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Horseshoes are distinctive U-shaped structures traditionally made of metal that are secured onto the horse’s hoof.
For thousands of years, horses have been wearing shoes while working in agriculture, transport, and entertainment. But why do they need shoes in the first place?
The primary reason why horses need horseshoes is to protect their sensitive hooves from injury and wear. Horseshoes also add traction, improve balance, and can provide various health benefits to the horse.
Every horseperson today is familiar with the 18th century saying, “No foot, no horse”. Without healthy and functional hooves, horses are unable to perform the tasks we ask of them every single day. And yet, hoof quality and conformation are rarely a priority when selecting horses for breeding.
As a result, countless modern horses suffer from weak or abnormal hoof structures and rely on the support of shoes to remain sound. However, while shoes are often necessary, their inadequate use can also be counterproductive.
In a Nutshell: The History of Horseshoes
Soon after the domestication of the horse, humans realized they need to protect the horse’s hooves. However, initial horseshoe prototypes didn’t look anything like the metal shoes we are all familiar with today.
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. These resembled hoof boots rather than shoes and often included dried grass stuffed between the leather and the hoof.
Around the first century AD, Romans invented the hippo sandal inspired by the sandals they wore on their feet. These were made from metal and leather and gave the horse better traction on rough ground.
In 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 dating to 400 BC were made from bronze with a scalloped edge and six nail holes.
By the 13th and 14th centuries, broader and longer iron horseshoes were forged in vast quantities to accommodate the large feet of draft horses.
The practice of hot shoeing began in Great Britain and France during the 16th century. This is also when the term farrier came into use, taken from the Middle French word “Ferrier” meaning blacksmith.
The Pros of Horseshoes
If done correctly, shoeing can offer numerous advantages to the horse. While most owners shoe their horses to reduce wear and increase performance, it can also be done for medical reasons.
Horseshoes protect the horse’s hooves from sharp objects, bruising, hard surfaces, and the impact of traveling for long distances.
Protection is one of the main reasons why shoeing became a widespread practice by 1000 AD. By the 14th century, most working horses in Europe had shoes on (Source: American Equus).
In other words, horseshoes make hooves more durable and strong. This is especially vital for hard-working horses such as show jumpers, eventers, and racehorses. The extra protection and cushioning that shoeing offers go a long way towards preventing injuries in the modern sports horse.
An obvious advantage of horseshoes is reducing wear on the horse’s hooves. When working regularly on hard surfaces, shoeing becomes an important part of preserving the integrity of hooves. Hence the reason why most carriage horses wear shoes at all times.
Horseshoes also provide extra grip and stability to their wearers. This becomes especially important on wet and muddy terrain, as slipping can put undue strain on the horse’s tendons.
In Northern Europe where cold and wet weather is prevalent, horseshoes have been popular from the 6th and 7th centuries. The invention has allowed large draft horses to work the lands and forests of the region without sustaining injuries to the legs.
Today, farriers can customize horseshoes to suit a variety of terrains. Studs and grooves can add considerable traction to the horse’s hooves, enabling safe passage over dangerous surfaces such as ice and snow.
By protecting the horse’s hooves from injury and wear, horseshoes have a positive effect on performance. With appropriate shoes, horses have been reported to perform better in various driving and riding disciplines.
Due to uneven muscling or conformation, some horses struggle to maintain balance under saddle. Using special shoes, farriers can often correct the problem by providing support to the hoof where needed. Corrective shoeing can modify the horse’s gait and stride, helping them regain their performance.
Last but not least, shoes also offer numerous health benefits to the horse. For example, shoeing can encourage cracks and chips in the hoof to heal by preventing them from getting worse.
Some of the health conditions that can be improved by special shoes include: laminitis, navicular disease, arthritis, sole bruising, ringbone, side bone, compromised flexor and extensor tendons, etc.
In many cases, corrective shoeing provides additional support to the hooves, keeping the horse in working condition.
The Cons of Horseshoes
There’s no doubt that horseshoes have their upsides, however, they also come with their own set of issues. If you are unsure about whether your horse needs shoes, always consult your farrier and veterinarian for advice.
Increased Risk of Injury
While horseshoes can protect the hooves from injury, they can also be the cause. If your farrier happens to make a wrong move, a rogue nail can harm the sensitive inner tissues of the hoof. Such an injury almost always has repercussions, as the wound can get infected and cause long-term lameness.
Poorly fitted shoes also carry the risk of coming off and injuring a tendon or the hoof wall in the process. If you notice that a shoe has come loose, it’s best to pull it off immediately. This will prevent further damage to the hoof until the farrier arrives.
Unless your farrier is a relative, shoeing will always cost you more than trimming alone. The average price for fitting a set of four shoes in the United States is around $120. In contrast, trimming only costs $30-50, or even less if the farrier is treating multiple horses on the yard.
Damage to Hoof Structure
Unless there is a need for it, a rigid shoe will certainly cause more harm than good to a healthy hoof. As already mentioned, the holes from repeated shoeing will weaken the horse’s hoof wall over time. According to farrier Mark Johnson, shoes can also cause internal damage to the hooves and feet.
