The “Shoeless Experiment” Cripples Horses by Doug Butler

More than one hundred years ago farriers were confronted with the same problems as farriers are facing today. The “shoeless experiment” was then proposed as a one size fits all solution by “the barefoot people.” (See page 2 of William Hunting’s, The Art of Horseshoeing, published by W. R. Jenkins in New York, in 1898).

It was a con man’s dream. It seemed too good to be true. No longer would horse owners have to pay to have their horses shod. Little training was necessary. The horse owners themselves could simply round the edges of the foot.

For inactive pastured horses it probably was all that was necessary to maintain the animal. But, for most other domesticated horses, that had a job to do, it was probably cruel. Well trained horses were plentiful then. If one went lame, they could simply get another. Heroic measures to save expensive animals were unheard of.

The experiment didn’t last long because:

1) People had a fairly high level of equine knowledge due to the widespread use of horses in the city as well as the country.

2) Emotion didn’t enter into a decision as much as common sense.

3) Common sense was more common than it is today.

4) Con artists hadn’t thought of the natural wild horse model to sell their ideas.

5) Even if they had, people didn’t see wild horses as an ideal.

6) People weren’t as consumed with the idea of avoiding learning and hard work as they are now.

7) If a horse went lame after being so treated, it was recognized immediately as an ineffective and cruel practice.

All that is necessary for a “trimmer” to start in business today is to read someone’s article or book, create a clever (and misleading) brochure, and advertise to often unsuspecting horse owners. The promoters say anybody can do this. No qualifications or experience are necessary [to cripple horses]. Certification is given to future practitioners by those who sold the con.

Twenty-five years ago, the AFA (American Farriers Association), would not allow me, as a horseshoeing instructor, to certify my own students. The reasoning was that this would be a temptation to certify my own students to make my program look good. At the time I felt they were questioning my integrity, and I was not pleased.

In retrospect, I believe it was the right thing to do. These “trimmers” or “barefoot people” are doing that very thing now. They are telling their disciples to watch a DVD, or read an article/book, or attend a short course. Then, pay a fee, and they will be certified and added to a list of certified “natural hoof care practitioners.” It’s brilliant!

I recently gave a presentation at a horse expo where I pointed out the flaws of so-called natural hoof care by unqualified persons. A local farrier came up to me later and told me how the natural trimmer in his area was good for his business as he was called to redeem horses that she had crippled by using her technique of cutting the heels down until they bled.

Trimmers, and other fad promoters, will go to great lengths to justify what they do. The founder and chief executive officer of an association of barefoot people sent me an email in 2001.  He was very critical of the German veterinarian who advocated radical and inhumane hoof trimming techniques. Yet his disciples and “certified practitioners” are now advocating and practicing the same things this veterinarian does. They are crippling horses that a qualified professional farrier has to try to rehabilitate.

Why would horse owners hire an inexperienced, unqualified person to trim or shoe their horse? 1) Perhaps no qualified farrier is available; 2) Perhaps they want to believe the appealing marketing story told by the con artist; 3) Perhaps their previous hoof care provider had done a poor job of educating his or her clients; 4) Perhaps they think they will save money; or 4) Perhaps they are ignorant of the damage that can be done.

I’m willing to believe the reason people buy into the natural trimming idea primarily goes back to the widespread ignorance about the foot and shoeing that exists among both the farriers and the public. I was raised by a mother who instilled in me a soft heart for abused horses. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to warn others of things that will cause unnecessary pain and suffering to our equine friends.

This near perfect barefoot con allows its promoters to take no responsibility for their mistakes and errors. They deny individuality of horses when they say one size fits all. They use the term “natural” to sell their “new and improved” technique. They simply blame the horse’s lameness condition on the shoes the horse used to wear.

What ever happened to “first do no harm?”

Our society is rejecting science and education as a whole. We are willing to pay more for entertainment than education. We value glamour more than substance. Emotional appeal is more convincing than scientific proof. The insanity of animal rights has replaced common sense. The prevailing attitude seems to be, “My mind’s made up – don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Who do you trust? Do you believe those who have experience and a track record over several generations of doing what is the best for the horses in their care? Or, do you believe those that have made up their own rules, even their own vocabulary, while ignoring anatomy and physiology, so they can sell their radical ideas and practices?

