You know horses wear shoes and have seen a metal horseshoe before, but do horses actually need to wear shoes? Did you know that like wild horses, some horses in captivity don’t wear shoes?
Not all horses need to wear shoes. In fact, it is more natural and generally better for a horse to go “barefoot” or “unshod.” However, there are horses that benefit from wearing shoes. Metal horseshoes are not ideal despite it being the norm in the horse world, luckily there are other options. Every horse is unique. The pros and cons of a horse’s situation should be taken into consideration when deciding to shoe or not.
Take Note: Shoeing and going barefoot has been highly debated. There are many strong opinions, on either side of the spectrum. Some believe all horses are better off barefoot, some believe that many horses are better off wearing shoes and some are in the middle where they believe it depends on the horse.
My Experience With Horses Needing Shoes
My opinion is somewhere in the middle. I think it depends on what is best for the horse. This is after owning several horses and working with both barefoot trimmers, and traditional and corrective farriers.
I gave all my horses a year barefoot to let the soles toughen up and the new growth come in. At the time it was mostly to save money. I don’t own horses right now but I have owned 6 horses. All except for two had shoes on when I got them.
The horses I bought that came with shoes already on were all off-the-track thoroughbreds. The 2 horses I bought already barefoot were a young Hanoverian and an older OTTB.
If barefoot ended up not being the best option and my horse was still uncomfortable, I turned to shoes. Out of all 6 of my horses. Two horses ended up being shod; the Hanoverian and a 9 yr. OTTB gelding.
However, after researching and learning about the harm metal shoes cause to horses I would not turn to metal shoes again. There are more shock-absorbing options out there if support is needed.
The Hanoverian needed shoes because she was wearing her hind toes down to the nubs. Her front feet were solid and did not bother her one bit. Unfortunately, if you put on hind shoes you need to put on front shoes.
I tried keeping her barefoot using hoof boots when she was ridden. But the paddocks had rough ground and she was wearing them down in the paddock. Shoes helped her hind toes to grow out and protected them from the excess wearing down.
The thoroughbred needed shoes because, after a year and a half of transitioning to barefoot, using boots during riding, on hoof supplements, and being turned out 24/7, his soles were still thin and tender and he was getting stone bruises in his paddock. He was okay on soft footing but anywhere else he was tender.
In general, he was also a super sensitive horse, and any little thing that was uncomfortable he let it be known. I tried shoes on just his fronts and he was like a different horse, so much more comfortable.
Even though shoeing helped these horses in the past. If I buy a horse in the future that ends up needing shoes. I will not wear metal shoes. I have learned a lot much in the way of feet and the mechanics of the hooves and metal shoes can cause more harm than good in the long run.
In this post I am going to go through:
- Why most horses don’t need shoes
- About horse hooves
- Reasons why horses may wear shoes
- The downside of traditional horseshoes
- Alternatives to traditional horseshoes
- Barefoot horse management
- Figuring out what’s best for your horse
Why Most Horses Don’t Need Shoes
Having horses barefoot is the most natural and healthy way for a horse. Not every horse will thrive barefoot but most horses will with the right management.
Take Note: Barefoot horses still need regular trimming every 4-8 weeks. This mostly depends on how fast the horse’s hoof grows and if the trimmer is trying to make gradual changes to the hoof. If the farrier is making gradual changes usually during a transition to going barefoot, then they may come more often to keep making small adjustments. That is until the hoof is where it is supposed to be. Then the time between trims may become farther apart.
Of course, there are exceptions for some horses that may need more help with their feed aside from regular trims and proper nutrition, but many horses just have horseshoes slapped on because that is what the owner is used to doing.
Or they think because the horse is jumping or doing more work that the horse needs shoes.
Or they bought a horse that already wore shoes and they just assumed the horse needed shoes.
Or they tried going barefoot, had shoes taken off, and saw their horse seemed sore even after a few weeks, so the next time the farrier came they had shoes put back on.
Most of the time horses don’t need shoes because the horse is designed to be barefoot, and has trouble functioning properly with metal shoes. Traditional metal shoes have a lot of risks associated with them that many people aren’t aware of.
