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Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses? Do Horses Feel Pain in Their Hooves?

Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses? Do Horses Feel Pain in Their Hooves?

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As a horse-loving child, I remember the first time I saw someone shoe a horse on TV. I was watching with terror – surely they cannot just hammer nails directly into the horse’s foot?! Do horseshoes hurt horses?

Horseshoes do not hurt horses. The horse’s hoof is made up of thick layers of keratin, the same protein found in our hair and nails. Horseshoes are nailed onto the outer layer of the hoof that has no nerve endings, which doesn’t hurt the horse.

Horseshoes have been around since at least 400 BC. This early human invention revolutionized transport, trade, and warfare by protecting the horse’s feet from wear and injury.

While not a necessity anymore, horseshoes still have their place in the modern equestrian world. They are made from various materials and are essential for protecting the feet of our hard-working equine partners.

Do Horses Feel Pain in Their Hooves?

Although the hard hoof wall has no nerve endings, horses can feel pain in their hooves. Beneath the outer shell is several layers of soft tissue with a rich supply of blood vessels and nerves. Diseases that affect these structures often lead to painful hooves and lameness.

Underside of a horse hoof close up

Various conditions can cause horses to feel pain in their hooves. Examples are laminitis, navicular disease, infections, puncture wounds, thrush, bruises, etc. Painful hooves will almost always result in the horse being visibly lame.

Does Shoeing a Horse Hurt Them?

Shoeing a horse doesn’t hurt them, as long as it’s done by a skilled professional. However, farriers can make mistakes too. If they accidentally hammer the nail into the wrong spot, they may hurt the horse.

Usually, shoeing a horse doesn’t hurt them any more than clipping your nails does. Over time, however, the holes will inevitably weaken the outer hoof wall. As the hooves of horses never stop growing, farriers need to remove old shoes, trim the hooves, and put new shoes up regularly.

Hence why more and more owners nowadays opt for glue-on shoes or have their horses barefoot. If the horse is in light work and has strong, healthy hooves, traditional horseshoes are often not necessary.

Farrier putting a horseshoe on a horse's hoof
Marien Avery / Shutterstock.com

Are Horseshoes Cruel?

Although some people doubt their benefits, horseshoes aren’t actually cruel. Their application is painless for the horse and they can provide reasonable protection to the hoof against bruising and hard surfaces.

While horseshoes certainly aren’t cruel, they can cause long-term damage to the structures of the hoof if used without good reason. Most horse owners today still shoe their horses for the sake of tradition. However, research and anecdotal evidence suggest many of these horses would be better off without shoes.

Also read: 6 Common Types of Horseshoes & Their Uses

Are Horseshoes Actually Good for Horses?

In recent years, shoeing has become a topic of debate in the equestrian community. While some people swear by horseshoes, others question their necessity and even suggest that they cause long-term damage to the horse’s feet.

Whether horseshoes are good for horses depends on the individual horse. Horses that work hard regularly and have thin soles or narrow heels benefit from the support of horseshoes. On the other hand, many horses that wear shoes don’t need them.

The bottom line is, whether a horse gets shoes or not depends on three factors: the type of work, the needs of the horse, and the preference of the owner. While shoeing horses is still the mainstream practice, more and more owners nowadays choose to keep their horses barefoot.

The Benefits of Barefoot Trimming

With correct management, going barefoot can provide a range of benefits to your horse. After abandoning shoes entirely, many owners reported improved hoof health and better overall performance from their horses.

Before switching to barefoot, however, it’s best to consult your farrier and veterinarian about the transition process. As for now, here are the main benefits of barefoot trimming:

Horse having a barefoot hoof trim
Tomasz Koryl / Shutterstock.com

Healthier Hoof Growth

Keeping your horse barefoot will stimulate healthier hoof growth and result in generally stronger hooves. Not having to reset shoes every four to six weeks means the hoof wall can stay intact without enduring damage from nails.

Exercising your horse barefoot will also condition the hooves to produce thicker soles. This natural stimulation will likely increase the growth rate of your horse’s hooves and prevent them from wearing down too quickly.

