Do horses need shoes? The pros and cons of shoeing

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Even people who have never gotten in the saddle before can normally identify a horseshoe — after all, they’re symbol of good luck all over the world. But for equestrians, these unassuming pieces of metal are much more than just lucky charms: they’re a tool which can help to protect and enhance a horse’s feet and hooves, allowing them to participate in all kinds of work, from hacking to carriage-pulling.

But why do horses need shoes in the first place, and do all horses need them? For most horse owners, it’s a personal decision —there’s really no right or wrong answer. It all depends on the needs of the horse, the type of work the animal is in, and the preference of the owner.

In this guide, we’ll delve a little deeper into this question, as well as answering a number of common queries about what horseshoes are used for, and how they are fitted. We’ll look at:

What are horseshoes?

A horseshoe is a man-made, U-shaped plate designed to protect and enhance a horse’s hooves. They’ve been used for centuries to allow domesticated horses to participate in different kinds of work. A horse wearing shoes is referred to as a “shod horse”, while a horse without shoes is described “unshod” or barefoot.

The shoes are typically crafted from metals like steel or aluminium, but may also be made from other materials, too, including rubber, plastic, or copper. The horseshoe is fitted to the palmar (ground) side of the hoof, most often using nails. As long as the farrier is skilled, the nails won’t hurt the horse any more than trimming your nails with a pair of nail clippers would. Sometimes, when only temporary protection is needed, the shoe may be glued on instead.

Why do horses wear shoes?

Horses wear shoes primarily to strengthen and protect the hooves and feet, and to prevent the hooves from wearing down too quickly. Much like our finger and toenails, a horse’s hooves will grow continually if not trimmed. Wild horses will wear their hooves down gradually as they move from place to place over hard, arid terrain. However, domesticated working horses, that carry a rider or pull a carriage or other heavy load, will often wear down their hooves more quickly than they would out in the wild, due to the extra weight and added stress. Horseshoes can be used to add durability and strength to the hoof, helping to ensure it does not wear out too fast.

In addition to this, the shoes can provide additional protection from injury on hard or rocky ground, and can help to stop the hooves from being weakened by damp or muddy ground in wet climates. Horses that compete in high-impact events — like racing, jumping, or cross country — may also benefit from the extra cushioning and protection that shoeing offers.

As well as protecting the hooves, horseshoes can also serve a number of other functions. In some circumstances, they may also be used for the following reasons:

  • To add traction: Shoeing can help give a horse added stability and grip in difficult terrains or poor weather conditions, especially wet or muddy weather. Specialised horseshoes can also be fitted to provide added stability in icy conditions.
  • To improve balance: Some horses may suffer with balance issues. Corrective shoeing by an expert farrier can help provide additional support to the hoof capsule where needed, which helps to correct the problem.
  • For medical reasons: Some horses may suffer from medical conditions that compromise the strength of the hoof and foot, particularly laminitis, arthritis, or ringbone. In these cases, shoeing can provide additional support, helping to keep the horse comfortable and enabling him to return to work safely.

Horseshoes can also be used to improve the performance of horses in certain kinds of work. For example, a Clydesdale horse pulling a carriage on a hard tarmacked road will need a more heavy-duty shoe than a show pony working in a soft arena. An expert farrier will be able to create a shoe to suit the type of breed and the kind of work the horse is in.

Do all horses need shoes?

The question of whether all horses need shoes is somewhat contentious, and almost every horse owner or trainer has their own opinion on the matter. There are pros and cons to shoeing, and what’s suitable for one horse may not work for another. In a nutshell: it really depends on the circumstances, and who you’re asking!

The question of whether to shoe or not to shoe is quite a personal choice, and not all equestrians are in agreement about which horses should wear them, and when. Some riders and trainers believe that horses do need shoes nearly all of the time, arguing that this provides the best protection for the feet during work. They may also argue that shod horses perform better or are generally sounder.

On the other side of the debate, some equestrian experts argue that shoeing isn’t always required, especially for leisure horses. Instead, they argue that regular trimming and maintenance, when combined with quality nutrition, should be enough to allow a horse to participate in almost any kind of work while remaining sound and healthy. Some barefoot advocates are even opposed to shoeing in all circumstances, including correctional or surgical shoeing.

Others take more of a balanced approach, believing that it all depends on the type of work the horse is in. For example, some riders may find that barefoot horses are sounder and more agile when training in the area, but may still prefer to provide supplementary protection for the hooves when out hacking on more difficult terrain. Horses in high impact events or those that work on harder ground — such as cross-country eventing, or on hard tarmacked roads and pavements — may need more protection and traction, meaning that shoeing is the better option.

