It didn’t matter how much I cared – it still, somehow…. all went wrong.

That is how I feel about Tommy’s journey. It didn’t matter how dedicated I was as a horse owner. It didn’t matter that I spent every day with him and took great care of him. It didn’t matter that his hoof care, vaccinations and de-worming where all “up to date”. It just all went wrong.

Have you ever received a phone call to say your horse is down, won’t get up and no one knows why? It is a horrifying experience and what is even more troubling is when the vet doesn’t even have an explanation.

Yet, that is what happened to Tommy. In the space of one “day” his health took a sideways turn and things were never the same. Rather shocking when you have a horse that has never shown any signs of illness. It was the beginning of a very huge learning curve.

So, what do you do when no one can tell you what’s wrong?

You need to look at what has changed in order to find possible clues. In Tommy’s case there was two noticeable events:

  • Vaccination – Tommy had just been vaccinated the day previous to his collapse; and
  • Feeding Change – The boarding facility had just started feeding a new source of feed (hay).

Although I can never be sure that either of these events were the cause of Tommy’s health changes, it was very suspicious to me since he had never experienced any previous health problems; and I would know, as I had owned him since he was a yearling. Also of interest is the fact that another horse at the stable, also vaccinated, had became ill. Luckily for that horse it was not severe enough to warrant a visit by the vet. In the end, even if the vaccination or the feed were somehow to blame (which I will never know), I can’t go back and change it anyhow. I merely want to mention it in case other people have experienced this, or will experience the same thing. Perhaps, as time goes on, the equine world might discover and/or learn that these sorts of events are what trigger immune system problems/failures with forever lasting consequences. Yet again, what happened at that time could not be reversed, and besides, he appeared to recover….at least initially.

Around the same time as Tommy’s “collapse” the stable was downsizing so I made the decision to move Tommy and my other horse, Slim, to a different boarding facility. The “new place” had even less horses, required more “self management” yet had significantly more pasture and paddock area. Prior to the move, and more noticeably afterward, Tommy began to exhibit very distinct fat deposits. As this was a new issue for him, I could only think it was due to the increased grazing area. Yet no matter how much I limited his turnout time or exercised him the condition worsened.

In the space of one year (with one half of that being winter in Northern Canada which means no green grass and very little turn out with temperatures as cold as -40°C) my vibrant 12 year old gelding went from this:


NEXT SPRING 2009 – Notice fat deposit on neck and swollen sheath:

SUMMER 2009 -Notice very visible fat deposits on neck and very swollen sheath:

It was completely bewildering to me how Tommy’s physical body could change so drastically in the space of a year. On top of that, it didn’t seem to matter how much I rode or exercised him – the condition just seemed to get worse.

At this point he was not displaying any signs of discomfort. He had been barefoot all his life and I could ride him on any terrain and he was fine. But that was all about to change….

In June of 2009 I attended a Parelli Clinic hosted by Don & Randee Halladay. It was a great experience as it always is with these two wonderful facilitators, and I certainly can’t begin to tell you how much the Parelli Natural Horsemanship Program has helped me with my horses. If I could sum it up in one sentence it would be that once you have more knowledge you will never look at horses the same. It was Linda Parelli that said something to that effect in one of the very first level programs I studied, and she could not have been more sincere or accurate.

Thing is, that is also what happens with hooves! Once you have the knowledge you will never look at a set of hooves the same way!

While at the clinic, I had both Tommy and Slim’s feet trimmed. Tommy was immediately sore, so much in fact that he had difficulty walking across the parking lot. Although it bothered me, I was really optimistic that it was just a little sensitivity from the trim and that it would go away.

When I returned from the clinic, Tommy’s condition did not improve – it actually got worse. He was very sore and walking was very painful. I kept on thinking that things would be fine because he had always been such a sound healthy horse. In the 13 years I had owned him he had never been lame. I even contacted the farrier who had done his trim while at the Parelli clinic for his insight and he thought that Tommy was perhaps a little sore from having his heels lowered. We mutually agreed to “give him a few days” to adjust to the trim.

Video taken upon return from clinic. Please know that I resorted to taping carpet underlay to the bottoms of his feet to try and help relieve the pain.

Another picture of trim done at clinic below. His Soles were pared with a hoof knife (we do not touch the sole in our trimming method). Notice that the hoof has no concavity and plenty of hoof wall separation.

