Heart and technique. A testimony from Italy

Written for “The horse’s hoof magazine”, issue n°46 spring 2012

2011 ended positively and 2012 looks promising. The number of horses that I trim is constantly growing. At the moment, I have several courses planned, not only on hoof maintenance but also on various topics that I conduct together with a veterinarian friend.

However, it’s not correct to look at my small personal success in the evaluation of the national situation. The slow diffusion that I perceive is strictly tied to the natural horsemanship environment. It involves a number and type of person that from the beginning have a different mindset and whose interest could have been predicted from the start.

Proof of this can be seen with friends of mine, racehorse breeders, who can’t find a jockey to train their barefoot fillies and colts.

Barefoot diffusion seems to be on the verge of reaching its limit. I would like to analyze and propose the reasons based on my experience.

Europe and in particular southern Europe is experiencing a crisis that is not only economic but of its customs. It’s from inside this crisis, both objective and profound, that we have to identify the elements that can influence the barefoot movement in order to try and understand the current situation and foresee its future. Success for the iron free philosophy is determined by what people think and how they behave, by the quality of the horses and by the space available.

Whoever is expecting a pat on the back, loud laughter, large numbers and encouraging statistics please sit down. The barefoot movement, a concentration of logic, love, awareness and free spirit is affected by characteristics of a human society in constant and uneven growth.

People. The diffusion of ideas and techniques. Alternatives in teaching. Ethics.

The impression that I’ve gathered visiting private stables and riding centers is that the common denominator is not the animals’ well-being.

A few years ago when the iron free philosophy began to spread after a dormant period, it was hoped that the well-being of the animal would be a common goal.

In Italy around 2005, barefoot wasn’t a trend nor barely practiced and if so a personal statement of emancipation. True associations of trimmers didn’t exist and what did exist was not only in place to safeguard interests.

People with a high degree of sensitivity regarding animals rediscovered the possibility to follow a natural and simple upkeep and tried to implement it.

Over the years, interest has grown and what once was a small group of intellectuals has become a heterogeneous army.

It’s useless to deny that many are tempted by the possibility to save money on shoeing. In Italy it costs between €50 and €120 to get a horse shod. I haven’t read the article sited by K. Carter last fall, but it was probably based on the search for savings.

Participants overestimate the formative capabilities of short courses. The fulcrum of my seminars, the superiority of barefoot for the animal’s welfare, has been integrated for some time with techniques in tool use. I use wood of different densities that mimics the diverse consistency of dry summer hooves and humid winter hooves. Why? The conditions of hooves in slaughtered animals are almost always far from the conditions that should be faced by a beginner. A few swipes of the rasp aren’t enough to learn proper technical use of the tool. The use of wood permits me to emphasize the dignity of the animals and show them due respect. Wood permits me to demonstrate the difficulty in creating even a simple shape which causes reflection and slows enthusiasms. A hoof is a live three dimensional structure in constant movement and needs clear ideas and an instantaneous capability of translating the idea in a gesture.

The differences existing between the European and the North American societies also need to be considered. Europeans are more urbanized in general thus less accustomed to manual activity. Of the people I know, 25% personally take care of their horses’ hooves. 60% of the horses that I encounter are not trimmed by a professional. The majority of these horses are owned by riding centers that advocate barefoot as a way to save money more than a cause. Often non qualified personnel roughly take care of the animals. These horses can move over the ground in the riding center but with few exceptions, can’t face a demanding journey.

Even some owners, being without prior practical experience and manual capabilities, having vague notions and lacking the maturity that would permit them to consolidate these notions, have horses that are actually unsound.

All of the above has contributed in spreading the concept that only a horse that doesn’t have to do anything can bear being barefoot. In this atmosphere, blacksmiths are always ready to put shoes back on, vets tend to please their clients so as not to lose them but don’t encourage being barefoot and stable owners prefer a uniform environment without questions being asked that could disrupt current managerial practices and space allocations.

I firmly believe that we have to work on the people involved even running the risk of reducing their number.

As Yvonne Welz continuously says, we need good examples, and just that.

The emphasis in courses should be based on:

  • the periodic need of intervention. If the owner is trimming, he or she should be under the supervision of a tutor for a period that depends on his or her capabilities and the characteristics of the horse.
  • the management of simple living conditions. I bring copies of Yvonne’s article “Natural Boarding” and leave them with new clients.
  • the increased workload that the owner must accept, especially where space is limited, in order to meet the horse’s need for movement.
  • an awareness of each single animal’s possibilities and inherent limits.

This last point is fundamental and often overlooked. Some people consider animals as products off an assembly line and want similar performances from each one.

If the barefoot horse/machine doesn’t perform as desired it gets re-shod. At times, even if the horse’s individuality is recognized, the owner fears that the horse isn’t capable of certain tasks and therefore lives in fear of owning a defect instead of happily accepting the company of a friend and its limits. In the end, a second and third horse is bought, making an already difficult financial situation even worse.

Here lay the premises for deterioration.

In all cases, the well-being and health of the animals are overshadowed by performance anxiety and lack of funds. I have found that in these numerous instances, mediation is not favorable.

I behave as if I were the horse’s lawyer and ask the owner to express his or her sincere feelings toward the animal. Then I resort to The Parable of Talents. Do you know it?

