I am constantly amazed at people’s taste for “natural.” I mean, really, we’ve spent most of, oh, our civilized life, trying to get away from natural, and now it comes roaring back as an advertising vehicle. I mean, seriously, who yearns for the good old “natural” days of sleeping in a cave trying to stay warm under a bear skin that you obtained at the cost of your best friend because his spear wasn’t sharp enough? Personally, I like heated rooms. Oh, and indoor plumbing rocks.
But I digress. Nevertheless, in the past, oh, fifteen years or so, “Natural Balance” horse shoeing has become something of a rage, and certainly an industry. The premise is that horses in the wild wear their hooves a certain way, and that the “unnatural” circumstances of captivity (say, free of predators, and with plenty of good food, which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound that bad, particularly if you like to eat like a horse, and aren’t wild about being eaten yourself) have resulted in them somehow being subjected to the slings and arrows of outrageous horseshoeing. Or something like that.
The operating premise is that horses in the wild have short toes, and fairly upright feet, and that, left to their own devices, they’ll have the foot that they are supposed to have. Therefore all horses’ feet should be shaped like that. Furthermore, a shoe that encourages “natural” hoof movement should be attached to the bottom of the hoof. And, having seen to that, all will be good.
Well, um, no. At least not necessarily.
First of all, if we’re going to be absolutely strict about this “natural” thing, horses shouldn’t be running around in North America anyway. I mean, the indigenous North American horse (Equus occidentalis, if you must know) went extinct in something like 12,000 BC, which is way longer than anyone can remember. But here they are, nonetheless, as a result of having run away from their caretakers after having had to endure a boat ride from Spain. Call it repopulation – I say it’s unnatural.
Regardless, no matter what the feet of wild horses in the American west look
like, it’s been shown that the “natural” shape of the horse’s foot depends almost entirely on the “natural” conditions of the ground that it runs around on. So, whereas, in the west, the wild horses that evoke such strong emotions do tend to have upright feet and short toes, their eastern counterparts that live on wetter, softer ground tend to get more of a platter foot, their hoof walls don’t wear down in the same way (they tend to break off), and their hooves are more pliable. (If you really want to go into a lot of detail on this CLICK HERE to read an article by the famous equine pathologist, the late Dr. James Rooney).
Now I’m not trying to say that the “Natural Balance” approach is necessarily wrong. In fact, I find that the shoes can sometimes be helpful, say, in working on a horse that tends to grow a lot of toe (once you nail on the shoe, you are sort of obliged to cut back the toe a bit). But they’re not a panacea, and, well, they’re not even really all that natural: horses don’t come with nailed on shoes, you know.
So, here are a few points to take home about “natural” balance.
1) Natural is usually fine, but it kind of depends on where you are. Running around in your birthday suit is a lot more comfortable in, say, the Bahamas than it is in Finland in December.
2) Horses should be shod as individuals – there’s no single system that works for all of them.
3) “Natural” is a great marketing tool
4) Find a good veterinarian and a good farrier, get them working together, and let them do their jobs. Don’t make things harder than they already are.
Now, go out there and have a good time riding, and stop worrying so much!