How to keep your horses fit

New movement is spreading across Europe to keep horses barefoot and bitless – and outside on the land all day, every day

21 April 2010

A NEW movement is spreading across Europe to keep horses barefoot and bitless – and outside on the land all day, every day. This “natural horse keeping” is said to be better for the horse and to let them live longer.

Polly and Howard Lloyd, based in the Tarn-et-Garonne, switched to natural horse care five years ago after being given two horses from clients who were leaving the country.

One, Emerique, a 14-year-old Fjord, was already barefoot, and Iroquois a 12-year-old Poney Landais, had just had his shoes removed. The couple knew nothing about natural horse keeping but decided to keep them barefoot.

“I didn’t really like the idea of hammering nails through feet,” said Mr Lloyd. “It was just a feeling and only afterwards did we realise the damage that shoes do to horses.”

Letje Visser, who runs the horse adoption arm for Phoenix Animal Rescue in the Dordogne (www.phoenixasso.com), is a firm believer in natural horse care.

She said: “Horses need to move as much as possible.

“Wild horses walk 30 to 50 kilometres a day grazing and don’t sleep at night, they keep moving and grazing, just napping from time to time.

“Locking up horses in stables makes them stand still and get bored, which causes poor health, mental problems (stable vices) and colic.”

The natural horse care phenomenon has been trickling into Europe from America over the last couple of decades but has opposition from those who favour shoeing horses.

Historical records show horses were barefoot in Europe and the ancient Greeks and Romans rode unshod, with military horseman Xenophon describing in 350BC how to care for barefoot hooves.

Shoeing is thought to have started in feudal Europe around 700AD when horses were stabled constantly for convenience. Their hooves suffered as a result and shoeing was introduced. It has been commonplace ever since.

American farrier Jaime Jackson unveiled the concept of natural horse care in the 1980s after studying wild horses and noticing that despite living on rugged terrain they had no hoof problems like domestic horses – and lived longer.

Jackson stopped shoeing horses in 1990 and started advocating barefoot trimming which led to the “barefoot movement” and the move towards natural horse keeping.

Ms Visser can have around 20 horses in her care, living outdoors 24/7 (in their natural coats) and barefoot. Being outdoors all the time means the horses are part of a herd with constant access to natural and varied food like grass and hay.

She trims their feet herself and also shows potential adoptive owners how to trim so they can continue natural care with rescued horses.

The demand for barefoot trimmers is increasing in France and a dedicated association, the Association Française du Parage Naturel (http://afpn.free.fr), can help to locate your closest practitioner.

Ms Visser said getting rid of shoes is essential for the horse’s health: “Shoes limit the natural shock absorption and blood circulation – 50% of the veins are normally lost after a couple of years of shoeing – and cause deformation of the hoof.”

Professional hoof care practitioners, such as Peter Laidely, run clinics in France to inform people, such as Howard, wanting to know more.

The Lloyds are both horse lovers.

Mrs Lloyd, who is also a canine behaviour specialist, is secretary for the Association Equestre de Quercy.

Mr Lloyd is a garden designer but also has a few years experience of trimming and did the Laidely course last year.

It stood him in good stead for when their third horse, Gringo, arrived with shoes a few months ago.

The couple were pleased that Gringo’s feet adjusted well and there was not a long transition period – something horse owners considering the move to barefoot get concerned about. “His feet were absolutely fine within two weeks,” says Mr Lloyd.

“It took me a little bit of time to trim them back to the right shape, but now he is perfect.”

Hooves adapt to the land that they are on and so rocky, even steep, ground offering various trees, wild shrubs and grazing is perfect for the barefoot hoof and for the diet.

Owners in France are more likely to be able to keep horses on land compared to the UK simply because there is more space available.

However, when Jaime Jackson was putting together his ideas for natural horse care in the USA he wanted to find a solution for all horses and, after further research, introduced the idea of “paddock paradise”, a simulated natural environment allowing several horses to share just an acre of land (rather than being kept alone in a stable) and which would encourage movement.

It incorporates a track system that offers horses varied terrain, hay (different types if possible), grazing, water, shelters, mineral and salt licks and a range of herbs to keep horses curious and on the move.

US veterinarian Robert Cook believed Jackson had provided indisputable evidence to show that domestic horses did not need shoes.

He had his own ideas about horse care, however, and did research on the need for bits.

He showed that out of 65 horse skulls studied, 75% had bone spurs on the mouth caused by the bit.

In 1997 he promoted the bitless bridle (www.bitlessbridle.com), which is now sold all over the world.

Ms Visser said: “Bits hurt and we all know accidents happen. Many horses have traces of accidents on the jaw, but still we find it normal to put horses at such risk.”

That provided an answer for the Lloyds as they had experienced extreme problems with head tossing when they started to ride Emerique.

They were using the tack he came with which they said was “really complicated with a curb chain”.

Mrs Lloyd said: “We were told he had to have it because he was so strong and, not knowing anything about bits, we just accepted it was what we needed.”

After some research they found Dr Cook’s bitless bridle and got in touch with Jacqueline Stensrod, the representative in Fumel, Lot-et-Garonne, who is also a barefoot trimmer.

They could not believe the difference it made for Emerique.

“He doesn’t toss his head and he doesn’t pull – it is brilliant,” Mr Lloyd said. Tradition has made certain ideas commonplace – such as using bits and shoes on horses – and now after their experience Mrs Lloyd believes it is important to look at why you do things a certain way and consider the effect it has on the horses. “Once people have done it they don’t question it,” she said.

“They don’t stop and think, do I need to? Do I need to bit my horse, do I need to shoe my horse?”

There many other aspects of natural horse care, but boarding, feeding and going bitless and barefoot are the main areas of focus.

However, the advantages are more than simply improving the physical and emotional wellbeing of your horses – and potentially changing your riding experience for the better – because natural horse keeping also improves your bank balance.
“Keeping horses out all the time is much cheaper than boxes,” said Ms Visser.

“No straw is needed, no hard feed, just grass and hay – and more time to spend with your horses.”

Make sure you register

HORSE owners in France must register their animal with the registration body, Haras Nationaux. Since 2008 it must also have been microchipped.

If the horse has a UK passport you must still register to get a SIRE number Système d'Information Relatif aux Equidés and registration number.

A French vet will need to do a description of the horse and this will be added into the original document – no new passport is issued. If you want to compete then this has to be specified – similarly for breeding.

Volunteer group Equine Rescue France has information at www. equinerescuefrance.org and also gives details of France-wide alerts. It also advises all owners to get flu and tetanus jabs and, especially at this time of year, to check for ticks.

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