Many owners fear that the lack of protection provided by horseshoes will cause excess wear on the hooves. However, this can be avoided by working your horse on similar terrain he lives on. On the other hand, if your horse regularly works on hard ground, his hooves will require extra protection.

Resistant Hooves

When shod with metal shoes, the horse’s hooves are prevented from wearing down underneath and become overgrown. Hence why farriers need to remove the shoes, trim the hooves, and put new shoes back on at regular intervals. This process will inevitably weaken the hoof wall over time.

In contrast, the hooves of barefoot horses will wear down naturally and so are less likely to chip and become damaged. However, barefoot hooves can also become overgrown without plenty of turnout and regular exercise. In this case, frequent trimming is necessary to keep the hooves healthy.

Lower Risk of Bone, Joint, Tendon, and Ligament Damage

As the horse’s hooves constantly contact a hard surface, wearing metal shoes increases concussive forces on the bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. This, in turn, increases the risk of injury to these locomotory structures.

As a result, removing the shoes will also remove excess stress and pressure affecting the horse’s musculoskeletal system.

Increased Lower Leg Circulation

Although seemingly a rigid structure, the horse’s hoof is naturally designed to expand and contract with each step. This mechanism enables blood to circulate efficiently in the hoof and the lower leg. Since metal shoes restrict this natural hoof mechanism, circulation in these areas becomes compromised.

The frog also plays a vital role in healthy hoof circulation. As it comes into contact with the ground, this structure pumps blood back up the horse’s leg. Horseshoes, however, limit contact between the frog and the surface by lifting the hoof off the ground.

According to Horse and Rider, recent studies by Robert Bowker, DVM, PhD, showed that lower leg circulation increased two-fold in barefoot horses compared to those wearing a metal shoe. This is partly the reason why horses grow stronger and healthier hooves without shoes.

Bare horse hoof in a woman's hands
Sina Ettmer Photography / Shutterstock.com

Improved Shock Absorption

Besides acting as the horse’s “second heart”, the frog is also responsible for shock absorption in the hoof. Therefore, this rubbery structure is vital in reducing damage to the horse’s tendons and joints.

As mentioned above, the frog can only function fully if it comes into contact with the ground. As this essential contact is maximized in barefoot horses, the frog can function as nature intended.

Quicker Recovery from Hoof Conditions

Going barefoot can also help treat several hoof conditions such as navicular disease or laminitis.

According to Pete Ramey, a leading natural hoof-care practitioner, horses with navicular almost always suffer from poorly developed internal structures at the back of the foot. By leaving horses barefoot, these structures are constantly stimulated and can develop healthily.

Laminitic horses, on the other hand, suffer from inflamed laminae and a poorly connected hoof wall. Since removing the shoes will relieve pressure on these structures, the horse’s hooves can grow in a well-connected manner. The increased comfort and circulation will also accelerate the healing, Ramey says.

Convenience

Once you have established a hoof care routine for your barefoot horse, caring for his hooves becomes much easier. You might find that you need to see the farrier less often, and that your horse’s hooves require much less attention overall.

You also don’t have to worry about your horse losing a shoe in the middle of a trail ride or right before a competition. If your horse’s hooves need extra protection from time to time, you can always easily put on boots for the duration of your ride.

Easier on the Wallet

Last but not least, trimming is a fraction of the cost of a new set of shoes. However, this shouldn’t be a reason to neglect your horse’s hooves. If their condition deteriorates, you must consult your farrier and follow his advice.

Why Do Wild Horses Not Need Shoes?

Two wild horses standing side by side
Taylored Photos / Shutterstock.com

Since wearing shoes is so common in domesticated horses, some people wonder, how come wild horses don’t need shoes?

Wild horses do not need shoes because their hooves wear down much slower. Many horse breeds in the wild also have more resistant hooves with thicker soles than horses in captivity.

Wild horses don’t need to carry us on their backs or pull heavy loads and carriages. As a result, their hooves don’t have to withstand the added stress and will wear down much slower.

Moreover, feral horse breeds like Mustangs are often praised for their strong and hard hooves. Some of them have soles an inch thick, which gives their hooves great resistance to wear.

While their hooves don’t need the care of humans, feral horses have other health issues that shorten their lives in the wild.

Also read: 7 Horseshoe Superstitions Still Practiced Today