If the horse has been wearing shoes keep in mind it may take time to transition.
- The hooves will open up and spread out a little bit during this time.
- The horse will feel the ground again and may need to get used to the feeling.
- The soles need to be callous and toughen up, sometimes best to leave a little bit extra sole and start horse on softer dirt or on grass.
- The trimmer may need to gradually trim the horse’s feet to the correct angles without removing too much.
- The hoof walls may be weak and crumbly from the horseshoe nails.
- It may take half a year to a year for your horse to fully transition to being comfortable barefoot.
Even with as much time as possible some horses are still not comfortable and benefit from non-traditional shoes like polyurethane shoes with frog support or boots.
Now let’s talk a bit about the horse’s hooves. So you can better understand their mechanisms.
About The Hoof Structure
The hoof has layers and different parts. Here’s a quick look at the hoof.
The hoof bone is made up of two bones. The coffin bone is the more hoof-shaped bone and the navicular bone which is a smaller bone, that sits behind the short pastern bone and the coffin bone.
Attached to these hoof bones are two main tendons the deep digital flexor tendon and the extensor tendon. The extensor tendon is in the front attached to the coffin bone and straightens the leg. The deep digital flexor tendon is at the back of the leg and wraps around the navicular bone, allowing the horse to flex and bend the leg.
The digital cushion is one of the hoof’s main shock absorbers. It is located toward the back of the hoof below the coffin bone.
There are veins, arteries, and nerves throughout the horse’s hooves.
The insensitive and sensitive laminae are intermingled a little bit, like velcro, and attach the coffin bone to the hoof wall. The sensitive laminae layer has the veins, arteries, and nerves throughout the horse’s hooves.
Then there is the hoof horn with the white line and finally, the hoof wall which is the outermost layer.
The bottom of the foot has other parts that I won’t be going into too much detail about in this article.
How The Hoof Works In Motion
The hoof does several things in motion:
- it bears weight
- it expands
- it provides traction
- it absorbs shock
- it helps the horse make judgments about footing and how to step
- it aids in blood circulation
As the horse steps the hoof should land heel first then toe.
The weight-bearing parts of the hoof are the hoof wall, the bars, the sole, and the frog.
When the horse steps down the hoof will expand slightly and contract as the hoof lifts off the ground.
The frog and the bars on the horse’s foot help provide the horse traction.
The frog is also another shock absorber in the horse’s foot and helps protect the digital cushion.
The frog has sensitive nerves that let the horse know the kind of surface they are on and where their feet are.
Another thing that happens in the hoof when it steps down and expands is that it sucks in blood. As the hoof lifts off the ground, the hoof contracts the blood shoots up the leg helping the heart with blood circulation. This circulation helps to keep the horse’s hoof healthy.
The Purpose Of Horseshoes
There are 3 main reasons people shoe a horse aside:
- Hooves wear down faster than they can grow
- To correct a problem
Protect Hooves Wearing Down Faster Than They Can Grow
In the wild, horses hooves are generally very tough compared to domesticated horses. This is because they have varied terrain to walk over, walk many miles every day, and have less moisture exposure. These things help to toughen and also naturally trim the wild horses’ hooves.
Horse’s genetics do play a part in the quality of the horse’s hooves. In the wild, horses with problem feet often did not survive due to not being able to outrun or defend against predators. This is part of the reason why the wild horses we see tend to have good feet.
Domesticated hooves tend to have softer weaker hooves, because of the management of the horse and genetics. These hooves left alone can get overgrown or the opposite; overly worn down.
When the horses are on soft surfaces all the time the hooves don’t get adequately worn down on their own and keep growing until they get much too overgrown.
When horses are worked often this puts extra wear on the horse’s hooves. Since these horses tend to have softer feet sometimes the work can cause the hooves to wear down faster than the hooves can grow out.
Horses that grow their feet out and don’t wear down the foot can most often get away without shoeing. But they need to be regularly and correctly trimmed.
Horses that wear down their hooves faster than they grow back can benefit from wearing boots when working or may need horseshoes.
