Roxie was supposed to be my fun horse. I was looking forward to starting Noble, but needed a horse to ride regularly in preparation for that time to come. A friend showed me an ad for a cute six year old Paint mare and a few days later Roxie came home with us. Nearly five years later, with only a handful of rides on our record, and I was facing the ultimate choice for my cute little mare. For anyone who has struggled with chronic lameness in their horse, this story may sound all too familiar. But perhaps there is something in her story that can give hope to someone who is losing it in their own struggle.
When Roxie came she wasn’t fully mature. In her first two years she gained bulk due to a significant amount of Quarter Horse halter breeding. This breeding also came with tiny feet to support that mass. The shoeing she had didn’t help as her front feet were actually narrower than her bare hind feet when she came. For the first year we tried to improve her feet through better shoeing, but by the second year is was obvious this wasn’t working, so I made the choice to pull her front shoes in the hope that they improve their shape and strength.
Initially, having her barefoot seemed to work out. She went through a slight period of being sore, but soon seemed to do fine. Over time the effect I was after began to show as her began to expand without splaying. However, as we came out of that winter it was clear that her heels were collapsing under her weight. By late Spring she was chronically lame and we seemed unable to help her through strictly trimming.
That summer began a three-year effort to regain some level of soundness. We started with regular shoes, which had an immediate improvement in her soundness. However, by the third or fourth shoeing she was sliding backward again. We tried a series of different things, including Natural Balance style shoes. Everything we tried had an initial improvement, was even better by the second shoeing, but would begin to degrade over time until we were starting over again.
By Spring of last year, Roxie looked crippled simply walking across the barnyard. Feeling desperate, I called our equine mobile service out for some x-rays. I had been consulting with a vet, but had not gotten x-rays up to that point as it seemed obvious what the problem was. But now I wanted to know how bad it looked before determining our next steps. Surprisingly, there were no significant bony changes – or so that vet and the radiologist said. (My old vet, on the other hand, saw more changes that she thought could be part of the lameness.) The recommendation was to put Roxie in wedge pads to relieve the pain in her heels. I’ve watched for decades as horses in wedge pads show initial improvement, but end up worse off overall. This wasn’t satisfactory to me, so we tried another style of shoe with even shorter term improvement.
By Summer I gave up and we tried low wedge pads with a frog support built in. I knew this would not be a sustainable solution, but hoped it would buy me time to find another solution. It took much longer to show improvement, but improve she did. In the meantime, I watched her feet revert to the narrow long-toe form they’d come to us with. Was there a way to get the good aspect of her time barefoot and also strengthen her heels? I was at the point of making that my one last desperate move.
To the rescue came a fellow member in a horsemanship Facebook group. He responded to a comment in which I mentioned my struggles by offering to share his mare’s journey with me. So, we arranged a time (he in the UK and me in California) and I called him. He was very generous with what had helped his mare become serviceably sound barefoot. He’d sought the assistance of Nic Barker, owner of Rockley Farm in Exmoor, and described for me many aspects of the program they followed. During our conversation he recommended one of her books, Feet First: Barefoot Performance and Hoof Rehabilitation, co-authored by Sarah Braithwaite. I immediately ordered it and read it cover to cover (you can find my review of this book on The Literate Equine blog). It held a wealth of information and helped me start a plan.
One piece of advice I took from the book was to wait to pull Roxie’s shoes until I’d made some adjustments to diet and environment. I was hoping that these changes would help mitigate the issues we had the first time barefoot. In the meantime, Roxie continued to improve in the wedge pads so I felt better about taking my time.
Shortly after reading the book our Coffee threw a shoe and I decided he would be our perfect guinea pig. Being the only other shod horse in the herd, if we could make the barefoot transition successfully with him it would give us the groundwork for pulling Roxie’s shoes. Although he was sound both shod and bare, he did have a toe first landing and a somewhat frequent tripping problem. If we could improve these issues barefoot, it would give me further confidence that we stood a chance of helping Roxie.
As time went on I became reluctant to pull Roxie’s shoes. Winter was upon us and that is what led to her feet softening and heels collapsing the first time. By the time we reached Spring, she was moving better than she had in years, albeit in the toe-first landing that still indicated heel pain. But just seeing her able to trot and canter as she wanted in the back field kept me wary of taking a risk. Then in April fate stepped in.
Roxie came in from the field one day missing a front shoe. A small amount of wall had gone with it, but nothing significant. Out of curiosity, I took her into the arena to lunge her. She actually looked more sound on the bare foot than she did on the shod one! My farrier was due in less than a week, so I decided to see how she did in the interim. By the day the farrier arrived she still looked better in the bare foot, so we pulled the other shoe and left her bare. I had my fingers-crossed that the changes in diet and environment had laid a foundation we could now utilize. By this time Coffee had been barefoot for more than six months and his feet and gait had improved (no more tripping!), so it gave me hope for Roxie.
So, where are we now, more than two months later? Considering that she was crippled at the walk about a year ago, I was thrilled with what I saw the day I took the video below. She has better days and worse days, but the bad days are getting to be fewer as each week passes. The size of her feet has increased slightly, and we’re working to get her balance better. But mostly we need time and activity for her feet to remodel enough to hopefully sustain some level of comfort. Hard to know, at this point, if she will reach workable soundness or just be comfortable enough for pasture life; but just seeing her being able to gallop in for dinner makes me feel good.
Although I have certainly known many ‘navicular’ horses over the decades, Roxie is the first of my own I’ve had to manage. I will write updates as there is more to report on my girl’s journey. I would love to hear from anyone who has gone through a similar issue with their horse.
Be good to your horses!