Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price
Based on your horse’s individual needs, decide whether you will shoe or leave him barefoot.
A horse’s hoof can, in many cases, provide all the support, protection and traction that he needs even during a long career. This is Joe Meyer, a four-star event rider who helped a barefoot Southpaw compete at the Preliminary level of 2014.
(c) shannon brinkman
Horses’ hooves are like human fingers: They grow constantly. Domestic horses don’t wear their feet as naturally as wild horses, so a professional farrier must trim their hooves regularly and apply shoes if necessary. What is the big question? How can you tell if your horse requires shoes? It is important to understand the functions of the hoof and how shoes impact them.
Hooves have complex, impressive structures that can support horses’ weight and allow for easy mobility. They contract and expand as they contact the ground. This absorbs shock and distributes the body’s weight evenly. External structures work together to protect and provide traction for more delicate internal structures. The horse’s overall health, comfort, and utility is dependent on a healthy hoof. Therefore, the expression “No horse, no hoof” is common.
Shoes may require additional traction devices such as removable studs to prevent slipping, depending on how active the horse is.
(c) Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
Why You Should Shoe or Not?
Esco Buff, PhD, APF–I, CF of Esco Buff’s Professional Farrier Service, LLC, states that in many cases, the horse’s hoof’s natural design provides all they need for protection, traction, and support. He says that horses who have been barefoot for a long time develop their own natural protection. “The hoof wall might be stronger at the bottom, and may have developed a thickened sole to protect your hoof. This is unlikely to occur with shoes.
The unshod hoof will slide slightly when it touches the ground. This reduces some of the strain on structures in the feet and legs. The sole’s natural concavity provides grip when the dirt is packed with dirt to keep the hoof from sliding far too. Shoes can lift the sole off the ground, causing the foot to slide. To compensate, depending on your footing, you might need to add traction devices like studs or heel caulks, hard surfacing material, rim shoes, or rim shoes. However, this extra traction can interfere with the horse’s ability to slide when he puts his feet down. Esco states that every farrier job done to horses has its pros and cons. The goal of the farrier’s job is to find the best method for a horse, with the least amount of cons.
A shod horse might “spring” or pull the shoe off of himself. He could tear up the hoof wall or strain a tendon, or step on a clip, which would cause more pain and damage to the internal structures such as the coffin bone.
(c) Dusty Perin
Shoeing can be more costly than trimming. There are also potential risks. Shoeing can cause pain and abscess if the nail is not properly placed. Horses who “spring” or pull a shoe off their feet can cause damage to the hoof wall, strain tendons, or inflict internal structures such as the coffin bone.
A horse might need extra support or protection due to his job, conformation and environment. To correct conformation problems (and prevent lameness), provide extra protection for hard/rocky feet, and/or additional traction, you might consider shoeing him.
Horse owners may feel that barefoot is the best, the most natural way to go. Others wouldn’t dream of allowing their horse to walk around without shoes, even though he might not need them. Esco prefers that the discussion not be about which method is the best, but rather what is best for each horse. He says that people often talk about barefoot and shod as though it were a contest. It’s not one or another. It’s the best thing for the horse.
Shannon Peters, FEI dressage rider, is seen competing with Disco Inferno in April at the Del Mar National CDI. She has discovered that horses who don’t wear shoes are healthier, more sound, and less likely to sustain injuries.
(c) Terri Miller Photography
Do My Horses Need Shoes?
These are the key factors that will determine if your horse requires shoes: performance, protection, conformation, and medical conditions.
Shoes are dependent on the environment in which a horse lives and works. Many horses prefer to be shod on hard, stony terrain that can cause soreness and bruising.
Some riders resort to alternative solutions such as hoofboot, glue-on, or tape-on shoes to protect their horses. Well-fitted boots provide traction. If your horse is tripping or unsound, or if the boots are falling apart, consult your farrier to determine if the fit is correct.
