Ah...the great foot debate. Shoe the front, shoe all four feet, wear boots, go barefoot. I've spent a great deal of time reading about the pros and cons of each option. I have also been a follower of the Rockley Farm blog for the past two years now.
(Brief interruption about the blog: a lady in the UK has set up a rehabilitation farm to take horses diagnosed lame and unable to even walk comfortably in various therapeutic shoes. She takes the shoes off immediately, sets them outside on various terrain, gives them nutrition and exercise and 12 weeks later sends them home with brand new, sound and pain free feet. If you have any interest at all, I encourage you to check it out. The before and after shots are amazing and if you have the time to scroll through older posts you will see these horses performing on the rockiest trails I've ever seen. All 100% barefoot.)
I am in no way an expert. I know so very little about the horse hoof and function. But I have some common sense and I read a lot. Gem is currently barefoot on all 4 and I don't own any boots. I would like to own boots (I think) but they are expensive as everything in the horse world is and I am still not convinced about them yet. Why is she barefoot?
She wasn't when I first had her join our family. She had front shoes that were grown into her hoof and required an hour of strenuous work to remove a single one. I had her reshod in front because I had always rode a horse with shoes up front and didn't know any better. I kept her shod until winter in WI hit and her feet became packed with ice and snow. I asked our farrier the options which included pulling the shoes or using pads to fill in the foot. I didn't like the idea of pads trapping moisture and who knows what under it and so I had him pull them. I had planned to put them back on in the spring but when spring came and we hit the trails we found them the be either nice soft dirt or sand. The trails up there had very few rocks and even fewer roots and it didn't seem worth it. She did very well and was never hesitant or sore. I did all my 62 "endurance" miles barefoot and some of those trails were rocky. She did fine and was never foot sore.
Then we moved down here. The trails here are either rocky, full of roots or on roads. So far she has done pretty well barefoot. The hunter paces have been on trails as described above and she wasn't foot sore. But I make her walk on the gravel and am very careful with her on the rocky or root filled sections. The trails I have been conditioning her on are also like the above. The wide open sections that aren't twisting and turning through trees are on access roads and either paved or gravel. I ask her to walk these. I am beginning to wonder if I should change her foot strategy and if I do, to what?
Barefoot: To me this is the standard to which I hold my horses. Unless there is a specific reason a horse can't be barefoot, they should be. I like natural and horses are not born with metal nailed to the bottom of their foot. Yes, I know horses today aren't foraging over miles and miles for food, but still. Natural is better. The foot can adapt to terrain, but it does require effort in nutrition and putting those miles on them. In time I hope to figure out how to do a barefoot trim myself because in reality it doesn't seem like it should be that hard to rasp the edges a bit. The Rockley Blog doesn't trim at all - the horse self trims with the miles put on. While I am not quite brave enough to not get her trimmed ever, I have seen myself the difference in her feet now that I am riding her on trails more and more. They just don't need trimmed very often. She has a large pasture that she grazes on (and runs away from me in) and is doing a darn good job of trimming her own feet. In addition to all those reasons, I like the fact that it is less expensive. A barefoot trim here is $35 and we have been doing it every 8 weeks (or actually probably longer than that even). If I ever learned to do it myself it would be free. I also really like the complete lack of stress associated with her barefoot feet. I don't have to call out the farrier on an emergency visit to pull a half twisted off shoe. Or miss a ride because that morning she ripped one off. During a ride she has nothing to lose off her foot and we end just the same as we began. All very big benefits.
The downside is all the rough trails. She hasn't been hesitant to date, but I don't want her to get foot sore. I ask for a walk on the gravel and we lose time and pace doing that. With the winter rain, her feet became softer than I have ever seen before and that did make me worry about her foot health. I'd like to go stomping down any trail without concern. The hubs thinks putting more miles on the rough terrain barefoot will in time strengthen and toughen them up. Rockley Farm would agree with that. And maybe they will. I just don't want a problem to occur before she has a chance to do so.