In general, Brego does well barefoot. He has been conditioned since I have had him to travel over rocks and uneven terrain without shoes. When we were in Texas, almost all of our rides out involved rocky terrain and Brego did pretty well if kept in reason. For example, I could ride him walk/trot on a 12 mile trail ride over rocks and he would be fine. But if his feet had been soaking in mud for the two weeks prior, it was time to break out his #7 Easyboots.
In the semi-arid climate of Central Texas, you could very easily never ride in mud. The occasional times that it rained enough to cause excessive mud, you could scratch or, better yet, the entire show would be canceled. Thus, I rode for two great years without ever negotiating mud.
Then I moved to New England. Where it actually rains. Sometimes daily. As I am discovering, the barefoot program that worked in Texas may not work so well up here. The jury is still out, but as with all things horses, I am continually learning.
The biggest problem I am facing up here in regards to footing is traction. Brego is still fine over rocks, even with all the wet weather. He is not foot sore or gimpy when we ride out, which is, admittedly less than we rode in Texas. But in the mud, Brego will slip behind.
The kind of mud up here is thick and deep. It's not a thin, watery mud that you can strike through and find purchase on something solid underneath to push off. It's all slick, all the way down. Brego, with his free swinging rear legs, slips in the mud. It could very well be that he is barefoot. Even a flat shoe would offer some grip, I would think. Would it be enough grip in the thick mud to stop him from sliding? That's a big question I have.
Brego might also be slipping because he is honestly not trained to negotiate footing. When all you do is ride on dry, packed earth, it may take some adjustment to center your weight a bit more. Or he could be slipping more because of the way he lands on his hind feet. He swings his rear legs through, in typical cow hocked fashion, by swinging his hoof to the inside, very close to the opposite leg. Then as the foot travels forward, instead of swinging it back out for a nice, even flat landing, he keeps his foot to the inside and places the outside of his hoof wall on the ground first. As his weight transfers onto the hoof, the inside of the hoof comes down to make contact with the ground. So he's not traveling square. This seems to be a breed-specific "feature". I've seen lots of Percherons do this. Being bred to be base-narrow and walk in a furrow has a lot to do with this, I believe.
This inside travel also has ramification on his hoof development. The outside of his rear hooves are extremely flared and must be trimmed every few weeks to keep his wall from being pushed up on impact and flaring worse. I am of the opinion that you should not correct this type of conformation flaw with shoeing, even if it might be possible. Brego is what he is, and sometimes corrective shoeing will transfer the stress up the leg to his hock or his hip. With his hoof wall being stressed, I can monitor it and he is sound and uses the rest of his hind end well. Of course, I can't predict the future, and he might go lame in 4 years no matter what I do because of this conformation. Such is the nature of horses.
So, knowing that he has such uneven travel, and knowing that his hoof wall is doing a pretty good job and handling that stress and keeping it from impacting the rest of his leg, I am loath to put him in flat shoes permanently. I can't image what might happen to his fetlock if his flared wall was held immobile by a steel plate as he added weight. The double impact of first the outside of his hoof and then his inside might be exacerbated by a non-forgiving shoe.
As a quick aside, I don't believe that all shoeing is evil, but I believe that poor, uneducated shoeing will wreck a horse. I almost lost a mare to ignorant shoeing before I educated myself enough to put a stop to the increasingly debilitating shoes. She went barefoot for seven years and now, as she gets older, she needs simple flat shoes to be comfortable again. Fair enough, I do what is right for that horse. Brego is 95% fine without shoes. The missing 5% is traction. I am not about to mess with the 95% goodness by putting shoes on him until I have exhausted all other options.
So what are my options? Assuming that Brego will not magically learn to travel safely in mud and will need some sort of assistance to compete in New England, what can I do?
Option #1: EasyCare, the fine people who bring you Easyboots, makes a "extreme" boot meant for sloppy conditions called the Easyboot Grip. This boot sounds perfect for what I need. Just slap some boots on his hinds when needed during a competition and the rest of the time, his hooves can rest and keep doing what they are doing. One small snag in this great plan: They don't come in sizes big enough. The Grips only go through #3 and Brego is a #7 up front, probably #6 behind. I contacted EasyCare and they do not have any plans, that they told me about anyway, to make them in bigger sizes. Phooey.
Option #2: Take an existing pare of Easyboots and drill and tap them for studs. All the benefits of studs, without the nailing of a shoe. Right now, I only have Easyboots for Brego's front feet, but his hind feet need the traction. So he would need to be sized and they would need to fit PERFECT to avoid slippage and damage to Brego from a loose boot. I would need to drill and tap the studs (oh yea, buy some studs) and educate myself on when to use studs. This is not such a bad plan, except I hate the Easyboot clasps. EasyCare is supposed to come out with a new clasp, call the Edge, which does not use the little metal cables to secure the boot. I would much prefer the new clasps, less danger of catching on a fence or getting damaged and broken by a rock. But again, when the Edges come out, they may not be in a size big enough for Brego.
On to Option #3: Shoes for Shows. I can put hind shoes on for big shoes, have them tapped for studs. Then after the show, have them removed. There's a couple of big question marks around this option, above and beyond the "traveling" issue I outlined above. Getting a competent farrier who will shoe drafts and do what I want is one. I have not been impressed by the farriers around here. I've never seen so many toed-in, paddling, heel stacked horses in my life. Plus, most farriers will want to put on front shoes, so that would be a battle. I've already been lectured by a farrier that it is IMPOSSIBLE to keep a draft barefoot. That was a fun conversation... No really, I just want hinds. Then there is the question of how will Brego handle the shoes? Probably fine, but he's never been shod in his life. So I would probably need to put them on in enough advance of a show to get them off if he is troubled.
All these thoughts have been running around in my head before I went to the big recognized show. I had some trouble with slipping at schooling shows and I was pretty nervous about how Brego would do barefoot. I watched most of the rides of the day, from the training-level big Thoroughbreds, to the Beginner Novice-level ponies. Some horses had flat shoes. Some horses had shoes with studs. Some horses were barefoot. Everyone had trouble with the wet footing. I saw horses with studs slipping in the mud, front and back. Brego slipped on course once during show jumping. He did not slip at all on cross country, which was pretty wet. But I was very mindful of the footing and so we went an appropriate speed through the wet parts. (So maybe I have a rider education problem??) So all in all, I think he fared as well as the other horses.
So do I really have a traction problem? Or is an occasional slip to be expected and horses and riders learn to just move on? Remember, I have never ridden in mud before, so I am not sure what is normal. Since Brego did so well at the show, I am not pressed to solve this problem today. However, I am going to start working towards Option #2 with the Easyboots that are currently available. The upcoming Autumn will tell me more about whether Brego and I will adjust or if we have a real problem. If Option #2 does not work, I am on to Option #3. I don't mind putting shoes on for a show, but I don't think I am to the point that I will put shoes on Brego permanently for traction. Now, if he started being foot sore, then that's a different ball game.
Everyone tells me that I must put shoes on for the winter in New England, must have borium. But I have met several riders who ride their horses out all year round barefoot. Like all things, it depends on the horse and the level of work. So I need to find a solution that works for both of us and keeps Brego as sound as possible for as long as possible. As always, I reserve the right to change my mind, and my course, at any point. :)