Shannon Peters, FEI dressage rider, has found her horses to be more sound, healthier, and less likely to sustain injuries over time. However, she does provide temporary protection for them when they need it. All 12 horses in her barn compete and train barefoot. However, when they are outside hacking, they wear boots. She says that while a boot cannot hide anything, it can protect the foot from a bit of concussion. When they’re on the arena footing, I don’t think any of them require a boot. They all get protection if I take them on rocky trails. Although they may not require it, competition horses don’t need it.
Sometimes, Shannon’s horses wear glue-on footwear just before a competition. The shoes are worn while they travel and compete, and then removed when they return home. For example, her top horse is outside and has been on hard ground for a while. However, he does not have the best soles so he needs extra protection when displaying. She says, “I cannot risk taking him to horse shows where there is rocks and concrete and some footing which is quite hard that he hasn’t used to.” He walked barefoot all his career, from the beginning of his career to Fourth Level. He’s barefoot at home, but I want him to have the most enjoyable experience possible when he goes to a show. To protect his feet from the unknown, I glue something to his foot when he is trailering or using different footing. When he returns home, he will take them off.
Shoes may be required depending on the purpose of your horse’s work. Snowball pads are necessary to prevent snow from building up on the soles of the feet. Esco states that horses who work in icy conditions need to be able to withstand shock. “It’s not all about shock absorption. It’s about traction.”
Shoes can be beneficial for horses who have jobs that cause concussions to the feet, such as eventers and high-level jumpers. Event horses are not restricted to dressage horses who perform on a groomed arena footing, where they are less likely to encounter stones or inconsistencies. They can also perform on a variety of surfaces with different quality footing. Shoes are often required to provide additional protection and traction.
Joe Meyer, a four-star New Zealand eventer, decided to move to Florida because of the sandy footing. This was in contrast to England where the ground was either very soft or very tough depending on the season. This was good for horses and also saved money. He has since developed a system that works: Horses who have strong, healthy feet and compete at Training level or below do not get shoes.
He explains that the bulk of our season takes place in winter. “We begin in January and continue through April.” Horses’ hooves are slower at this time of year. This means that there are more shoeing holes closer together. This breaks down the hoof walls making it more difficult for horses to keep their shoes on. “We found that the shoes didn’t stick well to horses at this time of year, so it was better for them to be left off.
Joe does not notice a decrease in performance when horses compete barefoot. They have better traction on grass with plain shoes than horses who compete barefoot. He says that studding might be required to compensate for the difference once you begin shoeing. At a Florida farm, he said that there had been no rain on a recent jump day. It was slippery when I was jumping in the field, but it was fine for horses who were not wearing shoes. They were sliding around a lot more than the ones without shoes or studs.”
Joe’s event horses begin to get shod when they move up the levels and travel to competitions outside of their state. He recommends front shoes for Intermediate horses, and front and back shoes to Preliminary horses. For an event horse, you need to consider shoes if the ground is less consistent.
However, there are exceptions to this rule. Joe owned Violet Rain, a mare who “had incredible feet and never took unsound steps.” He competed Violet Rain through the Preliminary level with no shoes. He rode South Paw, a stallion, through Intermediate barefoot. He also competed in Grand Prix show jumping barefoot.
Two examples of weak, soft soles are shown above. They can indicate a nutritional problem or an environment that is too watery. Horses with such soles might be more susceptible to bruising.
Some horses can walk without shoes, but others require support. Shoes may be required depending on the horse’s conformation. They can need to support the hoof or reduce the effects of physical defects, such as unnatural movement or uneven wear, or a horse with toe-in or out. Esco says that corrective shoeing may not be necessary for an idle horse.
Shoes are required for horses with arthritis, ringbone disease, or laminitis. Esco says, “When you have lameness issues or diseases, certain materials, and types of shoes, may be beneficial because they don’t allow the mechanical structures of your hoof to address the problem.”
Horses with weak soles or walls may require special attention from the farrier. If the walls are cracked or broken, it may be difficult for horses to keep their shoes on. To help in this situation, the farrier might use epoxy glue or glue to attach a shoe.
