Making the transition from shod to barefoot

What is "Transition?"

After you pull the shoes, there is a rehabilitation period of several months to well over a year, depending on the amount of internal damage in the foot. Increased blood flow starts to rebuild internal structures that were damaged by the shoes. Until the rebuilding is complete, most horses are "sore on gravel" and will need hoof boots to ride on gravel roads, rocky trails, or frozen ground.

Transition is the reason why so many people have said, "Barefoot doesn't work for my horse." It is admittedly a time of inconvenience for the rider. However, once we understand that horseshoes do weaken the hooves, we can do certain things to make the horse rideable while it grows out a new, better hoof.

The transition period is over when the sole regains concavity (due to the white line tightening up completely) and the horse walks on gravel as if it were grass.

The "inconvenience" of transition can be eliminated by not putting shoes on young horses in the first place.

Being realistic about transition

The "white line" is a layer of interlocking laminae. Like a sort of living Velcro (hook-and-loop tape), it connects the hoof wall securely to the coffin bone. (See photos on Hoof Shape page.) When the foot is weighted, the white line takes most of the weight of the horse, shared somewhat with the sole. It takes an enormous supply of blood (nutrients) to keep the white line strong enough to handle this awesome job. Horseshoes reduce circulation inside the hoof; the "starved" white line becomes weak and stretchy.

I don't think I've ever seen a horse that was shod for more than a year, that didn't have white line damage. Anyone who helps lots of horses return to a barefoot condition, comes to recognize that horseshoes (plus infrequent trimming due to shoeing) do damage the feet. Most feet are going to be sore for a while after you pull the shoes -- fronts much more than hinds, because they carry more of the horse's weight.

It can be very hard to admit to ourselves that we have caused this much damage to our beloved horses' feet by doing what we thought was best for them, e.g. keeping them shod. I know how hard it is from personal experience, as well as from "holding the hand" of horse owners while they go through the early part of Transition. The truth is, we made them sore; and so we get to live through the recovery time with them, including not riding for a while if necessary.

In general, it takes about a year of correct care before the de-shod hoof returns to the complete soundness it had before-shoes. The issue when you pull the shoes is not "Can I take him on a long, rocky trail ride tomorrow?" but rather "What's a good program to rehabilitate his feet?"

The "white line strategy" trim (see Flares page) dramatically shortens the early part of transition; in some cases months of unrideability can be reduced to days. Generally it will not mean the week after the "first trim" will be totally pain-free.

Hoof boots (see list below) are an important tool for the transition to barefoot; the comfort they provide will help your state-of-mind as much as they help the horse.

Another tool is your decision to be patient and trust the horse to heal. They do heal. They get better than you can imagine. I get email from people happily reporting on "my horse's rock-crunching hooves."

All the de-shod horses I know of became barefoot-rideable within a few days to about a year, given these conditions of care:

Eliminating transition soreness

Pete Ramey came up with a trim strategy for getting horses out of shoes and back to work (see Flares page). He is now is able to do the "first trim" in a way that nearly every horse he pulls the shoes off of can go to work within a few days. Most of them he fits with boots immediately.

Here are the trimming steps that allow the horse to transition without soreness (see Trim page for more detailed instructions):

Why horses in transition are "sore on gravel"

The transition from shod to barefoot is not about "toughening up" the sole. It is not the sole that is sore, it's the corium -- a layer of living tissue on the bottom of the coffin bone that grows the sole. Iodine or other drying treatments do not speak to the actual problem. Putting gravel in the horse's turnout to "toughen the feet" will work against you; wait until after transition is completed.

When we have a stretched white line -- due to the lack of nutrition in a shod hoof, or due to the mechanical forces of a flare -- the coffin bone sinks away from the hoof wall and presses down onto the sole corium. The corium gets inflamed by the constant pressure of the bone. When the horse walks on gravel or rocks, it hurts. It's like when you have an inflamed finger; you'd rather not bump into sharp corners with it.

Here is a cross-section diagram through a hoof with a tight white line (left), and a hoof with a stretched white line (right). Notice that the coffin bone actually hangs lower inside the hoof capsule; it sits down onto the sole corium and inflames it; and the sole is flatter.

