There’s an old saying, “no foot, no horse,” and it’s as true today as I was when it was coined hundreds- if not thousands of years ago.
With ten KBS horses all working hard throughout the year, whether that is day-trekking on Bulgaria’s varied trails or competing in national and FEI level endurance competitions, maintaining great feet has always been a top priority.
Thanks to our remote location in South East Bulgaria, there are no modern trimmers or farriers or even competition yards with in-house hoof expertise, in fact, the vast majority of village horse owners simply trim and/or shoe their horses themselves.
However, where there’s a will there’s a way, and we really lucked out when we managed to convince Plovdiv based trimmer, veterinarian and international trainer and competitor Vanya Lazarova, to travel the two and a half plus hours to trim at KBS.
To find a great trimmer in a remote location is lucky enough, but to find one with full veterinary training and knowledge of the whole horse- is even better. To find a trimmer with years of experience as a trainer of international competition horses- all barefoot, plus her own personal involvement in competing barefoot in dressage, showjumping, eventing and endurance, is a pretty damn perfect merging of barefoot knowledge and experience.
Although she considers trimming only a ‘hobby,’ she readily admits she’s ‘obsessed with hooves,’ so we sent her some questions to find out just how obsessed she really is…
How and why did you become a barefoot trimmer?
“I have always had interest in horses’ feet. When I was a child, the local village farrier lived next door and I used to spend hours watching him shoe the village’s donkeys and mules.
When I went on to become a [veterinary] student, I was still fascinated by the farrier’s job and was always on hand to help out and watch the whole process.
My first shoeing experience was in 2003 while working on a ranch in Greece. I was unhappy with the farrier’s work and a friend and I decided having watched the process thousands of times before, that we could surely do it better. However, it proved to be much more challenging than we expected as our muscles were not used to the tools, but we persevered and after three-months we were doing well. So much so, my boss let the farrier go, and we continued his work.
After my Greek experience I moved on to start a large animal practice in the Rhodope Mountain region of Bulgaria. With plenty of donkeys and mules to trim and shoe, the owners were not only impressed with my work -but the fact I was a woman too! Something unheard of at the time.
Then in 2011 it was another change of job to a large animal practice in Troyan. I was trimming horses for friends and clients in the villages and during these sessions I met a Laminitic horse which I spent months trying to help with various shoeing techniques. As time went by, I saw little progress, and in despair the owner and I decided to try something thought to be pretty unconventional at the time- we’d try barefoot- and it worked!
From this experience I gained the confidence to start competing my own mare barefoot, I really wanted to test the barefoot theory for myself. So I began reading and researching barefoot performance horses and found others who had done it. I contacted the Endurance Barefoot Center in South Africa- and they gave me the perfect training schedule to condition a barefoot horse from zero to 80 km qualifications, and it’s never failed me!
To be honest, back then, I never thought I would be able to do more than 60 km barefoot, yet today I have done multiple successful one-star competitions and a two-star 120 km.
All the other horses I compete in show jumping, dressage and three-day eventing are completely barefoot at every show.
Veterinarian, barefoot trimmer, international competitor and trainer- Can you tell us more about your equestrian journey?
I graduated as a vet in 2004 and rode during my years as a student at the university. I then began five years of trail riding experience, three of which were in the Rhodope Mountains. It was here I began schooling and training horses for the job and shoeing horses for the rocky rails.
In 2009, I took a break from horses and focused on my veterinary career for a bit, while training my own mare Tahira for endurance. In 2015 I began working as horse riding instructor in the stable where I still work today. I train people from absolute beginners through to national and international competitors. When I joined, the place was not orientated to sport, and initially I wasn’t actually intending to teach with a competition focus, I didn’t even know I was a good trainer, but it just happened. I think meeting the right people (owner and riders), also being situated in Plovdiv, near two big competition facilities has helped a lot too.
I started training horses and riders in endurance and showjumping, then moved on to my big dream- dressage, and finally I got confident enough to have a go at the best of all disciplines- eventing. So, four different disciplines, and my mare Tahira has done all of them with success.
Are strong feet born or made?
Hmm, I’d Like to have a definite answer, but I don’t!
I believe genetics play a pig part of hooves being strong. I wish my mare Tahira had better feet 🙂 Her mother had the same not so good feet… I have had her since she was one-year-old yet have watched her daily from birth and she’s never been malnourished or abused.
Then, on the other hand, Karla my endurance mare, has excellent feet. Yet she was challenged when she was a baby, her previous owner was almost bankrupt, she had no proper food through her growth periods, yet her feet are great, her heart rate recovery times good and she has never been lame!
We all know that good feet can be damaged with improper environment, management, trimming, poor shoeing, and of course nutrition. And the inverse is also true, relatively weak feet can dramatically improve with the correct care and environment.
