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Why Do Horses Need Shoes & Types of Horseshoes

Have you ever wondered why horses are the only animals that wear shoes? But what is the purpose of horseshoes? And do horses need them?

Here we look at the reasons for shoeing horses. Finding out a little about their history and discussing the hotly debated horseshoe versus barefoot argument.

What Is A Horseshoe?

A horseshoe is U-shaped and traditionally made of metal, usually steel and aluminum. The shoe is made and fitted by a farrier who attaches it to the bottom of the horse’s hooves using nails. The hoof wall has no nerves or feelings, so the horse doesn’t experience any pain when shod correctly.

Do Horses Need Shoes?

Mother nature provided the horse with an exceptional and complex foot structure to survive in the wild. However, we changed all that by confining horses to paddocks and stalls, making it difficult for them to wear down their hooves as nature intended. Exposure to moisture and ammonia is another concern and which weakens the feet making them more prone to damage and injury.

The domesticated horse is not as genetically sound like the wild horse. Humans breed for beauty, size, novelty and performance, so many of today’s horse breeds have poor feet. A balanced foot is more likely to function efficiently and bear the weight of the horse, and it is up to owners to care for their horse’s feet properly. Regular trimming of the hooves is compulsory, and shoeing is often necessary.

Why Do Horses Need Shoes?

Dressage horse with horseshoe showing

The old proverb from the 18th century “No foot, no horse” still rings true today as, without healthy hooves, the horse is unlikely to remain sound. The foot performs vital functions. It supports the weight of the horse, absorbs shock, provides grip and helps pump blood up the horse’s leg, so we must look after the feet properly.

Just like our fingernails, the hoof of a horse is mainly made of a tough protein called keratin and grows continuously. But why do domestic horses require shoes when their wild counterparts seem to be doing perfectly well, walking around barefoot?

In their natural habitat, horses live in dry and arid climates travelling many miles a day in search of food and water. As they usually move at a walk over rough grasslands, their hooves wear evenly and harden.

The domesticated horse, however, must live in a far different environment, spending much of their time in a stall and coping with cold and wet weather conditions. As a result, their hooves are softer, becoming overgrown and unevenly worn so require regular trimming and the wearing of shoes.

Working horses must pull or carry extra weight, commonly used to pull plows and wagons as well as being ridden. Adding the excess weight to the horse combined with going on the softer ground has made the hooves prone to wearing down more and cracking. The main functions of a horseshoe are to protect the horse’s feet from excessive damage, wear and stress and prevent the hoof from splitting, along with providing extra traction in slippery conditions.

Benefits of shoeing a horse include:

• Comfort and protection
• Excessive hoof wear
• Injury Prevention
• Increased Balance
• Increased stability and traction on most terrains

History Of Horseshoes

Ever since humans domesticated the horse, they immediately understood the need to protect the horse’s hooves. An early form of protective footwear came from horsemen across Asia who wrapped leather and other materials around the hoof for therapeutic purposes and to prevent sore feet.

Ancient Romans invented the hippo sandal sometime around the first century, inspired by the sandals they wore on their feet. They were made from metal and leather and gave the horse better traction on rough ground.

On to the cold and wet climates of northern Europe, the soft ground created soundness issues in horses used for transportation and farming. After trying various solutions, horsemen began nailing metal shoes to their horse’s hooves. These early inventions were lightweight and made from bronze with a scalloped edge and six nail holes.

By the 13th and 14th centuries, horseshoes were forged in vast quantities being broader and longer to accommodate the large feet of cold-blooded draft horses. The practice of hot shoeing began in Great Britain and France during the 16th century and is when the term farrier came into use taken from the Middle French word “Ferrier” meaning blacksmith.

How To Decide If Your Horse Needs Shoes

Farrier shoeing a horse's hoof

Like us, horses are individuals. Determining whether your horse needs shoes or not depends on a variety of factors. These include their age, size, confirmation, workload, action, the type of terrain and surface they are expected to work on, living environment and hoof care needs.

Having correctly fitted shoes allows the horse to work better. Therapeutic shoeing can correct a horse’s gait, enabling the competition horse to perform at its best and help a horse with lameness conditions.

Talk to your farrier and vet so you can decide on the best type of hoof care and shoeing needs for your horse.

Types Of Horseshoes and Their Uses

There are various types of horseshoes available for different purposes. A good farrier chooses the correct shoe by assessing the horse’s feet, way of going and confirmation as well as considering previous injuries, the type of work, and riding surface.

Regular Shoe

regular horseshoe

The regular shoe is made from steel and is a simple U-shape used by most horses to support and protect a healthy hoof for daily riding. It has grooves known as “fullers” where the nail holes lie giving enough space for nail heads to sit securely.

Rim Shoe

Rim Horseshoe

A rim shoe is very similar to a regular shoe but has a deep, wide groove in the middle which allows the horse more traction. Rim shoes are ideal for sports that require quick turns and speed such as barrel racing.

Bar Shoe

Bar shoe

The bar shoe has an extra bar to give more support to the back of the hoof, heel and leg and can also be used to keep the hoof together in the case of a foot injury.

Egg Bar Shoe

Egg Bar Shoe

An egg bar shoe is oval-shaped and provides more support than a bar shoe as it extends past the heel. Often made from aluminum they are lightweight, making it easy to add a wedge to raise the heel.

Heart Bar Shoe

The heart bar shoe offers the same support as other bar shoes but gives frog support as well,
commonly used for horses with laminitis.

Shoeing a Horse

Domesticated horses require hoof trimming and reshoeing every four to eight weeks by an experienced and knowledgeable farrier. However, not every horse is the same and farrier visits depend on the growth rate and health of your horse’s feet. The key to establishing a schedule depends on your farrier’s findings and recommendations. You should always call the farrier if your horse has a lost or has a loose shoe or if your horse goes lame after a recent farrier visit.

If you go months without seeing the farrier, your horse is vulnerable to more severe foot conditions. Maintaining proper hoof management and working together with your vet and farrier can help prevent many diseases of the foot, ensuring the correct treatment for your horse.

Horseshoes Vs Going Barefoot

barefoot horse hoof

There is an ongoing dispute among horse enthusiasts regarding the horseshoe versus barefoot argument.

Barefoot advocates believe that traditional horseshoes cause discomfort, damaging the structure of the hoof and affecting the blood circulation inside the foot. They argue that with regular hoof trimming and proper maintenance, the horse can stay sound whatever the discipline. Hoof boots have become extremely popular and can be worn by the horse when it is working as well as glue on shoes as alternatives to metal shoes.

That said, supporters of the shod horse say that shoeing improves the horse’s way of going and offers more support and protection.

Horses who have excellent confirmation and healthy hooves with a light workload can do just fine without shoes. However, you need to look at your horse. If they are prone to sore feet or have weak and brittle hooves, going barefoot will most likely cause lameness.

Confirmation imbalances can become considerably worse if the hoof is not supported and balanced correctly. Corrective shoeing helps horses with ailments, and those in hard work benefit from being shod. The performance horse too not only needs shoes, but studs fitted as well.

There is no correct answer, and your farrier can help you determine the best option for your horse.

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