The Best Off-Season Hoof Health Fix
It used to be standard procedure to pull a horse's shoes for the off season, and with good reason. The hoof may seem like a pretty rigid structure, but when unshod there is measurable expansion at the quarters when the hoof is weight-bearing. An unshod hoof also engages the frog as a natural shock absorber and integral part of the weight-bearing structures.
When a horse is shod, expansion on weight-bearing is restricted and the frog does not receive as much direct stimulation as when the horse is barefoot. As a result, the heels and frogs tend to narrow over time (contracted) and the foot takes on a more oval shape. Less shock absorption means more vibration is transmitted to the internal structures of the hoof and leg.
When the shoes are pulled it's not unusual to be able to see the heel area expand within a matter of hours. By a few days, the feet are obviously wider. The frog responds to stimulation by becoming larger and more robust.
Another benefit of the natural expansion and contraction of the bare hoof is that material in the crevices beside the frog are forced out when the horse walks. This reduces the risk of thrush. The same pumping action keeps snow from accumulating in a bare hoof and unshod horses have better traction.
If the horse has been protected in shoes for a long time, the hoof wall may be thinner than it would be otherwise. This will also respond to the stimulation of being barefoot. To prevent cracking and chipping, the hoof ground edge is usually rounded to produce what is called a "mustang roll." This should always be done if the hoof wall is of poor quality or the horse will be moving over hard surfaces.
The rolled or beveled hoof edge also relieves strain and tension on the laminar connections, leading to a tighter white line. As laminar connections improve, the coffin bone will sit higher within the hoof capsule and you will see good natural concavity developing in the sole.
Another advantage to being barefoot for a while is that the horse can move, break over and wear the hoof in the way that is most comfortable for them. This can provide valuable information for the veterinarian and hoof care professional.
Whether barefoot or shod, it's important to maintain an interval between trims that keeps the hoof from becoming overgrown and distorted. Hoof wall distortions are a very common cause of lameness both in the hoof and the structures above. Even when they are not the direct cause, improper hoof mechanics caused by an overgrown hoof will have a negative impact.
The off season is the time for your horse to rest up and recuperate. Pulling the shoes and regular hoof care during this period also makes it possible to return the horse to work with the best possible hoof health.