Three ways riding and groundwork can transform your horse’s barefoot success

Three ways riding and groundwork can transform your horse’s barefoot success

When you hear about the idea of riding your horse barefoot, what is your biggest concern? Do you worry about their feet falling apart, bits falling off, or the dreaded ‘wearing away’? Let me tell you a secret from pro-trimmers – we NEVER worry about any of those things. Or hardly ever anyway. We might worry that you will be worried about them, and about how we can reassure you. Otherwise nope, they are not a significant problem on our check list.

The reason we don’t worry is because we have the whole rest of the horse to think about! One of my last shoes off clients is a case in point. Her carer has tried her barefoot before and her feet ‘fell apart’. Well obviously not completely, but the damaged, dried out, weakened horn around the nails crumbled and made the edges of the hoof wall look a bit horrible. The horse was moving fine, but she’s a big solid mare and her feet started to flare, and her last hoof care professional didn’t really do anything about it, so more bits broke off, and cracks appeared, and then they tried grooving above the cracks (that sounds funky…), and yada, yada, yada. You know the rest of it.

So now it was my turn to team manage the second go at barefootin’. Her carer carefully listed all the things that were on her mind (see above). While she related the story to me I wasn’t looking at the feet, I was ‘grooving above the cracks’ so to speak. I was looking at the rest of the horse. Like I say she was a big strong mare, she had a straight leg at each corner and a wardrobe in the middle, in regular work with a good biomechanical trainer, a managed diet and environment. All things being equal she should manage fine with some responsive hoofcare.

When a horse is barefoot, the condition, shape and resilience of the horse’s feet are absolutely, utterly and completely the product of what’s going on in the rest of the horse’s body. If say I spot flare in an assessment, I want to see what in the horse’s musculo skeletal balance is driving the initial deviation, and what else in terms of metabolic condition, weight, fitness etc is compounding the limb balance change.

Now before I go any further I want to let you into another pro-secret – the horse’s balance and hoof shape changes all the time. If you bring your horse in from the field, then leave them tied on a concrete yard for half an hour the shape of the hoof capsule will change. The horse is standing on a much harder surface than is was half an hour ago. If you then put them out again (we’re talking a fairly soft surface here, no hard baked dust pans) within half an hour the hoof wall will have visibly changed again. This is because the hoof is a smart structure. It responds to changes in the horse’s direct environment immediately.

I was once at a hoof care clinic where a group of pros were dumbfounded because a horse that had generated a long and detailed discussion of limb balance and possibly associated low level flare, was turned out in the arena over lunchtime, brought back in, and the flare had ‘disappeared’. As a reaction some hoof care professionals believe that we should ignore the existence of flares, or that the horse ‘needs’ long toes as some kind of support, or even that feet, and ligaments and tendons and nerves and bones, are not subject to the laws of physics including leverage. Far from it, the shape of the hoof is an outcome of the interaction between what is going on higher up and the exterior world. The shape of the hoof is also changing all the time, and in many, many cases is also change-able with biomechanical postural training and responsive hoof care (which is something hoof care pros, and coaches who were hoof care pros, love to see happen and what this post is really about).

Outcome – result or effect of an actionsituation, etc.

I would like to introduce you to three important ways how riding and training can impact on your horse’s barefoot success. These are things holistic pros like me think about a lot:

  1. Functional symmetry

As humans we are drawn to the symmetry in faces and bodies. Some of us even get bothered when our environment is visibly lacking in symmetry. Findings show that if we are thinking about symmetry when we look at something, when it is visually symmetrical this spontaneously makes us feel better about it (Pecchinada et al 2014).

Functional symmetry is a mathematical concept, but it is also used in biomechanics to describe how the movement of the limbs on the right and left sides of the body compare. Let’s think about foot placement. If we were standing side on watching a horse walk or trot up in front of us, would one front foot land more or less heel first than the other? Can the horse step its left hind leg further away from its midline than the right hind under the same circumstances? What is the difference in where the horse chooses to place the foot and what might be influencing that?

