Horse-based Religion

“Barefoot go’s very nicely with, bitless bridles, treeless saddles and natural horsemanship! A natural market ripe for clever con men to pick!”  Horsemanship – nothing natural about it post on Facebook

The passage above was part of a recent “rant” on Facebook that I happened to catch.  The entire point of the post was that farriers are not against horses going barefoot, but that going without shoes “just because” was not good horsemanship.  The reason I chose th0se particular sentences is that they struck a nerve with most of the commenters, and led to this blog post.

What seemed to bother many people about this post was not so much his criticism of barefoot aficionados as it was his lumping all four of those things together.  For example:

How in gods name does natural bloody horsemanship ‘tie in nicely’ with barefoot horses?

I go barefoot but wouldnt go treeless or bitless …

Many particularly resented the reference to “Natural Horsemanship” as relating to the other practices (as much of a following as it has, it seems to have as many detractors).  I, for one, see very well how the four practices can easily be lumped together – all four have become horse-based religions.

First, a disclaimer – I do not practice any organized religion, but I have nothing against religion.  It serves as a moral and social compass for millions of people.  But there is no denying that religion can have a darker side – one of blind faith, fanaticism, and intolerance.

I think there is no argument to the fact that the core of religion is faith.


  • firm belief in something for which there is no proof; complete trust
  • something that is believed especially with strong conviction

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Those are, of course, just a couple of the definitions of faith, but they’re the ones key to this point.  Both of these definitions are strong characteristics of the four movements mentioned in the original quote: barefoot, bitless, treeless and “Natural Horsemanship”.

Proof – The barefoot people will certainly tell you that they have proof, but I have yet to find anything completely definitive on barefoot being far superior to shod.  One of the scientists they like to point to as having proven it is Robert Bowker – and yet he does not come out against shoes (watch this series of videos with Professor Bowker on, which you can try free for ten days for a limited time, though they’re worth the money anyway).  The science is too new to have actual proof that barefoot is superior for all horses, at all times, for all pursuits.  Even among the practitioners, their views are not consistent, calling into question that they have any “proof” other than their own horses’ experience.

Bitless and treeless suffer just as much from a lack of proof.  Although many studies have been done that prove that too much pressure on the bit causes discomfort, they have all concluded that there is no negative effect of gentle contact with a bit.  In addition, many studies have been done that show damage to facial nerves from too tight nosebands and badly used bitless bridles.  Likewise, studies have shown that treeless saddles increase pressure on the horse’s back, rather than decreasing it.

Don’t get me started on the massive amounts that disprove “Natural Horsemanship” methods!

Strong Conviction – This is the most consistent characteristic of these horse-based “religions”.  Find any group, discussion, chat, etc., and you will be overwhelmed with the conviction of the practitioners.  Conviction is a good thing, as long as it’s not carried too far.  Conviction goes too far when it overrules critical thinking, and when it leads to intolerance.

Intolerance is certainly not found in all religions, nor in all practitioners – but you would have a hard time arguing that human history is not peppered with wars and other atrocities driven by religious intolerance.  I am not, in any way, suggesting that barefoot enthusiasts are intending any violence – but their rhetoric is certainly replete with insults and intolerance.  These are all comments related to the Facebook post I referenced above, and representative of too much of what I see in similar discussions:

If they were meant to have metal on their feet they would have been born that way!!!

Sore ass farrier losing clients too barefoot trimmers now people are actually realizing that nailing a bit of metal onto feet isn’t natural or how horses were meant too be, sit your bitter self down ….”

Would you be like the Chinese and bind your child’s feet because that is the tradition.

Just the same tired old anti “Trimmer” ignorant rubbish designed to pull the wool over gullible owners by making them think that only farriers have any training.

My horse is barefoot and has always been barefoot and I have friends with horses whom are also barefoot and they are barefoot because that’s how they are supposed to be!”

Well I must say, I am incredibly happy and proud to be what you call “gullible and naive” – as a result of this my lucky, lucky horses are now foot/leg/back healthy, sound and upright, and also still alive – something that would 100% not have been the case had my horses remained shod… How unsettling it must feel to always think you are the only one with all the answers.

Typical farrier nonsense!!!!

This sort of rhetoric is not intended to (nor would it succeed at) converting a “non-believer” to their side.  These are not the kind Mormons come to your door to show you the right way (apologies to Mormons – I have family members in that faith, and it was just convenient).  No, these are the internet equivalent of an extremist group – shouting you down and condemning your practices serves to strengthen their own convictions.  It’s a form of mob mentality.

Again, I’m not criticizing any of those practices (okay, I still hate “Natural Horsemanship” as typically practiced).  I have kept horses barefoot – I currently have two barefoot, and two only shod in front.  I have ridden bitless, and I have ridden bridleless.  Although I have no suitable candidate at the moment, I have spent many, many hours riding with no saddle.

My quarrel is not with the choices they make for their horses – as long as no harm is actually caused, your choices for your horse are generally best for both of you.  But don’t I deserve the same consideration?  I would love to save the cost of shoeing any of my horses – but the reality, whether someone accepts it or not, is that not all horses can stay barefoot.  Tally was barefoot for many years; but when she reached her full size, her genetically small and not so strong feet couldn’t support her massive body.  Her heels flattened out, no matter how good the trim.  By the time I sent her to the trainer, she had lost her movement.  The first set of shoes resulted in a dramatic improvement – today she moves with the freedom she had as a foal!  Coffee and Nash both came to us bare, and clearly not comfortable.  Within a shoeing or two, they were moving better than I’d imagined.  Yet, I’ve had numerous flinty hooved horses through the years, and was happy to leave them “au naturel”!

As I said, I follow no formal religion – and that goes for the horse-based sort as well.  I believe that there is more than we understand to this world of ours … and I believe in the power of horses to make us better humans.  Ironically, as I was writing this, I saw a quote that is attributed to the Dalai Lama that sums up my feeling about religion … horse-based and otherwise:

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple. The philosophy is kindness.”  Dalai Lama

So, let’s try to make our philosophy kindness.  Have tolerance for those who share a different view – unless that view is shown to cause actual harm.  And if you want to worship the power of the horse to heal and bring joy, I’ll happily join you!

Be good to your horses!



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