Human Barefoot Trends: What Can they Tell Us About Horses?

Barefoot running and glove-like minimalist barefoot running shoes have gained popularity with human athletes in recent years. And, much like the shoes versus barefoot controversy in the horse world, the benefits and drawbacks of going shoeless are highly debated in human podiatry, said Nora Grenager, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, of Grenager Equine Consulting in Middleburg, Va.

Grenager presented trends and topics in laminitis research at the 2012 Conference on the Equine Foot, which took place Nov. 2-3 in Monterey, Calif. That research included the work of Pat Reilly, chief of farrier services at University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, who authored the paper "The Barefoot Paradox," which was published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science in October 2011 (Volume 31, Issue 10).

Research has found that human barefoot runners:

  • Use 2% less oxygen than their shod counterparts;
  • Have varied ground impact patterns; and
  • Have lower ground-impact forces.

These finding could suggest an increase in performance longevity for the barefoot human athlete prior to tiring and decreased instances of injury. However, a correlated improvement in performance hasn't been universally supported by performance records, Grenager noted.

Additional studies by the U.S. Navy investigating barefoot running in humans found use of minimalist shoes:

  • Resulted in stronger feet;
  • Reduced foot-to-ground impact;
  • Improved balance; and
  • Increased proprioception (the ability to sense the position, location, orientation, and movement of body parts).

Drawbacks noted by the U.S. Navy included less overall support and protection of the foot and a necessary transitional training period as subjects moved from wearing shoes to running barefoot.

Podiatrists in general do not recommend minimalist barefoot shoes for people with pre-existing foot problems or those who find foot pain relief from using custom orthotics. "We believe we can extrapolate these findings to horses," said Grenager, as evidenced by the rise in use of nontraditional orthotics in horses.

That, she added, means horses with foot issues, including those with laminitis-related hoof changes (and especially acute laminitis) are likely to benefit from hoof support such as shoes or casting. Current options for horses include a wide variety of specialty shoes, boots, molded urethanes, glue-on shoes, and hoof casts.

Grenager concluded that the ideal situation for an individual horse likely balances the horse's pre-existing hoof conformation with competing demands of protection, support, traction, freedom of movement, and optimal biomechanics.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.