As the rider or ground worker, our bodies influence the functional symmetry of how our horse moves. Working on our own functional symmetry is best done off horse, and using all the great tools we have these days, like mirrors for instance, we can become more aware of the symmetry (or assymmetry) of our posture.


Over time, we can develop the skills to change our posture which will change our horse’s way of carrying us or working with us on the ground. As a pro trainer and an old ex pro-trimmer I want to know that my clients have knowledgable eyes on their own and their horses bodies who are going to help them with functional symmetry and give them good skills. I also want to know that they have a realistic expectation of how much Time to Fix Things will be required. If they have a trainer who has zero real understanding of biomechanics you can tell in their bodies and feet, and their hoof care professional is never going to feel like they are winning.

2. Building healthy movement patterns

It is normal for healthy barefoot horses walked and trotted up in hand, or moving around in a relaxed attitude, to place the feet visibly heel first. In these circumstances the muscle tone in the rest of the horse’s body is often low, it is in an efficient neutral posture, and it is not required to carry a rider’s weight. Horses that do not land heel first when walked or trotted up in hand but still have a relaxed posture either have a pathology somewhere in the body that is causing them pain, or have weakly developed feet. As horses are commonly observed by hoof care professionals walked or trotted up in hand, and we like calm relaxed horses, heel-first landing is what we commonly expect to see, but like lots of things more is not necessarily better.


When a horse is trained to change it’s posture during collected ridden work, as in good classical dressage training, its stride length becomes more dynamic – moving between higher and shorter steps to longer, more ground covering steps. The fascial net of its body in collected work holds more spring, more potential and its landings change. In collected steps flat or even toe first landings can happen, but the effect is mitigated by the slow speed, control and trained tone of the horse’s body.

It is really important for the horse’s body and feet that they are trained to learn the best posture for the ‘carrying’ part of being ridden, otherwise we put them at risk of horrible pathologies like arthritis and kissing spines. Correct biomechanical training can substantially increase the control a horse exerts over its limb movement, and is how we build healthy movement patterns. [Thankyou Dorothy Marks and Solo for demonstrating a ‘tensegrity’ trot].


3. Making good posture feel good

Yesterday in my first schooling session after the snow with the Ladster we started the same way as usual, establishing that he was calm and happy to leave the herd and spend some time with me doing gymnastics. He had eaten a feed, had a big warm drink, had some hay while we tacked up, then we walked slowly across the big field together checking out the condition of the ground and whether there were vole and rabbit holes anywhere I was planning to ride. We did lots of copycat blowing, and the atmosphere was definitely ‘amble in the park’ before I mounted. See my blog post Adventures in trust & connection – having the horse’s back for why setting up the right attitude helps.

My aim in training is to layer ‘good’ experiences, only adding more challenging ones if bracketed by definite ‘good’ associations and to be LIMA – Least Invasive & Minimally Aversive. The day’s progression was to find even bend in my body so he could take it up, and to explore what happens in moving frequently between higher and extended neck position in trot for him, on both reins. Lad has experienced a more balanced posture in the last few years which has given me access to a major movement reward. I don’t have to mark and stop to reward good posture with food, he chooses to carry it on sometimes after I suggest we could stop, or when I turn him out back to the herd.


Neck extension with tensegrity was so different to his prior posture, those early FDO experiences must have felt incredible. It might have been impossible to get the timing wrong because the movement, like a good stretch, was an intrinsic reward.  Now he returns to it very easily with huge enthusiasm.

So tell me – what is in the front of your mind now when you think about your newly barefoot horse, or your barefoot from birth youngster?

Some of this article was shared from my book Barefoot Horse Keeping – The integrated horse. I hope you have enjoyed this post, you can find a link to the book here.

For more information about my work, visit my website at


Pecchinada et al., (2014). The Pleasantness of Visual Symmetry: Always, Never or Sometimes.



