Why question 1000 years of solid tradition? If it ain't broken, why fix it?
The thing is, if we take a look at the traditional hoofcare of domestic horses, it is broken. Not today or tomorrow, but the ultimate outcome (in many instances) is premature retirement due to chronic lameness.
What is chronic lameness?
Degeneration that develops in a dysfunctional body over a long period of time and manifests into such problems as: laminitis, navicular, ringbone, side bone, degenerative joints etc. These are a huge problem in the equine industry.
What is the problem with shoes?
Horse shoes take away the function of horses' feet. We put shoes on our horses' feet to supplement their primary function - the protection of soft inner structures - but by doing this, all of the other functions of the equine foot are impeded.
Loss of Function
Loss of concussion absorption
Horses' feet are designed to absorb nearly all of the concussion from ground impact before it reaches the joints of the lower leg which are only able to accommodate a very small amount of concussion. (some concussion is actually needed to provide the stimulus for fluid transfer into and out of joints for cartilage nourishment…but that's another story).
The equine foot is a complex, three dimensional shock absorber.
But horseshoes blow this function right out of the water. Not only is the frog unable to act as the initial and primary weight bearing structure, the impact of the rigid shoe is transferred straight through the hoof wall, into the bones and joints.
It has been estimated that a shod foot receives more concussion at a walk than a barefoot does at a trot. A commonly accepted figure is a 70-80% increase in concussion when shoes are applied. (and yes, there is quite some science to support these claims!)
A human analogy: what would you prefer to be walking around on - rubber or steel?
The farrier industry has for many years been attempting to address the concussion issue by developing various soft shoes made of rubber or plastic as well as padding material to put between shoe and foot, but long term success remains elusive.
Foot function allows both blood and lymph to freely access every living cell in the foot, providing nourishment and removing waste. (technical term - perfusion).
This cellular nourishment is able to continue, even in spite of the crushing weight of a horse standing on its feet. How is this possible? The downward pressing skeleton is basically carried on a body of blood that saturates the corium (these mechanisms that are still not fully defined).
There appears to be a significant compromise in the circulation around horses' feet when they are wearing shoes. This is most evident on cold mornings when healthy barefeet are warm to touch, but shod feet are cold. Even more evident is comparing the temperature difference between shod feet and bare feet on the same horse (ie: shod on front, bare behind).
Have you ever wondered why bare feet grow so much quicker than shod feet? Healthy tissue cannot grow with poor circulation.
How are horse shoes implicated in this? Putting a shoe on a horses' foot significantly alters the weight bearing arrangements on the ground surface.
The equine foot is designed to share the weight bearing responsibilities across most of the ground surface (the inner wall, some sole and most of the frog). Notable exceptions are the outer wall and quarters which are not designed for weight bearing. The foot even adapts (over time) to the ground that it is living on in order to optimise this important sharing of the load.
A shod foot, however, carries the weight of the horse entirely on the wall (including the outer wall and quarter which should not be weight bearing).
This change in weight bearing has two possible effects (which are still not fully understood at this stage). There is either a squeezing of the coronary artery that causes a lot of the blood to be "shunted" from artery to vein above the hoof or there is a failure of the valve system that would otherwise lock the required amount of blood into the foot at each stride for both cushioning and perfusion. Or it could be both.
Loss of stay apparatus:
This is arguably an indirect function, but horses' feet are shaped to allow a horse to stand with vertical cannon bones and "lock" its front legs; thus being able to sleep whilst standing (a vital part of their evolutionary survival plan and still very much a requirement of the modern horse).
Horses with shod feet have to invariably alter their resting stance to cater for either deformed feet (high heels or run-forward capsules) or pain relief (crushed and bruised heels or thrush infected frogs
If a horse is unable to stand comfortably with vertical cannon bones, it needs to brace its neck and shoulders to engage its stay apparatus. This results in fatigue and these poor horses can't even get a good nights sleep! Over time, evidence of this "bracing" appears as over development of certain muscle groups occur.
Deterioration of protective capabilities
What about the primary function of horses' feet: the ability to protect soft inner structures by being a hard outer shell? This is the function that deteriorates with domestication (they get soft) and is why we shoe horses in the first place.
But the situation does not improve with each successive shoeing, nor does it maintain the status quo. Reality says that horses' feet become ever more reliant on shoes, the more times they are shod.
Horses are much better not shod in the first place.
So Why Barefoot ?
With barefooting, we are able to maintain a horse's feet in a physiologically correct framework, so they are able to move correctly and rest comfortably and can ultimately remain functional at all times.
It provides the opportunity to develop strong and healthy foundations beneath a horse, rather than just prop up dodgy foundations. This leads to better long term soundness.
What About Corrective Shoeing ?
Haven't farriers been solving lameness problems for centuries with corrective shoeing?
Yes, they have...
Corrective shoeing works when the lameness / limb interference / loss of performance is a result of mechanical imbalance. It works as an engineering device.
When it comes to chronic lameness (which is caused by a loss of function) corrective shoeing is unsatisfactory in the long term. It is only trying to rectify the symptoms - the hoof deformity - but not the underlying causes.
A problem cannot be solved by using the same principles and processes that originally created it.