by Henry Heymering, CJF, RMF
President, Guild of Professional Farriers
|Published in the June - July 2002 Issue of Anvil Magazine
Considering Dr. Hiltrud Strasser's specialized barefoot-only hoof care method, all I can tell you with certainty is that (1) the Strasser method resembles a franchise; (2) reasonable proof has not been presented regarding her claims either that the Strasser trim is better than other trimming methods, or that horseshoes cause any significant damage; and (3) Dr. Strasser herself says her trim may cause the death of the horse. Until evidence of the safety and effectiveness of the Strasser trim is provided I cannot recommend the Strasser trim in place of more traditional farrier methods.
Let me back up and begin by cataloging who I am, why I am interested, and what I have done so far to try to understand Dr. Strasser's method. As president of the Guild of Professional Farriers, we don't dictate techniques or methods, but encourage the use of whatever works well. I am a farrier and am always interested in learning more. Dr. Strasser makes two general claims that grabbed my attention: that shoeing is damaging to the horse; and that her method of trimming is superior to all the other methods of trimming.
I have read all 3 books by Dr. Hiltrud Strasser (about 900 pages). I have subscribed to and read the movement's newsletter The Horse's Hoof. I have for several months read the postings on the movement's internet discussion group firstname.lastname@example.org. I have corresponded at length with more than a dozen proponents. I've read many of the web pages devoted to Strasser and barefoot. I've driven several hours to see the best available examples within 100 miles of my home. I've met and discussed at length problems with the Strasser method from an ex-CSHS (Certified Strasser Hoofcare Specialist). I've seen several cadaver hooves trimmed to Strasser specifications. I've listened to Dr. Strasser lecture for 2 days and have seen her trim a foot. I have done all this and yet I cannot tell you with certainty whether there is reasonable value to the method or not-sufficient evidence for that has not been readily available. Franchise?
Some well-known examples of franchises are Burger Kingr; McDonald'sr; Kentucky Fried Chickenr; Dunkin' Donutsr; but there are also football teams; and high-end food franchises like Ruth's Chris Steak Houser. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but is distinctly different from pure education.
A franchise requires strict adherence to their methods, such as flame-broiled-Strasser requires strict adherence to her method, such as 30 degree hairlines-Chef school or medical school may teach a method, but does not require a particular method.
A franchise will yank the franchise if you don't follow their method-Strasser will yank the certificate if you don't follow her method: "Certification as a Hoofcare Specialist may be revoked at any time if the individual deviates in his/her hoofcare practices from the principles and methods developed by Dr. Hiltrud Strasser...." -Chef school and medical school do not yank back diplomas-they exert no control once you have graduated.
A franchise says their method or their team is the best-Strasser says her method of barefoot is the best-Chef school, and medical school say `we'll teach you to decide for yourself.' Burger Kingr (or any other franchise competing with McDonald'sr) might have been behind the rumor that McDonald'sr used worm meat for their burgers- Strasser claims (without proof) that horseshoes cause kidney disease-Chef school and medical school make no claims, but simply present evidence.
A franchise requires a franchise fee to open a franchise unit-Strasser requires a franchise fee to open a clinic "Certification as a Hoofcare Specialist does not entitle the individual to open a Hoof Clinic or other facility for lameness rehabilitation using the Strasser methods unless by special arrangement with Hiltrud Strasser. Franchise fees may apply." -Chef school or medical schools do not charge franchise fees.
A franchise is not just a specific method, but a method that requires adherence- control to protect the brand name. So, the Strasser Method operates essentially like a franchise-clearly much more like a franchise than pure education. That does not make it bad. I happen to like BKr. However, I remain free to choose BK when I like and not when I don't. I make no promise to always eat BK three times a day forever. BK franchise owners and devotees may tell you there's nothing better on the planet-but that doesn't make it so. A franchise is about control. With a franchise you should get the same quality (burger or whatever) from every franchisee. This is its benefit as well as its drawback- you'll get nothing worse than its standard, but also nothing better. In contrast, pure education is open-ended-they teach you how to learn and you keep on learning. Franchises teach you how to do it their way, period.
Dr. Strasser is to be commended for thinking outside the box, and challenging the assumptions of tradition. Dr. Strasser makes numerous points in her books and lectures. Although the points she makes are thought-provoking, until they can be backed up with evidence, they won't stick. I will try to address the more important points by category.
Vibration - Dr. Strasser claims that increased vibration from shoes damages horses. She points to a 1984 study by Bein showing that steel shoes changed the frequency of vibration in the foot and multiplied it's strength by three. However, no evidence has been presented that this increased vibration does any measurable damage to the horse. In contrast, a 1993 study by Benoit showed only about a 30% increase in shock with a steel shoe compared to barefoot and actually showed a decrease in shock compared to barefoot when a leather pad was used with the steel shoe.
Anesthesia - Dr. Strasser claims that nailing on a shoe anesthetizes the horse's foot. Clearly this is not the case as horses respond the same to hoof tester pressure with or without shoes.
Circulation - Dr. Strasser claims that circulation is decreased when shoes are applied. Her book offers as evidence a thermograph of a horse showing essentially no heat from a leg with a shoe on it while the rest of the horse shows normal body temperature. I have taken thermometer readings from shod and barefoot legs in numerous horses and can find no pattern of difference in temperature-typically shod and barefoot have the same temperature. Her results are apparently not repeatable and no studies of circulation comparing shod and barefoot legs has been done.
