Sunday, July 26, 2009

Natural Hoof Care and the Barefoot Horse

I’ve never been one for medicines and doctor visits, for myself, my son, or my horses. I have this underlying trust in beings that for the most part we are strong, healthy and have what it takes to remain so. Yes, I do know this is not always the case; life always keeps us on our toes, perhaps so we take nothing for granted, can appreciate the goodness of nature when things do go according to plan, and become stronger by handling the challenges life throws at us when things do not. The ability to turn to modern medicine has been a blessing, in fact enabled me to still be alive today, but not one I take lightly, or expect to rely on with every given ailment.

That said, you can see I tend to prefer more natural approaches to health and care of self, family, pets and animals. All the way down to their feet. I’m talking about, of course, natural hoof care for horses, or keeping horses in their natural state of being barefoot, without steel nailed onto and through the hoof wall.

The practice simply makes sense to me. As a young girl, I was able to run barefoot myself for summers on end. My feet toughened to the point of tolerating walking on glass and hot pavement, or hiking across rock and gravel. Today, I haven’t been out of the house barefoot in years, and would have trouble walking from here to the barn if I were to attempt it barefoot. I know I’m capable of getting tough again, but right now, those digits are softies.

Why can’t it, why shouldn’t it be the same with my horses? We leave them barefoot all winter without problems. But heavy use, regular work, hard trails, mountains and rocks added to the picture make it a blur of confusion. It could, should, might work…

I started by attempting to hire a barefoot trimmer for consultation. Due to our remote location, after a year of correspondence, I was still without an appointment. Anyway, we are lucky enough to have a farrier with an open mind, willing and able to learn and try natural hoof care trimming, for our sake, and for the sake of our horses.

We then did a bunch of research on the internet and learned there are about as many styles and philosophies on barefoot trimming as there are horse colors. Believing inherently that bottom line, nothing should ever be done that hurts the horse and makes him lame, the more drastic approaches were not for us.

After reading Pete Ramey’s book “Making Natural Hoof Care Work for You,” I felt I found a logical approach that would work for me and my horses. When we pulled their shoes last October and had our farrier trim throughout the winter, we felt we were on the right path.

Then the summer season happened, and as usual, it starts with a BANG and continues rattling clear through autumn. We rarely have a chance to breathe, let alone slow down. For the horses, this means time to hit the trail, and get out their regularly. There is no time to be lame, to be soft, to take it easy, to test the waters. No time to sufficiently toughen up.

And sore they did get. I tell you what, as a horse lover, let alone one who relies on horses for their business, seeing my babies sore because of my choice was a pretty tough place to be… talk about questioning yourself, your motives, your choices…

Then one day, I had a long trip scheduled on one of the rockiest trails I know in this area, which for those of you who know the San Juan Mountains, know that’s saying a lot. And my main mount, my guide horse was sore. Sore because of my decision to “try” the barefoot horse thing.

So what did I do? I turned to my back up. Another barefoot horse. One who was not sore. My little stallion, Fadjurz Ideal, otherwise known as Flying Crow. At age 7, he has never been shod. I trim his feet myself. He gets plenty of exercise (as do so many stallions on pasture, even during his free time he seems to enjoy running back and forth for hours on a path he has packed hard).

I had never guided on him before, nor ridden him on this trail, thus was more than a little apprehensive. But life throws challenges at us at times when the timing must be just right. I rode him, there and back, a full day in the mountains in some pretty nasty conditions, and you know what? We haven’t looked back since. His feet were NEVER sore from that day. Nor from the many days since that I’ve continued to keep him going on the trails with me, working and guiding.

He made a believer of me. A horse can be barefoot. In fact, a horse can thrive barefoot. The footing, the health benefits, the ease of care… it all makes sense to me, and it all can work. But it takes effort to make it work. Commitment. Time. The right conditions. Plenty of rides to allow the horse the opportunity to toughen up. Flying Crow was sore once too… about four years ago when I first brought him home from the stable in which he was raised, and turned him out on pasture. It has taken years. But it worked.

