To shoe or not to shoe....
Barefoot trimming is a popular concept these days, and many horse owners are beginning to question the need for conventional horseshoes. My opinion is that the "right way" is whatever method results in a sound, healthy horse.
Keeping horses barefoot has many advantages- it can be less expensive, it avoids damage to the hoof wall caused by nails, and it allows the hoof to interact with the ground in a more natural way. In my practice I seek out opportunities to pull shoes on horses that don't need them, because "going bare" can do great things for a hoof!
Photo top right is the hind foot of a mare who had always worn shoes to help with persistent hoof cracks. After one year of a 6 week barefoot trim schedule, there are no cracks in sight!
Shoeing allows us to build in artificial support that may be needed for a pain-free stride. They provide protection when riding long distances on rocky footing. And shoes provide the means to add more traction than mother nature provides for horses who need it.
Photo center right is an older gelding who had very long toes and under-run heels when I began working on him. After an entire year of 6 week barefoot trims, his foot looked much more balanced, but he still abscessed regularly and still walked in pain. The vet took x-rays and based on the results we shod him in natural balance shoes with a frog support wedge pad. Within a week he was trotting happily around in his paddock.
Properly shod, horses should grow strong, healthy hooves.
Photo bottom right is 3 weeks after pulling shoes for winter. This excellent hoof is shod on a 5-6 week schedule through the riding season and will remain barefoot for 4 months in winter on a 6-8 week trim schedule. He is sound as a whistle!
Which method is right? I think they both are!
Asking three main questions can help owners decide whether a barefoot maintenance program or conventional shoeing is right for their horses. These questions are below, followed by a brief explanation of their importance to our understanding of hoof function.
First, what is the
quality of your horse’s hooves and his soundness level today?
A lot of great things happen when a sound horse lands heel
first. Horses feeling pain or discomfort
will often change their gait to land toe first, in a way that protects the affected
area. That change in stride is damaging
to other areas of the lower limb, and the result is a long-term decline in
soundness. Shoes can help horses achieve
a pain-free, natural stride, which leads to a healthy hoof, and a long-term
increase in soundness.
If your horse is sound, with a great heel first landing in-hand and when you ride him, then barefoot maintenance may be a good choice for him.
Second, what are the
environmental conditions that affect your horse where he lives, and where you
The horse’s foot is beautifully
designed to function in all kinds of environments. The hard outer hoof wall and callused sole
act like shields to protect the fragile inner structures from damage. The frog and less obvious digital cushion act
like shock absorbers to dissipate concussion during footfall.
“Load sharing” occurs when the hoof wall, the
sole and the frog all contact the ground and help distribute the load of your
horse as he moves. The ability of these
structures to do their jobs depends on whether they are in good working
If your horse lives in wet pasture
or in muddy paddock conditions, the hoof wall and sole “shield” can weaken. If you then ride on rocky trails or in a
gravelly arena, sole and frog bruising, hoof wall cracks, and laminar
separation can result. Shoes allow
horses to comfortably carry riders over terrain that is harsher than the ground
where they live.
The shock absorbing quality of frog
and digital cushion depends both on the environment and on how much they are
used. Movement promotes blood
circulation, which nourishes the frog and digital cushion. Paddock and stall life inhibits natural
movement, and can lead to long-term atrophy of the frog and digital
cushion. Also, bacteria thrive in moist
conditions, and can eat away at healthy frog.
If the frog and digital cushion are compromised, or if they do not touch
the ground during landing, they cannot act as effective shock absorbers for the
If your horse lives in a dry, gravelly environment, then his hooves may be durable enough to ride barefoot. Shoes with frog pads can provide
artificial support to the back of the foot, to help it participate in shock
absorption and load sharing.
Third, what are the
performance expectations for your horse between now and the next time I see
If your horse has a healthy bare foot today, then his
ability to remain barefoot depends on the expected wear and tear. By wear, I mean the amount of hoof wall that
will erode, or wear away, during the trim cycle. Wear versus growth depends on how many miles
you plan to ride him, over what terrain, and the rate of hoof growth. Hooves grow faster in summer and slower in
winter. If the hoof wears away faster than it grows, the horse needs shoes.
By tear, I mean the amount of strain the hoof
will experience. Jumping, sliding stops,
turning at high speeds- these activities place an enormous amount of strain on
joints, tendons, hoof wall, laminar attachments, and the lateral
cartilage. Shoes stabilize the foot
during movement and provide a means of artificially adjusting traction to
improve performance and prevent injury.
To learn more about evaluating hoof health, click the link below to access a 5-Part Series titled "Evaluating Hoof Health", written by Mark and Karen Plumlee of Mission Farrier School, and published in The Northwest Horse Source Magazine. Link: Understanding Footfalls