It comes down to making a choice. It’s wonderful to have the choice. But, with that choice goes the responsibility for the welfare of your animal. It’s a question of stewardship and trust.

Of course, some horses can’t tolerate shoes. Some people can’t tolerate them either. I’m not one of those. I want to get up and go again tomorrow. Yet, some people do fine without shoes. Does that mean that all of us should go without shoes under all terrain conditions and in all kinds of weather?

Of course not – we must account for individual differences. One size does not fit all. We are not all the same. Each horse is unique. That is why you need the services of a well trained and experienced professional farrier to help you decide what is best for your equine companion’s welfare.

  1. Jack EversMarch 26, 2010   

    About a year ago, I went riding with a former vet tech from New Bolton Center. She said the vets there referred to barefoot as a synonym for bilaterally lame, and I’ve seen a goodly number of people who may recognize a horse lame on one corner, but not on a pair or on all four. That’s the sad part.

    Even one of my clients who bought one from a barefooter – called me to shoe it because she felt it needed shoes, but didn’t feel it was lame yet. Said she was having trouble picking up the left front. I went around and cleaned feet, told her the left front was likely the one that hurt the least. Said “I’ll bet when I get a shoe on the right front, she’ll hand me the left one”. She did.


  2. Shane FlemingMarch 26, 2010   

    Thank you for clarifying what I already researched and knew to be right from wrong.We deal with this nonsense on a daily basis, I as well have had to rehabilitate some of these particular horses and owner’s.It’s mostly financial for people here so I like to charge accordingly to make their horse happy again.

  3. Kenny HoyleMarch 26, 2010   

    Amen Mr. Butler…………but I’m afraid you are preaching to the choir.

  4. Jim GoedeMarch 26, 2010   

    I get many questions about “natural hoofcare” in my practice here in Southern California. In my experience I, like you, believe that every horse is different…some can go barefoot, some can’t. When I get the question, I feel it is my obligation to educate my client. I do this by initially describing the difference between wild horses and domesticated horses to help them understand why some horse do fine barefoot and some can’t. Things like genetics, use, foot quality and terrain must be taken into consideration. I describe why I almost never shoe mustangs (genetics), but almost always shoe T/Bs (bad breeding practices for the wrong characteristics). These are my 2 ends of the typical hoof quality spectrum.

    When I have seen these barefoot hoofcare people, I notice that they seem to charge about the same as shoeing when you take into consideration that they require much more frequent trimmings, so I think that the price issue isn’t as important as other things.

    I think it’s funny when someone asks me if I know anything about this “natural hoof care”. As if I have been practicing “unnatural hoofcare”. I got into this business to help horses. I will NEVER do anything that I feel is detrimental to the welfare and health of the horse. That’s why on my business card I now have the word “ethical” on it. I have no problem walking away from a situation where someone wants me to do something that I feel is not in the best interest of the horse.

  5. Brian HullMarch 26, 2010   

    That is so true Doug’ we have the same problem with barefoot trimmers in Ontario,when we confront them to explain the workings of the hooves, why
    they trim the way they do, they can’t give us an straight answer. We have new owners buying their first horse who know nothing about trimming and shoeing, and they are led to believe barefoot is better. Maybe it’s time for the
    professional farriers to put out ads informing horse owners of the difference between barefoot trimmers and certified farriers, have meetings
    with horse owners to explain the difference, the lameness problems, etc.
    We have to get the word out to as many horse owners as possible. If not,
    more horses could suffer pain and lameness; horses can’t talk and tell us
    what’s right or wrong — they trust the farrier — let’s not let the horse down.
    Brian Hull

  6. LouMarch 26, 2010   

    I truly feel sorry for you— Your piece sounds more like fear talking–yes, fear that you’ll be without a business soon as more and more people realise how easy it is to have a shoeless horse and simply use boots…but you know all this…shame on you for trying to threaten and create fear in people so that they will follow your way of thinking!

  7. Bernie KanuckMarch 27, 2010   

    Well said!

