The Strasser Controversy, A Guide for Newcomers to Barefoot

by Yvonne Welz ©2006

Does this sound familiar? You've spent hours researching barefoot, and the name "Dr. Strasser" keeps appearing. On some websites, she's the greatest thing since sliced bread; on others, she is the devil incarnated. You are so confused!!!!

I've written this article in an attempt to clear up some of that confusion. What makes me qualified to write this? My husband, James Welz, and I have known Dr. Strasser personally since 2000, and James completed her certification course (the first barefoot hoofcare course offered in America) in 2000-2001. We are NOT affiliated with her or her organization in any way, and we have our own different opinions and don't agree on everything. Many people that like to talk about Dr. Strasser have never trained with her; some have never even met her or watched her work. We are not biased towards her or against her, but we have a fairly complex knowledge of her and her method. This means that I can tell you the truth, based on facts, experience, and observations, and not emotional opinion.

Why is Dr. Hiltrud Strasser so controversial?
Dr. Strasser is a licensed German veterinarian who operates a hoof clinic for severely lame horses in Tuebingen, Germany. She has a lot of strong ideas and opinions, and she is not afraid to confront the establishment. She is a rebel. A lot of the controversy comes from the fact that she is a petite German woman who is not afraid to tell people that they are being cruel and abusive to their horses by keeping them in horseshoes, and locked up in stalls. Naturally, the establishment fights back.

The Strasser Method is simple to describe: she advocates keeping horses barefoot with healthy, functional hooves, living in herds in open areas, with no stall-keeping. So the next time someone says they are opposed to the Strasser Method, ask why they are opposed to barefoot herd-life?

The full details of her method, and her trimming techniques, are taught in Strasser's lengthy, extensive certification course. Originally one year long, it is now a 2 year course. The course teaches anatomy, histology, and the physiology of the equine and the hoof. The use of alternative therapies during hoof treatment is covered, as well. The course is designed to prepare its students to rehabilitate pathological hooves. Graduates of the course are called Strasser Hoofcare Professionals (SHPs) and to retain the title, must attend a yearly re-certification program.

What about the Strasser trim?
You've probably heard lots of descriptions of the Strasser trim: extreme, invasive, painful, mutilating, aggressive, cruel, inhumane, etc. Where does this come from, and what is the truth?

The Strasser Clinic Trim
Remember, Dr. Strasser is a medical professional. Dr. Strasser's trademark trim is the one that she developed for severely lame and pathological horses. I once heard her describe this trim as similar to what a doctor does, when he must break the bone of a patient whose broken leg had healed incorrectly -- it can't heal until the bone is reset. This trim is almost like surgical trimming -- it must be done by someone with extensive, advanced training (just like a surgeon) and should be done in cooperation with veterinarians. It also requires very exacting standards of application: the conditions must be ideal, or it will not work -- and this usually means a hoof clinic type setting with rubber mat flooring.

Context is everything: extreme situations may require extreme measures (ever been to the emergency room of a hospital?!). One can rightly argue that these horses should not even be saved, that the severe cases should be euthanized. It is a biological requirement of life that healing necessitates a level of pain and discomfort (have you ever healed from anything without pain? I don't think so!!)

The truth is, Dr. Strasser's extreme measures do seem to work very well for those extreme cases. There are hundreds of case studies of horses making rapid recoveries from the most severe hoof ailments in the care of her hoof clinics. I am not aware of significant progress being made with severe cases in large numbers in the care of any other method - barefoot or shod. At least there hasn't been much evidence yet presented. Many of the Strasser case studies remain unpublished, which may also be the case with other methods. Simply put, NO ONE has discovered a "magic pill" to painlessly heal severely foundered horses.

Ironically, my observations of the severely lame horses trimmed using the Strasser trim in appropriate situations is that the horses are LESS lame afterwards. The clinic trim is geared towards keeping the hoof very short, thin and flexible, and this seems to greatly relieve the pain of pathological horses.

Should we attempt to save these severely pathological horses? Pain is inevitable for a severely foundered horse, no matter what the method, and anyone who tells you otherwise is dishonest. The question is not whether Dr. Strasser's trimming techniques are better or worse than padded shoes, stalls, medication, leaving heels high, cutting tendons, etc. The question may be whether these horses should be kept alive at all, by anyone. Are there better ways? We can never clone a horse and test two possible treatments. For pathological hooves, there are miracle success stories and disastrous failures in every single method of hoof care and treatment available. If an owner decides to keep their horse alive and things go badly, the blame should not be placed on Strasser -- or the vet, or the farrier, or anyone else. Responsibility must be accepted by the caretaker of the horse -- because it usually took many, many years for those hooves to become deformed and pathological in the first place. Simply put, horses get sick because we fail to provide them with their biological requirements.

What about trimming regular horses -- ones without severe pathology?
This is an area that Dr. Strasser has not emphasized, even in her courses, unfortunately. However, many people have observed her trimming horses in a different fashion -- in a very tactful, conservative way. In trimming sessions during her courses, she advocated leaving thicker soles for working horses, to keep them comfortable. The details of doing conservative style trims were not covered in the past, according to students we have talked to. Also, Dr. Strasser is a perfectionist, and she sees any imperfection in the hoof as a major problem to be tackled with force. However, all captive hooves have problems -- some big, some small, and most can be dealt with in a more conservative way.

