Sunday, 8 July 2012

Barefoot Through Africa - The Trials and Tribulations

This article was published in the American magazine, The Horse's Hoof in July 2012.

Barefoot Through Africa – The Triumphs and Tribulations!

Before embarking on our horseback journey from the most northern point to the most southern part of Africa in 2005, Billy and I had decided on a few goals we wanted to achieve. One was especially important to both of us – to keep our horses barefoot. We wanted to learn what it really takes to do this successfully and to discover whether it would be possible for 2 horses travelling thousands of kilometers, carrying up to 130kg (including the rider!) over harsh and changeable terrain in severe climates to remain barefoot.

Billy was far better equipped for this challenge than me. He trained as a master farrier specializing in pathology but has been experimenting with barefoot since 1994. I on the other hand, was brought up very conventionally and like most people accepted that “shoeing was a necessary evil” and to be honest had never thought any further than that. Having met Billy, a whole new world was opened up to me! We still spend many hours discussing everything and anything concerning horses and what’s best for them.

What follows is not really a ‘how to’ go barefoot but more some observations and thoughts on what we learnt in endeavoring to do just that. We faced many challenges and situations that most horse owners would be unlikely to ever encounter. We made a lot of mistakes and hope that you don’t judge us too harshly for them, but we also triumphed in part and are grateful to our two special horses for the lessons we learnt (and are still learning) from and with them and hope they will be useful for other like minded people.

I mentioned in my previous article that we bought our horses, Chami and Ennahali, with only a cursory look at their feet. Of course we made note of the seedy toe, the flares and the sheared heels on every hoof but were not overly concerned, feeling confident that we could sort that out in time. What we didn’t consider much at first was how much their upbringing was to affect them. Ennahali was a 5yr old Arab Barbe stallion, born on a farm where he worked as a cart horse when still very young. He then moved to the stud when he was about 3 where he lived in a stable and was used for breeding. Chami on the other hand was a 7yr old Barbe stallion when we bought him. He was born at the stud and after being weaned at six months had no interaction with other horses except when covering mares. He spent all his time in a stable, often with the top door closed as he was a renowned Houdini. He was unbacked. I hasten to add that we only discovered this after buying them. Were we to buy them again now, we would probably do things very differently, but that is the beauty of hindsight! 
Chami NF - sheared heel - Nov 2005
Soon after we purchased the boys, they were gelded and delivered to another stud where we were able to start their much needed training. We had only two weeks to back them and for them to recover from their gelding before the start of the expedition on 10th Dec 2005. Apart from teaching them to accept a rider, we thought one of the most important things for them to know, would be to tie on a long rope as very few places we would be staying would have paddocks. This was no problem for Ennahali who had the rope worked out in minutes but Chami behaved just like a foal, pushing against the pressure and before I could react had wound himself up in the rope, receiving a nasty rope burn to the back of his pastern on the near hind. This injury would come back to haunt us time and again. 
Chami NH - rope burn - Nov 2005
To start with, apart from a slight lameness and swelling in the fetlock he seemed fine, but once we actually set off and were doing quite a lot of riding on the tarmac, he started to drag the toe and having very soft unconditioned feet, he very quickly ended up with a short upright foot. To make matters worse, on the first day of the expedition he stepped on something sharp that pierced the sole of the right hind leaving him with 2 painful back legs/feet. We fashioned some hoof boots out of inner tubing from a tire and continued on foot leading Chami. A few days later, we arrived back at the stud where we had bought the horses. We were informed that our visas for Libya were not ready and it was suggested that we remain at the stud until they were. This gave Chami the rest and recovery time he so sorely needed.

In fact we stayed there for 75 days! During this time, Chami’s rope burn and punctured sole healed completely. Billy trimmed both horses’ feet every 2 – 4 weeks and we gave them as much exercise and training as we could. Unfortunately, they still had to be stabled more than we liked and as it was winter, when they were out, their feet got very wet and muddy. We decided to try painting their feet with a mixture of formalin and iodine to help kill the infection in the sheared heels and to help the soles harden. It seemed to have the desired effect.

We rode on and soon reached Libya. The boys’ hooves were really starting to show promise so we decided to stop trimming unless we absolutely had to. At this stage, less than 4 months and 700km travelled since we bought them, both horses’ sheared heels had cleared up and there was no sign of the seedy toe. Their feet were hardening and their frogs were filling out. We were optimistic. 
Chami NF - March 2006
Chami’s rope burn had healed well although he still had a bit of swelling in the left hind fetlock. We thought this was affecting his movement and knowing that hard feed can cause swelling in the legs, we decided to cut back on his concentrates for a while. It would not be long before we would seriously regret this decision!

After another 600km, more visa problems, a run in with a pitch fork and another rope burn, we found ourselves at the start of our first real desert crossing. The road from Ajadabiya to Tobruk through the Sahara is 400km long with very few people and no water. We organized a support vehicle to carry our kit and water. On the first day Chami must have sprained a fetlock but he is the kind of horse who just keeps going. We were travelling at the canter in the sand and I didn’t feel it until he started to cool down. This caused him to dehydrate and to go into shock. This, coupled with the ‘diet’ he was on, triggered a minor laminitis in both front feet. We rested him for two days and then continued, both of us taking turns to ride Ennahali or lead Chami. Those 400km took us 19 days… as we rested Chami where and when we could.