  8. Joepaul Meyers,C.J.FMarch 27, 2010   

    100 % CORRECT !! I had the pleasure of speaking w/Dr. Doug at Stillwater,Ok. a few yrs. ago. As I said then at the lecture,
    we are constantly “bombed” with boggus facts and information that
    “doesn’t hold water” and the large portion of the horse owning public
    buys into this false info. There are those who feel they need to “re-invent” the wheel ! As I have always followed through my 38+yrs. of working & teaching, old fundamentals and “ABC”s should not be broken. Mentors like Doug Butler and others believe in sound traditions and improvements “yes”,
    but taking short-cuts and anything that DOES NOT benefit the horse,
    should not be done or practiced !!

  9. Sylvia KornherrMarch 29, 2010   

    Dr. Butler, I invite you into my world as a trimmer. For all the energy spent writing this article painting all farriers and all barefoot trimmers with the same paintbrush, I urge you to consider what might be out there that you are totally unaware of- collaboration, teamwork, smart and dedicated teams. I ask you to respectfully reconsider your position. You are a well respected leader and mentor, and what you write, impacts and influences many in our profession. Dare to find out more…check it out- a candid chat exchange, link below- see my response from on PAGE 4, Subject: critique my farrier. Best regards. Sylvia

  10. SashaMarch 29, 2010   

    Dear Mr. Butler,

    You have not met my horse! He is a rock-crushing, forward moving, eager and willing, abcess-free, amazingly able barefoot horse! He has white feet with contracted heels, and I was advised when I bought him to shoe him. I was already a “barefoot person”, and decided instead to help him develop his natural abilities. He is the most able horse I have ever ridden over any and all terrain. We ride in a rocky, mountainous area. He is sure-footed and always rarin’ to go (sometimes a little more rarin’ than I’d like!) He is an eager, happy trail horse.

    Now what you’ll hate to hear…I trim his feet myself. I worked alongside a barefoot trimmer for the better part of 2 years to gain enough experience that I felt confident caring for my horse’s feet. I am confident in saying that I NEVER have the lameness problems that others who shoe at my barn have. He does not get stone bruises, abcesses, or any of the other ailments that others who use “good” farriers seem to often have. I never have to wait for a farrier to replace a lost shoe, and the more I ride him over rough terrain, the better he gets.

    You might think I have a special horse, and that barefoot “works for him”, while it might not work for other horses. Well, my other horse is a registered Clydesdale gelding, who had horrifically flared feet when I bought him. He also happily goes over the same terrain as my light horse. He has feet like rocks that get better with every ride I do.

    If people want to shoe their horses, that is fine…I think those people think, as you do, that they are doing the best for their horses. Every one has to do what they feel is right in their own hearts. But please don’t “slam” the “barefoot people” and try to insinuate they are abusing their horses. That’s just not true. The farriers I have had in the past have been wonderful – members of the National Canadian Farrier Team, competitive and up-to-date in what they do. But not one of them has been able to make my horses as able and agile as they are now. I don’t know if shoes “lame” a horse, as some barefoot advocates would suggest…but I do know that my personal horses do noticeably better without them.

  11. Lloyd PhillipsMarch 31, 2010   

    I feel like your preaching to the choir here. I hope barefoot people read your article.
    I have worked on helping horses go better, more sound. Then someone comes along, pulls shoes, lames the horse, and that’s ok for the owner. Until that person realizes the common sense. “My horse
    went better with shoes.” If they ever do.
    Too many people today have no knowledge of soundness, and that is considered cruel in my book too. I usually try to teach them, But first you have to pull the shoes to see how they do barefoot. If they don’t think that a barefoot specialist will fix it. they may come around.

