as it does; Dr. Bennett would say you either understand them or you don’t. We both would say that the vast majority don’t. And that’s why it’s difficult for me to imagine how the same individual can successfully practice both shoeing and natural hoof care – the two are at odds with each other practically by definition. It’s also why I’m not comfortable with training anyone who continues to shoe horses.

And finally, let me close by addressing the “forced to shoe your horse” comment. While I realize there can be tremendous pressures exerted on horse owners by well-intentioned but uninformed friends, trainers, barn owners, veterinarians, and a variety of other “experts,” no one makes anyone else shoe his or her horse. If there’s a genuine need for sole protection, there are some wonderful boots out there that offer every real advantage shoes only allege to offer, without any of the negative consequences of shoeing. But if it’s because you’re involved in a discipline that requires you to shoe your horse to participate, and you accept the ever-mounting body of evidence that shoeing is not in your horse’s long-term, and often short-term, best interest, then perhaps you should consider finding another way to enjoy your horse. For his sake. But don’t claim that you have to shoe your horse. That’s a choice you’ve made. Maybe a difficult one, maybe an easy one, but a choice nevertheless.

Remember: you have a choice. Your horse doesn’t.


  1. Pam Martin says:

    Great article, Steve! I only wish I had this knowledge when my mare, Rose, was suffering with acute laminitis. For the reader’s benefit – I had taken her to an equine hospital due to complications from the laminitis. They insisted she needed shoes, pads, etc., to keep her coffin bone from rotating any further. I hesitantly allowed them to do this, due to my lack of knowledge. Two vets insisted this is what she needed. I cannot, nor do I want to imagine the horrific pain I put my horse through by permitting them to pound nails into her laminitic feet. Several days after I brought her home, I started researching other ways to help her as I was not comfortable with their treatment. Long story made short, I found Steve. Within the week, he pulled her shoes, started barefoot trims and this along with diet changes (and prayer) brought about a miraculous, almost instant recovery. Steve commented a year later after she grew a new hoof, “No one would be able to tell this mare foundered like she did!” She was completely sound! She had no rings on her feet. Her feet were beautiful! That made a believer out of me. We, as caretakers, owe it to our horses to educate ourselves on the benefits of natural hoofcare and staying barefoot BEFORE we are “pressured” to nail metal to their feet. I’ll forever be grateful, Steve, for what you did for my beloved, Rose.

  2. Steve says:

    Thank you, Pam, for both your kind words and your willingness to post your story. Yes, I well remember that first call when you asked me to explain how we treat the laminitic horse. I also well remember your response – you replied, “You realize that everything you just said is the complete opposite of what the vet and farrier said to do!”

    It’s a sad reality that most vets and farriers simply don’t understand what needs to be done for these horses. The perplexing thing is that what we do for the feet is so coldly logical that it’s truly hard to imagine how they can’t understand it. Nevertheless, it’s true, and a great many horses suffer needlessly because of it. When vets and farriers treat these horses, they talk about improvement in days or weeks; with us, every horse – without exception – is markedly more comfortable in minutes.

    I can’t stress enough how important it is to use the “gut and head” test when considering any treatment option – and not just for laminitis, but for even routine horse management and health care decisions. Regardless of how confident and persuasive the other party seems to be, if it doesn’t “feel” right, and it doesn’t make sense, then it’s almost certainly the wrong thing for your horse.


    • Pam Martin says:

      Yes, I remember that conversation very well. We talked about it for a good while. And after I made the appointment with you, I really didn’t know if I was doing the right thing by going against medical advise. I had called the hospital after our conversation to inquire if natural barefoot trims would be an option for her. They told me in the future, but not now. The shoes needed to stay on to prevent further damage! But, I remember well you saying, “Does it make sense to you what they did? Just think about it.” My stomach was churning when you pulled that first nail out. I kept thinking, “What if this isn’t the right thing to do – what if THIS will cause more damage”. But everthing I had read, what you had said and what I felt told me this was right. It wasn’t easy for me to go against what two doctors were telling me. They showed me the xrays, explained why it had to be done, etc. But starting the natural barefoot trims was truly the best thing for her. Her results were amazing and I am happy my “gut” told me the shoes were just the wrong way to go.

  3. Steve says:

    All good articles – thanks for sharing them!


  1. […] I encourage ALL horse owners with horses now shod, to investigate the stunning benefits of taking their horses barefoot. The World Wide Web has many resources for self-educating about hoof care practices that do no harm. Here are a few links to help you get started: video – “Why Barefoot Horses?, In 3 Minutes or Less with Joe Camp” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2ZofRxB1bU article – My Conversion by John Graves – http://liberatedhorsemanship.com/Free_Articles.html article – Hoof Adaptation by Bruce Nock, PhD – http://liberatedhorsemanship.com/Free_Articles.html article – Choosing a Hoof Care Professional by Ann Corso – http://liberatedhorsemanship.com/Free_Articles.html blog – A Matter of Conscience by Steve Hebrock – http://enlightenedequine.com/2011/10/27/a-matter-of-conscience/ […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *