Barefoot or Shod?

Last Updated on August 21, 2023 by Allison Price

With the help of a barefoot expert, three experienced riders and their insight, you can make the right decision for your horse.

Ever wondered why your horse is shod? Do you do it because you have always done so? Are you shod because your peers, competitors, and friends have shod their horses? Perhaps you have been told by someone that your horse is unable to walk without shoes. Many horses can walk barefoot if they are properly trained and have the knowledge to make the right choice.

We’ll discuss the advantages of not wearing metal shoes and how to transition your horse from them if that’s right for you. Finally, we’ll look at three cases where owners have either gone barefoot or stayed with their shoes. We will also discuss hoofwear products that can protect horses’ feet without the use of metal shoes.

Pete Ramey is a farrier who specializes in the rehabilitation of hoof issues. He is also a well-known author, clinician, and speaker. There are many options, including going 100 percent with metal shoes and 100 percent barefoot. He says that he is a long-standing practitioner who helps horses to regain their soundness and hoof health. “I don’t like the term “going barefoot,” because it can be more difficult than simply taking off the shoes and heading out on the trails. Stick with your metal shoes if they are comfortable for you and your horse. The owner can find metal shoes very convenient.

You should also be aware that metal shoes can have some benefits for horses with performance or soundness issues.

There are many hoof-care options available, including barefoot, glue-on, and non-metal shoes. Here are six benefits to getting rid of metal shoes.

Make better use of your entire foot. A barefoot foot is more efficient than a hoof wall that carries almost all the weight and has a metal shoe attached to the sole. Because the metal shoe is clamped, it doesn’t allow pressure to escape from the solar corium. This is the layer of blood, nerves and connective tissue under the sole that surrounds the coffin bones. Compressive forces can easily cause damage to the solar corium. The sole of a booted or barefoot hoof means that the sole is fully loaded when the hoof’s on the ground. However, it is completely unloaded when the hoof’s in flight. This is a healthier option and can help prevent soundness problems.

Higher shock absorption and energy dissipation.

Vertical flexion in the hoof capsule. This allows the horse to maneuver on uneven terrain, hit rocks sideways or turn. This flexion puts a lot of strain on the horse’s joints, and collateral ligaments (which hold the joints together). Hard terrain can cause damage to the hoof’s soft tissues, and the hoof wall if a shoe is made of metal.

Versatility. Horses without metal shoes can be fitted with different boots to suit any situation. Different boots have different insoles and treads to suit changing conditions. This is similar to how a human can choose between a running shoe or a hiking boot. Horses are not able to use the same boot for every situation.

Economics. Trimming and shoeing prices are different across the country but remain fairly comparable. The trimming and shoeing times are approximately the same. A professional will charge $60 to trim your hair and $120 to make your shoes with metal. This is clearly a savings. A pair of hoofboots can be $150 but will last for much longer than a pair of horseshoes which are only worn for 5- to 6-weeks. Boots can be used for 500 miles by desert endurance racers, so a casual rider could use them for many years.

Hoof health overall. Any activity that can be done to improve the hoof quality, such as exercise, nutrition, and so on, will improve the overall health and longevity for the horse.

Transition to Barefoot
Ramey explains that “going barefoot” does not mean you should stop wearing shoes on your horse. He says that there are many changes required to make the transition without wearing metal shoes. These changes can make horses happier and healthier and increase performance, as well as provide greater longevity. Here are five things to consider.

Diet. He continues, “The horse’s diet needs to be improved in order to grow the best hoof genetics allow.” This usually means limiting sugar and starch intake (too many can cause attachment problems to the hoof wall), and using a scientific approach to mineral supplementation.

Daily footing. Your horse should have a turnout environment that matches your riding terrain. Horses will encounter similar terrain in everyday life as they will under saddle. Ramey suggests that you provide varied terrain in turnout, including grass, pea gravel areas and hard terrain. Ramey suggests that you drain muddy areas and keep manure and urine clean. Booted riding is the best option if you are unable to match turnout with riding terrain. If your horse is able to move well in the turnout environment, you should only allow him to be barefoot. If he isn’t moving well in his turnout environment, he should be wearing boots or glue-on shoes. Use the same logic as for riding.

Exercise. Get your horse moving, especially if he spends a lot of time in a stall. If your horse is not 100% sound while riding, hoof boots should be worn. Hoof boots and glue-on options are recommended if the horse is not sounding 100 percent during turnout.

Ramey explains that foot growth, whether it is healthy or not, is a function of how it hits ground. Compensative movement can lead to poor or even fatal hoof growth. Proper movement leads to correct hoof growth. The horse must have a healthy hoof in order to ride barefoot. A hoof boot is the fastest way to barefoot ride if you are aiming to do so. The correct movement provided by hoof boots may help the horse grow a healthier hoof, which could lead to the boots being no longer necessary. You will not be able to ride barefoot if your horse is limping or making a compensatory motion for foot pain.

Credit: Photo by Jennifer Paulson Barefoot horses are not always easy to care for. A solid hoof care program, which includes regular trimming and exercise as well as regular trimming and diet, will make or break your horse’s experience with barefoot.