Even if a horse goes barefoot some or all of the time, then their hooves will still regular trimming and maintenance. Much like our nails, a horse’s hooves will grow continually if not maintained. As such, the hooves must be trimmed to keep them in shape. Only wild horses can survive without any trimming at all, because their hooves are worn down over time by constant action over hard terrain.

It’s only natural that any horse lovers or equestrian enthusiasts will be passionate when it comes to the care of their equine companions, and as such, the question of whether or not horses need shoes can be quite an emotive debate. However, the broad consensus tends to be that it depends on the circumstances, the environment, and the type of work the horse is doing. As such, it’s up to the owner to decide along with their vet or another qualified person to ensure they’re making an informed decision that takes in account the individual requirements of the horse.

Do racehorses need shoes?

While it’s not a requirement that racehorses wear shoes in order to compete, nearly all of them will be shod when racing. Racehorses generally run on softer ground, like turf or dirt tracks, but they still hit the ground with great concussive force. As a result, it’s important that their feet are adequately protected from the impact, which is why most wear shoes.

Many racehorses run in special designed aluminium shoes, as these are lighter than traditional steel versions, but still provide excellent protection for the foot. Because winning a race can come down to a fraction of a second, losing a little weight off the shoe can make a big difference to a horse’s speed and stride. Most owners opt for nailed-on shoes, but some owners prefer to go for glue-on versions, instead, further decreasing the weight and making it easier for the shoes to be reset.

The pros and cons of shoeing a horse

As we’ve discussed, there are arguments for and against shoeing. But what exactly are they? Here, we’ve shared the main pros and cons of shoeing a horse, so you can weigh up your options and make the most informed decision.

Benefits of shoeing

  • Protection: Shoes protect the hooves by adding durability and strength. This can help to reduce the risk of injury when riding on hard ground, or when performing intensive work.
  • Slower rate of wear: Shoes can prevent the hooves from wearing out too quickly, which can be especially helpful for horses involved in work that involves a lot of weight-bearing, such as carriage pulling.
  • Enhanced performance: Some equestrians find that their horse’s performance is enhanced by shoeing. Horses that compete in high-impact events, such as high-level jumping or cross country work, may also perform better with shoes.
  • Can be used to correct problems: Corrective shoeing can help with balance issues or other problems with a horse’s gait and stride. Shoeing can also be used to correct chips or cracks in the hoof.
  • Increased support for horses with medical issues: Horses that suffer from — or have suffered from — health conditions such as arthritis, ringbone, or laminitis may benefit from the additional support that shoeing provides.

Cons of shoeing

  • Increased risk of injury: If the horse is not well-shod or the farrier is inept, rogue or “hot” nails can harm the sensitive inner part of the hoof. If a horse “springs” (loses) a shoe during work, it may result in a tendon sprain or damage to the hoof wall.
  • More expensive: Shoeing is more expensive than trimming alone.

Pros and cons of going barefoot

Benefits of going barefoot

  • More cost-effective: Trimming alone is usually less expensive than getting them shod, as you won’t need to pay for shoes.
  • Enhanced performance: Some equestrians find that their horses are sounder and perform better when unshod — especially during arena work.
  • More natural: Wild horses don’t need to wear shoes, and as a result, some people believe that keeping a horse as close to its natural state as possible is healthier and more comfortable. However, this is no guarantee that this will be the case for all horses.

Cons of going barefoot

  • Increased risk of injury: Although proper hoof maintenance and good nutrition can help to build up the strength and resilience of the hoof and sole, there will always be a chance that the horse may suffer a stone bruise or other injury during work. However, this is also the case for shod horses — neither option is a guarantee against the possibility of injury.
  • More trimming and maintenance may be needed: Owners of unshod horses need to be extra vigilant about checking, trimming, and generally caring for the feet and hooves, which can be time-consuming.
  • Extra protection may still be needed: Even for horses that are used to being unshod, it may still sometimes be necessary to add some extra protection or traction in certain circumstances. For example, the horse may benefit from having temporary shoes or boots fitted when competing or hacking in very wet or muddy conditions, or on very hard or icy ground.

How do I know if shoeing is right for my horse?