A strong sole is hard and sturdy, while a weak one is flexible and thin. Shoes would be beneficial for horses with weak soles. They may be more susceptible and prone to bruising. There is a myth that shoes can cause a decrease in the strength of horses’ soles. Esco says, “Research on this topic has been lacking.” Horses are shod for their entire lives, and have the most beautiful soles in the country. Vice versa.”
Farriers are responsible for trimming the natural protection of horses that have barefoot. A thicker sole might need to be cut if the horse is going to be shoed.
Transition to Barefoot
After you’ve consulted your vet and farrier, and your horse is able to go barefoot, it will take patience and time to get used to the idea. Esco states that although a farrier must set up the horse to go barefoot, a normal foot is able to adapt and change.
Shannon began taking her horses out of their shoes seven years ago. Some horses have done well barefoot, even without shoes. She says they are good-footed horses, with good walls and good concavity. “I have had a few horses that weren’t good-footed, and certainly not horses most vets or farriers would consider barefoot. They were horses who took more time and care with their booting.”
Esco warns that some riders may pull their shoes on horses who are taking a break, such as during the off-season, to let their feet “rest.” Esco states that this can sometimes cause more harm than good. Horses who are shod more often than horses that are barefoot all year may have a thinner sole. The walls under the nail holes can chip away, making it difficult to reapply shoes once the holes have healed. This happens usually in 12 weeks. Esco suggests that depending on the length of your horse’s break, it may be better to leave him barefoot all year, or skip the barefoot period entirely and continue trimming and shoeing him as usual.
Joe takes into account how long a horse will spend off before they can pull shoes. “If they have a long vacation (six weeks or more), then they take their shoes off. By the time the nails have grown out, it is possible to put the shoe back on. If the horse has only a short time to rest, I will leave the shoes on. I prefer to keep the fronts covered because I don’t want the nails to come out and they won’t be able to nail themselves to anything.
A skilled farrier must be able to trim a horse and put on shoes.
(c) Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
The Critical Factor
You can choose to have your horse barefooted or shod. The biggest danger is not giving your horse regular farrier care. It is crucial to make sure your horse has the correct angles and a balanced foot. Improper trimming and shoeing can lead to serious injury over the long-term. Esco believes two of the biggest mistakes in trimming or shoeing horses are 1) not properly balancing their hoofs with their bodies, and 2) not correctly treating long toed and low-heeled horses.
Barefoot horses need to be trimmed every four-to six weeks, just like shod horses. Shannon says that a skilled trimmer must be able to balance the horse’s foot and help him to develop a better foot. It is definitely worth the effort and time.
No matter whether you choose to barefoot or shoe your horse, the goal of every horse owner and farrier is the same: a sound horse. It doesn’t matter if shoes are better or worse. It is important to evaluate and reevaluate your horse’s feet regularly in order to determine the best care. Esco says, “It’s almost like tuning a radio every day.” Don’t fall for the trap of conventional thinking. It’s important to challenge it and do the best thing for your horse.
Locate a Qualified Farrier
Esco Buff is an American Association of Professional Farriers (AAFPA) and American Farrier’s Association accredited professional farrier. He believes that all farriers should be able to perform balanced trims, regular nails shoes and glue-on and tape-on shoes. These shoes don’t need to be driven into the horses’ hoofs. Many of Esco Buff’s interns are interested in becoming farriers that only trim hooves. However, they also have the ability to evaluate an animal and decide if he requires shoes. They refer horses to someone if they are unable to do the job.
You can find an online resource to help you locate a farrier who is qualified to properly trim and shoe your horse. American Farriers Association (americanfarriers.org), has a list of members organized by state. The American Association of Professional Farriers (professionalfarriers.com) does as well, and also shows how many continuing education credits each member has earned each year.
When choosing a farrier, price is often a major deciding factor. Quality of work is a priority when it comes shoeing and balancing feet properly. How can an owner tell the difference? Do your research and ask questions. Esco states, “As a consumer know how to assess balance and a trim job or shoe job.” Find a trusted farrier who is willing to help you and engage in educated conversations instead of being defensive. My balance is checked by every one of my horse clients after I’m finished.”