Do-It-Yourself Hoof Trimming: Is it Right For YOU?
Many horses owners are looking for ways to save money these days – and we’re always looking for ways to improve our horses’ well-being. Switching to barefoot hoof care has become increasingly popular, both for the health benefits it seems to impart to the horse and because it is easier on the wallet. Some owners are taking that move once step further by learning to trim their own horses’ feet.
If the idea of trimming your own horses intrigues you, there is definitely much to learn before you pick up a rasp and head out to the barn. To help get you started on the right path, we sat down with Christina Cline, a professional barefoot trimmer, clinician and President of the American Hoof Association, and generally all-around awesome gal, to get the skinny on DIY hoof trimming.
WHR: Is it more common these days for owners to want to learn to trim their own horses? If so, to what do you attribute this increase in interest?
CC: I think the recent hot debates around shoeing vs barefoot have stirred an interest in owners wanting to learn to trim. It has made them start to think more about their horses' feet, and when the owner spends more time considering options in hoof care, they often want to become more involved.
WHR: Are most people studying hoof trimming wanting to trim their own horses independently, or are there many who just want to be able to do "touch ups" between trims?
CC: Most want to do just touch ups between trims, but even so it is definitely worth learning. Depending on the hooves in question, it can extend the trim cycle, which can save you money. Even more imporantly, some horses benefit tremendously by more frequent trimming than the typical 6-8 week farrier cycle. For instance, some horses do much better if they have their toes rasped back a little bit on a weekly basis, and many horses transitioning to barefoot or recovering from hoof problems will make much faster progress if the owner is doing some trimming.
WHR: As a professional trimmer, how do you feel about people doing their own horses?
CC: I think it's fantastic if an owner wants to learn to trim their own horse – as long as they work with a professional to ensure that their trimming stays on track. Many owners make very good trimmers for their own horse, as they often pay such close, detailed attention to their horse's feet. They can see those feet on a daily basis instead of just once every 6 weeks or so. I do strongly encourage owners to keep working with a professional to double check their work for balance and any problems that may arise that the owner does not yet recognize.
WHR: If one wants to go about learning how to trim their own horse, what are the educational avenues open to them?
CC: Pete Ramey's book, DVDs and website (www.hoofrehab.com) are excellent resources. People can also check out www.barefoothorse.com , which is a website with some really good information. The Yahoo chat group Barefoot Horse Care is great group that supports the horse owner learning to trim. A lot of farriers and trimmers also offer workshops or private training to help the owner get started.
WHR: How important is it to learn "hands on", under the guidance of a competent pro, rather than just book/dvd learning?
CC: Hands on learning is extremely important, and I really don't recommend that anyone learn just from books/dvds or websites unless there is no other option. Often the horse's foot doesn't look like the ones in pictures or video, and the owner needs to have a professional help them really see what's going on with their horse's foot. A lot of people panic that their horse's hoof doesn't look like a wild mustang foot, or like the feet in a particular book or website; they think something is wrong with their horse, when in reality, a foot doesn't necessarily have to look like any of those to still be very healthy. They need a professional to give them a reality check!
WHR: How does someone who is not knowledgeable find a good person to learn from?
CC: They can start by asking other horse owners whose judgement they trust for input. If they know someone who has learned to trim and whose horses are doing well, they can ask who they learned from. If they have been happy with the hoof care they've received, ask their farrier/trimmer if they would be willing to teach and mentor. The American Hoof Association, Pacific Hoof Care Practioners and the American Farriers Association are some respectable organizations who have lists of qualified professionals to contact.
WHR: Can an owner new to trimming successfully trim a horse that has problem feet?
CC: I don't recommend that owners learn to trim on horses with hoof pathologies; that takes a more in-depth knowlege, and most owners just learning how to trim do not have that. I recommend that if someone wants to learn to trim, they learn on a horse with good feet that just needs maintenance. If they have a horse with a pathology, keep the professional working on that horse, and let the pro decide if and when the owner is ready to start helping out on the more challenging feet. I understand that there are situations where the horse owner may not have qualified professional help available, and in these situations, the owner may need to go it alone – but I do not think that is the best choice if there are other options.
WHR: What kind of physical strength or ability do you need to be able to trim your own horse?
CC: I think most owners are able to trim their own horse, even if they have some physical limitations. It is critical though that the horse has been taught to stand well for trimming. Trimming is a lot of work, but a poorly behaved horse makes the job exponentially more difficult, and potentially dangerous. If your horse does not stand well, train them prior to starting to work on them, or pay a trainer to do that job for you. If someone has had a major spine or head injury, I would hesitate recommending that they learn to trim. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your physical ability to do this work. That said, many people with "just a bum back" can trim their horse safely by using different body positions other than the traditional farrier's position. For instance, they can kneel down and prop the hoof up on a knee, keeping the back completely straight. (Please refer back to comments on having a well-trained horse!) People without a lot of arm strength can still trim their horses successfully by just trimming two feet at a time, and trimming frequently enough (e.g. every 2-3 weeks) that there is minimal work to be done. Most limitations can be worked around.
WHR: What are the "must have" tools for trimming, and what are the optional ones?
CC: Must have tools are a rasp (and a handle for the rasp), a hoof knife, and a pair of tough gloves. Trust me, you really don’t want to find out what one errant rasp stroke or pull of a hoof knife can do to you! You also need a sharpener for your hoof knife – and I would ask a professional to show you how to sharpen the knife, then do it often. I strongly recommend a wire brush for cleaning the feet as well. Grit will dull your tools very quickly, and they’re expensive enough as it is. Other tools are optional. Many owners never use a nippers, for example, and if you trim frequently enough, you don’t need one.
