BAREFOOT GURUS

My recent research into aspects of the horse’s foot has included reading what different barefoot advocates say about different topics. This has highlighted the diversity of the advice provided by these groups.

The different groups:
There are a number of barefoot groups, each one relying on a figure-head, or ‘guru’. (guru = “influential teacher” or “popular expert”). These gurus must have sufficiently different opinions to have ideas to market, and sufficient conviction to promote them; needing both of these to sell their books and DVDs. A good dose of arrogance seems to also be an advantage, although not completely necessary.

So where do their new, or different theories and opinions come from?

Experience:
Interestingly, several of the barefoot gurus have come from a traditional shoeing background and training, before becoming ‘enlightened’. Others have become involved in the barefoot route from experience of a problem case (or cases) following failure with shoes or other trimming methods. Whatever the route, they will have undoubtedly learned from their experience of trimming techniques that have worked for them, as well as what has failed.

Research:
A few ‘gurus’ have gained insight from studies of the feet of feral (and wild) horses.

A lot can be learned about foot structure from dissection of cadaver specimens, and some barefoot gurus have dissected many hundreds of them in their researches. From these, some gurus claim to have made new discoveries about the foot structure and/or function that nobody else has identified, but not accompanied by adequate scientific evidence.

Many gurus will have read the research done at Michigan State Hoof Lab (Dr Bowker), Texas A & M Hoof Project (Dr Hood) and/or the Australian Equine Laminitis Research Unit – at Queensland University (Dr Pollitt), and some gurus have used some of these findings when developing their theories. [I have judged that Prof. Bowker’s studies have been incorporated into other people’s protocols rather than producing one identified as his – although I did see someone recently advertising that they use ‘Dr Bowker’s Physiological trim’]

Some of the ‘new’ theories from barefoot gurus turn out not to be new if past literature is studied. For gurus that have done this research, they may well incorporate the past work as ‘evidence’ for their ‘new’ idea.

Interpretation and Opinion:
Forming theories and formulating trimming protocols will always require a degree of speculation.
In spite of, or maybe because of, the significant increase in scientific knowledge available from horse foot research over the past thirty years, varied opinions abound in the hoofcare profession and barefoot gurus are no exception.

It doesn’t help that the conclusions of the different researchers of foot structure and function can, at times, be diametrically opposite. This allows barefoot gurus to find studies they can interpret to fit with almost any opinion they have.

Trimming Method:
There are only a limited number of integumentary structures we can trim: hoof, bar, sole & frog, and there are only a limited number of ways they can be dealt with – somewhere between leaving completely alone to completely removing them. Even so, barefoot gurus can find sufficient differences to be able to formalize their ‘different’ trimming methods or protocols. For the reasons already mentioned, it is easy for them to provide an explanation why something should be left or a reason why something should be removed.

As well as instructional DVDs and books, several barefoot gurus have produced devices to assist in carrying out their protocol; to measure things or to ‘balance’ or ‘map’ the foot. These certainly can be helpful to identify deformity and be very useful as ‘trimming aids’. However, the people that they are likely to help the most; the inexperienced trimmer, are also the ones likely to make the mistake of using them as a template for the trim.

Nomenclature and Vocabulary:
The introduction of different names and terms is a popular way for the different barefoot gurus (and groups) to increase the number of ‘options’ available (at least in description). This can be with novel acronyms/abbreviations or creating different names for structures or descriptions of processes. It is often easy to identify someone’s mentor by what they say in comments in a discussion.
A new vocabulary seems to be a good way to entice people into a particular method. Someone trying to understand the new ‘best-ever-method’ needs to become sufficiently involved to understand the new words being used, in order to work out what is being suggested. Using a different vocabulary makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for those not in the group to discuss or debate the presented ‘facts’ or theories.

The good and the bad?
As well as being good at promoting their own ‘protocol’ as the best method for trimming horses, barefoot gurus and their followers are often adept at criticizing other people and their methods. Any farrier/shoer is considered an acceptable target for a ‘barefooter’ (regardless of ‘style’), but other barefoot trimmers can just as easily be the target.
It appears that once barefoot gurus have become completely convinced about their own theories, they stop even considering other peoples’ arguments or looking at their evidence, while at the same time dismissing what these people say as rubbish.

Some Final thoughts
From what I have seen, most of the different ‘methods’ provide reasonable advice and should be safe, provided the suggested protocol is followed. Having witnessed some guru’s methods, I can see where some problems lie. Sometimes I read advice or see examples of trims that suggest they are what a guru has advised but bear little relationship to what I witnessed from watching the person in action. For this reason, we must be careful how we judge a barefoot method from problems caused by some of its followers, who have insufficient knowledge, a lack of understanding or plain inexperience in trimming. However, I think it is justified to criticize a protocol that consistently leads to such problems. A good protocol really should be able to account for inexperience and to have flexibility to accommodate different circumstances and situations.

Barefoot gurus have come up with some interesting and intriguing ideas and theories but some fail to understand what scientific evidence entails. Some gurus present their success at rehabbing cases as ‘proof’ for their theoretical reasoning for their trim. This is not scientific evidence. Bearing in mind there are relatively limited options available to a trimmer, success in these cases just means that their trim is effective but is not evidence that their theory is true. They do not appear to recognize that without scientific evidence their theories remain just speculation, however convincingly they present them.