The Advantage of Going Bare
– By Monty Roberts
All my life I have marveled at the wild horses of the Western United States. One of the most intriguing facets of their existence is how in the world can they survive on rocky, high deserts with no foot care of any kind? Sure, it is amazing that they don’t die of colic any more often than they do and just as surprising is that they don’t succumb on mass to diseases that the domestic horse is vaccinated against. Drinking from any source of water available to them insures that they have every opportunity to harbor internal parasites in lethal numbers. These are tough horses that any knowing horseman should be in awe of.
Since the late 1940’s, I have observed ranchers, who wanted to improve the wild horses, release domestic stallions in an effort to upgrade the genetic pool. Most of these horses die in a relatively short period of time and the number one cause of death is the demise of their feet. If the domestic horse is not gradually allowed to go bare and toughen his feet while he is fed and watered regularly, he will probably die within three to four weeks. He will become so sore of his feet that he simply cannot travel far enough on a daily basis to acquire the food necessary to sustain life. Sore feet will kill a horse in the wild quicker than any disease. A sore-footed horse is easy prey for the mountain lion or the bear in the Western United States.
I have attended many conferences on equine foot care. I have heard so-called experts give speeches on what angle the feet should be, the best methods of trimming and the proper use of metal shoes. Isn’t it interesting that the best feet in the world of horses are those that have none of these advantages. Nature will dictate the angle that is appropriate for the leg conformation that it compliments. The surface of the earth will do a better job of trimming than any trained farrier could ever do. The absence of shoes will tease and condition the foot to grow and produce the strongest possible tissues so as to sustain soundness.
Recently I had an opportunity to put these theories to the test with six American mustangs. I was asked by the Rose Parade Festival to produce a tribute to the American mustang. I agreed to place in training six wild horses captured on the high deserts of the Western United States. Three of them were from the Bureau of Land Management, the Federal Agency that is in charge of the wild horses on public lands. One of those was Shy Boy whom I adopted in 1997. Three were captured on Indian reservations and provided to me by the New Mexican Horse Project.
I had twenty-four feet that had never seen a shoe. Not one nail had been driven into any foot that was involved in this project. Five of the six had to be prepared for this monumental challenge with but six months to accomplish it. This means that many miles were required to assure the riders and the Parade Committee that they would be safe in an environment more challenging that any other that I can imagine. Students of mine trained these horses as I was traveling virtually the entire time of their preparation.
Not one horse missed a day of training because of illness, injury or a sore foot. No violence entered into the training program whatsoever and every horse went through a significant “bomb proofing” program. Musical instruments, plastic tarpaulins, firecrackers and every sort of spooky object was utilized in an effort to simulate what they would see in Pasadena, California on January 1, 2003.
As you might well image, some of these horses had higher energy levels than others. And admittedly, Shy Boy was already “bomb proof” at the beginning of the training program. Shy Boy became a role model for the five who were in the early stages of training. Navajo, the horse I rode, took more work than any of the other mustangs. For the last thirty days or so, he was cantered more than a mile and one half per day.
Throughout this project, I was adamant upon keeping their feet shoeless. This meant that I had to get special permission from the Parade Committee, as they are quite insistent upon specially designed shoes for the parade horses. Some of these shoes are covered with rubber and others equipped with borium, a non-skid metal. I was convinced that the safest way to ride on the tarmac was “bare.” The Committee agreed to give me an opportunity to prove my theory.
We rode five horses in the Rose Bowl Parade and led the sixth. Shy Boy was my wife Pat’s mount and she depicted a Western lady rider of about seventy-five years ago. Wayne Robison, an eighteen-year-old who works as a rider for us, rode Cherokee. They were equipped with all Hispanic gear as the mustang came from Spain. Hondo was ridden by Koelle Simpson, a twenty-two year old who works on our Flag Is Up Farms. Koelle rode as a young Spanish female in sidesaddle and flowing skirt. Jason Davis, who portrayed a Buffalo Hunter, rode Yellow Bird. He was in an all leather outfit, with a rifle on his back and leading Chamisa, his packhorse. The pack was covered with a buffalo hide. I rode Navajo and dressed as a gentleman rancher would have in the early 1900’s.
As we took our instructions from the various segments of the Parade Administrators, we were constantly warned of the potential for slipping on the pavement. We were told that part of the parade was on an unlevel surface and that many horses had slipped in the past. We were made aware of many instances where thrown shoes created the necessity for horses to be extracted from the parade itself. We were advised of four exit points in the five-mile trip where horses could be retired from the event.
I can report that we did not have one horse slip one inch during the entire five miles. No horse took a lame step or appeared to be in any discomfort during the entire trip. I have examined each foot subsequent to the parade and found no ill effects from the effort. At the conclusion of the parade, officials present were astonished by the marvelous condition of these six horses.
Pat and I took pictures of each horse and individual feet from the horse in order to give you an idea of their condition. We used an angle calibrator to determine the angle degree of each of the horse’s four feet.
I am absolutely amazed by the accomplishments both physical and psychological of these incredible animals and I want to share their story of achievement with the rest of the world. As horsemen, we would do well to listen intently to Mother Nature. I am not saying that there is no need for shoes under any condition. That would be silly. There is, however, the need to be aware of how nature intended this wonderful part of the equine anatomy to work.
It should be noted that this six-month test began and concluded with six mustangs that had never been shod. They had the toughest and most natural feet a horse can possess.
It should be further noted that these animals were ridden on a friendly, stone-free surface throughout the six-month test. Their feet were cleaned daily and Cherokee was treated with iodine for four days for a slight thrush condition. Please note that each horse concluded the six-month trial without a sore step and there were no significant cracks, chips or otherwise damaged areas to any of the twenty-four feet in question.
This test was not intended to minimize the need for foot care, nor was it conducted to show that there is no necessity for shoeing under any conditions. I believe at the conclusion of this test that the training and competition involved in racing, eventing, show jumping, reining, cutting and many other disciplines would require the use of shoes to accomplish these disciplines.
I conclude from this test that horsemen should become more aware of the value of allowing horses periods of time to “go bare” to allow the feet a chance to seek a natural condition. Typically, most shod horses will migrate to an angle that is far shallower than this test produced. The six horses on test ranged between 50 and 56 degrees at the conclusion. This must be what nature intended for these feet.
As I view the thickness of the walls of these six horses, compared to domestic animals often shod, the difference is dramatic. Each of these horses received good quality hay of two types throughout the six months. No concentrate feed or any substance meant to enhance foot health and growth was given them.
This test was conducted on Flag Is Up Farms by our staff. It was not connected to any academic institution, nor was it conducted under any scientific rules. I simply suspected that we could accomplish our goals and conducted the tests so as to bring the horse world information about natural feet.