Ill-fitting shoes can ruin a good day. Same goes for your horse.
“You wore out his shoes. Well done!” my farrier said at our last appointment. He could tell just from looking at my horse’s shoes how hard we’d been practicing our reining patterns, cow work, and jumping. He’s been shoeing my horse for eight years, so he knows Monkey’s feet better than anyone. I trust him completely.
But, many horse rookies may watch as thick nails are pounded into the bottom of horses’ feet and wonder “Do horseshoes hurt horses?”
In the hands of an experienced farrier (i.e. horseshoer), horseshoes and the shoeing process do NOT hurt horses. In fact, ongoing hoof maintenance and shoeing every 4-6 weeks is a big part of keeping horses healthy, sound, and pain free. There are no nerves in the outer wall of a horse’s hooves, where metal shoes are affixed with nails, so horses feel no pain as their shoes are nailed into place.
(P.S. Add this hoof care book to your Rookie Reading List)
As every rookie knows, the equestrian sport has a language all its own. Horseshoeing is no exception, so here are a few commonly-used terms you should know:
- Farrier: A professional horseshoer is called a farrier. They’re specially trained to prepare and trim hooves, assess and remedy lameness issues, and fit shoes.
- Hoof: A hoof is the tip of the horse’s “toe” located at the end of each leg and made of thick keratin (a fibrous structural protein).
- Horseshoe: Horseshoes are typically made from steel or aluminum and are individually fitted to each horse’s unique hoof. Plus, horseshoes are also symbols of good luck!
- Trimming: This is the process of removing the excess outer hoof, reshaping the underside of the hoof, and rebalance the hoof prior to shoeing.
- Lame: A lame horse has difficulty and/or pain while walking or standing. Lame horses should not be ridden until the underlying cause is identified and resolved.
- Sound: A sound horse is walking and standing without discomfort and is fit for work.
- Frog: This V-shaped structure is located in the center of the hoof and is the equivalent of the human fingertip. It forms a gripping and shock absorbing surface.
- Wall: Think of the hoof wall as the outer protective shell for the horse’s foot. It also provides traction and shock absorption.
- Sole: This greyish-tanish surface covers the underside of the hoof. It’s waxy and varies in texture based on whether a horse is shod or barefoot.
- Bars: Hoof bars form the sharp angle at the heel and either side of the frog.
- Nippers: Think of nippers as the equivalent of human nail clippers. They’re used to trim the excess hoof before attaching new shoes.
- Rasp: Think of the rasp as the equivalent of a human nail file. It’s used to level off the hoof by moving the instrument back and forth.
- Hoof Knife: This curved blade is used to trim the sole of the hoof so it stays below than the outer hoof wall. This keeps there from being any pressure on the sensitive inner sole of the hoof.
(If you’re new to horseback riding in general, you might also like our Horseback Riding: What to Wear fashion guide!)
Why (Most) Horses Need Horseshoes
“No hoof, no horse” is a popular phrase among equestrians for good reason. Lameness issues can render an otherwise healthy horse unusable and–more importantly–cause them pain. That’s why finding a good farrier and maintaining regular hoof care is critical.
So, why do most equines have horseshoes?
Horse hooves, like human nails, grow continuously. In the wild, hooves are worn down naturally. However, domesticated horses need our help to maintain proper hoof health.
Horses that are regularly “in work” (being used for riding, driving, or other activity) typically benefit from the traction, balance, shock absorption, and protection that shoes provide.
For example, my horse does both english activities like jumping and western activities like reining and cow work. His shoes are specifically designed to provide enough traction that he won’t slip before and after jumps.
Yet, there’s not so much traction that he can’t execute a proper sliding stop in his reining pattern.
If he were a retired pasture pet (Aside from Monkey: “If only…”) instead of in his prime and working five days per week, he might be able to transition to going barefoot. At that point, I would chat with my farrier before making any decisions.
The Shoeing Process
A typical farrier appointment begins with watching the horse move (if any issues have been noticed and need to be assessed). Your farrier will look at your horse’s balance, watch for any signs of discomfort, and make a plan for that day’s session.
Next, the hooves will be cleaned to remove mud, dirt, and other debris that could interfere with the shoeing process. (If you want your farrier to be in a better mood, clean out your horse’s hooves yourself prior to your appointment.)
Once the hooves are clean, the old shoes are removed. The hooves are then trimmed by removing the excess outer hoof, reshaping the underside of the hoof to ensure the wall is higher than the inner sole so it takes the impact and weight of the horse.
The farrier will pause several times during this process to reevaluate the hoof prior to shoeing.
