Barefoot in the Parks: Houston’s Police Horses

Bloged in Barefoot Trim by admin Tuesday February 27, 2007

A few weeks ago I wrote about a hoof treatment known as
the “Barefoot Trim”, based on the theory that horses’
hooves were much better off if they were allowed to go

The idea is that iron shoes will not permit the
hooves to expand as they com into contact with the ground,
and if they are not expanding properly, they are not
forcing blood from the hooves back up into the horse’s

A horses’ cardiovascular system, to work at its best,
needs all four hooves to get in on the act. Each hoof
has, underneath its hard outer shell, a tissue densely
packed with blood vessels, called the laminae (remember
Barbaro’s laminitis?), which will be acting to “pump”
blood back towards the heart with every step the horse

Horses in the wild are on their feet for close to
twenty-four hours a day, as they graze. They even sleep on
their feet, taking brief naps, but for the most part
staying alert to the chance of predators.

So wild horses, because their barefoot hooves are
constantly at work, are much less likely than confined
ones to develop circulatory problems than confined ones.

But horses both shod and stalled for the majority of the time,
some proponents of the barefoot trim say, are a different story.

Advocates of the trim might compare a shod, stalled horse
to a couch potato who, when he or she does get up to
exercise, has to do so in a pair of shoes a size too
small. A circulatory system already sluggish from lack of
exercise, combined with feet that cannot flex properly,
will likely find the couch potato heading back to the
couch in short order. And the circulatory system will
remain sluggish.

The “Barefoot Trim” technique, of course, has its
detractors. But one of the strongest arguments in its
favor is the experience of the Houston, Texas Mounted
Police Department.

The Houston Mounted Police Unit, with thirty-eight horses,
is the second-largest in the U.S, and over two-thirds
of their horses work barefoot. They initiated their
Barefoot Trim program in order to extend the working life
of their horses, which often had to be retired from active
duty because of lameness.

They began their program in 2004, when all their horses
wore barium-tipped shoes to improve traction on Houston’s
paved streets. Shadow, a four-year-old Dutch warm-blood
was their first horse to go barefoot, working up to
fourteen hours at a stretch in the week leading up to the
Super Bowl, on every imaginable surface.

Shadow’s rider, Officer Greg Sokoloski, noted that at the end
of the trial Shadow was experiencing some hoof soreness,
but not lameness, and put hoof boots on his front feet.
The soreness disappeared, and Shadow finished out the week
with no further difficulty.

Officer Sokoloski next tried the Barefoot Trim on Barney,
who suffered from chronic lameness and abscessing. He
pulled Barney’s shoes, trimmed and balanced his hooves,
and Barney has been performing, without further
discomfort, as a barefoot police horse ever since.

The Houston Mounted Police Unit continues to use hoof
boots when transitioning shod horses to going barefoot,
for long-duration assignments, and when the horses are
used in crowd control.

The newly-transitioning horses, especially those whose
hooves have become deformed from working shod over hard
surfaces, are given a trim and all the time they need for
their hooves to heal properly.

Some of the horses compensate for the discomfort they
experience when shod by adapting their gait, and cause
themselves conformational problems. So they need extra
time to return to their natural way of standing and
moving. But once they are up to being ridden, they are
schooled with hoof boots at the walk, trot, and canter,
over all types of terrain, until they are ready to return
to work.

I did have doubts about working barefoot horses for long
distances over asphalt, but the success of Houston’s
Mounted Police program is making me think again.



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