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Provide plenty of exercise, one way or another


     Horses in the wild cover a lot of territory each day, around 20 miles or more, to get enough to eat and drink. This is over varied terrain from dry, hard packed, rocky ground to soft, sticky mud and muck. They eat a sparse diet, a little at a time all day long. This helps maintain a healthy foot and keep it trimmed, hydrated and tough.

     Most domestic horses are fed a rich diet, confined on soft ground. The intentions are good. For us humans, it feels good to give your horse something he likes and making sure he gets all those vitamins and calories in rich foods. The confinement in shelters to keep flies away or cool in summer and warm in winter also make the horses easy for us to catch. The soft ground is intended to prevent strain on those legs and feet, and protect them from lameness, right?
     Well, that rich food and soft ground is bad for the hooves. They soften up and become riddled with infections and get tender. Then often, shoes are put on to protect the feet even more. When it comes to hooves, use it or lose it really applies. Overprotecting them harms them far more than most people can imagine. The further we take the foot from it's normal protection, the weaker and more painful it becomes.

     The best thing for your horse is exercise. Even with a perfect diet, almost all the hoof problems need exercise to grow out or to be prevented. From thrush to laminitis, exercise ensures the that the hoof stays a "well oiled machine" that is resistant to infections and damage. Exercise also helps the horse's body to metabolize toxins and sugars that could otherwise accumulate and create problems in the entire horse.

     Environment does play an important role in just how tough those feet can be, but ultimately, EXERCISE is king. You could have the perfect hoof toughening pasture, with a perfect diet and balanced trim, but if your horse never takes a step in it, his hooves will not be tough. There are many ways to trick the horse into exercising in the pasture. By the way, a horse on turnout is proved to be more fit than a stalled horse, so you don't have to spend as much time in warm up before having fun.

      Even if you don't have a large field with a rugged terrain built in, that's fine. You just need to be more creative. Spread hay out in multiple mini piles to encourage movement, mimicking grazing. This also minimizes or eliminates food competition-lots of frequent meals of hay scattered about reduces the need to fight over feed. Offer different kinds of hay, in the over all diet, and tossing some carrots or apples or alfalfa cubes out there to "treasure hunt"  are great ways to get them moving as well. Feed away from the water tank, so the horse has to move more to eat and drink. Use all the space you have if it's small! Another advantage to this is horses are much less likely to poop or roll in their hay if it's in small piles, vs. the scraps around a large round bale that tends to be wasted. Each step your horse takes, keeps good circulation going, relieves stress and minimzes boredom (including bad behaviors that develop from standing around waiting for the next big meal).

Other ways to make sure your horse moves enough are: 

  • Ride! if he's sound, ride all you want. Warm him up and cool him off and keep in mind the horse's fitness level. Riding isn't going to hurt if you use common sense. Older or recovering horses may just need some gentle walking, but can still carry a rider (consult with your vet)
  • Longe. Longing is good, but too many small circles can be hard on the joints, so it's not my favorite for hard work. Free longing in a large pen is a lot of fun, it doesn't have to be a round pen if your horse is fairly gentle. In a well fenced, hazard free area, turn your warmed up horse loose and encourage him to frolic. It's fun to watch them play. Be sure you are maintaining a safe distance, though. Playful horses tend to kick out.
  • Ponying. Riding and leading another horse can really gentle the "ponied" horse and expose him to lots of stuff without weight on his back and there is that calming influence of another horse buddy. BONUS, ponying exercises 2 horses at once when time is limited.
  •  Hand walking is a great bonding time. You can even go over obstacles to make it interesting and build trust.
  • Driving or Ground Driving. Teaching your horse to walk in front while you hold the reins can add a new dimension to your training, and add variety to your workouts. If you can go on to teach your horse to pull a cart,wtih help from an experienced person, it can add a whole new dimension to your equine experience. Most horses love it. Even just walking behind is good excercise for you both.

    Exercise not only benefits the hooves. It is good mentally for a horse as well. He'll be calmer and better mannered. It's a chance to work off stress and it's so natural for a horse to want to move! Confinement really is harder on horses than most people realize,as horses are designed for wide open spaces. It makes their immune systems weaker and tempers flare and they start to develop weird habits like weaving, pawing and cribbing when locked up. No wonder they are a nervous wreck in a stall, it would be like a person locked in a jail cell. Bars, wall, no way to see out. Just enough room to turn around. It would make most people stress out (think of office cubicles). Horses sight is even designed to see far off and spot predators, so staring at walls is probably not only really boring, but nerve wracking for a prey animal who can't see what's coming.

    Small pens can be just as bad, and living on top of one's own manure isn't good for any animal. Stalls created the need for shoes. Locking them up in what seems like cool weather isn't so great, either. They have a higher tolerance of cold than we do, and standing in a stall slows down circulation. Being able to get out and move will keep them healthier. Generally, just providing access to shelter is enough. They know when to come in. Blankets aren't generally good for healthy horses. Old, sick or thin-skinned or clipped horses being the exception, of course.

I'd like to add, that while it's my personal belief that ALL horses can go barefoot and benefit from it, some people will have more difficulties changing over. First, your horses' feet only adapt to what they live on. If you keep them in a stall with a manure laden 30ft x 30ft run, and only get them out when the weather is nice and in the meantime they are fed a few flakes of hay and several pounds of grain, then your horse is likely to have soft, tender feet when you do ride, unless you only ride in arena. Yes, they can still go barefoot. They will still be healthier than if shod, but it's unfair to expect them to really perform at high levels or on gravel.  Boots can help, of course, but ideally, you would turn them out in a real paddock or pasture and ride more frequently. In my experience, these are the same people that never pick up a hoof and clean it, either.  

By the way, putting shoes on only traps more poop in the hoof and helps to rot it further. The shoes cover up the problems until they accumulate to such a degree your horse is "suddenly" lame with navicular or white line disease.  Keeping up on trims is a must. Just because they look okay since they aren't cracked, doesn't give a green card to let them go. Trims preventproblems, not just fix new ones. If you don't want to, or can't apply boots, then perhaps shoeing is the better option for your convenience (though most horses will pay a price in the end) and it may keep you moitvated to keep regular farrier appointments when you see a loose shoe.