Another picture of trim

As the days past Tommy did not improve. I was very concerned and really out of my comfort zone as I had never had this problem with him before. I contacted my usual farrier and made arrangements for him to come and see him. When he arrived a few days later he told me that the best thing we could do for Tommy was to put shoes with pads on him in order to help him with the tenderness. At this point I was pretty desperate and willing to do anything to improve the situation. And so at 13 years of age Tommy was shod for the first time in his life.

You do what you do when you don’t know what else to do!

Looking back at this situation, with all the knowledge that I have now, I am going to conclude that during the same time that Tommy’s physical condition was changing (the past year) so were his feet. And because I never looked at his hooves with any sort of wisdom (that’s the farrier’s job right??) I just didn’t realize how his hooves were losing hoof wall connection, getting longer toes, and had zero concavity. I guess I made the assumption that if something was wrong with my horses’ feet that my farrier would tell me. Yet, please know that the only person that is going to take the time to really look at your horses feet, is you!

If I could get horse owners to learn one thing from this article it would be the importance of looking and learning about your horse’s feet. They are a huge indication of when things are right and when things are wrong!

Thanks to shoes (yes.. thanks to the shoes) Tommy was able to walk with comfort and I began to ride him again. I was still confused by his overall body shape but with hard work and miles I was able to get him into “OK” shape with the exception of those nagging fat deposits. Yet he wasn’t lame, so why ask questions? Since he had the shoes and pads on I was able to ride again, so why question a good thing?

Besides that’s what the farrier said to do! I have to admit, I now see how I shifted the responsibility of what was right for my horse to someone that really didn’t know. It allowed me to be conveniently ignorant.

Putting shoes on Tommy was what everyone else in the area would have done and that is where the danger can lie. When you do something because everyone else “does it that way” you may be comfortable in the crowd but you need to ask yourself if that crowd is where you want to be. After all, a lot of these people who have their horses shod still have performance and soundness issues so obviously things really aren’t working all that well.

So, remember when you go looking for advice that just because someone owns a horse doesn’t make them wise. I sure wasn’t – about hoof care anyhow – and I had owned horses for many, many years.

In the winter of 2010 I had Tommy’s shoes removed. The change in season brought about more changes for Tommy.

Winter in Northern Alberta is harsh. Temperatures can go to the -40°C range and wind chill is a big concern. To help with the cold, we started to bed the outside shelters with oat straw. At the end of January, 2010, Tommy required another visit to the vet. He was as stiff and sore as he had been the summer before.

The vet suggested that we do tests for “metabolic” disorders as he was not happy with Tommy’s overall condition. In addition, x-rays evidenced 5% rotation in his front feet. The test results came back to show that Tommy’s Insulin level was 608 pmol/l when the suggested range is 29-179!!

The vet diagnosed him with Insulin Resistance and said “this is a very new problem in the horse world and not much is known about it”. He recommended putting shoes back on Tommy and that I network with people that have the same problem in order to see how they were managing the situation with their horses.

There is so much to say about the next course of events that occurred. In time, as I write more in the Barn Bloggers area about Tommy, you will learn everything I discovered in managing an Insulin Resistant and eventually Cushing positive horse. Tommy’s situation made me realize that I didn’t have a clue about hoof care or nutrition for that matter. I don’t mean as it relates to his condition… I mean in every possible way.

I simply cleaned his feet before and after riding, provided hay, water, mineral and a salt block and called the farrier when it was around 6 weeks.

I didn’t even know what a “proper” hoof should look like and I certainly didn’t have any idea about the internal structures nor importance of proper hoof mechanism.

After the vet’s diagnosis I moved Tommy and my other horse Slim to the local agricultural arena. This allowed me to have them in box stalls in a nice barn at night and access to a riding arena. It was important to exercise Tommy as much as possible and this is the only way possible when it is the middle of winter in Northern Alberta, Canada. As per the vets instructions, I exercised him as much as possible and was better able to manage how much he ate since he was no longer on free choice hay. He recovered from being sore and I really thought things were getting better.

I did not shoe him as instructed.

Instead I started researching and learning everything I could about horses’ hooves, barefoot trimming, advantages of shoes, advantages of barefoot and joined every on-line group that had similar topics.

I also took equine nutritional courses, learned how to balance hay for the precise nutritional requirements (including minerals) and studied every link I could that took me to anything or anyone with a similar horse.