Adventures in trust & connection – having the horse’s back

Adventures in trust & connection – having the horse’s back

With my face down in the water I hold my breath for as long as I can so I can stay in the blue misted underwater world. Not being an ultra free diver this lasts about thirty seconds, but it gives me long enough to adjust my focus and calm down so I stop twitching when objects that ‘are seaweed but could be sharks’ float into my peripheral vision. During thirty seconds of breath holding the first ten gets my adrenalin down. My survival brain reacts to sudden cold water immersion like a baby monkey fell in a river, but after that it’s time to explore the underwater pool.

From beneath the water’s surface the breaking surf looks captivating, the waves breaking through the surface above me are like a kalaidoscope, rather than looking ominous and threatening. I feel the swell of the tide’s incoming fill as it carries me further into the tidal pool, but it only lifts and carries me, and clouds my vision with dancing bubbles of silver and aquamarine.

I turn onto my back and float with my fins out of the water, resting on the incredible power of the Atlantic waves breaking over the rocky barrier behind me where this big pool lies in a rocky fissure. Wild swimming here is a way of adventuring into a place and a circumstance where you couldn’t normally survive, at least not intact for very long before the massive waves introduced you to a barnacle covered rock. It isn’t safe, or within my comfort zone, but I really want to be here. In fact I really, really want to be here, being swirled around, upside down and inside out by a natural washing machine because it is totally, captivatingly different from how you imagine it to be.

I always feel that being in a small boat or in the sea wild swimming is like riding an absolutely enormous horse. I have no choice but to surrender and be carried along by it, blending with the massive force around me, then finding another self I don’t usually use for whom the sea feels like home. I have to trust and know and activate my own physical and mental abilities so I can move myself around, but as I am always going to be seriously over matched in terms of energy I am humble. Finding which way is up in breaking surf can be a panicky situation, as the powerful forces moving you can be overwhelming. I need to be mentally quiet and trust that I can do it, I need to receive rather than project energy, and feel all of myself right to the edges, top, bottom and sides to find a place of confidence.

Before finding the pool I waited five years. Technically I knew roughly where it was but not exactly how to get to it so it became part of my personal mythology, like a white stag. It’s existence depends on the state of the tide. Too high and it becomes another part of the coastline, blended into a foamy maelstrom by huge Atlantic swells. We talked it up for a few days, then on the last day before leaving for home we just HAD to get up early and go. It was not the most inviting day for Western Isles swimming. Grey, overcast and windy, the sea looked hard and impenetrable. I sat on the edge of the pool in my wetsuit dispatching thoughts of conger eels with a mental baseball bat.

We found it under a massive fold of rock between the cliff edge world of sea pinks, short turf and sheep, and the rock pool world of limpets, little sea weeds and barnacles. We found it just in time. Forty minutes later when my wetsuit no longer protected me from the summer sea cold I climbed out and rubbed my stippled limbs dry while balancing on a huge, smooth rock slab. Holding a cup of tea between my warming hands the breakers flooded over the rock lip of the pool and the sea pool rejoined the sea entirely.

It feels such a whole life having days like these. Dried off with fins packed on the back of my rucksack, we picked field mushrooms from the multitudes of little cream caps strewn along the cliff tops. A couple of days before we fished and foraged for mussels. We walked into the interior trusting to landmarks to find a special trout loch. The island where we were is a kalaidoscope of waters – lochs, lochans and beautiful, complicated coastline. A landscape of great diversity in the microcosm and little diversity when you take a wider angle. It encourages you to find and unfold elemental hidden energies, and say “ok I will trust you”. When you walk, when you are alone in the sea, when you are foraging for mussels or seaweed, you have to let your senses trust that what you are looking for will be there. That if you stop trying so hard to look for one, a path will unfold and take you home. You have to be coherent.

