Properly-trimmed bare hoof

A client horse’s beautiful white hoof!

New clients, particularly those with horses going barefoot for the first time since their youth, often ask, “When can I ride my horse again?” as I’m finishing up the first trim. That question used to puzzle me quite a bit, because nothing we do ought to affect a horse’s comfort in any way but positive. But an experience with a farrier finally made that question make perfect sense.

I was trimming a couple of horses for a new client some distance from home when her farrier walked into the barn. I later realized this had been the plan all along; she wanted him to observe me so he could “duplicate” the natural trim and continue using him, which I didn’t particularly appreciate. Nor, by the way, do I think anyone can grasp true natural hoof care simply by observing a single trim. But that’s not the issue at hand right now, so I’ll defer comments on that subject to another time. At any rate, he was a nice guy and I enjoyed talking with him. But after he’d watched me for a while, he suddenly said, “I see you don’t cut into any live tissue.” “No!” I replied with some shock. “Do you???” He then explained that at the very well-known and well-respected farrier school he’d attended, they were taught to cut into the live tissue of the sole (“pare out the sole”) as part of the trim process before applying a shoe.

And then it all made sense! I realized I’d watched other farriers who had trained at this same institution cut away sole tissue until they could flex the sole with their thumbs. I don’t think you have to be a genius to figure out that if I can flex the sole with my thumbs, a 1,000-pound horse stepping on a rock is going to hurt! But this, at least in my experience, is a very common practice. I remember helping a young farrier with his trimming some time later, and watching him cut the toe way down into live tissue. “Too short?” he’d ask. “Yes!” I’d reply, “When you see red (blood), it’s definitely too short!”

This is why new clients often ask that question; they’re used to having their horses be a bit tender after shoeing because living tissue has been violated. Obviously, the shoe, acting as a spacer between the sole and the ground, helps mitigate the discomfort. But this is why so many people who “try” taking their horses barefoot aren’t successful – because the same person who shoes their horse, cutting into living tissue as part of the process, is the person who trims their horse to be barefoot. And the horse, predictably, ends up sore – sometimes very sore. The owner then concludes the horse can’t be barefoot, and the shoes go back on. And “barefoot” takes the blame, even though the horse really never stood a chance because he wasn’t given a chance.

I typically see several different variations on sole tissue violation, depending on the farrier/trimmer. To be fair, many so-called “natural” hoof trimmers are also guilty of these same errors. But true natural hoof care never removes living tissue, but always removes only the ready-to-slough-off tissue that adequate movement over suitably-abrasive terrain would remove, given the opportunity. The illustration below shows a cross-section of the wall/sole/frog at the widest part of the hoof –

Chart of sole violations

The top illustration shows the concavity and consistent thickness of a healthy hoof with all of the “junk” exfoliated. As you’ll note, the sole blends smoothly into the wall (at the white line), with no “lip” or “rim.”

The second drawing depicts the very common situation where the trimmer has “pared out” living sole tissue. This weakens the supporting and shock-absorbing capabilities of the hoof, allowing the weight of the horse to flex the sole more than it should, and therefore more readily come into contact with the ground. That, combined with the sensitive tissue that’s been exposed through over-trimming, often makes the unshod horse very sore on anything but a flat, unyielding surface. Even if shod, this horse will be sensitive on rocks or large gravel until the sole has had the chance to grow back. Often, these horses end up with very flat soles until proper hoof care is implemented.

Another very common scenario is shown in the next image, where the trimmer has over-rasped the hoof and violated the hoof’s concavity. It appears as a “rim” of sole inside the hoof wall, and is often covered up by a shoe. This destruction of the sole’s natural concavity also weakens the supporting and shock-absorbing capabilities of the hoof as above, although these horses, if shod, are often not as obviously sore because the over-thinned portion of the sole is covered. On the other hand, the loss of concavity places the sole that much closer to the ground. These horses can often take quite a while to regain the lost concavity, depending on the severity of the situation. These soles will sometimes appear to be flat, but only because the surrounding wall has been cut too short. An improperly-exfoliated hoof can mimic this problem, incidentally, because normal wall rasping flattens the sole material that should’ve been removed; the only way to distinguish between the two is by proper exfoliation.

The last illustration combines the previous two problems, and is what I witness in nearly every shod horse to one degree or another. This is why a shod horse often has trouble transitioning to barefoot: his hooves have endured many years of highly-invasive trimming with its attendant sole thinning and loss of support, and the horse is understandably uncomfortable on anything but the most forgiving terrain. In these situations, hoof boots are often necessary to allow the horse to be pain-free when ridden until the hoof recovers.

Proper hoof care should never cause pain. Sadly, many horses never get to experience that life. But once you understand what the farrier is doing, it’s pretty simple to understand why so many owners believe his or her horse cannot be without shoes, or have limited success with being barefoot. But the only way to truly “give barefoot a chance” is to hire a well-trained natural hoof care provider who understands what genuine natural hoof care is all about. So if your hoof care provider is guilty of either (or both) of these errors, don’t you owe it to your horse to look elsewhere? I think he’d think so…


  1. Jean Nock says:

    Love this Steve. What about the other current trim thinking…..leaving the dead sole debris because it is “needed”?

    • Steve says:

      I commented on this practice to some extent in Half a Trim?, but I’ll add a few thoughts here…

      I think that “philosophy” stems from a combination of ignorance and ego: ignorance, because leaving dead sole implies a clear lack of awareness of how, and more importantly, why, nature trims the hoof as it does; and ego, because these folks presume to know better than nature about how the hoof should be trimmed. The U.S. Great Basin horses’ environment most closely mimics the most demanding of our riding situations – the abrasive, unyielding surface. And in that environment, nature, through nearly constant movement, removes all of the excess material. This is one step in a cyclic process: the short, properly-balanced hoof yields proper joint alignment, a proper landing, and straight growth, which promotes efficient movement, which allows the abrasive forces to produce a short, properly-balanced hoof, etc.

      Our domestic horses rarely experience sufficient movement over sufficiently-abrasive terrain, so we must intervene and do as nature does, because we ride our horses in sand arenas, over hard-packed earth, on gravel paths, and on paved roads. And in those environments, if we’ve removed only part of the hoof material – whether it’s wall, sole, bars, or frog – we’ll make our horses sore. As I like to say to people: the horse doesn’t care if he’s stepping on a rock, or on part of his hoof that’s been left too long relative to the other parts. If it’s too long, it’s too long, and it’s going to bruise him!


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