I do not doubt that this would work for all of my horses if I rode them as regularly all year long, and had them as active as my little stallion. I never manage to have all the time I wish I had for each of my horses. When and if the day comes that I do, and believe I’m working towards this, I feel certain I can prove this a success. I will be providing what I truly believe is the healthiest hoof care for my horses by keeping them barefoot.

In the meanwhile, I have my Flying Crow, barefoot and fancy free, running around the mountains with me, naturally. Reminding me (and you) that this can work. It does work and it is working. A horse can thrive barefoot, even in these conditions, in these mountains, with all this riding…

If you have any barefoot stories, ideas, suggestions or experiences to share, please leave a comment or write me directly at I’d love to learn more and look forward to many a barefoot tales to follow…

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lessons learned from a little stud horse

We’re finally working together, my little stud horse and I. I mean really working. Guiding rides, and riding up the mountain to our camp in the Wilderness where we work mid-week, picketing, high line, the whole nine yards for the life of a working mountain horse. As well as giving us some lovely colts…

It took us three years to get here. I often think it should have taken us three months. I suppose if I knew then what I know now, it would have been so much easier. For both of us. But it was all these lessons we learned together that got us to this point, and gave me the knowledge to do so much better… next time. In the meanwhile, he forgave me for all my mistakes, and helped me learn the right way; showed me what I needed, and is still teaching me plenty most every day.

The biggest lesson he taught me I think I only now finally get. That I need to be a good leader first, and a good friend second. Just loving him and caring for him and being nice won’t get us up the trail safely. I wished it would. I tried that for years. But he needed a leader. And once I learned to be strong and firm but fair, to be a good leader, then and only then did he really want to be my friend. Before that, I see now, our friendship was on his terms, and at my expense.

I could ask ten times. That is no longer asking. That is nagging. Horses know how to tune that out like a child of an irritating mother. I didn’t raise my child that way. Why couldn’t I treat my horse with the same respect I treat my son? I ask him once. If he doesn’t get it, I figure either he didn’t hear me, or I perhaps I didn’t communicate clearly. I may try again, a little more firmly. If I have to ask a third time, he knows I’ll demand a response, and rightfully so. It should only take once, if done right. I know how to talk to my son. It came easily to me. I treated him with the leadership I wished I received as a child. Not just friendship. But true leadership. Direction. Help. Protection. Because I care about him. I love him, and he knows it all the time. I may not play with him or be a soft and warm and fuzzy mother. He says I’m like the mama wolf, and he knows he’s safe, and he knows if I ask once, I mean it. I may not ask a second time.

Finally, I am learning to treat my horses with the same care and respect. If I care about them, I will be their leader. With love, and kindness, and strong protection. I will ask only once nicely.

Finally, I am learning to be the leader he has been looking for. Now and only now, can we truly be friends.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Part VII in the series on Horse Packing How-To: On the trail

As we head out again to the high country with our horses, this is the season to be amassing notes, photos, information and ideas to share with you at a later date and a slower time. And stories, including Floyd Stories… Ah, the ebb and flow of life. It’s flowing now. Lots of fun, and never enough time to do all we wish to accomplish on any given day. A good feeling, to have so much you want to do, you enjoy doing, you wish you could do…

In the meanwhile, a brief set of notes to share with you on horse packing. These on the actual how-to on the trail.

First of all, it sure helps if your riding horse or mule neck reins and doesn’t mind a rope under the tail. Most horses (and almost all mules) are surprisingly undisturbed by a rope rubbing under their back end and will completely ignore this, or perhaps clamp down their tail briefly. I don’t think I would like it much, so the few that do over react, and a few will, I give them time; they’ll accept it eventually.

Next, if you are leading more than one horse or mule in a pack string, take care to tie them together safely. We use a “pigging string,” a piece of bailing twine looped over the front brace of the cross bars in the pack saddle before packing the horse, and hanging out the back end of the pack over the horses rigging along their back. The lead rope of the following horse is then tied onto the pigging string. (This works well too for leading a group of saddle horses – just loop the pigging string over and under the saddle horn and be sure the cinches are tight.)

