The Barefoot vs. Shod table topic at the 2008 AAEP Convention was very well attended and the attendee participation was excellent. The purpose of this session was to look at the merits of each method of hoof care rather than debate if one is better than the other. With the advertizing campaign being directed at horse owners stating that having a horse barefoot is far superior to being shod and that it's the only acceptable method of hoof care, equine practitioners are often asked for their opinion and input. The barefoot or natural trim has its roots and has been patterned after the so-called research on the wild or feral horse. This purported research is hard to justify as the type of foot encountered here is based on the heredity and genetics of the feral horse and is driven by exercise, environment and the terrain on which the animal walks. If taken out of this environment / terrain, the horse will immediately assume a different foot conformation.
I would be the first to state that having the horse barefoot is the best possible state in which to maintain a horses feet if the individual situation is conducive to this method. Being a farrier, this moderator also feels that horses can be shod in a physiological manner such that the health of the foot is not compromised. This may be dependent on the skill and competency of the hoof care provider. In order for horses to be comfortable, protection is the main issue. When wear exceeds growth, some form of protection becomes necessary whether it is in the form of the horses own hoof mass, shoes, boots.etc. Two other arguments for shoes is the question of traction and the therapeutic application of shoes to alleviate lameness and hoof disease.
There is a strong movement by the barefoot proponents that all horses presently shod should have their shoes removed and allowed to go barefoot. Many things must be taken into consideration such as the animal's genetic makeup. Many Thoroughbred horses have no mass to their feet or have the feet damaged during race training making it very hard to do any type of athletic work without shoes. The amount of time a horse has worn shoes and the type of farrier care it has recieved often dictates their ability to go without shoes. Also there has to be a transition period that may take months to allow the feet to adjust and strengthen the necessary structures to remain barefoot. Finally, the style of hoof care must change from trimming the foot to shaping the foot. This allows the horse to retain the necessary hoof mass on the bottom of the foot for protection.
Two other interesting points from the table topic were that all the benefits claimed by the barefoot proponents have never been substantiated and remain anecdotal at best. The benefits of barefoot trimming could easily be shown to exist or proven as one foot or half the horse could be used as a control yet the various groups have been unwilling to subject their method to this type of scrutiny. The other interesting fact that came out was that the so-called barefoot trim has never been defined. Many in the audience were asked, how do you perform this trim? No one could give a reasonable answer. Furthermore, the various barefoot groups all appear to have a different type of trim.