When the farrier is happy with the hoof shape, a new shoe will be selected, heated, and shaped using an anvil. It will then be double and tripled checked for proper fit before being nailed into place.
(Measure twice, cut once comes to mind.)
Remember, nails are placed into the outer hoof wall that does not have nerves or feel pain. This is why properly fitted horseshoes do not hurt horses.
Finally, the nails are bent and trimmed flush with the outer hoof wall.
Your farrier may want to watch your horse move once all the new shoes are in place to confirm everything looks good.
The Barefoot vs. Shoeing Debate
Whether to shoe or leave your horse barefoot is a hot debate among horse owners. There are pros and cons to each approach.
Barefoot advocates contest that ongoing metal shoes and nails have long-term negative effects on a horse’s movement, circulation, gaits, sensitivity, and hoof strength.
Note: You’ll also save quite a bit of money over time going barefoot. Shoeing typically costs an extra $80+ every 4-6 weeks.
Shoeing advocates argue that proper shoeing helps correct conformation faults, achieve a more level footfall, and prevents excessive hoof wear and tear over time.
At the end of the day, the decision of whether to shoe or leave your horse barefoot should be based on what is best for the health of your individual animal and made with advice from both a trained farrier and veterinarian.
Horseshoeing Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How often do horses need new shoes?
Horses need to be shod every four to six weeks.
Q: How do I know if my horse is lame?
Watch for signs of discomfort or imbalance. (Ask your trainer, farrier, or vet for advice if you’re not sure what to look for.) Changes in attitude (e.g. not wanting to trot), tripping and stumbling, reluctance to move, and head bobbing are common signs of lameness.
Q: Do barefoot horses still need to be trimmed?
Yes, barefoot horses still need to be on a routine trimming schedule.
Q: Are there alternatives to metal shoes?
One of the newest innovations in horseshoeing is the Megasus Horserunner, a plastic clip-on “sports shoe” for horses. Learn more about Megasus Horserunners here.
I also discovered FormaHoof, which is an Ireland-based company doing really innovative things for equine feet. They provide alternative simple-to-use, no-glue and no-nails, molded shoeing systems. Basically, you buy hoof molds (hind and front) that are then injected with FormaHoof material that forms around the hoof and looks like a thick gel coating. (See what I mean here.) Or watch this short video that shows how to apply FormaHoof.
Q: Can my horse go barefoot in the winter?
Some people like to “pull shoes” for the winter, but this may or may not be a good idea for you. If your horse takes most of the winter off (or has a very reduced workload), has naturally hard feet, and has proven he can adjust to going barefoot without too much discomfort, give it a try.
If, however, your horse has thin soles, requires special shoes for a chronic condition, maintains a heavy activity level, or you get minimal snowfall, keeping him shod could be best.
Again, talk to your vet and farrier before making any changes to your hoof care regimen.
Q: Should I consider going barefoot?
If your horse has naturally good confirmation, hard feet, and no health concerns, it may be worth trying barefoot (with consistent trims). If your horse has confirmation deficiencies, soft feet, or does activities where shoes are necessary (e.g. eventing), continue shoeing.
And, in case I haven’t said it enough, talk to your vet and farrier before making any decisions.
Q: Why do horses need shoes but not cows?
Horses and cows have very different workloads, which is why horses need shoes to protect their hooves and cows don’t.
Modern uses for horses often cause the hoof to wear down too quickly, which can create weak hooves or a low heel. Wearing shoes prevents the extra wear and can help maintain a strong hoof.
Cows don’t experience the same rough use on their hooves that horses do. They don’t carry loads or cover wide expanses of varied terrain. While cows live barefoot, most will still need to be trimmed a couple of times a year.
Q: Do donkeys need shoes?
Donkeys are fairly tough animals that seldom need shoes, though their size and daily routine can make a difference. If they’re ridden regularly or live in damp environments, shoes will help maintain hoof quality.
Donkey hooves are different from horse hooves. They are more vertical and have more soft tissue because they developed in areas with harsher terrains. Also, donkeys were meant to confront predators (not run away from them, like horses).
Keep in mind that donkey hooves are more prone to absorbing water, which can lead to excessive softening and disease. If your donkey is kept in a wet or rainy climate, shoes may be needed to prevent damage.
Shoeing in a nutshell? Nailed it.
Keeping our horses healthy and happy is priority #1, and proper hoof care is a huge piece of the puzzle. Whether your horse goes barefoot or is shod is up to you (and your vet and farrier), but at least you know that decision shouldn’t be based on the notion that horseshoes hurt your horse.
Done well, horseshoes are a tool that help keep horses healthy.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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- American Farriers Journal
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