On a recent afternoon, an old gray horse named Blue walked at a leisurely pace, teaching basic balance to a smiling 10-year-old.
Four years ago, the friendly quarter horse who now makes his home at the Eaglehorse Foundation, a nonprofit equestrian facility near Talent, was more likely a candidate for euthanasia than a patient teacher for children.
A testament to the benefits of letting horses go "barefoot," the once prize-winning roping horse endured constant pain from navicular disease, a lameness caused by bone degeneration.
After a procedure to severe nerves, thus preventing pain signals from communicating with his brain, Blue was sold to a novice rider looking for a slow-paced horse.
His new owner consulted with Eaglehorse director Jo Sebby, who suggested diet changes, pain medication and corrective horseshoeing.
"We had a shoer at the time — everybody had shoes — but barefoot was something I always had been interested in," Sebby said.
"I just couldn't find a shoer that was agreeable with what we wanted, so everybody had shoes back then and we did pretty well with corrective shoeing and nutrition."
Fast forward four years. When Blue's pain found him lying down more than standing, Sebby made a last-ditch effort at saving the horse and ordered his shoes removed. Jacksonville hoof groom Ali Rainwater took Blue's case pro bono and removed his shoes in hopes of demonstrating the benefits of natural hoof care.
"He had probably the most severe case of navicular I had ever seen. He was wearing shoes when I first saw him but he was unable to walk," Rainwater recalled.
A step beyond a basic trim done in horseshoeing, a 'barefoot' or natural trim encourages natural hoof shape and angle to reduce constriction in the heel, promote circulation and provide a comfortable gait.
Like horses in the wild, shoeless horses with healthy hooves have better shock absorption, a more natural stride and are more surefooted because they can better connect with the ground, says ABC Hoofcare owner and certified groom instructor Cheryl Henderson.
"The horseshoe was never meant for the horse. It was meant for the human. When demographics changed and horses had to be brought in from fields and live in villages in town and had to stand in their own 'mess,' the horn or hoof-wall would start to fray," Henderson said.
"So they found that the same nail they use today, the beveled nail, would hold the hoof together and the human could now push the horse further and harder."
Henderson added, "What they found after doing this was that the horses' lives started to shorten and disease and health problems started to rise."
While most barefoot enthusiasts concede that not all horses are candidates for going barefoot, most horses could live without shoes if given proper nutrition, regular trimmings and plenty of room to move around.
A six-month-or-more transition is usually necessary for hooves to "toughen up." As the hoof begins to grow more strongly, horses can usually do much of the same activity as they would with shoes.
Performance-wise, Henderson noted, "There are dressage horses and race horses in the industry going barefoot — and they're doing better than they did with shoes."
Still, Henderson and Rainwater advocate the barefoot method for the sake of the horse beyond any needs an owner may have.
"I recommend barefoot for just about any horse nowadays, unless someone is heavily competitive and needs to use a horse for really hard work," Rainwater says. "Until barefoot came out and people were looking at what we could do to remedy or prevent these issues, shoeing was all they knew to do. ... We humans put shoes on these animals and we humans need to be the ones to fix it."
Veterinarian Mitch Benson, of Rogue Valley Equine, says it's important to remember that not all horses can go barefoot because humans have "bred the quality out of horse feet" by domestication.
"I think barefoot is a very good idea but it has to be based on the individual situation. There are certainly a lot of horses who can go barefoot and a lot of horses who can't," Benson said.
"I would encourage horse owners to know the pros and cons for their particular horse. To just say they have to have shoes is no better than saying, 'Oh, I'm not going to put shoes on my horse.' Either statement, without considering the best condition for a particular horse, in my opinion, is misguided."
After some two years of going barefoot, though he still appreciates a rest on the cool grass, Blue is mostly pain-free and a favorite with young riders at the Eaglehorse Foundation. His story is being repeated with thousands of horses around the world.
"The big thing for Blue was he's got such a good spirit ...," Rainwater said. "He's got a great big heart and he's great with the kids "¦ he's given hundreds of kids a love of horses and it might seem like he's taking care of them but they're actually taking care of him by riding him and keeping him going. He's a good example of why people believe in barefoot."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.