Use sound hoof care. Look for a farrier who is experienced in transitioning horses from metal to wood. The professional must be able do a barefoot trimming, which is different than a shoe-ready one. They should also have a supply of hoof boots or glue-on options in order to quickly fit the horse when the shoes are pulled. To find a qualified professional in your region, contact the American Hoof Association (AHA), Pacific Hoof Care Practitionerss (PHCP), and Equine Science Academy. It is just as important to choose the right hoof boots as for your metal horseshoes.

Three True Stories
It’s hard to find a better person than top-level competitors to ask them about their experiences with barefoot horses. They’ll share their experiences with shoes and boots, ranging from small, lightweight Arabians to strong-footed mustangs to large Warmbloods.

Simple Transition to Barefoot
Tennessee Lane, Fort Collins, Colorado owner of Remuda run. Tennessee is an endurance-racing competitor who was second at the Tevis Cup last year. She owns more than 30 horses, which includes working Quarter Horses and endurance Arabians. She doesn’t have any horses that wear metal shoes and has taken over their hoof care, trimming and booting as necessary.

The horse: Arabian mare Pixiedust is 9 years old and is currently in transition.

The story: Pixiedust has done so well in her brief venture to going barefoot, that she was set to compete in 2015 Tevis Cup without any metal shoes, less then a month and half after Lane took them off. Lane said that her feet were unbalanced and too long. “I knew that I could help her within three trims. She’s now ready to go for her first training ride on rocky terrain, and she’s comfortable barefoot in her pasture. She will complete Tevis in glue-on shoes this year, and I am certain she will.

Lane offers more insight. Lane says that the average horse, regardless of breed, can live without shoes. “With proper trimming and nutrition, many horses can make the transition quite quickly,” Lane says. Chicosa, a ranch-bred Quarter Horse mare, was also able to go shoeless without any difficulty and has not looked back in the ten years that have passed. He’s a large, bulky horse. When he was born at six years old, his body was working hard to produce a good hoof. However, his shoeing job had caused him to have long toes with underrun heels. I took his shoes off and trimmed his feet. He was happy and functional a few weeks later. His third trim saw his hoof angle match his pastern angle. His heels supported his skeleton and he has been healthy, fit, and rock-solid since.

Time and effort
The owner is Shannon Peters from San Diego, California. She is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze-, silver-, and gold medalist, as well as a three-time National Championship competitor.

The horse: Flor De Selva, aka “Squishy,” a 15-year-old Westfalen gelding.

The story: It is not always easy for horses to become shoeless. Squishy, a horse weighing in at 172 hands and 1,400 lbs, has had a successful story. However, it took time and effort.

Peters was the first to try barefoot on the Grand Prix dressage horse Squishy in 2010. She explains that Squishy had been having soundness problems in several types of shoes. He would be fine for a couple of shoeing cycles before we had to change. To give his feet a rest, I took him out barefoot for a few minutes. He was much more comfortable without shoes than with them.

She relates that “Squishy never had great foot,” He had thin soles with very little concavity and weak walls. He also contracted Lyme disease and had four bouts of laminitis over the next four-years. We had to rebuild a stronger foot each time.

Peters believes that Squishy’s first defense was conscientious trimming. We were able get him through those difficult times thanks to great trimming and booting. To make him feel more comfortable, we also tried the Easy Shoe. His feet have finally found their rhythm after being healthy for over a year. He’s been able to compete at Grand Prix level in April without shoes, even though it took five years.

Get more information: She continues, “Squishy’s story started my barefoot education.” “Now, I take every horse barefoot. Some horses can go out of their shoes without any problems, while others may need to be removed from their shoes for foot pathology.

Not In the Cards
The owner is Sue Summers from Rice, Washington. She’s an endurance racer who has competed at the FEI level since 1995 and tries to ride barefoot whenever possible. Summers shoes her horses herself (she went to farrier school), and she admits that it is more convenient to wear traditional metal shoes with all the horses she has.

Mags Motivator (aka M&M) is a race-bred Arabian mare of 20 years.

The story: M&M was a horse Summers felt wasn’t suitable to walk barefoot even with boots. She explains that her horse has a tendency to wear thin soles and have low heels. He was wedge-padded and frog-supported throughout his 11-year career, during which he competed extensively and won many FEI-level competitions. He needed the frog support which increased stimulation, blood flow and helped him get his heel up. This would have been difficult to do without metal shoes. I would have worried about his tendons if he had bruised too often. However, with today’s boots that can also be used, it is possible to boost his heels. He was sound and healthy, and he is now 20 years old.

Get more information: Summers states that it is time-consuming to figure the right size for each horse and to keep the boots organized. “If I only had one or two horses, I would be more inclined to let them go barefoot.

She continues, “Whether I use metal shoes depends on the job of the horse.” Because endurance is so difficult, I put metal shoes on some of our horses. I rode a BLM Mustang with the most difficult feet. I tried to keep her barefoot but had to condition her as much as possible to make her fit for endurance on our terrain. I just wore her feet too long. It was easy to ride horses barefoot on many horses. Wear was the most difficult issue. I would probably leave them all barefoot if I was just hiking or backpacking in the mountains.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!