The horse will not go sound-on-gravel (or other hard, uneven terrain) until the white line has healed and tightened up, and the coffin bone is held firmly up inside the hoof wall. This should generally happen within a year, with a consistently renewed mustang roll.

Do not expect to ride your horse on gravel, rough pavement, frozen ground, or rocky trails without front hoof boots, during the first year after pulling the shoes.

Winter is a hard time for transition horses. Expect that your horse will be sore when the ground freezes, through the first and sometimes the second winter after pulling the shoes, even though he is sound on soft ground. You may need to provide boots for turnout on frozen ground.

Some transitioning horses go sore on deep sand or very soft arena footing. This is because the soft landing doesn't provide enough concussion to flex the hoof, so that there is reduced circulation and the feet become uncomfortably congested. The best solution I can suggest is to ride at least 10 minutes on firm ground, before and after the arena work, to get lots of circulation inside the hooves.

There are types if arena footing that are quite firm without being slippery. One kind used in my area is quarry screenings left over from making gravel. I would like to see us replace soft arenas with firm footing that gives the feet enough concussion. After all, for many of our horses, the arena is where their hooves get most of their work.

Other reasons for transition soreness

Several structures in addition to the white line are damaged by shoes:

Abscessing should be unusual after pulling the shoes. Most often it is the result of thinning the sole, or invasive trimming of other hoof parts. To avoid abscessing, do not thin the sole in any area, other than scraping off chalky/crackled material.

Pete Ramey reports that only one in ten foundered horses that he sees, ever abscess as part of their healing process (see Founder page).

Muscle soreness

If your horse has had chronic hoof pain from long heels, fungus, or other  reasons, this can make him stiff in the shoulders. Look for tight triceps, deltoid, and trapezius muscles. Massage, myofascial release, Reiki, Equine Touch, or acupressure will help free up shoulder movement after you have changed the trim and/or treated for fungus in the frog.

Hoof boots

When hoof boots are called for:

Usually boots are only needed on the front feet; a horse working on abrasive pavement might need boots on all four.

There is not yet a perfect hoof boot; they all have their pro's and con's. It's a challenging design problem to fit the cone-shaped hoof snugly, with a boot you can put on and take off easily, that's light and yet wear-resistant. There are new designs coming out frequently now (2011) as people get familiar with the shortcomings of older designs.

The Horse-Moc has a soft pastern-sleeve made of neoprene with Velcro closure up the front; the sole is made of Kevlar and polymers. Designed by a Washington State trail rider to stay on in very wet or muddy conditions. It is individually made to a tracing of your horse's foot, so you can fit very small and very large hooves. I have seen one, it's very light and awesomely simple in its design. Available from Debbie Nelson, 425-788-0141 or

Hoof Wings is a low boot or "sandal" that fits over the lower part of the hoof, with neoprene "wings" that wrap around the pastern. Excellent, comfortable design, available in a wide range of sizes. For transition only, not for competition trail riding. 520-455-5164 or

The Easy Boot company makes three boots that have improved greatly over their original model. Easyboot Bare, Easyboot Epic, and Boa Boot are available from and from many tack stores.

For the Simple Boot, see Available in Finland from

Renegade Hoof Boots

For another new boot, see

The Swiss Horse Boot is made of a high-tech material that can be warmed to fit the individual hoof, and re-fitted as the hoof shape changes over time. The Swiss Boot is available through and through trained boot fitters listed at

Jaime Jackson has written a manual for fitting the Swiss Boot, Guide to Booting Horses. It's clear and well illustrated, and I recommend getting it if you have no trained fitter nearby. Available from

The Old Mac boot from Australia fits around the hoof with layers of neoprene fastened by Velcro. lists outlets in Australia and several other countries. lists outlets in the US.

The Marquis boot from Germany opens across the front. It is unusual in being designed for the short-heeled barefoot trim (wild horse trim and Strasser trim). There is an inflatable air sac to make it fit the hoof snugly. You can get a soft sole insert for foundered or other sole-sore horses. Each part of the boot is replaceable as it wears out.