However, there are also those who are born with weak feet and no matter what you do he will remain sore and or bruised when barefoot. Some feet have been damaged beyond repair, and these types of horses will need boots or shoes regardless of the lifestyle changes made.
In my opinion strong feet come from the following: genetics, environment (a lot of moving/working the horses over variety of terrains, and NOT confined in a stall) ,not being left to stay in their manure for prolonged periods of time etc. good trimming and proper nutrition.
Patience is a good friend here, give the horse as much time as he needs to get used to barefoot, a lot of long walks on a variety of terrains. Get a good trimmer, don’t feed processed food, don’t keep a horse boxed 24/7. Get him in a paddock or a tracking system with other horses so they are given the opportunity to socialize and know/learn how to behave like a horse. Clean the paddock regularly so your horse is not forced to stand in faeces or urine and of course, work the horse regularly and don’t let him get fat.
What have been your own personal successes with barefoot horses?
My greatest achievement is the 95 km race with a speed of 19.4 km/h with Karla, and the other rides with children I train. In 2019 I took Tahira barefoot to the Children’s European Dressage Championship in San Giovanni in Marignano ,Italy, and out of the 250 horses in attendance, there was only one other horse that competed barefoot.
Barefoot Bulgarian Showjumping
My own barefoot horse Tahira has jumped many 110-115 cm courses before she made the switch to dressage. While one of the children I train is a regular winner of the 115-120 cm classes, all with approximately around 40 starters.
Although I don’t jump much, one of my favourite success stories was in show jumping. A fellow vet recommended I look at a big 170 cm showjumping mare who developed Navicular Syndrome in both front feet and no fancy shoe could help.
I pulled off the shoes and trimmed the mare on a four-week cycle. She achieved pasture soundness in four-months, two-months later she was ready for light work, and a year later she was back showjumping 120 cm classes with an amateur rider.
Unfortunately not long after this, the owner switched stables and went to a very well-known Bulgarian showjumper who did not believe barefoot was an option. She was promptly shod again, lame in just two months, dead lame in five-months and eventually became a brood mare as she could not be kept sound in shoes.
Barefoot Bulgarian Endurance
In 2012 Tahira and I began our endurance careers. We did all our one-star qualifications twice and have been part of the National Team for the Balkan Endurance Championships.
However, my first really big win came with Karla, (a small East Bulgarian Warmblood) when we became National Champions in 2017 and winners on the international one-star 95 km race in Shumen with an average speed of 19.4 km/h, completely barefoot.
Again in 2017 at the Balkan Endurance Championship in Romania we won team gold and most of all- Best Condition Award which Karla deserved completely! We could have been placed individually in the medals too as Karla was in a great shape, but one of the team horses was eliminated, and another was very unsteady and I was asked by the Team Coach to slow down to secure the team gold, (you need three horses finished out of five), in the end, we finished sixth individually, that’s why the Best Condition Award means so much to me!
At the same time I started training my student, Magdalinka Vaneva in endurance and in 2018 when she was only 14-years-old she became National Champion and an international winner of a one-star race with Karla too.
In 2019 she became National Junior Champion in endurance in Vakarel, and then the Balkan Endurance Champion one-star 90 km, (held in Greece) both-individual and team when she was only 15-years-old.
In 2020, another student of mine, 18-year-old Lydia Vasileva started her endurance journey with Karla and become the 80km National Champion for juniors. I believe she is absolutely capable of doing the Balkan Championship in 2021 if everything goes well!
Barefoot Bulgarian Dressage
Our journey to the Balkan and European Championships started by accident. Back in 2018 Plamena Zenova and Tahira entered the National Championship for ponies and placed second. It was meant to be just a try out, an experiment to see how it all works and see if they liked it.
In 2019 Plamena and Tahira entered the Children’s Class in the first international dressage show in Bulgaria for 20-years and placed fourth overall. Not only that, but their performance impressed the National Coach, and earned their qualification for the Europeans resulting in the pair being invited onto the National Dressage Team for Children!
Nobody, absolutely nobody, can imagine my excitement at having spent only around 10-months dressage training this absolutely improper horse (25 % Haflinger-75% Shagya Arab) , with a completely green trainer(me!) and rider!
If somebody had ever told me this is was going to happen, I would certainly have considered him crazy!
The Balkan event was a great adventure filled with ups and downs. Tahira placed eighth the first day with a personal best score and the best of all Bulgarian children.
Sadly, at the Europeans nothing went as planned with one of the Bulgarian horses found lame at the vet check. A super fresh Tahira bucked through the first test, yet still managed to achieve the highest score of all the Bulgarian children.
Later that same year at the National Dressage Championship for Children the pair were placed fifth.
Our 2020 was better, the pair entered the next class up-Juniors. At the international competition she won three incredible first places and came third at the National Junior Championship after another incident- saw a small insect get stuck in her eye during her freestyle test.
