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Main Content

Natural Hoof Care

Letting horses go shoeless, or ‘barefoot’

By Colleen Creamer

Photography by Mark Mosrie

Brad Kelley is a farrier of a different breed.

As the sole owner of Brad’s Natural Hoof Care in McMinnville, Tenn., Kelley is an advocate of letting horses go “barefoot,” rather than wearing the metal shoes that require nails.

“The only time I would ever recommend someone nailing a shoe on a hoof is if the horse had a coffin bone fracture and the hoof capsule had to be kept immobile,” he says.

“The hoof has to expand and contract, and when you put shoes on a horse, you're locking their capsule into a fixed position,” he says. “You take all of that functionality away. When a horse’s hoof hits the ground, it pulls an enormous amount of blood into the hoof capsule. Once it leaves the ground, the blood is shot back up to the heart. So, you get that constant circulation near the hoof.”

Also, when a horse’s frog — the fleshy “V” shape under the hoof — is taken out of play with the use of metal shoes, the frog can atrophy, which is counter-productive because the frog acts a shock absorber, among other things, Kelley explains.

Horse owners who no longer want to use metal shoes can choose hoof “boots,” which are an alternative to metal shoes; they allow for a full range-of-movement while offering traction for the horse.

“When I mention them to a lot of people, they have just never heard of them,” Kelly says. “They’ve got comfort pads, sort of like a liner in your shoe, and those boots still allow the hoof to expand and contract, so the frog is still stimulated. You’re still letting them be as natural as possible while still protecting the hoof, and you are providing more protection than metal shoes because the entire hoof is protected.”

The boots are put on for riding and then taken off afterward.

Kelley also suggests that many barefoot advocates toughen up their horses’ hooves by putting down pea gravel on areas where the horses spend a lot of time, such as a run-in shed.

“The key is not just to have them standing on it; they need to move and walk on it. Pea gravel is one of the best surfaces that you can give a horse,” Kelley says. “If you want your horse to be able to handle the rougher terrain of riding, then you have to have them exposed to that in their living conditions.”

Barefoot horsemanship requires paying a bit more attention to hoof health, says Kelley, whose services include natural balance trimming, professional boot fitting, glue-on shoes, and founder rehabilitation and other therapies.

“The barefoot lifestyle for a horse puts more responsibility on the horse owner. You have to pay attention to diet; you have to pay attention to exercise,” Kelley says. “So much of the time we keep our horses on soft pastures, and then we give our horses sweet feed full of sugars and starches, and that is just not good for hoof function.”