The Gospel According to St. Matthew 25, 14-30

The Lord asks of someone in proportion to what they were given. Since neither human nor horse receives the same endowment at birth as another in its species, our requests are always different and appropriate.

Therefore, once the horse is in our stable or pasture, given the best possible conditions, that here in Europe are hardly similar to those of Joe Camp, it will be able to give us and we can claim from it the maximum in relation to its initial endowment. We have to settle for what it can offer us. In buying or adopting an animal we assume a responsibility, not a right.

I believe the secret to the barefoot movement is just that. In the world of equitation, it could and should represent the message that respect and acceptance of each animal’s limit is primary.

…more about people.

If the owner doesn’t answer reassuringly, I switch roles from preacher to biologist. Even in this case mediation doesn’t pay. A professional must be determined if he desires to change his client’s behavior. He may even have to be a bit rude on some occasions and in particular situations.

Saving money and how to do it becomes the main issue in a medium to long term period by adapting a simple and natural boarding situation to the space available. In the meantime, I work on increasing the sensitivity of the owner and those taking care of the animals.

Furthermore about people, the barefoot trimmers would benefit from a more homogeneous and informed environment, more intellectual and less mercantile. Accordingly, I would like to start up a similar system to that of the AHA in my country.

I choose not to close doors that may cause the defeat or reduction of barefooters as others have. These others have as a first objective the monopoly of the barefoot trimming market and have created pyramid type organizations that profess a dogmatic superiority.

A strategy preferable for the horse as opposed to traditional shoeing but ethically similar is using knowledge and knowhow to surpass technical difficulties and to often placate hurried cynical owners.

An alternative strategy, simply recognizing the limits of humans and animals, unites the method with compassion and attempts to find an equilibrium between the owners interests and love and respect for the animal, thought of as a companion, not a slave.

We need to move in this direction. With just a method and not getting to the heart and soul of people, the barefoot movement can’t grow and take root. The barefoot and iron free philosophies mean freeing the animal from performance slavery. In a world full of amateur ethologists and simplified articles of histology, biochemistry and compared anatomy, we risk forgetting the true sense of relationships between living beings.

Horses! Breeding, genetics, horse management.

One of the main problems in Italy is the large number of horses continuously kept and multiplied by greedy dealers and stable owners. A horse for everyone and for everyone there’s a horse, even if it’s exchanged frequently. It is an object to trade, sell, resell and in the end… recycle.

Bad breeding and a frivolous choice when buying a horse are two important reasons for dissatisfaction.

A barefoot horse, so as not to be a nightmare each trim and not just a friend living in the yard, should be equipped with a decent or good endowment from the start. A healthy body and correct conformation should direct the choice of mares and stallions, opting for a form of guided breeding used in medieval times where the bishop and count would concur upon the authorized animals to be bred.

Vets have an enormous responsibility here. They should be the first to inform and shape the conscience of people in order to create a more qualified environment. If a horse has been discarded from training or competition, breeding it will only weaken the species. Breeding a family mare because she’s so sweet and needs to do something since she can’t do anything else, weakens the species, and is proof, once more, that the animal is considered a commodity or some other deviant. A fashionable horse of the moment, bred even if a poor example, produces young horses that are easy to sell but lacking soundness and pride forever.

Genetics are fundamental, but how many horses are born healthy and sound only to become, thanks to incorrect horse management, caricatures of themselves. This brings us to the third important variable, space.

Space and positive examples.

The space dedicated to animals is absolutely insufficient, as is that available for humans for that matter. With the diffusion of riding centers and condominium type boarding for horses, even people living in urban areas are able to own a horse. These horses are the worst off and the first to feel an economic crisis and human superficiality. The limited space and characteristic humidity of Europe, doesn’t favor a horse’s health, barefoot or shod.

Nonetheless, something is happening and my tiny success is also proof. Fortunately sensible people do exist who notice the first time they see a horse without shoes. They really notice if the horse travels fluidly because the trimmer understands hoof mechanics and anatomy, the difference between aesthetics and efficiency and is able to adapt his work to the needs of the horse without sculpting a model in his hooves.

More and more people are asking for bigger paddocks for their horses or they may move to stables where a minimum of natural living is possible. Supply follows demand and new centers are popping up on larger areas.


Just two years ago at least half of the horses I trimmed lived in stalls. Now they are a small minority and never privately owned. Finally expert trimmers are being consulted in the evaluation of a horse. In short, despite difficulties, signs aren’t all negative. They aren’t positive either and the reasons can be found directly in the country’s make up and in the education of its inhabitants which is in turn influenced by the relationship that people have with animals. Precisely for this reason, I believe Pat Parelli, even though he has shod horses, is one of the biggest promoters of the barefoot movement worldwide.

In describing the situation that surrounds me and listing the motives that are curbing its development, I hope to contribute to its improvement.


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Informazioni su Franco Belmonte

Born 1952. Degree in Biological Sciences University of Genova, Italy. Researcher, CNR of Italy 1977-'80 (neurochemistry) then various task related to biology till now. Active Member and Certified Trimmer of the American Hoof Association. Didactic activity: equine podiatry and nutrition. Area of interest: evolution and physiology. Airline pilot and flight instructor for living 1981-2002.