  12. Israel SmithApril 22, 2010   

    I keep hearing the same thing on several of these posts.I’m a “barefoot person” or I’m into “natural trimming”.I don’t care whether you shoe your horse or not if you don’t want to protect your horses feet thats your business, you feed the critter not me.But lets get something straight here there is only ONE way to trim a horse,to its pastern angle.You don’t chop off its heels to slam its soles on the ground to “toughen” them up.If the wild horse crowd would sit through one hoof dissection, learn and understand anatomy they could never look me in the eye and tell me that their trimming practices make sense.If your horse does good barefoot thats great I’m happy for you but if you want to ride that same horse barefoot for many years to come have him trimmed by a professional certified farrier,not by a someone who sat through a 3-day certified lameness course or worse yet learned it from the internet.Oh and by the way any one that has the nerve to argue hoof anatomy with DR.Doug Butler doesnt realize how ignorant it makes you look.I’m done now
    Israel Smith CF

  13. Steve SchneidermanApril 24, 2010   

    I think that it is wonderful that the barefoot trimmers have decided to respond to this forum. An active & respectful debate is always a good thing. But, I do have a few questions:

    1. I have two accounts, 1. an outfitter & 2. a guest ranch operation, where the horses are used almost daily. I shoe these horses every 6 weeks & the steel is literally worn out @ the end of the shoeing cycle. Are there any barefoot trimmers out there that have similar accounts & can show us photos of how multiple horses hold up under continous use?
    2. And, to the gentleman who spoke of hoof boots. Sir, how would you accommodate a horse that may need a lateral extension, a rolled or rocker toe, and/or maybe a wedge plus additional expansion in the heel? How do you combat the sole pressure caused when these boots fill w/ sand or mud during a ride? Have you had problems w/ irritation @ the coronary band? As an endurance rider, I carry a hoofboot w/ me on every ride as a spare tire. But, like the donut spare that came w/ my car, I would not rely on it for daily use.

    Thank You In Advance,

    Steve Schneiderman
    Larkspur, CO
    2008 Butler Professional Farrier School Graduate
    2006 Mtn. Region Limited Distance Endurance Champion (AERC,MRER, & CAHC)

  14. Scott ChaneyMay 15, 2010   

    Hey Doc. Long time no see.
    I for one, am glad to see that we still have some horses in the American herd that are pretty iron-footed. Considering the breeding programs of a lot of farms, the fact we still have some mutts out there gettin the job done in a way that satisfies today’s “horsemen” and their “work programs”, it’s a testament to the adaptability of God’s most nobel creature (other than us, of course). The I ride my “rock-crushing, forward moving, eager and willing, abcess-free, amazingly able barefoot horse! He has white feet with contracted heels” people brag that they do it what…once, twice a week?
    Put that dude over the mountain every day, six days a week until your backside is worn out.
    Your horse will be screamin for shoes.
    I advocate simple.
    If the horse has a simple life of moderate exercise in a decent environment, chances are, he’ll never hear an anvil ring.
    But no matter his condition or station in life, if his workload erodes his feet faster than he can grow ’em.
    He needs shoes.
    You can get all apoplectic about the heinous cruelty of driving steel into a horse’s foot all you want, but the fact remains that using a hammer to shove slivers of steel into a horse’s foot has not only given much relief to horses, but has enabled and even enhanced their ability to perform their jobs.
    Problems with shoes and nails isn’t the fault of the nails or shoes. It’s how they are applied.
    Just like how the foot is trimmed.
    People who limit their willingness to expand their knowledge and skills and believe they are the end all be all due to their small anecdotal pieces of evidence shouldn’t have a knife in their hand.

  15. ChristineAugust 23, 2010   

    While I appreciate your perspective on trimmers who use one-size-fits all approaches and radical methods, or are poorly trained, I do not appreciate your painting all owners or trimmers with the same brush. There are many horses who are perfectly able to go shoeless and many owner who have always had barefoot horses and are looking for a qualified trimmer to keep these horses sound. Just as there are countless farriers who should not be in business and who are regularly crippling horses, there are other hoof care professionals who do the same. Its a matter of sticking to those who know what they are doing. Does this mean only farriers and shoers are qualified to provide hoof care? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

    • Butler Farrier SchoolAugust 31, 2010   

      Christine – While I appreciate your comment, I didn’t “paint all with the same brush.” Horses, depending on their use and hoof integrity, can be left barefoot. I agree that there are incompetent farriers as well as incompetent trimmers. Let’s all agree to improve the quality of hoof care that we give our horse friends