According to our correspondence a couple years ago, Dr. Strasser envisioned that her trained hoofcare professionals would quickly heal the hooves of their customers' horses (6 months or so) and then the horses should be self-trimming for the rest of their lives, if they followed her lifestyle guidelines. This is a nice idea, but isn't really practical or possible for most horses.

The "Middle-Ground" Horses
Most horses in captivity fall in-between healthy and pathological -- and here's where the Strasser trim developed its greatest controversy through the years. If a clinic trim is applied to these horses, who may not have been previously lame, they may then become lame. It will appear that the trim directly caused the lameness. In some ways, that is true -- but usually the situation is far more complicated than that: the hooves had been previously neglected by the owner who is not taking responsibility for the problems they have created in their own horse, the living conditions were not ideal or even acceptable for rehabilitation (remember, this is supposed to be done on rubber flooring), the trimmers varied greatly in skill and training. Often stories that you hear involve people who were not certified or even trained by Strasser at all, but simply used her name to describe what they thought they were doing. Through the internet, the Strasser method became hugely popular almost overnight, and people were publishing and printing out how-to-trim illustrated steps that usually just got everyone into trouble. You wouldn't attempt to perform surgery from a step-by-step guide published on the internet!

Most of the successful trimmers trained by Strasser figured out through experience how to trim those "middle-ground" horses effectively, without pain, using hoofboots when appropriate, keeping the horses comfortable and moving as much as possible. Trimmed in this way, the horses show a slow, steady improvement over time, and stay sound.

Is it true that the UK declared the Strasser Method illegal?
No, it is not. There have recently been a couple of court cases in the United Kingdom that have a link to Dr. Strasser. However, the cases had nothing to do, legally, with Dr. Strasser or her method. They are cases against private, individual UK citizens -- animal cruelty charges brought up against these horse owners or caretakers of severely foundered ponies/horses. From what I understand, in the United Kingdom, it is illegal to keep an animal alive if it is in any kind of pain. Either its pain must be eliminated, or it must be euthanized. The persons found guilty in these cases were Strasser Hoofcare Professionals or students, who were caring for foundered equines. Some of the tabloid-style propaganda reports of the most recent case make it sound like the Strasser method was found guilty of causing the suffering. Ironically, according to sources, in both cases the equines were brought to the Strasser professionals after traditional methods of care had been a total failure, and the animals were suffering previous to any Strasser treatment.

Should I consider the Strasser trim for my horse?
The "Strasser trim" which many people talk about is the "clinic trim" developed for severely pathological horses in a hoof clinic. If you have a horse like that, and access to a hoof clinic or rubber flooring, along with veterinary supervision, it may be your horse's best chance.

We do not recommend a Strasser trim or Strasser-type trim even be attempted by farriers, horseowners, or persons without training in Dr. Strasser's full certification course. Even after passing the course, the clinic trim is a difficult, technical and powerful trim. In the right hands, it can completely transform a hoof. A Strasser clinic trim has certain hallmarks to it: the horse is initially trimmed twice per week, the hoof is kept very short and flexible so that circulation is optimized, and there are very specific instructions regarding daily hoof soaking, hand walking on rubber flooring, and recommendations for alternative therapies and bodywork. For horses with pathological hooves, if their pain can be humanely managed, it is worth consideration. We do not support the idea of horses being kept in pain or discomfort for any length of time, and good hoof care should help to relieve pain.

Strasser trimmers do not perform only "clinic trims." SHPs were taught to adjust their trimming techniques to the circumstances. Also, there are many competent hoof care professionals out there who have been trained by Dr. Strasser, but have now developed their own styles, and apply a field trim, or modified trim -- a conservative trim that is very similar to a sophisticated version of a generic barefoot trim. Some incorporate wild horse or mustang trim aspects into their styles. However, these professionals may not even refer to their trim as a Strasser trim. If you have a healthy or "middle-ground" horse, a "clinic trim" is probably not what you are looking for. Many persons trained by Dr. Strasser, whether currently certified by her or not, are doing very good work that nearly any barefoot advocate would be pleased with. Some have chosen not to do clinic trims at all, but to trim regular horses in real world situations. If you hire one of these trimmers, you may indeed get the best of both worlds - someone with a detailed, higher education about hooves who can apply a functional, healthy trim to your barefoot horse. Please do extensive research before you employ a trimmer, and look for someone with tact, flexibility, and lots of experience.

Rather than just considering the trim, you should also be considering the more important aspects of Dr. Strasser's advice on horse care. All these recommendations can be found in her excellent book, A Lifetime of Soundness.

Conclusion
Everyone who teaches about, trims, owns, or enjoys naturally-trimmed barefoot horses today owes a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Strasser, as she is a major player in the origin of our modern barefoot. We all have an undeniable direct link to her, because our modern barefoot world was actually created when Jaime Jackson brought Dr. Strasser to the United States for the first time. But that's another story...

©2006 by The Horse's Hoof. All rights reserved. No part of these publications may be reproduced by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher and/or authors. The information contained within these articles is intended for educational purposes only, and not for diagnosing or medicinally prescribing in any way. Readers are cautioned to seek expert advice from a qualified health professional before pursuing any form of treatment on their animals. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.


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