The pigging string serves as a release point in an emergency, such as a horse slipping down trail. Better to allow a break point than lose your whole string. The horse’s safety matters to me. I figure I have no right being out there working with my stock if I can’t care for them in a safe and sound manner. Pack extra bailing twine. It can snap en route. Replace it as needed. Anyway, you all know how many other uses you’ll find for string in camp if you don’t use it all getting into camp…

We tend to tie the lead rope on long enough that the following horses can put their head down to drink at creek crossings if need be. We’re often out there for long hours, and our stock work hard. For short trips, you may consider tying shorter – not so close that the horse will ride up on the horse in front, but not so long that the horse can put his head down and graze as he moseys down the trail.

Finally, the most important part is caring for your stock on the trail. I once read that a truly good packer rides looking backwards half the time. I strive to do this. I try to gently hold my riding horse up as needed at creek crossings, bridges, rocks, and other obstacles in the trail. Make sure the string all find their footing and safely cross. Keep an eye on the stock to make sure they are not being dragged along or pulling back, and that they are staying in line. The order of your stock in the pack string is essential. A bossier horse will work great in the lead to keep others in line behind, unless he or she kicks, then that one needs to be at the end of the line… unless he or she bites. Get to know your stock. Find the order that works best for them. Allow them to be happy and comfortable. I don’t want my horses grumbling and uncomfortable in the pack string. It is work, but not a bad job. They more content the stock is doing their job, the easier my job is, of course.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Part VI in the series on Horse Packing How-To: Packing the Load

There are a lot of adjustments to the pack saddle rigging. Spend the time to properly fix and place each strap for the most comfortable fit for your horse. The only tight fit should be with both cinches. The breast collar and crupper should be comfortable – not tight, but not so loose it hangs and rubs. Keep a good eye on your stock, especially the first few trips. Our goal is always to have our stock arrive home after a trip without rubbing, scarring or chaffing.

Like I mentioned in an earlier Floyd Story, you can over tighten the load and have a very uncomfortable horse. As with a good rider that can safely ride with a loose cinch by adjusting his or her body weight, what’s more important that a super-tight cinch is the equally balanced loads.

So, that’s where we’ll begin. Before packing the load, you need to sort and weigh the load. I can’t stress the importance of this step enough. Your goal is for equal weight and bulk on each side of the horse. Really equal. “Sort of” is not good enough. We use soft sided canvas or iron cloth panniers, and choose the gear to fit in each so that each pannier ends up approximately the same size, and definitely the same weight. Each pannier is weighed on a hanging scale (hanging from a rope in our barn or packing area at home, or from a tree limb or strong human packer at camp), and adjusted accordingly. Our goal is to be exactly equal. We will settle for no more than a pound difference. This may sound crazy, but we’ll throw in a rock to balance the load. I believe it is that important. Otherwise, you’re relying on the tightness of the lash ropes and cinches, and I don’t think my horse needs anything strapped on that tightly.

As for maximum weight, a common question asked by our clients each year, it all depends on your stock, your trails, and how far you’ll be going. We don’t overload our stock. We start at 10,000 feet elevation and go up from there on some very challenging, steep and rocky high mountain trails. I don’t need to kill my horse, or even have him wiped out or injured, for anyone’s load. We average our max load at 125 or 150 total weight per horse. That means that 125 or 150 pounds has to be evenly divided between the two panniers and the top load. (I do not include the saddle and rigging in this figure.) That ends up being plenty of weight and bulk, dead weight, mind you, for our stock to climb up these mountain trails.

To pack the load on the horse, we work as team, one of us holding the horse and reaching over to adjust the straps, as the other one lifts the panniers up onto the pack saddle rigging. When the panniers and top load are in place, a mantee or folded tarp is laid over the load. The load is then secured with the lash rope and cinch.

I imagine every packer has his or her own favorite way to secure the load. We stick with the box hitch. It’s worked for my husband quite well for 30 or 40 years now. You can learn and master “fancier” hitches like the Diamond. Whatever works for you. It is personal preference, and I imagine the several options will all work well if they are done right.

Double check your work. Loads must be even, and you can tell just from looking at your final packed stock if it is all hanging tight, secure and evenly. If not, believe me, it’s a lot easier to stop and re-pack at home or at the trail head, than on the trail after your full pack saddle rolled under the belly of your horse or mule.