  16. Eddie HaynesAugust 24, 2010   

    OK so this article has been out for a while, and I took the time to reread the article and all of the responses to it. I am no farrier, but have been a horse owner for many years, and have devoted my time to learning as much as I can so that until I do get formal training, I am at the very least, an educated owner. And the one thing I can tell you in my many years of owning horses is that every one of them is different. We have a hodgepodge of Walkers, Trotters, Appies, TB’s, Arabs…everyone of them we use as trail horses mainly in some of the most beautiful and rugged country in the lower 48 in WA. Each one of them is set up a little different, because each one of them is a little different. I never read anything in this article that suggested that Mr. Butler said you had to shoe your horse….he merely says that (in my words) what is good for one horse isn’t necessarily good for another…and isn’t that the truth. My Walker of not such great breeding breaks over different and so she is trimmed slightly different then our Trotter whose back feet move out way faster than her front. Our Arab only has shoes on the front because she is little and hardly carries any weight. To speak of the Trotter, would I ever go without shoes on her….probably not…see you’re already thinking, “Hmm, this guy just assumes he needs it”…..but you don’t know the whole story, she has a split from the coronet band that goes all the way down her hoof. She has had it since we got her and she has never been lame because of it……but to let her go bare foot and take the chance of hurting it more on the rocks on the trails up here seems to be, what do you want to say….negligent on my part. As for boots, no offense to the person who said it earlier, we tried those on all five of our horses for one year, many many years ago, thinking, “Wow, that makes sense.” None of them faired well…..they sweat inside the boot and ended up making the hoof very squishy and they did not hold up well. BUT again, in other people’s defense, that is in my part of the country. Maybe someone else lives in a very dry climate and the boot will help keep the foot from flaking.

    It seems people on both sides–the shod and unshod–feel that the other side is saying their way is better than the other. But in my layman’s opinion, I think everyone needs to get over it and be openminded. Stop thinking of your specific discipline and think more about the horse standing in front of you at that moment….what is going to be best for him….maybe shoes maybe not, but don’t just automatically go one way or the other because that is how you have always done every other horse you have had.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents.

  17. English StoneDecember 21, 2010   

    Last year I rode with nine other horsemen in the Rockies in Wyoming. Seven of the nine horses were shod with iron. A Fresian and QH in the group “who we were told had always been ridden barefoot or with boots” could hardly make the ride each day. It was torment to those of us who had to watch the barefoot horses try to keep up with the shod horses. The barefoot Fresian pulled every kind of shananagan it could to try staying off the trails. The QH wearing the boots quickly decided the trails were to painful for it as well. The clincher came when the boots came off the QH after crossing the Wind River. You would have to of seen the hooves yourself to appreciate how bad “boots” can be for a horse. These two horses who were supposedly conditioned to go barefoot were absolutely miserable everytime they went out on the trail. The wrangler had specifically told everyone of the riders not to bring any unshod horses on the trip. Some folks just have to pee on the fence.

  18. SandraFebruary 19, 2011   

    “What ever happened to “first do no harm?” This is a quote I read in one of the other posts, and it was talking about barefoot trimmers.

    That quote applies to farriers too, not just barefoot trimmers. Where I live in New Zealand, the percentage of very bad farriers to the good ones is very high, and is a good reason many horse owners have taken their horses barefoot. In fact I haven’t seen a nicely shod horse in quite a while now. A large number of “farriers” in NZ are not qualified in any way, but learn on the job and do it badly. However, there aren’t enough of them for people to be able to choose the good ones. And also people assume that all farriers are created equal and know what they’re doing, something that we all know is absolute crap.

    My barefoot trimmer learned the trade because she couldn’t FIND a decent farrier in her area, who would do a good job and actually go to her property (it’s not in the city, so a bit of travel is required).

    I believe people should do what they believe is the best for their horse, given the information they have and the situation they are in, and should weigh up all the options such as stress on the horse and the impact that is going up their legs with each step they take. I believe barefoot is best for my horse so that is the way she will stay. Her feet are rock hard, her angles are right, she doesn’t have flares, she has very wide frogs, and nice shaped feet with short toes.