On the way back from fishing, we were talking and we took a slightly different route. We knew we had to walk pass six small lochs on rough moorland to get back to the truck. In the middle of a large boggy expanse we knew we were heading in roughly the right direction but had lost our bearings. Standing and looking for landmarks, my small dog was also collecting information.  Suddenly she said “it’s this way of course, you nose-blind numpties!” (she is hugely affectionate but is her own dog and is often perplexed by human limitations), and trotted off across the moor. She had never shared her tracking skills with us before, perhaps not wanting to risk that we might be interested in her private collection of vintage rabbits, but she was so absolutely determined that she was on to the truck that we trusted her, and of course she lead us in precisely the right direction.

Trust and heart coherence are the first places I go in developing that interface between two bodies that we need for really good riding, and adventuring into new realms both in our experience and in our thinking brings them into sharp focus. With that foundation, that sense that we literally and metaphorically always aim to ‘have the horse’s back’, like holding on to a small child as it looks over the edge of a high bridge, we can be coherent, we can receive a lot more of the information we need to keep ourselves and our horses safe, and we can make decisions with clarity and precision about what we need to do throughout a ride.

“Horses don’t ignore their sensate experience. As animals they gauge trust, not by words spoken, but by how they feel. Trust with others is developed over time. We can chase a wild horse in a round pen and bring it to submission in half an hour. This does not mean we have gained the horse’s trust. The horse learns to trust the human gradually, each point of contact building on the previous session. Training a reliable horse takes recurrent reinforcement that we are not dangerous, that we are competent socially and that we respect his need to be a contributing member of the team. It only takes a minute to break trust, but it can take a thousand hours to repair it”.  

Ariana Strozzi (2004). Horse Sense for the Leader Within.

It’s a big responsibility. The other day myself and a good friend and two of my dogs took Lad and Oro the Youngest for his first big trail ride. He has done lots of smaller trips out, and this was a progression to a trail ride of about 1 1/2 to 2 hours on a much more varied trail round the loch. The way I visualise it is to create a small, mobile herd (this one was two horses, two dogs and two humans), where most of the members are going somewhere they know well, and just one member adventuring off his personal map. When you set it up like this, the rest of the herd is a support system. Most of the group, dogs included, had a really good mental map of the territory we’re covering, it’s backyard stuff to them. The herd also needs to be a herd, they need to live or spend regular relaxed time together, rather than be a bunch of strange horses and people.

“Relationships are based on connectedness. When people communicate, an exchange of perspectives takes place that can lead to new ways of seeing and being together for the people involved. We are capable of communicating far more than fear and insecurity to each other when our feelings become part of the legitimate scope of or awareness. Even when we are feeling threatened, angry or frightened, we have the potential to improve our relationships dramatically if we bring mindfulness into the domain of communication itself.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn (1991) Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation.

The adventuring horse is there to extend his mental map, but the delightful thing about horses is that as they progress they can borrow responses from other herd members when they come across new obstacles and vistas. This has two sides to it, as many riders know, but it can seriously improve learning when it goes well (and learning other stuff when everyone decides to spook at once). When you can tap into their self-organising system again they become one mind. One horse stops, the other stops too, then they move off again in synchrony. Oro adventured ahead, or trusted to the group to look after him while he went behind Lad and absorbed Lad’s reactions while he made sense of something. You see this in wild or feral herd behaviour with young horses moving ahead and scouting stuff out, then coming back when it gets a bit alarming, and its good to encourage it in young horses rather than forcing them to follow an older one or go out alone.

My job was to manage where we went, the speed we took, whether we had any stops or not (and decide whether to compromise on this point in relation to heathery snacking to prevent fatigue), and health and safety. This is not really a role that in nature one horse ever takes, they don’t work like that, but humans can learn to be good at it. It brings up the verb ‘leading’, but I think of it in practice as ‘managing’. Leadership is an attractive concept to humans, but it has all sorts of connotations and I feel its definition is too blurred for me in relation to horsemanship.  In practice I want to manage the edges of the experience of the adventuring members of the herd so they can safely build confidence and get home again with good memories. It’s more like a collie might with sheep. Go here, don’t go there, let’s all go at this pace, let’s all wait here. My aim is to keep the herd flowing together, connected, calm, and safe.

