Ill-fitting shoes can ruin a good day. The same goes for your horse.
I remember the first time I saw a farrier at work, and I was horrified to see clouds of acrid-smelling smoke billowing from my pony’s hooves as he burnt them with the searingly hot metal shoes. I’m sure other horse rookies have also watched anxiously as thick nails are pounded into the bottom of horses’ feet and wondered “Do horseshoes hurt horses?”
In the hands of an experienced farrier (i.e. horseshoer), horseshoes and the shoeing process do NOT hurt horses. For many horses, ongoing hoof maintenance and shoeing every 4-6 weeks is a big part of keeping them healthy, sound, and pain-free. There are no nerves in the outer wall of a horse’s hooves, where metal shoes are nailed in, so the horses feel no pain.
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: Someone who shoes a horse professionally is called a farrier. They’re specially trained to prepare and trim hooves, assess and treat 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 rebalancing 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 can walk and stand 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 contributes to the hoof’s ability to grip, and absorb shock, while also aiding circulation within the hoof.
- Wall: Think of the hoof wall as the outer protective shell for the horse’s foot. It also provides traction and shock absorption.
- Sole: The sole covers the underside of the hoof, helping to protect and support the hoof capsule. It varies in color and texture, depending on the horse’s environment and whether it 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: The rasp is the horse equivalent of a human nail file. It’s used to shape the hoof by shaving off small amounts of wall and sole.
- Hoof Knife: This curved blade is used to level out the bars, trim the sole of the hoof, and cut away old or dead sections of the frog.
(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, but domesticated horses often 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, but not so much 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 being in his prime and working five days a week, he might be able to transition to barefoot. At that point, I would chat with my farrier before making any decisions.
The Shoeing Process
A typical farrier appointment begins with them watching the horse move so they can identify any issues. 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 and 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.
This is slightly different from a barefoot trim, in which the sole and wall are level, ensuring the weight of the horse is spread over the largest area possible.
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 triple-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 fits and the horse is moving correctly.
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 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 in consultation with both a trained farrier and a 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, although the time between may vary. Most horses need trimming every four to six weeks to keep their hooves balanced and to prevent cracking.
Q: Are there alternatives to metal shoes?
There are many alternatives to metal shoes, including glue-on plastic shoes, hoof boots, and newer innovations like the Megasus Horserunner, which is a plastic clip-on “sports shoe” for horses.
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, or maintains a heavy activity level, 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 and potentially a change of diet to support the new regime).
Barefoot horses can also wear hoof boots to protect their feet when ridden.
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 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 long distances over 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), so their hooves evolved differently.
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.
Q: Why are horseshoes lucky?
There are many theories about why the horseshoe is considered lucky. Some say it’s because they were made from iron, which was believed to ward off evil spirits. Others believe it’s because seven nails were used to attach the shoe, and seven is often referred to as the luckiest number.
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 helps keep horses healthy.
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