    However, if you DO choose to have your horse shod, PLEASE find a good farrier and take responsibility for having a good job done on a regular basis. What I see everywhere are shoes that have been on too long (because it costs so much to shoe so people stretch it out to 8 or 10 weeks at least in most cases), incredibly long toes, coronet bands that wave like the ocean, high heels, and very bad angles.

    Whatever you do, do it well! There are just as many crap farriers as there are barefoot trimmers. Please don’t tar them all with the same brush!

  19. Sandra KennedyFebruary 10, 2013   

    I’m just catching up here having recently found this site. One thing that seems to be forgotten in the mustang/natural argument is nothing we do with our horses is natural. Mustangs don’t pack some lard ass around, they pick their terrain, don’t live in soft paddocks/wet areas, I could go on… As an Equine Sport Therapist with a slant toward holistic I see all kinds of horses and some can go barefoot but lots can’t in my climate. When I visit I ask what the vet says and what the farrier says because I want to know. I’ve seen horses that are sore all around and the owners wonder if it needs adjustment or massage and while that can help the resulting issue it’s so often a foot problem that they don’t want to address. One horse was so sore that before I left the owner put boots on so he could wander around his paddock for a while. It was a big relief to him but since they can’t be left on I suggested shoes again (we’d been over that earlier) and she said “Oh no, I can’t put him through that!” She was well meaning but it was cruel and there was no convincing her. She unfortunately bought into the barefoot movement without considering it’s not for every horse. Her vet couldn’t convince her either. Fortunately most are willing to at least consider the idea.

    Another thing people forget is we’ve bred the mustang traits out for better movement, looks, disposition etc. My QH gelding is a dream to ride, long smooth stride, flat kneed, nice to have around etc but he has under run heels and is shod with wedges every five weeks at the most. Big deal, it keeps him sound and probably amounts to one extra shoeing a year. He has good walls and soles but bad angles, so did his dam. I can get away with just fronts when I’m not riding but as soon as I put him to work or hit the trails he’s shod all around. I also know that if he’d been in the wild the coyotes would’ve had him years ago. He’s a nice horse though, he suits what I want better than a mustang would.

    It also depends what you want to do with your horses. In my area barefoot leans toward the NH, treeless saddles, bitless bridles. Competitive horses are shod. Always exceptions of course but that’s the trend.

  20. UriFebruary 26, 2013   

    We live in a very wet coastal climate where hooves have a hard time staying hard. Gravel roads constitute a lot of our rideing and fortunately we also have a beach to ride on.
    Having a barefoot horse pretty much means you ride on the beach which is great. Boots or shoes are pretty much required for rock or gravel trails. There are a few exceptions. But the few exceptions cannot mean that all horses regardless of conformation or environment are going to be happy without shoes,
    I have been a professional farrier for 25 years and shoe about half of the horses on my roster. If a horse can go barefoot I recommend it. If it is going to be sore without shoes I reccommend regular trimmming and shoeing.
    There is no reason to have horse be sore footed yet too many folks have been told by those who don’t have the skills to properly apply horseshoes.
    Boots are a mass manufactured product. Sometimes they fit but have significant limitations and problems and like mentioned above hooves sweat in synthetic boots especially if left on for extended periods. They do make a good spare tire for sure.

    I have attended at least 2 clinic/lectures/seminars per year through out the course of my carreer including many barefoot clinics. It can be difficult to sit through them when there are many assumtions and flat out mistruths. One of my favorites is the thermo-image of a horse with three “warm” legs and one “cold” one and then we are told that the cold one has a shoe on it hoof and thus the circulation is limited. WOW! Really!!

    I have also seen plenty of wacky farrier concepts also to be fair.

    As a horse owner we are responsible for doing what we know is right for our horses. If a horse is happier with steel on its hooves it will tell you. If you are insisting on not providing appropriate protection and your horse suffers for it you are simply not listening or worse.

    The last part of this little commentary is the question. Why would we insist on “natural” hoof management when little else in a domestic horse’s world is “natural”. Does no shoes also mean no hay, no barn, no rider, no saddle, no bridle, no vet, no farrier, no barefoot trimmer?

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