Deciding whether or not to shoe your horse is a highly personal choice. Much like horseshoes themselves, there’s no one-size-fits all option, meaning you’ll have to take a bespoke approach to meet the needs of your horse. So, when making your decision, it’s important to weigh up all the pros and cons of shoeing and going barefoot. You’ll also need to bear your own circumstances and requirements in mind, taking the following factors into account:

  • The type of work they’re currently doing. Are they performing strenuous work or training intensively? Is it likely that the hooves will require additional protection?
  • The ground they work on most often. Hard surfaces, like tarmac and asphalt, will wear out the hooves more quickly and be harder on the feet, so shoeing maybe the best option. Softer ground — like grass — will put less strain on the feet, and so shoeing may not be necessary.
  • The overall health and body condition of the horse. Any medical conditions, such as leg weaknesses or balance problems, may require correctional shoeing. Horses that have suffered from laminitis, arthritis, or ringbone may also benefit from shoeing.
  • The hardiness of the feet and hooves. Some horse’s will wear out their feet and crack or flare their hooves quite rapidly, while others may be hardier.
  • The sensitivity of the sole. Some horses are more prone to bruising than others.

It’s also important to remember that your horse’s needs are likely to change over time. For example, if you’re bringing your horse back into work after a break, then they are likely to have slightly different requirements as they gradually build up their fitness. If the horse has been rested due to an injury, they may also need specialist corrective shoeing in order to help them recover or build strength in the legs.

Ultimately, you’re the one who knows your horse best, so it’s up to you to decide what’s going to be the healthiest and most effective option. By working closely with your vet, your trainer or instructor, and a good farrier, you should be able to work out whether to go shod, unshod, or some combination of both across the year.

What is a person who shoes horses called?

A person who shoes horses is called a farrier. A farrier’s job involves making and fitting horseshoes, checking the horse’s overall leg, foot and hoof health, and trimming and shaping the excess hoof growth. When shoeing a horse, they’ll need to use their judgement to make sure the shoes are an exact fit, to ensure that the horse is properly balanced. They may also work alongside vets or equine healthcare professionals to provide corrective shoeing or surgical farriery.

It takes a lot of skill, strength, and knowledge in order to shoe a horse properly, and as a result, it takes a lot of training to become a farrier. In order to practise, an individual must be registered with the Farriers’ Registration Council (FRC). Before this can happen, an aspiring farrier will need to complete a four-year apprenticeship with an Approved Training Farrier. A blacksmith can also fit horseshoes; however, they need to be registered as a farrier with the FRC in order to do so.

What happens during the re-shoeing process?

When the time comes for your horse’s shoes to be reset, the farrier will remove the nails with a pair of pincers and take off the old shoes. They will trim back any excess hoof growth, and shape it as needed. A good farrier will also carefully inspect the hooves and feet to ensure that the shoes were providing the best fit, and that the horse is comfortable and healthy. The shoe is then hammered into the insensitive part of the hoof, securing it firmly into place. When performing correctly, the process of shoeing causes no pain to the animal.

The farrier will typically re-use the same horseshoes for as long as they remain in good condition. However, they may decide to re-shape the shoes before resetting them, especially if they notice a problem that needs corrective work. Once the shoes have become excessively thin or worn around the edges, a new set of horseshoes will be required.

A farrier may use cold or hot shoeing methods. With cold shoeing, the farrier bends the metal of shoe without heating it first in order to produce the right shape. To hot shoe, the farrier will place the shoe in a forge to make it more malleable, before cooling it in water and applying it to the hoof. This method is more time consuming, but often allows for a better fit. The farrier can also modify the shoe to add toe- or quarter-clips as needed, allowing for corrective work.

Exactly how long the shoes may last will depend on the type of work your horse is doing, and the terrain that you’re riding on. For example, shoes might not last very long if you’re riding over very hard ground or stony surfaces or roads, but may last for several resets if the horse is mainly out on grass or soft ground.

How often should a horse be re-shod?

Exactly how often a horse needs to be re-shod will depend on a number of factors, including how fast their hooves grow, and how quickly the horseshoes themselves wear down. As a rule of thumb, horses will usually require resetting every six weeks or so in order to maintain optimum foot and hoof health, although this can vary between animals.

In certain cases, a horse might need their shoes resetting sooner than the six-week mark, which is why it’s important to check their feet and shoes regularly — ideally before and after riding. There are a number of signs that could indicate that your horse’s shoes will need to be reset:

  • A shoe has worked loose, or come off completely
  • The nails that hold the shoe in place are started to push up from the hoof wall
  • The hoof is starting to overgrow the shoe, gradually deforming the shape of the hoof
  • Nails are protruding out of the shoe
  • The shoe has become excessively worn down
  • The shoe has “twisted” on the foot

If you notice any of these signs, contact your farrier to arrange for your horse’s shoes to be reset as soon as possible. It’s important not to leave the problem, as this could cause issues or injuries further down the line.

Deciding whether to shoe your horse or not is an incredibly personal decision, and what’s best will often depend on the unique needs of your horse. Remember, this advice is intended as an introductory guide only, so if you’re considering what to do with your own horse or pony, be sure to consult your vet or an experienced farrier before making any decisions.

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