What do I need to know about transitioning my horse from shod to barefoot?

Great question!  Many horses, for one reason or another, make a transition from shod to barefoot.  Some go back to being shod, and others don’t.  What’s important here is that the transition can be managed for maximum horse comfort, regardless of the reason why your horse is going from shod to barefoot.  Remember that being barefoot doesn't work for all horses, and being shod doesn't work for all horse.  This article is about managing the transition, not about the barefoot vs. shod debate.  Thanks for respecting that!! 



So what can you, and your Farrier, and your Veterinarian do to make this transition easy for your horse?

The first thing for you to do is game plan with your Farrier and your Veterinarian about why you would like to pull your horse’s shoes.  You may want your Veterinarian to take some x-rays of your horse's hooves to make sure the future barefoot hoof has internal structures that can support your horse. 

You will also need to consider these factors in your decision:  

  • Footing.  How is your arena footing, your paddock footing, your walkway and barnyard footing?   Rocky, hard, or unforgiving footing will usually be trickier for your newly barefooted horse to adjust to.  Plan on limiting time in these areas and/or use protective boots.  


  • Exercise.  How will his exercise and turnout routine be affected by his newly barefoot feet?  This ties closely with the footing at your barn.  It’s probably a good idea to go slowly, use protective boots if needed, or perhaps even choose another way to the paddock.  Gravel may be tricky for him at first, but the fluffy dirt path is likely to be better. 


  • Diet.  Will you need to adjust the level of hoof supporting vitamins and minerals in your horse’s diet? Your Veterinarian and Equine Nutritionist may be able to help you determine if a supplement or diet change can help you.  


  • Trimming Touch ups.  Is your Farrier available weekly to perform fine tuning?  Can he train you to do some upkeep in between his visits?  This is often needed for a few weeks because the nail holes can act like a perforation, and you may have some atypical flaking.   Some farriers can help you become proficient with a rasp, so that you can keep the new edges of the hoof smooth in between farrier visits.  


  • Supportive transition boots.  Will your horse tolerate wearing supportive boots when needed during the transition period?  There are many styles to choose from. Some cover the pastern, some do not, some have buckles, some have hook and loop.  You may want to try a few styles before the metal shoes come off, just in case your horse decides to try and shake them off.  As he’s walking.  With you on him.  



From the Farrier’s standpoint, there are some things to think about as well.  This is where I turn it over to Ernest Woodward.  Ernest is not only my farrier, he’s also the farrier to some Olympians in the San Diego area.  Ernest has also been published in many fancy publications, including and The Hoof Blog.  Most importantly, he has years of experience with barefoot and shod horses, including some that have competed at FEI levels barefoot (like the photo below!)


Ernest gives us some gems of wisdom when it comes to making the transition between shod and barefoot:  


  • Most importantly - you need to be patient!!  While we are not asking these horses to do anything extreme or unnatural by being barefoot, we are taking them from having support and protection and asking the feet to make a transition back to a simpler setup... So be empathic to their situation!


  • Put yourself in your horse’s shoes (or lack there of!) - most people that wear shoes all day would be tender footed and walk carefully just going to the end of the driveway to get the mail, this does not mean that you are evolutionarily diminished or can never go barefoot, it simply means you are not used to it... Even if you are walking on clean smooth surface with no pain, you are going to take more cautious steps in the beginning because it feels strange... 


  • Despite the pressure to “Go Barefoot” don’t look at the use of boots during work, lunging or turnout as a “Failure to Barefoot”.  While it is reasonable to work toward the goal of being able to work totally barefoot, this is not a race that you win by being the fastest.  The saddest instances I see over and over are people that push the horse to fit in to the model they have decided sooner than the horse is ready for, have a big setback then give up and put shoes back on because “it’s just not working for him”...




I also asked Ernest a few questions about things that Grooms and owners should be aware of.  


  • For the last few shoeing cycles when the shoes are on, are there any special considerations such as letting the sole get thicker or not trimming as much? 


Yes.  Generally you will have the easiest transitions when there is as much foot as safely possible when we first remove them.  Leaving as much foot as you can, even if you have to come back the next week for a touch up,can often make a difference for the initial transition.


  • Do you typically remove the hind shoes or the front shoes first?


This depends entirely on the horse.  The tradition is to remove hinds first, but  have had a lot of success removing the fronts first.   When fitted for boots, the horse will generally go a few cycles getting solid before removing the hinds.  This is also discipline dependent.


  • When do you recommend using the temporary boots? Are there specific footing conditions that warrant using boots?


I am not shy to be as preventative as possible. I have pulled the shoes off on a horse, had the trainer ride a half hour later and say they couldn’t feel a difference, and I have a lot of horses that can easily take two weeks to a month to really get confident with their feet. So in the first week, I generally have people use them whenever the horse is out of its stall or paddock. This could be over kill on some horses, but it’s a whole lot easier than having to play catch up with a sore horse that wasn’t ready. It’s an ounce of prevention being worth a lot more than a pound of cure!


-What should owners and grooms look for the first few days?


Soreness is the main thing. 


  • What should grooms and owners do if they see chips, cracks, or bruising?


I always encourage my clients that are taking their horses barefoot to at least have a rasp and get at least moderately comfortable moving it around a hoof. With even a dull rasp your farrier or trimmer was going to throw away, you can manage a lot of chipping and roughness really easily.  I have taught clients ranging from eight years to 75 how to manage their horses feet with success.


For hardening the feet there are a few really good products out there and I’m sure more that i am unaware of. Durasole is available at most good farrier supply stores or your farrier can order it. Also Seashore Acres is an east coast company that makes a sole paint one of my clients swears by.


  • How do you suggest we wean our horse from the temporary boots?


Be logical and listen to your horse.  You can start by removing them halfway through your ride once the horse has reached a dependable working level and work your way up to just using them every other day... then down from there.  It really just depends on what your horse does for a living and your stable’s situation. 



A big thank you to Ernest for sharing his knowledge and expertise!  Ernest and I both believe that every horse is different, has a different job and lifestyle,  and therefore requires different protocols for his hooves, be it shoes or not.  This article is not intended to stir up the barefoot vs. shod debate, it’s to open our eyes to the the shod to barefoot transition and how we can make it comfortable and successful for our horses.  Not everything works for all horses!