But its not just Plamena, in 2020 I became a dressage National Champion for amateurs too!
Barefoot Bulgarian Eventing
When we began eventing in 2019, everybody was convinced my horses would slip a lot at the grass, but not only did they not slip, they ended up on the podium each time. Our highlights include Russe where I became National Champion in the Amateur Class, while Plami and Tahira placed second. At another event, Plami and Tahira became National Champions in the Children’s Class after a flawless dressage test and advantage of more than five-points!
How did you transition the horses at your current stable to barefoot?
When I started working in the stable near Plovdiv it was typical of most Bulgarian horse yards, almost all of the horses were shod and stalled.
I began by evaluated their hooves, then pulled off the shoes, dealt with the thrush and let them have enough time to transition, luckily it was wintertime, with only very few people coming to ride so there was no pressure to rush the process.
I organised a large paddock for turn-out at the very least during the daytime. This initially caused a great fight with the owner, but he finally agreed and it worked.
Sometimes it takes a long time, but i eventually win. We had an owner of two pleasure riding livery horses which were shod all around for no reason. It took me four-years to completely get rid of his horses shoes, but I never gave up- and now they’re both barefoot!
What do you think is the current perception of barefoot horses and trimming in Bulgaria?
There are a lot of followers of barefoot in Bulgaria a fair few of these I’ve actually transitioned myself! However, most are amateurs, who don’t compete and just want what is best for their horse. Unfortunately, when it comes to performance horses, Bulgaria is simply not barefoot-orientated. Very few like Claire realize shoes are not a necessary. I guess shoes are convenient as often they ‘hide’ soundness issues, and can do this for long periods.
Having a barefoot horse is quite challenging especially if he is a performance horse, you must monitor his hooves closely, never trim too much before a show, leaving some hoof for wear and tear.
A barefoot horse will always ‘tell you,’ immediately if there is a problem with his hooves.
What are the considerations for performance horse owners planning to make the transition?
When planning a transition, my usual questions to riders and owners of high-level performance horses are:
What is the terrain you are training on? Is it abrasive? Is it rocky or is it hard?
Then I like to have a look at the hooves, very often they are good enough to be barefoot.
We then go on to discuss the feeding routine as often these horses have a pretty high intake of hard food, sometimes five to eight kilos of processed-muesli or granules per day. We then discuss if this is really necessary for the animal.
For example, my 170 cm Warmblood mare who competes at 120 cm only has two to two and a half kgs during the season and 1.8 kg when not competing.
Then comes the biggest issue: turnout time! Most competition horses are stabled 24/7. The paddock is considered a mean place for these riders/owners, who live in perpetual fear their horses are going to injure themselves while there. They believe those precious legs should be protected in a stable environment. However, what they don’t realise is that with daily turn-out they stop being crazy and risk of injury is significantly reduced.
What about farriers?
Farriers are honestly the hardest to convince. I fully understand that not every horse can perform barefoot. But there is a really significant detail most farriers simply do not get; it’s that the trimming of a hoof when it is supposed to perform barefoot differs significantly from the trim for a foot which will receive a shoe. So many farriers trim like they are going to put shoes on, when they work on barefoot horses.
What do you think of the Konna Baza Sakar’s Barefoot Horses?
The idea of launching an entire trekking stables using only barefoot horses is pretty brave and challenging. I admire your decision! I also admire your patience with the horses who needed more time to adapt to being barefoot, The time spent soaking feet, taking boots on/off several times a day and obviously the revenue lost in resting horses while they transition.
To be honest, most of the KBS horses have great feet, with thick hoof walls and a good level of self-maintenance, thanks to their consistent and steady workload.
On the whole, there are few issues, except for two horses back in 2019, which had temporary problems.
Ginny who suffered hoof wall separation issues after a major lung condition, but this has been resolved with Copper Sulphate treatments, the natural food fed at KBS and controlled exercise.
Henry came to KBS having been in kept a small turn out area for several years, his hooves were weak with thinner soles in front leading to cracks and relentless ‘footiness.’ This was also resolved with regular trimming, initially exercising in hoof boots, a track lifestyle with lots of movement and quality natural feed.kept
Can any horse go barefoot?
I personally feel that most of the horses in the world simply don’t need shoes. They’re not worked hard, and/or their feet are of great quality and in many instances, shoes only spoil them.
Unfortunately, the environment where most horses live today, the lush, cultivated pastures in developed countries, the prolonged stable time and the large amounts of processed hard food are detrimental for the quality of the hooves and indeed their overall health.
Who is your ‘barefoot inspiration?‘
My favourite barefoot example is Julien Epaillard, a French show jumper, who has recently transitioned several of his showjumping partners to barefoot. He is a Grand Prix rider- which means he jump 145 cm classes and higher. If he is capable of winning classes with barefoot horses surely there are many more out there with the same potential?