We had a lovely ride sharing the adventure with Oro, a familiar ride through fresh eyes. When he had an idea, like experimenting with trotting up a steep bank as a way to tackle it, if it felt calm and purposeful I went along too. I trusted my feel for how he was expressing himself with normal calmness, and if he felt a little scared and had to pause for something I didn’t wait or put pressure on him, but hopped off and we progressed close together on foot until calm again. If I had to do something else with other herd members, like rescuing the dogs when they were stuck in someone’s garden, I did it on foot but took him with me. Then we picked up the ‘looking for a getting on object’ activity, one of his faves, hopped back on and rode along pricky ear adventuring again.

Over the course of the ride this meant very little fear stopping even for the two narrow footbridges we needed to cross. I got on from about six different objects, which he knows how to do well and seems to enjoy. Getting this consistent makes it very easy for me to mount calmly and with his help, from funny objects like fallen trees and tumbledown walls. For me the foundation job in riding is going along calmly, developing trust in each other and the activity, rather than being subject to a series of fearful bumps, stresses and separations. It is important to keep the flow going by giving yourself the instruction to get off and walk when your horse needs support, and only remount when you have re-established calmness.  If the horse is not calm for mounting, it isn’t calm for riding!

And we all got home and lived happily ever after.

Live adventurously.


Jon Kabat-Zinn (1991) Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Dell Publishing: New York.
Ariana Strozzi (2004). Horse Sense for the Leader Within. Authorhouse: Bloomington, Indiana.

Ready to be a lion tamer?

Ready to be a lion tamer?

It’s a whole New Year, and you might be anticipating longer daylight and spending time with your horse. You might have loads of exciting plans for things you want to do or try through the year ahead, or you might be cautious about making plans because things haven’t gone according TO plan when you have done it before!

The big deal is knowing in your heart of hearts what makes you tick about horses, and digging out and squashing those thoughts and beliefs that are of the ‘it’s not quite me but I think I should…’ variety. Some of my lovely coaching clients seriously devalue their right to enjoy time spent with their horses or even take up space because of their beliefs about ‘not being good enough’, or ‘just being a happy hacker’. If you have experienced this and it has put you off having a go at a new activity it’s important to know that when you think about new and maybe scary new things your brain is very likely to come up with all sorts of thoughts and feelings that can stop you! It’s frustrating but quite normal and if you think about it, a sensible thing, after all your brain has to guide you through a long and hopefully not-too-damaging life so it wants to put you off the danger-of-death stuff. “Hmm… I think I’d like to have a go at lion taming?… HELL no!” But the good news is you can learn to be ready for them and ‘pow!’ them into the far reaches of the universe.

Have a little go at this exercise: think of an activity you would like to do with your horse that you haven’t done yet or find potentially scary. Make it the full colour HD version of you experiencing whatever you have chosen. It doesn’t have to be galloping cross country, it could be loading your horse or climbing up the mounting block preparing to mount, those fears are just as valid for more people than would care to admit it. Make it something realistically within your reach that you would like to do but find challenging.  Just thinking about doing that will change how your body feels – what physical changes can you feel in your body? Has anything happened to your breathing, heart rate, posture or muscle tension? What has changed? I would bet it has and that you aren’t even near a horse, you might even be on a SOFA! If that happens when we’re even considering doing something new away from our horse, how much are we likely to change when we’re close to them and facing the challenge? Now, and this is important, how long does it take for you to calm down and feel normal again after bringing up this thought? If you have a heartrate tracker on you can actually see this happening.  Even if you feel normal your heart rate may take longer to come down than you think as you’ve given yourself a nice wee shot of adrenalin without even DOING anything!  Next, bring your original thought back up again, but slow it down and just think about doing the very first movement in the activity, then pause your film strip. Be ready for your body to change and keep your breathing steady, this is just a thought, it will pass. How long did it take this time for your body to respond back to normal? Recognise that this is an important safety system that keeps you from jumping off cliffs or running into traffic – it prepares us to avoid danger and that is pretty useful don’t you think?

