Why do some horses need shoes? Is barefoot better?
- Is it better to shoe a horse or leave him barefoot? This is an eternal debate amongst horse people, many of which take a hard-line stance that barefoot or shod is the only way to do things; there’s no in-between. I won’t say anything about this, except that horses love to prove us wrong. Sometimes saying “never” or “always” removes helpful solutions for horses that need help, for any reason.
**Some horses are best when barefoot. Some horses are best when shod. Some horses can do equally well both barefoot and shod. That is all.**
- Horses were not always companions and our sporting partners; they were often literal beasts of burden and modes of transportation. Roman-era horses sometimes wore pads, and years later, at about 500 A.D., metal shoes were first nailed onto the hoof. Horseshoes protected the hoof from the wear and tear of the horse’s job – his literal reason for existing and breeding.
- Fast forward a few millennia, and here we are. Many horses are still shod! And the fundamental reason is this – a horse’s hoof may wear down faster than it grows. Let’s also add anatomy and genetics into the mix when deciding if a horse needs shoes.
Reasons that horses need shoes
Your horse’s conformation – which is largely dictated by genetics, and sometimes injury.
- Thin soles need protection. A thin-soled horse will be tender footed, likely to bruise, and generally uncomfortable on hard, rocky, or uneven. And no, a horse doesn’t “get used to it” – his sole needs help. A skilled farrier can help a horse, through trimming and balance, develop a thicker sole, but it’s not guaranteed.
- Bony changes inside the hoof may require rebalancing and support from horseshoes. Horseshoes may help navicular disease, laminitis, chronic abscesses, broken bones, contracted heels, and various hoof injuries. It may be the case that a wedge, block, or custom frog support is needed, which usually requires a shoe.
- It’s an entirely different novel to write about genetics and breeding in the horse, but it’s safe to say that modern horse breeding can sometimes forget about hoof health.
This healed quarter crack needed a pour-in pad to allow the hoof to heal.
Diseases and injuries in other parts of the body
- There are cases of ringbone around the pastern, tendon injuries to the lower legs, and arthritic legs that benefit from mechanical support on the hoof or shoeing. It’s all connected!
The footing your horse lives on.
- The ground and arena footing can act as sandpaper for the hoof. Things will wear down! Horses will thin or weak walls may have more wear than others without a shoe, which might tip over into a danger zone. A horse’s conformation and way of moving may also reveal that one part of the hoof is wearing more than others, exacerbating that wear and imbalance. Shoes provide physical protection from excessive and uneven wear.
- We also ask our horses for repetitive movements on those surfaces. Does the surface type make a more significant impact than genetics and overall hoof health? Maybe, maybe not. But these factors all work together.
Hoof boots are an option for barefoot horses on questionable footing.
Why don’t wild horses need shoes?
- Wild, or feral horses, don’t wear shoes for a few reasons. Their terrain is matched to their hooves – providing natural trimming. It’s also possible that wild horses move more on a different ground than our domesticated horses. Also, remember that wild horses breed by nature, which keeps unhealthy conformation at bay.
- Wild horses are also not subject to the rigors of training, competing, manufactured surfaces, and questionable breeding.
- Just for reference – wild horses have a much shorter life span, often 15 years or so. It’s also worth noting that there may be wild horses that could benefit from farrier care – especially if their diets, terrain, natural hooves, or injury upset their hooves.
This hoof is not the hoof of a wild horse, but a horse that can be comfortable barefoot.
The best of both worlds – options besides horseshoes
Does your horse need something on his hooves, but you are not sure what? Luckily, there are tons of choices.
- Steel shoes are the standard for shod horses, although aluminum shoes are also available. Both come in lots of styles for multiple reasons. These do require nails.
- But – there are ways to glue the traditional shoe on. There are also glue-on shoes made of composite materials like plastics and resins. Some are more flexible than others.
- Pads come in all sorts of densities and materials, too. Pour in pads conform to every nook and cranny of the sole, while leather pads or composite pads and wedges are nailed or glued between the hoof and the shoe.
- Let’s not overlook the dozens of boots available for horses. You can find ice boots for soothing the bruised or laminitic hoof, thick squishy boots for laminitis, hoof boots for riding, hoof boots for turnout.
- There are some barefoot horses that absolutely thrive in their home training environment. This is great! And it’s easy to toss on some boots or glue on shoes if going to an event or show where the footing may be different, harder, or rockier than usual. Unfortunately, many show organizations do not allow hoof boots in competition, in which case temporary glue on horseshoes is a great option.
This is the mesh that surrounds part of the hoof to secure a glue-on shoe.
What, exactly, is my point about all this? Every horse is unique and may, or may not, need to be shod at some point. Your vet and farrier are the best consultants you have.
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