Horses Sometimes Wear Shoes For Traction
Horseshoes are often used for traction in different riding disciplines, where the horses need more grip. Some of the disciplines that often use shoes with studs for more traction include jumping, eventing, polo, and other fast-paced sports.
Another reason horses wear shoes for traction is in the winter months that they have more grip on the ice and snow. These often have a snowball pad, to keep the snow from balling up inside the shoe.
There are different kinds of shoes used for traction like rim shoes or added studs to shoes.
Horses With Hoof Problems Sometimes Benefit From Shoes
Aside from wearing down the hooves too much, there are other problems that horses face which may be helped with different kinds of shoes.
- Thin, weak soles that are sore or get stone bruises regularly.
- Thin hoof walls that have crumbling hooves.
- Navicular syndrome
- Ring Bone
- Bone Spurs
- Leg conformation issues
- Hoof deformities and imbalances
Shoes can help correct major problems as well as provide the horse with more comfort, though barefoot can still be an option for some problem feet.
Metal shoes are not the best way to go about shoeing and nails are also not ideal. Luckily there are other options.
Support For Hooves
Horses may need more support for their hooves when doing heavier or more strenuous work, such as the higher levels of show jumping and eventing. This is to help prevent, chips, cracks, and crumbling from the harder concussion on the feet.
Horses with jobs that increase the concussion on the foot, such as high-level jumpers and eventers, may do well with shoes for increased support.
However, not all horses need the extra support if they have strong healthy hooves.
And metal shoes are definitely not ideal in the concussion department, because though it may keep the foot together it will add to the concussion.
Scientist Luca Bein at the University of Zurich in 1983 brought to light interesting findings about shock absorption in the hoof, comparing it in unshod and shod (with various materials) hooves. According to his study, a hoof shod with a normal metal shoe lacks 60-80% of it natural shock absorption.
Why Metal Shoes Are Harmful To Horses
There are so many things wrong with metal shoeing and some shoeing practices. Often metal shoes may be a quick fix but they can cause long-term damage.
Where do I even start?
How about the way the hoof is supposed to land? Barefoot the hoof naturally lands heel then toe, this helps to dissipate concussion. Just like how your foot would land as you walk.
The metal shoes are rigid and the horse’s hoof lands level. One point for lack of shock absorption. Think if you walked around instead of heel to toe, and had your feet land level all the time. You would probably get sore.
Nailing shoes into the hoof weakens the hoof wall, the nails vibrate in the hoof and the holes make the horse susceptible to getting infections in the holes.
The metal shoes can cause contraction in the heels, usually when the shoe is fitted too tightly near the heels. This can create deep grooves next to and in the frog which invites infections, like thrush.
Metal shoes are concussive and cause trauma to the tendons, ligaments, and joints. The metal nails also vibrate in the horse’s hooves as they step. Two points for the lack of shock absorption.
Traditionally shaped shoes place all the horse’s weight onto the hoof walls, where naturally the weight distribution should be on the walls, bars, and frog. This pressure and concussion weaken the hoof walls.
Due to the lack of flexibility in the metal shoe, the hoof is only able to expand a fraction of the amount it would normally be able to when barefoot.
Because the hoof can’t fully expand on impact not only does it mean more concussion but the hoof sucks in less blood. The circulation is not able to be as strong and functional as when the foot can fully flex. Lack of blood supply to the hooves is not healthy and weakens the hoof and it makes the horse’s cardiovascular system work harder.
Adding traction with studs to horseshoes is not ideal.
Even while treading on steady ground, horses slip slightly during their footfall pattern, but it’s not always dangerous. Known as a micro slip, this act dissipates energy in the foot. However, making even minute changes to the horse’s shoes can have a big impact on the animal’s overall performance and long-term soundness.
So using studs in metal horseshoes can reduce the shock-absorbing abilities of the hoof to prevent that micro slip when barefoot. Another point for lack of shock absorption.
Metal shoes without rims or studs can be slippery, especially on wet grass, mud, and asphalt. So these shoes often need studs to prevent slipping or falls.
Remember the horse’s foot naturally provides traction with the frog and bars. So if the reason for shoes is just for grip then the horse most likely does not need shoes.