The German website is In English, for Europe, In Canada and the U.S.,, phone 1-800-403-0689 (Pacific Time).

Equine Fusion Jogging Shoe is a soft hoof boot made in Norway which stretches to fit the hoof as the wall grows:

There are websites where you can buy used hoof boots. Some trimmers carry used boots that their customers no longer need.

Lifestyle changes that support barefoot

Jaime Jackson in The Natural Horse and Paddock Paradise and Dr. Hiltrud Strasser in A Lifetime of Soundness describe how horses live in their natural environment and how we can approximate the things domestic horses need in order to be sound, healthy, and happy.

The horse living in an unnatural situation (which includes most domestic arrangements) loses health and fitness in his

    -- metabolism (how the body uses food)
    -- immune system
    -- joints and ligaments
    -- heart and blood vessels
    -- structures of the hoof
    -- social world (the skills and security of herd life)
    -- mental and/or spiritual balance.
No matter how expensive or "well-bred" the horse, they are all "made of the same stuff" and they need certain living conditions in order to give us their best.

A "natural lifestyle" or "natural boarding" is the basis for healing any illness or injury. The horse's entire physical makeup is exactly "tuned" for a particular environment (for most breeds, dry plains and desert, with extremes of heat, cold, wind, etc; or for some, marshy areas). In a similar enough situation, horses are capable of healing nearly anything that happens to them.

Horses are grazers, with a small stomach, and need to eat small amounts frequently through the day and night. They do best eating a variety of hays with supplements of many other plants, tree leaves, vegetables, a little seaweed to provide trace minerals from the ocean, and whatever major minerals are lacking in the soil their hay grows on.

They have a coat that can adjust quickly to changes in temperature by the hairs standing up or laying down. Horse blankets prevent these fine-tuned adjustments and can damage the immune system -- think what happens to you when you get chilled or over-heated.

Horses move constantly through the day and night, as they graze across the prairie. Cooped up in a stall, they cannot move enough to keep circulation going in their body. They get stiff, their hooves get congested, and their muscles and ligaments lose tone. So they need a turnout situation that encourages continual movement.

A new insight on turnout

(2006) We have known that free-living horses walk many miles in a day. In Paddock Paradise, Jaime Jackson observes that herds of wild horses travel in a narrow, routine loop or "track" which begins and ends at a watering place where they meet other herds, and which takes them to areas that provide their various needs -- many types of food, minerals, salt, a dusty place to roll, places to sleep safely, shelter for bad weather, and woodsy hideouts for foaling. Then he noticed that wild mustangs, as soon as they are taken off the range, stop their constant walking and mostly loaf around, even if they are kept in very large pens.

Putting these two observations together, Jaime proposes that we can replace the typical rectangular paddock with a walking loop, which seems to trigger the horse to walk onwards to find "what's next" in a way paddocks do not. Small quantities of hay placed at intervals along the loop, with wider areas that provide their other needs as they walk along, invite them to keep moving. The main "track" can be fairly narrow -- 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 meters) wide is plenty. Jaime notes that in a trial loop-type setup around the edges of a 4-acre property, the horses wore their feet enough just by continually walking the loop, that they needed almost no trimming. They were clearly in better condition from walking more and loafing less.

I am very excited about this new insight. Finally we have a turnout concept which can be adapted to nearly any horse property, and which solves the problem of how to keep the horses moving. With sufficient movement, even our "pasture ornament" horses will easily go completely sound and will need very little trimming. This concept has the potential to make barefoot workable for nearly every horse -- it removes a major barrier to success.

Soaking the feet

Both Jaime Jackson and Dr. Strasser say that domestic horses' feet should get wet daily, whether in water, or a muddy spot by the water trough, or from living on wet ground.

I personally think that foot-soaking is an open question and may be unnecessary. I have heard of horses living in dry areas, whose feet rarely get wet, yet they seem to be fine.

In rainy areas, there seems to be a lot of fungus (different from thrush; see More Topics page), which thrives in "warm and wet" places such as the deep crease in the frog between contracted heels. Daily foot soaking doesn't give the hoof a chance to really dry out and throw off a fungus infection. I have not soaked my horse's feet for several years now.