Our readers support us. This post may contain affiliate links. We earn from qualifying purchases. Learn More
Horses that are regularly used for riding or driving often wear shoes to protect the hooves from bruising and wear. Although an ancient practice, shoeing is as common in the horse world today as it has always been.
Horseshoes have undoubtedly gone through many changes over the last few thousand years. Different types of shoes were invented for different working conditions, rehabilitation purposes, or to increase performance. The materials used have also gone from leather and grass to steel and even synthetics.
Types of Horseshoes
The most common types of horseshoes are regular, rim, bar, heart bar, egg bar, and wedge. Each type of horseshoe is applied in specific situations according to the needs of the horse.
Various horseshoes have already existed in medieval Europe, when shoes were a high-demand commodity. Blacksmiths at the time crafted special shoes for purposes such as war, transport, trade, or agriculture.
Today, there are at least 20 different types of horseshoes that can all be modified according to the needs of the horse. Here is a list of the most common types of horseshoes:
Plain regular horseshoes are by far the most common type of horseshoes in the world. They provide the necessary protection and support most horses need under saddle. If they are manufactured by a machine, steel shoes are also called “keg” horseshoes.
Rim horseshoes are almost identical to traditional steel shoes with the exception of a deep groove that runs through the middle. The purpose of this groove is to give the horseshoe more traction.
Rim horseshoes are ideal for sports that involve fast canter and quick turns, such as show jumping, eventing, roping, or barrel racing.
Bar horseshoes have an added bar at the back of the shoe that connects the two ends. This bar can be straight or curved and gives extra support to the hoof, heel, or lower leg.
A bar shoe also limits the natural expansion of the hoof capsule as the horse puts its foot down. By keeping the hoof together, bar shoes can be effective in accelerating healing in a damaged hoof.
The downside of bar shoes is that they are more likely to come off compared to open-heeled shoes. As horses can step on the bar portion of the shoes with the back legs more easily, they might end up pulling them off.
A heart bar horseshoe has an extra frog support section that has been used to treat laminitic horses. Many farriers also place pads or other materials between the frog support and the hoof.
An egg bar horseshoe gives additional support to the back of the hoof which is often needed for horses with navicular disease. This is a painful hoof condition that results from damage to the navicular bone and surrounding structures.
Depending on the horse’s condition, egg bar shoes will sometimes be fitted with a wedge underneath the heels.
Similar to bar shoes, wedge horseshoes are used in corrective shoeing as a temporary solution. They are useful for improving conformation issues such as a “broken back” hoof-pastern angle or underrun heels. By wedging the heels up, these special shoes can promote soundness and increase performance.
Wedge shoes can also be created by inserting a pad under the rear half of the shoe. While they are necessary in certain situations, wedge shoes can also be counterproductive if used incorrectly.
Farriers should carefully weigh the potential benefits against the risks before deciding to use such a shoe (source: American Farriers Journal).
Also read: Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses?
Over the course of history, horseshoes used to be made of unusual materials. The earliest known horseshoes were allegedly made from rawhide stuffed with grass or other natural materials and tied to the hoof with leather straps. They resembled modern boots rather than shoes and date to around 600 BC.
The most common horseshoe materials today are steel, aluminum, rubber, and plastic. These materials are often combined in composite shoes to merge their advantageous properties.
Most horseshoes are made out of steel. It is a durable material that is widely available on the market and relatively cheap, which is why it is so popular.
The manufacturing of steel shoes first began in 1835 in Troy, Michigan, United States. Today, machine-made steel shoes are often called “keg” shoes in North America.
Steel shoes also have a notable effect on the horse’s movement. By increasing the flexion of the lower leg joints, they encourage the horse to perform a more animated trot. This makes steel shoes the ideal option for carriage and dressage horses.
After steel, aluminum is the second most common horseshoe material. According to American Equus, aluminum horseshoes have been proven to increase running speed in horses. As a result, they are a popular choice for horses in the racing industry.
Moreover, a study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science points out that aluminum horseshoes decrease the horse’s knee action and hoof flight. This allows the horse to move its legs a few seconds faster, which can make all the difference in a racing event.
Note that aluminum weighs about 2.5 times less than steel.
Rubber horseshoes are increasingly popular in equestrian circles as they allow for natural hoof expansion and reduce stress to tendons and joints. They come in many shapes and sizes, and often have a supportive pad under the frog for extra shock absorption.
Although rubber is softer than metal, modern rubber horseshoes have been reported to last as long as their metal counterparts. They can either be nailed on or glued to the hoof depending on the design and the owner’s preference.
Horses that spend long hours on the road, such as carriage or police horses, often wear metal shoes coated with rubber. This protects the horse’s joints from concussion and provides extra traction while also silencing the horse’s footsteps.
Plastic horseshoes offer similar benefits to horses as rubber shoes. They are most commonly made of polyurethane and can be easily shaped to the horse’s hooves.
By mimicking the natural hoof composition, plastic horseshoes allow for flexibility and expansion. They are also great for cushioning the horse’s feet on hard ground and reducing the damage to bones and joints.
The only downside of plastic horseshoes is that they wear down quicker than metal versions.
Composite shoes are made of steel and synthetic materials and are becoming increasingly popular in Europe. Contrary to rigid traditional shoes, these glue-on shoes preserve the hoof’s natural flexibility and enable healthy functioning.
These shoes are typically made of plastic or rubber and have a metal core to increase durability. While some composite shoes come in traditional shapes, many provide extra support to the frog.
Monday 17th of October 2022
Thanks for the great photos and clear descriptions - quite helpful in my cursory research into the work of farriers, for a drawing relating to the profession. Terrific introduction for an interested novice.
Wednesday 19th of October 2022
Great to hear from you and thank you for your wonderful comment! We're pleased you enjoyed the article 😊
Steven R Askew
Monday 11th of July 2022
This was an excellent and very well-written article. I have no experience with horses, but I found it incredibly easy to understand. Thank you for writing it. I took the liberty of using it to research why horses need horseshoes. It was something I wanted to learn today. Thank you. https://ilearnedthistoday.com/index.php/2022/07/11/358-why-do-horses-need-horseshoes/
Monday 15th of August 2022
Thank you for your wonderful feedback! You're welcome to use our articles for feedback as long as you credit us with a link 🙂