Kidney disease - Dr. Strasser claims the (unproven) lack of circulation caused by shoes in turn causes kidney disease, liver disease, and dandruff. I could find no published data to back up her claim. While shod horses are common, kidney disease is quite rare. I doubt if enough such diseased horses could even be found for purposes of a study. Since Dr. Strasser blames these diseases on the lack of circulation from shoes, testing her circulation theory might negate the need to test for these diseases.
Contraction - Dr. Strasser claims that iron shoes always cause contracted feet that get worse with each year of shoeing. This is clearly not the case as I have shod the same horse for as long as 15 years with the same size and shape shoe.
Parts of the Strasser Method Not Generally Adopted, But Good:
Natural environment - It is generally recognized that horses are best kept in as natural an environment as possible. Probably most problems horses have from vices to lameness can be prevented or cured with sufficient turnout in a proper environment. Unfortunately, for many owners it is just not possible.
Frequent trimming- Instead of the farrier standard of hoof care each 4 to 6 weeks, Dr. Strasser insists on trimming at least weekly. Clearly the more frequently horses are trimmed in balance the more balanced their hooves remain. This can be a powerful aid in keeping pathological hooves balanced, however, if done incorrectly it can be just as powerful an unbalancing force.
Low angle and frequent trims to treat founder-Although there are many successful ways to treat founder, I have used this method myself for more than 25 years with great success, though with trims that are not as severe as Dr. Strasser recommends.
Attention to hooves - Dr. Strasser has focused owner attention to hooves in a big way. This can be very beneficial for the horse, however, most owners would rather leave the hooves to a professional and spend their limited leisure time riding.
Parts of the Strasser Method Previously Tried and Rejected:
Barefoot only - Barefoot is always an option, but barefoot-only has been difficult for the average person to put into practice. In the late 1800's there was an anti-horseshoeing movement with books written by Page; Wood; Fisher; and Ludlow. Those authors promoted working horses barefoot instead of in shoes. However, in contrast to Dr. Strasser they found in order to make barefoot viable they had to keep the hooves scrupulously dry-not moistened daily as Dr. Strasser contends.
45 degree toes - Although this is a figure repeated in many texts (largely between 1754 and 1861), George Fleming, a veterinarian and arguably the foremost authority on hoof care in the 1800's put it this way: "It must be pointed out that giving the angle of 45 degrees...is a grave error. Looked at in profile, a hoof with this degree...would at once be pronounced a deformity...and if the farrier were to attempt to bring every foot he shod to this standard, he would inflict serious injury, not only to the foot... but also the tendons...." Wild horse studies published by Ovnicek, Jackson, and Rooney each found the normal range to be roughly 50 to 60 degrees, with 45 degrees being outside the normal range.
Hoof expansion - This was a hotly debated topic in the 1800's (info on which can be found in Dollar's Handbook of Horse Shoeing). It was debated whether or not the hoof naturally expanded on loading, what form that deformation took and whether or not it should be encouraged. Several researchers found no expansion of healthy hooves. Lungwitz's experiments published in 1891 became the most persuasive. Although he found more expansion than the other researchers, it was minimal. Several of his horses showed no measurable expansion at all, and those that did were between 1/50th and 1/12th of an inch. Dr. Strasser, in contrast, recommends expansion to be clearly visible to the naked eye-outside the range of what has been found to be normal.
Opening cuts-This was popular in the 1700's but was replaced by less extreme methods in the 1800's.
Unique Parts of the Strasser Method:
1 cm bars - From seeing cadaver hooves trimmed to this level it appears horses trimmed this way could not be sound. It makes the soles very thin at the bars. 30 degree hairline-this is a new idea. I could find no evidence that the hairline has any fixed relation to the functioning of the hoof, nor could I find any evidence that horses should have that particular hairline angle.
Dr. Strasser's says in her text that after beginning the Strasser trim: "It is possible that, in some cases, although the hooves are coming along well, the heart is no longer strong enough to support the task of healing. In horses whose hearts have already been damaged due to box stall keeping and high demands while shod (without the hooves to support the circulatory system) heart failure is a possibility within the first 6-8 weeks of beginning rehabilitation." Dr. Strasser says that to minimize this risk horses trimmed by her method must not be stalled and must be kept in a natural environment. This may prevent some owners from ever considering the Strasser trim. The potential for danger is compounded when owners who are inexperienced in trimming are encouraged to do a severe trim (such as the Strasser Method); and/or when an owner hires someone to do this trim who has not had the 4 years or so experience sufficient to truly know the effects of the trim and just how far is safe to go.
After trying for several months to evaluate Dr. Strasser's method it is frustrating to not have enough evidence to be able to give a definitive answer. There are many testimonials of success from Strasser methods, but just as many testimonials of failure. I was able to see clear evidence of failures. I sought out but was unable to find clear evidence of successes. It should not be this difficult to come up with clear evidence of the method's benefits-if it has any. Unless and until repeatable evidence of the safety and benefits of the method (rather than just testimonials) is demonstrated by the proponents it seems that the parts of the method that differ from currently accepted practices are far too risky to recommend-particularly when done by anyone with less than 4 years of experience in the method.