WHR: How do you choose good tools?
CC: Get tools from a farrier supply store or online farrier shop. They will carry quality tools. Some feed/tack stores carry quality tools, but many carry inferior products that dull quickly. Dull tools make the job much more difficult and awkward. It may cost a few dollars more to get a good quality tool, but it is well worth the money in saving wear and tear on your body.
WHR: Are there certain things you can do to make the job easier, and how important are they?
CC: It’s very important to make the job as easy as possible, otherwise you’re likely to throw in the towel. I see a lot of people who like the idea of trimming their own horse, but change their mind when they realize how much work it actually is. I quite often hear people say, "You make this look so easy!" – but it's not. A lot of people dabble in trimming but then decide it's just more work than they want to do. That said, ensuring that your horse is well-trained to stand for the farrier is step number one in making the job easier. If you live in a really dry environment, soaking the feet or making a mud puddle for the horse to stand in prior to trimming can make trimming a lot easier too, as a damp hoof is easier to trim than a dry one.
WHR: What are the most common worries that people have when learning to trim, and what do you say to them?
CC: The most common concerns are taking too much off and getting the hoof balance right. Again, I strongly encourage owners to keep working with a professional while learning to trim, because they help alieviate those concerns with their trimming guidance.
WHR: What are some common mistakes that you actually see people making when they are starting to trim their own horses? How can newcomers best avoid making these mistakes?
CC: The most common mistakes I see when people are starting to trim their own horses is not balancing the foot properly, e.g. leaving one heel too long, not taking off enough toe, etc. Newcomers can best avoid these mistakes by having their work supervised by a professional through the intial learning curve.
WHR: What surprises people most when they start getting into trimming?
CC: People are almost always surprised at how much work it is physically to trim a horse. You’re using major muscle groups in unusual positions, and if you’re not used to it and quite fit, it’s going to take a lot out of you. Another thing people often don’t realize until they start really studying the hoof and working it themselves is how plastic it is. By that I mean how incredibly quickly it can change – for better or for worse – in response to various factors such as balance, environmental conditions and diet. It’s not some hard, inert thing that remains constant – not at all. Lastly, I think people don’t realize what a serious problem it is when a horse yanks its feet around when you’re trying to trim. They see their trimmer losing her temper and think she’s just got a short fuse, then they start trimming themselves and find out how hard it is on your body when a horse does that. Suddenly, they understand why they need to train their horses better!
WHR: How long does it take the average person to learn how to do a decent trim on a straight-forward horse? Is this something a person can learn by attending a clinic for 2-3 days and doing some home learning?
CC: Some people have a natural "eye" for good hoof balance and an innate inclination for trimming, and can learn to trim their own horse very well by home study and a weekend clinic; most people will probably need professional supervision for 5-6 trim cycles after home study and a clinic before they really get the balance correct on their own horse.
WHR: Anything else you would like to add?
CC: Even if you don’t want to trim your own horses, I would encourage all horse owners to take part in some sort of hoof and trimming-related education. Understanding some of the principles involved and comprehending the anatomy will help the owner have contructive dialogues with their hoof care provider, enabling them to make better, more informed decisions about their horse's hoof care. All this benefits the horse in the end.
The only other thing I can add is to repeat that I REALLY emphasise that an owner who is trimming their own horses keep working with a pro until they really have a very, very good handle on things. Many people just think "Oh this is easy, anyone can do it", and then they screw up their horses' feet.
SIDEBAR: Tools to Make Trimming Easier
As a DIY trimmer with a bad back and neck, I have to make the task of trimming as easy on my body as possible. Here are a few tools that can make the job less of a chore, whether you are fit and fabulous or a bit of a wreck like me!
Hoofjack ® Hoof Stand (www.hoofjack.com)
While I don’t believe in little green men, I’m a big believer in this little green hoof stand. Just about every farrier has one, and there are good reasons for that: it saves wear and tear on your back, makes the horse feel more secure, adjusts quickly and easily to various heights, keeps your tools handy and out of the dirt with its two powerful magnets, and it is virtually indestructible. It comes with two heads – a “cradle” and a rubber cap, and the instructional DVD is very helpful. Also available in draft and mini sizes.
Abrasive Trimmer (http://www.softouchnaturalhorsecare.com)
If you’re dealing with hard feet or just want to make the job of trimming less of a strength test, an abrasive trimmer might be your new best friend. Phil Morrare, a hoof care professional himself, has put together a great and very reasonably priced kit that includes a small, lightweight angle grinder with a paddle switch (critical for use on horses), a tail tie, a must-watch DVD with general trimming tips and an explanation of how to use the grinder, and several other goodies.
Bending over and holding up a hoof is hard on even the strongest backs. Sitting down and putting the hoof in your lap can ease that strain considerably. You can sit on an overturned bucket or a milk crate, but if you’ve got a smooth, level spot to work in, nothing beats a mechanic’s creeper seat – those small rolling stools that adjust up and down and usually have a tool tray (a real plus). The ability to roll makes trimming easier and also a bit safer if you have to get out of the way quickly. Still, you should only consider sitting to trim if you have a quiet, non-reactive horse that holds it feet up very well.
If you are learning to trim and someone advocates cutting away live sole or other invasive trim methods, you may want to look elsewhere for your education. Invasive trim techniques can cause abscesses and other problems that are NOT a normal or necessary part of the transition to barefoot.