No equine studies exist that compare the before-and-after effects on the hoofs of barefoot-kept horses walking over man-made environments. The purpose of this pilot study was to document hoof changes and capability in barefoot horses and ponies walking on gravel, asphalt and concrete screed during a period of 16 days, at a total distance of 50 kilometres. The hypothesis was that the hoofs would require trimming at the end of the study and that the soles would harden. Results showed that hoofs required trimming on day 9 of the study and again at the end of the study. The front hoofs of 2 horses had a more pronounced natural concavity that was visible on the last day of the study, confirming thicker sole depth.
Sarah Albanozzo, a Maltese, part-time student researcher with the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, funded and coordinated this study which has shown promising developments. Three adult geldings and one adult mare participated in the research project. Two were horses of ± 600kg and two were Shetland ponies (one mare) of ± 200kg. Ages ranged from 8-20 years (mean age: 14 years) and body condition scores were ±6 (scale 1-9). A health check on all was conducted by an equine veterinarian prior to and following the study. A day before the experiment, all equine hooves were radiographed from the lateral side to ensure adequate sole depth and correct alignment of the phalanxes. Sole depth was measured from the coffin bone - distal border (crena) and from the wing (angle). Radiographs of all hooves were again taken 3 days following the experiment to measure sole thickness.
External measurements of each hoof were recorded from day 1 to day 9 to monitor hoof growth in particular areas, from the solar side: (a) distance from frog apex to toe; (b) collateral groove depth at mid-bar, (c) collateral groove depth at apex, (d) heel height, (e) frog width, and from the dorsal side (f) distance from coronet to toe
Prior to the study, the researcher adopted the “First, do no harm” principle, assessed the risks and minimised them as much as possible. There is a huge responsibility that comes with the handling of an unpredictable animal, ten times one’s weight. The horses were walked on roads that had little or no traffic at a certain time of the day and the weather forecast was constantly monitored for rain and strong wind. On one of the days there was a heavy downpour and horses were walked after it stopped. For a couple of days, when Force 7 winds were unavoidable, the distance was reduced by half to minimise the risk of spooking. Photos of the soles of all hoofs were taken every time the horses returned from a walk to check for any visible signs of bruising or other pathology.
It was decided to walk for 50 km on the road as this is not the norm in Malta. The barefoot-kept horse world has exploded internationally. Many Olympic showjumpers are keeping their horses barefoot as performance is better. The fastest Standardbred harness racer in the world, “Sebastian K”, is also kept and raced barefoot permanently. When one compares endurance horses that are ridden barefoot and who cover 80 km of rough terrain in a day, this study is nothing compared the distance they cover.
The data of this study is still being processed and the researcher will work on publishing a paper during the summer months.
What contributed to this success?
Diet, management and trim are very important factors. Grain and pelleted feed weaken the hoofs as they are high in sugar and starch. This is the problem. Nothing is going to happen to the hoofs if the horse is fed a handful of grain or pellets. However, when one is feeding a diet consisting of 60% hay and 40% grain, this will eventually weaken the hoofs.
The horses in this study are fed hay that was analysed for nutrients. Samples of hay that is imported from France by 2 suppliers were sent to the UK to be tested. Both are good quality and have an adequate protein content. An alfalfa sample was also sent to the same laboratory which resulted in 15% protein. No hay has enough nutrients so horses cannot survive on this alone. To ensure that the horses get 100% nutrition as per NRC 2007 guidelines, the hay is complemented with a “forage balancer” plus some alfalfa and unmollassed sugar beet. Forage balancers come in powder form and contain just the nutrients that are lacking in hay. Important not to confuse a forage balancer with a vitamin and mineral product. Most vitamin and mineral supplements are high in iron and this will also affect hoof health as it inhibits absorption of certain minerals. Feeding vitamin and mineral supplements blindly may cause an imbalance (incorrect ratio) of other micro and macro minerals.
Management is another important factor. Barefoot-kept horses need to have the freedom to roam about on hard and soft ground. The more varied, the better and the more conditioned the hoof. The trimming models in the barefoot world do not touch (or carve out) any part of the sole, not even the frog. The hoof wall is rasped until it is level with the sole. Heels are not too high and not too low and the three phalanxes should be aligned. Toes are always kept short to maximise breakover.
The study raises a number of questions that merit further research. What makes a barefoot hoof capable of walking over man-made environments? Does a centrally-loaded foot have a healthier and tougher hoof horn especially since upon impact, most of the blood flows first through the frog tubules, maximising circulation? Does a centrally-loaded foot with a short toe have none or less musculoskeletal injuries in the long run since the natural gait of a horse is altered once shod? Do abrasive surfaces create stimuli that promote hoof growth at a walk
There is definitely a need for more scientific studies to be conducted on domesticated, barefoot-kept horses in other parts of the world, with a particular focus on the capability of that hoof. To date, there is no published literature of domesticated horses walking over man-made environments. Most peer-reviewed publications are studies on shod horses, mainly the racehorse and a few others on the hoofs of wild horses.
Sarah Albanozzo is also a Research Project Manager from the Research Support Services Directorate at the University of Malta.