As a horse rider you will undoubtedly need this safety system at some point, but you need to learn how it works and how to use it sensibly. In this post I would like to introduce you to the concept of the Readiness Ruler. It’s something really handy you can do on the spot that will help you manage your fear response and make the most appropriate progress for you towards your goals. Let’s give it a shot: bring up the full length colour HD scary thought again. Ask yourself this question: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten – where one is not confident at all and ten is super ninja confident – that you are ready to make that change? Now bring the thought back to the first step in  slo-mo: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten that you are ready to make THAT change? Hopefully the second number is a higher figure than the first, but if it isn’t maybe reassess whether the original thought is a realistic goal for you.

Regardless of where they get to, most people as children start from a similar place when it comes to learning. We are very likely to build up quite an extensive baggage collection by the time we reach middle age, plus there are a whole bunch of physical changes that can potentially impact on our confidence. Our safety warning system has to be hair trigger but it can directly impact on our decisiveness and commitment to change. If you have identified a challenging new set of goals in your horse life in 2019, have you included getting yourself ready to take them on? I know my brain at least loves to dangle nice shiny new thoughts in front of me for me to daydream about how wonderful it would be if I did x, y or z, but I know how uncomfortable it is not being able to immediately put them into practise properly, it can really make you feel like a failure! The way I tackle it (which my coaching clients have sometimes found surprising) is by breaking the changes down into very small pieces, training and exploring them thoroughly in short focussed positive sessions, moving the horse and person gently into new territory and reinforcing prior learning with each session. My goal is to make sure that everyone involved has practised the groundwork and ridden skills they need to confidently influence the horse under a range of conditions so they can both stay as safe as possible and keep enjoying their time together, which will keep the change happening! This means in real life that after the first few big ‘wowserooni!’ mega watt lightbulb learning experiences, we need to expect our practise to simply lead to the next step, to the next step, to the next step, a calm, positive and exploratory progression. If it doesn’t, then we can spot something is up and we can go back a few steps or look for some expert input.

At least that’s my aim…;-), sometimes people take fifteen steps at once on their own accord or decide to skip three and wing it from there! I was once doing foundation work on a young horse for one of my clients. We had started lightly riding about in a halter, had done some work on picking up a bit, and we were happily building towards introducing a bridle with reins along with the halter to make a logical training progression, or another ‘layer’ of the ponies education experience. I went away for the weekend and when I visited again the owner, who loved him, had decided as he was being so ‘good’ that she wanted to ride the pony by herself. He was happy enough about that having being steadily habituated to me getting on from different sides and obstacles, which had involved lots of rewards which made him happy, and waited calmly before she moved off, but her mental image of how to go about it included the pony in a bitted bridle… which was critical to her feeling ‘safe’, but which he had no clue about and ‘strangely’ didn’t comprehend… Happily nobody was hurt or upset and he just walked around the barrels in the arena doing the patterns he had learned with me of his own accord, but imagine if the first ride included a hack! Learning theory tells us steps have to be small, positive and logical for the horse, so we have to recognise when we are leaving the trail ourselves.

You can use the Readiness Ruler to check out if you are about to launch into uncharted territory too. If even thinking about boxing up and heading out for a group hack with strange horses in a new place sends your pulse skyrocketing, it’s ok to take a rain check and stay prepping at home until you are confident. It’s not braver to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ when it comes to horses, as being an equestrian is like no other activity you can choose – the horse will also feel your feelings and in response will add their own! If you want to get to that lovely place with your horse where you can take them out and about and get involved in a wonderful and positive horsey social life, then make your first 2019 goal to get ready to get the prep done really, really, REALLY well, you will definitely be a winner with your horse.