The last thing I am going to mention is that the horse cannot feel the footing underneath them with shoes. The frog is the sensitive area of the foot that “tells” the horse what kind of footing is there.
A horse with shoes is less likely to be cautious when stepping on a compromised footing since they can only feel so much with their frogs off the ground.
So at this point, you may be interested in having your horse go barefoot. But you need to know it is not as easy as just taking shoes off your horse.
Although some horses may be able to transition quickly because they have strong feet, most horses take a considerable amount of time before they are comfortable.
Realize that barefoot is a lifestyle change.
The more the horse can use the hoof and move around on varied ground the faster the horse can adapt and callous the feet.
In the beginning, the horse may be prone to stone bruises. When horses wear shoes often more sole is taken away to help fit the shoe. It may take some time for the sole to thicken.
So keep the horse on softer dirt and grass, at first, to stay more comfortable.
Find a good barefoot trimmer and expect trims to be every 4-5 weeks maybe more frequent if many small changes need to be made.
To keep hooves in good shape often barefoot horses need to be seen by the farrier more often than when they are shod. It does require more maintenance to be barefoot but it is so much better for your horse.
Look at the horse’s nutrition. Make sure nothing is missing in the horse’s diet because sometimes lack of certain nutrients can cause poor hoof health as well.
Ingredients that promote hoof growth and strength:
Be careful though, make sure your horse is not getting too much of a vitamin or mineral, because some may be toxic when overdosed.
Your best bet is to make a nutrition plan with your veterinarian and farrier together. Your farrier may know about some hoof supplements they have seen make a difference and your veterinarian can make sure you are giving your horse what they need.
Be aware of your stall and turnout situation. Too much moisture all the time softens the horse’s hoof and invites bacteria. Especially manure and ammonia. This will weaken the horse’s hoof. Thrush and white line disease could become a problem.
And the hoof sole will have trouble toughening up and callousing.
Also, too much dryness causes the horse’s hoof to become brittle and is more prone to chips.
One more thing I am going to note is that when horses are moving more out in turnout with less stall time or out 24/7. They are getting better blood circulation in the hooves and body. Horses are meant to be meandering most of the day.
This is a little off-topic but horses will be more fluid moving around outside often. The stall has little room and horses’ muscles and joints get stiff. If the horse has a kink in the muscle and they are in a stall they can’t walk around and work it out like they would be if they were turned out all the time. They may end up compensating for that tightness elsewhere in the body which can eventually lead to problems. Okay back to feet and shoes.
Most horses’ hooves will tough up and thrive barefoot but, if you have given it your all and your horse is still uncomfortable there are other options aside from traditional metal horseshoes.
Alternatives to Traditional Horseshoes
If you’ve tried your horse barefoot, given the time needed to fully transition and your horse still is uncomfortable, and needs support or correction, luckily there are alternatives to the traditional shoes.
Disclaimer: I have links to the product websites in this section but I am NOT an affiliate or sponsored by any of these products at this time.
Like I mentioned before horses are unique and with these alternatives one may work better for your horse than another.
- Sole Protection
- Hoof boots
- Polyurethane Shoes With Frog Support
- Glue-On Boots/Slippers
Sole Protection Adhesive
There are products that are similar to the hoof glue that you can put on the soles of barefoot horses. The product doesn’t last long; only 2-3 weeks. This is more of a temporary solution to help your horses transition to barefoot than for the long term.
This glue-like sole protection can help barefoot horses:
- Transitioning from shoes to barefoot
- that have thin soles
- that get stone bruises
Sole protection products:
I often had my thoroughbreds wear hoof boots during work unless the footing where I was riding was soft enough. I have tried different hoof boots with my horses and other people’s horses over the years and have found my favorite ones.
Hoof boots I have tried:
By far my favorite was the Renegade hoof boots. I liked the design, they fit my horses well, my horses moved well in them, they almost always stayed secure and you can get extra padding if your horse needs more comfort.
The thing I didn’t like so much about the Renegade hoof boots was that they were on the more expensive side, about $100 per boot. They wear down with regular work, I think I had to replace them every 9-12 months riding 4-5 days a week. And they can be hard to get on as your horse’s hooves grow because you want a snug fit right after a trim.