Throughout his career, Mark has seen countless horses come out of shoes with fragile hooves. Most of these horses have regained the strength in their feet from just being turned out on sandy pastures. Mark has also said that the posture of these horses has notably improved after recovery.
Horseshoes also limit the natural hoof mechanism that is vital for maintaining healthy legs. The hoof has a triangle-shaped structure called the frog that almost acts like the horse’s “second heart”. When coming into contact with the ground, the frog pumps blood and lymphatic fluid back up the horse’s leg.
However, since shoes lift the horse’s feet off the ground, there is limited contact between the frog and the ground surface. This compromises healthy circulation in the lower legs which will affect the horse’s performance.
With that being said, some horses cannot avoid wearing shoes if they are to continue working. However, there are alternatives available to avoid the above health effects.
Modern boots or composite shoes, for example, can replace traditional shoes while retaining the benefits they offer.
To Shoe or Not To Shoe?
Like us, horses are individuals. Determining whether your horse needs shoes or not depends on a variety of factors. These include their age, size, conformation, gaits, workload, the type of terrain and surface they are expected to work on, as well as their living environment and hoof care needs.
Horses who have excellent conformation and healthy hooves with a light workload can do just fine without shoes. However, certain horse breeds like the Thoroughbred tend to have inferior hoof conformation coupled with a high-intensity work regime.
In this case, it is imperative that the horse wears therapeutic shoes to prevent the hoof from deteriorating further. Corrective shoeing can improve a horse’s gait, increase performance and help with lameness and conformation issues.
While shoes do have their place in the horse world, barefoot advocates believe traditional horseshoes cause discomfort and damage the structures of the hoof by restricting blood circulation. They argue that with regular trimming and proper maintenance, the horse can stay sound in any discipline.
With so much information out there about shoeing and barefoot trimming, it can be hard to decide which option is best for your horse.
While you should certainly consider the advice of your vet and farrier, it is ultimately you who decides whether to shoe or not to shoe.
Also read: Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses?
3 Horseshoe Alternatives
Due to the worldwide barefoot movement, more and more horse owners choose to abandon shoes entirely. While barefoot horses grow stronger and more resistant hooves, they will also require protection from time to time.
In recent decades, several horseshoes alternatives have flooded the equestrian market. From hoof boots to clip-on and composite horseshoes, these innovative products aim to replace tradition with technology. And if used correctly, they can indeed be an effective substitute for rigid metal shoes.
Hoof boots are a convenient means of protecting the horse’s hooves from damage and bruising. Riders can easily put them on and off as required, such as before riding on particularly rough terrain.
These clever inventions are manufactured in various sizes to fit all horse breeds. They provide full support and stability to the entire hoof, unlike traditional shoes that only support the hoof wall.
Hoof boots are perfect for those who wish to keep their horses barefoot but want occasional protection for their hooves. Read our guide on the best hoof boots for horses.
Besides steel and aluminum, synthetic horseshoe materials such as rubber and plastic are becoming increasingly popular. Unlike their rigid counterparts, these lightweight horseshoes allow for natural hoof expansion and flexibility, which is essential for healthy hooves.
The softer material also reduces damage to bones and joints by cushioning the foot. Meanwhile, the hoof is still protected from excessive wear, just like with traditional shoes. Many synthetic horseshoes also come with extra frog support to promote healthy circulation inside the hoof.
Some people argue that synthetic horseshoes don’t last as long as metal ones as they wear down quicker. However, reports have been mixed in this regard with some users saying they last as long as regular shoes.
Composite horseshoes combine metal and synthetic materials to bring out the best of both. They are usually made of rubber or plastic and have a metal core for extra durability.
Composite horseshoes are the only alternative that can truly replace metal shoes with added benefits on top.
Having a soft outer layer means composite horseshoes have increased shock-absorbing properties and protect the horse’s joints. At the same time, the rigid metal core ensures they last a regular shoeing period. Many composite shoes also feature additional frog support for healthy hoof function.
Reasons Why Wild Horses Don’t Need Shoes
While some domestic horses can live happy and healthy lives barefoot, the majority still rely on protection from shoes. And so, many people are wondering how wild horses are able to stay sound without shoes.
Although their hooves are indeed more vulnerable to the elements, there are several reasons why wild horses don’t need shoes:
Generally, the hooves of wild horses wear down at just the correct rate, making trimming and shoeing irrelevant. Not having to carry extra weight or exercise more than necessary means their hooves don’t have to endure excessive wear, which is why we shoe most domestic horses.
On the other hand, hooves are continuously growing structures, requiring trimming at regular intervals. Barefoot hooves grow even faster due to natural stimulation through the sole. However, excessive growth is also not an issue in wild horses as they wear their hooves down traveling long distances every day.
When compared to domestic horses, wild horses have exceptionally strong and resistant hooves with thick soles. The Mustang breed of North America, for example, can have soles an inch thick. This is the result of the hooves getting lots of stimulation from movement and play when the horse is still young.
Also read: 6 Types of Mustang Horses & Their History
The hooves of wild horses are naturally conditioned from birth to withstand the terrain they live on. Hence why sore feet and lameness are uncommon in wild horse breeds.
In contrast, domestic horses often have to work on various types of terrain they are not used to. This necessitates the use of shoes for extra protection, especially if the horse has limited access to turnout.