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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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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