Everywhere I went the majority of people that had Insulin Resistance and Cushings horses advocated a particular model of a barefoot hoof with “heels down and toes back”. I was so excited by my research I thought for sure my farrier would be excited to learn how to care for these types of horses but, when I asked him, he very politely told me that he only knew how to trim one way – but that I was welcome to try whatever way I thought would work … by myself!

So now I was really stuck. Now I had no farrier.

Worse yet, all the other farriers I called had no interest in taking on a client who’s horse is IR, has a history of laminitis, and with thin soled feet and hoof wall separation.

I had to find another way – Tommy’s feet were literally screaming at me!

Even though at this point I was just starting to understand what right or wrong looked like in horses’ hooves, I didn’t have to be a genius to see that they were very deformed. My last farrier as well as the vet insisted that “this is the kind of horse that needs shoes on him to keep him sound – he is flat footed“.

To most people there simply was no other way to manage a horse with hooves like this.

Yet, in the back of my mind I kept thinking about all the years that he had great feet! I just couldn’t understand why after doing everything I thought would keep him sound (like shoes and pads and regular trims) his feet kept looking worse. The opinion that “he is the type of horse that needs shoes” just didn’t make sense to me. Yet the horse world has many people that feel this is the only option and I do not judge what people feel is the best option for their horse.

I simple chose not to believe that shoes were the answer for mine.

I actually was in tears more than a few times trying to find someone to help and being told that I was pretty much a fool for thinking I could rehabilitate my horse by keeping him barefoot. I even had people tell me that the best thing I could do is put Tommy down as he would never be sound!

So out of desperation I posted, on one of the on-line groups I had joined, asking if anyone could help. My thought was that maybe there was someone even in my own province that would respond and I could trailer Tommy to him/her if need be. I really didn’t have any other options, I knew in the worst case scenario I could have my old farrier come out and shoe him again but I really wanted to try and find someone to trim him to the suggested barefoot model.

So I posted my plea for help and received… no responses! Everyday for a week I checked and still nothing. I felt sort of frantic.

Yet, just when I was almost thinking I would have to give up I received a message from a barefoot trimmer who was willing to help me!!!!!

All that was required was a personal commitment from me … since he was going to teach ME how to do my own trimming.

And so the journey into the beauty of barefoot began. Initially, it was a lot to learn – I had no idea that the hooves were so complex and intricate. We really do take them for granted! If you learn anything from our site I hope it is an appreciation for how incredible hooves are!

Once you get the barefoot “bug” you will not stop looking at horses’ feet and asking yourself “how can I make those better?”!

I was so fortunate to have someone take the time to teach me! Without the knowledge that I acquired, I sometimes wonder what Tommy’s fate would have been. His feet were so flat, he had very prominent flare (laminae separation), the hoof was so distorted and the toes just kept getting longer.

Initially, I would say that the biggest improvement to Tommy’s hooves came the moment I was instructed to take the walls off ground level in order to stop the constant ripping and tearing of the laminae as it separated the hoof walls form the Pedal Bone. There was simply no other way to get a good tight hoof wall connection as the new hoof wall grew down.

Yet as time went on, I learned so much more. I learned about the collateral grooves, how to read the thickness of the sole, heel balance, live sole, dead sole, shedding sole, concavity, determining where the live sole is when trimming the heels, by using the Seat of Corn as your guide, what arehealthy frogs, why we need to lower the heels, why do we need a heel first landing, what is the shape of a proper hoof, what role do the bars play……it was endless.. the knowledge was so exciting and the results for Tommy was amazing!!!

Soon people at the stable started to take notice and asked if I would be willing to trim their horses’ feet. It was a very proud moment.

So please take a look at my gallery of pictures and see for yourself what I was able to do, with a great deal of help from an experienced trimmer. This is the first horse that I ever trimmed in my life. And I had owned horses for over 30 years. At no time did I ever “sore up” Tommy. That was the one thing that my instructor was adamant about. He would always say:

“It took time for the hooves to get that bad, so it will take an equal amount of time to make them better. Keep him sound and working, without that you have nothing”.

The beginning. And I even tried to rasp them a bit before the pictures were taken.

Absolutely no concavity and therefore very little depth in the collateral grooves at the Apex of the frog.

After the trim. For a beginner, having never trimmed a horse this was a big step for me!

Off balance foot and due for a trim, yet grateful for the nice thick walls!

I never took off excessive amounts. I exercised Tommy in between all trims and heels were only ever taken down a rasp thickness at a time maximum.

He stayed sound and his feet started to really take shape.