Most of the desert is in fact sharp rock so the best going we had was the tarmac on the side of the road. Chami started to wear the toes on his hind feet again and by the time we reached Tobruk, we knew we had to do something to protect them, but what exactly? We had no way to get hoof boots and felt that our only option was to shoe his back feet. You can imagine that we felt we had failed but resolved to think of shoeing as a veterinary procedure, something that would help us with our ultimate goal. After nearly 2000km, shoeing Chami was easier said than done. His hooves were so hard that Billy bent nail after nail before managing to get the job done. Chami had finished the desert crossing somewhat worse for wear, but Ennahali had thrived. His feet continued to improve. His soles and frogs were like marble, hard and shiny and we began to realize just what the perfect hoof should look like.
Chami hinds - first shoeing - Aug 2006
After a bit of rest, we continued on towards Egypt. Chami was moving well and we were even riding him a bit. On our last day in Libya, we had planned to do only a short distance, but due to the landmines on the side of the road, we were forced to push on further. This sent Chami into severe laminitis and we arrived at the Egyptian border with 1 horse in fine form and 1 that could hardly move. We spent 16 days at that border post due to red tape and bureaucracy. We used this time to rest Chami, try and give him some relief with pain killer anti – inflammatory drugs and to come up with a way forward. We decided that the best thing for him would be to get as much blood pumping through his feet as possible. To do this he had to move. To move he needed some hoof protection and some hoof height. Our only available option was to shoe his front feet. 
Chami fronts - first shoeing - Sept 2006
We travelled on another 200km, leading Chami 25km a day. I know this is not the standard cure for laminitis, but I honestly believe that those 25km a day saved his life. Both horses and riders arrived in Marsa Matruh tired, skinny and rather run down. We spent 2 months putting on weight and regaining our energy. Chami got a new lease on life with daily rides on the beach and even managed to buck me off on one occasion! Billy reshod Chami every 2 weeks so he could minimize the trimming and try to use the same nail holes. Chami himself may have had more life, but much of each hoof was dead. Looking back at photos now, I can’t help but cry remembering all the heartache and stress of worrying if he was going to survive.  
Chami - reshoeing on the only flat surface available - Dec 2006

Chami - laminitic OF - Jan 2007

Chami OF - it gets worse before it gets better - March 2007
But survive he did! We continued through Egypt and into northern Sudan, doing a number of desert crossings, combating biliary, surviving temperatures in excess of 50 degrees (centigrade!), overcoming colic caused by an unplanned change of feed and arrived in Khartoum in June 2007 after approximately 4800km. Here we were to stay for 3 years running a riding school for 130 students with 12 barefoot horses, Chami included. We were so happy to finally be able to remove his shoes. We focused on endurance riding and the harder the horses worked, the better their feet were. Fit horses with good feet make for happy mounts. 
Chami fronts - the last shoeing - Dec 2007
It was in Khartoum that we really began to consider the importance of exercise for a barefoot horse. Through our own experiences we have come to realize that horses have a minimum requirement of exercise each day just to maintain their fitness, health and feet. Any riding, training, competing etc should be extra. If you meet this requirement, you will find that what you feed is not so important and the trim even less so. You may find, as we did, that you don’t have to trim at all as your horse will be maintaining his own feet. Sadly we were to discover that once you have achieved a good foot, you cannot afford to back off the exercise. 
Chami - from death's door to this in 6 months - July 2008
We left Khartoum with Chami in hoof boots and Ennahali as reliable as ever. However, we were forced to take a barge from Kosti to Juba as there were no open roads through the Sud, the largest swamp in the world. 27 days of standing on board had an understandably adverse affect on their hooves, making them softer. Both horses were footsore on arrival in Juba.

Uganda brought its own challenges. Enforced dipping with cattle dip and vaccinations according to veterinary regulations definitely affected their hooves. In fact any medication affects hoof quality but more so on an unconditioned, unexercised foot. Of course the biggest thing was to find a suitable place for the horses to stay while Billy underwent chemotherapy for leukemia. This turned out to be easy! They have the perfect home, living on the banks of Lake Victoria with a herd of 18 horses. They are used for riding lessons and trails and are as happy as can be. We plan to continue with the expedition at the end of this year. We know we have our work cut out for us getting the horses and their feet ready to travel again, but feel far better equipped to do it correctly after all we have learnt. We remain determined to complete the expedition with 2 barefoot horses! 
Chami - no sign of the slippered hooves - Sept 2011

Chami NH - By no means the perfect hoof, but back on track! - Sept 2011

The story of Ennahali's Near Hind hoof.
You can see the improvement and strengthening with exercise and then the loss of quality due to change of terrain, lack of exercise and medication.
30 Nov 2005

26 March 2006

18 Aug 2006
6 March 2007
21 Dec 2007
29 March 2008
24 July 2008
24 Aug 2008
26 Sept 2011
12 May 2012

Christy Henchie

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