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What it is, and how it can protect your horse from lameness
by Graeme Burt, D.W.C.F, farrier.
and Natural Balance
A great deal is made in the current environment about 'Natural Balance Shoeing'
The word natural is much used in advertising as a way of promoting products that are clearly unnatural but they make us feel better about using them.
Shoes are not natural, therefore the words 'Natural' and 'Shoeing' do not go together in my opinion. Nature never intended horses to wear shoes; it is 'natural' that horses do not.
Having no shoes on at all is natural balance. In the defence of farriers, though, it can also be pointed out that horses never evolved in Britain, their natural evolution is linked to plains grasslands, for millennia, Britain has been a country of forest, so horses themselves, although we call some species native, are actually managed by man, including their feet, shod or unshod. It could be said therefore that horses in Britain are not 'natural' either.
Any kind of shoe that is applied to a horses foot creates imbalances just by being there; the method of shoeing called 'Natural Balance' has the intended aim of reducing these effects; it is my opinion that it does so only in certain situations, benefits only certain horses with specific problems and is most definately contra-indicated in other cases, and more importantly, balance can only be maintained over the entire shoeing period when the horn is healthy, as buckling, twisting, collapsing, and distorting of damaged or infected horn can quickly alter hoof balances for reasons other than the shoes that are present.
Website articles promoting Natural Balance methods largely do not mention horn destruction. Instead they mention something they call 'live horn', and 'dead horn'. They refer to paring the sole back, especially at the heel, to the 'live' horn that has only just been produced, which has a more defined colour and texture. In reality, all horn is devoid of feeling and can be referred to as 'dead' in all circumstances; as I have pointed out, horn is still prone to moisture and bacterial damage when conditions are right, wet and warm, regardless of whether it is 'live horn' (recently produced) or not.
During periods of dry weather, the horn of the sole generally hardens and thickens. This is a natural phenomenon that gives the horn resilience against hard and rocky conditions during the summer and is obviously necessary in wild horses to protect their feet from hard and stony ground - to remove the majority of it in order to prepare for the application of a shoe is in my opinion removing the natural defences that the foot provides to protect itself from such conditions.
It is far better to compromise as regards the removal of horn during any shoeing, Natural Balance or not, to that which has been naturally destroyed, the so called 'chalky' or 'flaky' horn referred to by proponents of Natural Balance shoeing. Chalky and flaky horn is what is left of the horn when it has lost its cohesion by the destructive action of bacteria and moisture.
Following that, remove any horn which is required to balance the feet, and leave the naturally protective hard sole to do its job effectively, unless destructive action has already permeated the sole (so called 'false sole', which is also a bacterial method of debridement of the sole in wild conditions.)
There is also reference to the sole callous; its function and size can also be compromised by the damage done by moisture and bacteria; it is no less vulnerable to such damage given that it comprises of horn, and in its position is very close to the areas where damage starts, the white line.
The sole callous is also necessarily beneath the shoe, which if unprotected, floods it with moisture under capillary action, which softens it. Bacteria can and do then penetrate beneath this structure, they can eventually undermine and destroy its cohesion, causing collapse.
Recently I have come across proponents that actually recommend that mud is left in the feet, and actually has a supportive role, and that bacteria do not enter feet that are properly balanced. To the latter point this seems to me to be one of the most preposterous statements ever made by any person as regards horn destruction, the notion that bacteria will discriminate between balanced feet and unbalanced is simply laughable.
It is like saying that dogs will not eat the horn produced by balanced feet either. Bacteria are indiscriminate organisms that operate on instinct. They do not have intelligent conversations as regarding whether or not to enter the horn because the foot is balanced. If conditions are right they will invade and eat the horn regardless.
Remember, mud is wet. So leaving mud in the feet means the feet are constantly wet. There is no such thing as dry mud. When mud truly dries it becomes dust. It's ability to give support is at best extremely limited, especially when it is liquid.
Leaving mud in the feet also means bacteria, which will already be present within the mud itself, have a constant supply of moisture to draw on. Mud insulates the sole of the foot if it is left there. This is actually detrimental to the health of the horn. The insulation allows the interior part adjacent to the sole to warm up far more quickly - dont forget, the blood supply is not far from there, also, the greater the temperature, the greater the level of bacterial activity, and the warmer it becomes, rather like the manure heap warms up because bacterial action is present. I have come across feet where the sole temperature is 35 degrees centigrade after removing mud from them in winter. Always pick the feet out.
This was a horse that had natural balance shoes on on the day I first met him in 2002, this photo was taken that day, he was shod previously three weeks before this picture was taken. Without protection from moisture and bacteria, the wall has been destroyed quickly, and the heels have completely collapsed. The shoes, which were adequate length when shod, are now pressing directly on the sole and the horse was desperately sore as a result.
You can see just how much the foot has collapsed by the risen clenches which stand up above the wall by 2mm - the nails remain the same length, so when the wall collapses, the extra length pushes up through and the nails stand up.
I am an advocate of the use of Natural Balance methods where it will benefit a specific animal for a specific reason or purpose. Feet shod with Natural Balance shoes are just as prone to horn destruction and subsequent damage as with any other method of shoeing as you can see, so I always perform Protective Shoeing methods together with Natural Balance shoes; the two methods compliment one another perfectly as Protective Shoeing is designed to minimise damage to the horn, and therefore balances have lasting stability.
Here is a picture of the same horse, same foot, after seven months regularly and protectively shod, with natural balance shoes, at the end of a six week shoeing period:-
You can see that the clenches are not risen, even though this horse has now been shod for twice as long as he had been in the previous picture. This wall is now capable of supporting his weight, because there has been little penetration of moisture underneath the shoes, meaning the wall is no longer getting as soft or infected, so very little collapse has occurred - meaning the foot is now growing more healthy horn than is being damaged. The horse was capable of full time working without soreness and was a great deal more confident in his work.
Any damage in the wall I can remove with trimming, which will make the foot even stronger, and even more capable of supporting and protecting him, plus the natural balance shoes remain stable in the comfortable position on the feet in which they were fitted, although this of course applies to any kind of shoe.
These pictures were taken in 2003, and you can just see at the base of the wall a small layer of the inert flexible sealant I used, meaning there has been a limited amount of expansion and damage despite the foot being Protectively shod.
It is a measure of the progress being made with Protective methods that at that time, the materials I was able to use were not as advanced nor as resilient than they are now, especially during very wet conditions. That is why we still see that even though there has been considerable improvement here over the previous condition, you can still see some expansion in this photograph.
The latest materials, trialled through the latter part of 2009 and in full use since December, are far more resilient and durable, providing much better support and weight distribution. The improvement in the quality, stability, and condition of the feet is now quite exceptional. These horses are now also demonstrating a lot more confidence in their feet while working, even if the environmental conditions are not very favourable.
© Graeme Burt DWCF