There is no doubt that someone more familiar with trimming could have done the job faster then me, but I don’t care. It wasn’t a race and I learned and Tommy benefited from everything that I did. It was a very wonderful learning experience.

At this point I was still working on diet (to eliminate bouts of laminitis). The foot never lies and each time I lost good hoof wall connection was due to a compromised diet.

Getting better…

Coming along…

Winter time now… still keeping walls off ground until entire hoof wall can grow in tight.

Concavity and a tight White Line!!! SO EXCITING!!!!!! Now that’s the beauty of taking pictures all along!

You can go back and see what you have accomplished!

I am still feeling pretty proud of what I have achieved by myself!

Trimming Tommy’s feet was only one part of the issue. He also required a complete lifestyle change in order to keep himself and his hooves healthy. I encourage you to read the “Feeding IR and Cushing Horses” topic on this site so you understand how important diet was in order to keep Tommy sound.

Today I feel diet has to come first. We have to be sure we set the horse and his hooves up for success through the diet and lifestyle first.

Here’s a picture of Tommy after starting to incorporate proper diet and mineral balancing as required for an Insulin Resistant Horse.

Another picture after a few more months of feed & mineral balance. Notice even his colouring has darkened. This would dispute the “summer fading” belief as this picture was taken at the end of summer.

I cannot even begin to put into words the joy I had riding Tommy when his diet and feet were in a state of balance. Believe me, those two things go hand in hand. Riding Tommy with his brand new hooves was a fabulous thing!

You really can FEEL THE DIFFERENCE! Tommy and I did countless rides together. We had a network of favorite trails and people in the community got very used to seeing us together – we came to know so many wonderful people! Farmers who let us ride through their fields, young children that would run out from their homes to pet him, golfers that would watch us race up along side the adjacent field at a full gallop, ranchers that had us check fences and cattle, and special thanks to the lady at the landfill (yes the city garbage dump) that would let me ride him onto the scale in order to weigh him! It would make me laugh when I would go places without him (riding my other horse) and people would stop to ask where he was!

He just had that way about him. He was a site to behold under saddle. So handsome and confident. And a real character. I look forward to telling you more about him in the Barn Bloggers side of the site. When I wasn’t riding him I would very often pony him alongside my other horse, Slim. We crossed creeks, rode through steep hilly country, trotted down gravel roads like it was sand, went to Poker Rally’s, helped with cattle drives, rode along rocky lake shores, went swimming on the hot days and we even crossed the famous local trestle bridge (that had been converted to foot and atv traffic as no longer used by the trains).

Picture of the trestle bridge.

Need to ride a sound, sure footed horse and not look down!!!

He was so sure footed, I never worried about him tripping or becoming sore. It is a beautiful gift to be able to feel the power and freedom of him as he fully extended at every stride with graceful ease.

He was such a joy, and my time with him was a great gift. I never gave up on him, even though many people told me that I should just put him down. Our days together were truly magical and our journey was made possible by giving him back something that was only a natural extension of how he was born to be……… Barefoot.

The best part of all? I accomplished the learning and instruction via long distance. Yes, that’s right.

Everything I learned was done by examples via picture(s) in email, a list of instructions and being very sure that I always took the required pictures before and after my trimming. In addition, I also began to understand what the hoof measurements represented so each time I trimmed and re-measured this was proof enough that things were changing.

So if you think you need to have someone hold your hand to learn, you are wrong. All you need is to be committed to learning, be willing to be humbled by what you don’t know, admit when you don’t understand, and always put your horse first. You also need to go slow and allow the horse to naturally heal what is wrong with his/her hooves.

I wish to end this article with a special Thank You to the founder of this site, Johan, who was my instructor and mentor into the world of barefoot.  Johan never physically met Tommy, yet he became an instrumental part of his life and in so many ways knew and cared for him with a type of compassion and conviction that I once thought was only reserved for being personally attached to a horse. He proved that wrong. He cared a lot, and Tommy, I have to believe, in some way, will find a way from horse heaven to repay him for all of his dedication and love. I know that for me, I don’t really know how I can re-pay his kindness and knowledge.

Perhaps the only way is to share it with others. With the wish that the joy and extended years I was able to have with Tommy will be passed on and bestowed to someone else who has their own Tommy.

I hope that by reading this story that generations of horse owners will be more prepared for some of the challenges that may face them and at the very least they understand the importance of hoof management and everything that barefoot trimming has to offer.

Do you have any questions or comments about my journey? I would love to hear them. Alison