Hoof boots are good if your horse is comfortable in the paddock barefoot, but you want to protect the horse’s feet when working the horse from too much wear on the hooves, or when you ride on the rougher ground like out on the trails.
Polyurethane Shoes With Frog Support
These are the types of shoes I would go with if a horse needed shoes. They are flexible and a more shock-absorbing material. They allow the horse’s foot to expand and contract.
They can be glued on, nailed on, or glued on, and nailed using fewer nails.
Nails cause an entry point for bacteria into the hoof wall and deteriorate the wall. So I would lean toward glue-on, or glue-on with fewer nails if the horse has a difficult time keeping on the glue-on shoes.
I like that some polyurethane shoes come with frog support. This allows provides better weight distribution on the hoof instead of the traditional U-shaped shoe that bears all the weight on just the hoof walls. Also, the frog and digital cushion are better able to absorb shock like they are supposed to.
Polyurethane shoes tend to have better grip on the ground compared to metal shoes which slip easily without rims or studs.
When using frog support some shoes may need packing material to keep debris and crap from going under the shoe and causing issues.
The downside is not all farriers are willing to do glue-on or shoes other than metal. You will need to find a farrier willing and with the knowledge to do it well. The shoeing expense may be a good deal more money.
Money-Saving Tip: You might be able to make shoeing cheaper if you buy the shoes, glue, and/or nails for the farrier. But you need to know the correct shoe size and find out how much money you will actually be saving, to see if it is worth the trouble.
Some shoes that seem decent and I would try if needed:
Glue for shoes:
Glue-On Boots/ Slippers
Glue on boots and slippers tends to be for the short term a couple of days to a week or so. However, there are some that last longer almost a full interval between trims.
This may be an option if you want protection temporarily for a competition or event going on.
Or if the polyurethane shoes aren’t staying on well with just glue and you don’t want to have to use nails. Longer wearing glue on slippers but it’s something to look into as another option.
Figuring Out What Is Best For Your Horse
I am not a vet or a trained farrier. I am just sharing what I have learned over the years from experience and research. I suggest you educate yourself as much as you can about your horse’s hooves and the horse as a whole. I am basically forever learning about horses and really wanted to share what I have learned about hooves and shoes. I will share hoof resources at the bottom to help you learn more.
Definitely talk to your vet and farrier for advice and to talk about what you would like to try but understand not all vets and farriers will agree with what you are learning about metal shoes. Try to have an open mind with the idea that whatever is best for your horse is most important.
Be willing to change your vet or farrier if their beliefs seem to contradict what you know is best for your horse. But do just assume ask your equine professionals don’t know what they are talking about and ask questions to see their point of view.
One question that you can ask which can tell a lot about what your vet or farrier thinks about horseshoes is:
“Do metal shoes cause any damage to the horse’s feet or legs in the short term or over time?”
If they reply that metal shoes don’t hurt horses but offer support and can help fix problems. Then I would be wary.
However, there are farriers and vets who only suggest shoes if they feel it is absolutely necessary and believe barefoot is best whenever possible.
Because every horse is different, what is best for your horse may not be best for the next horse you see.
Horses Competing Barefoot
These are videos of some horses competing barefoot just to see it can be done with horses that have developed healthy hooves.
Helpful List Of Resources About Hooves
Here is a list of resources about horse hooves. Some are articles from other sites and some YouTube videos.
You may find varying information, because of the many different opinions and experiences which can sometimes be confusing and require some thought.
However, it is also helpful for you to see some different angles people are coming from.
Here are some resources from around the web to learn more about horse-feet and the problems of metal shoes.
- Back to Barefoot: Managing Horses Sans Shoes:
- The Barefoot Horse – Balancing the Why, When and How:
- Understanding The Horse’s Sole:
- 10 Tips For Transitioning to Barefoot:
- Barefoot for Soundness:
- 10 Disadvantages Of Horse Shoes:
- Video: maintaining the kind of environment that promotes optimal hoof health:
- Video: Quick look at hoof care and going barefoot… course available:
- Video: Equine Locomotion Hoof Biomechanics:
- Horse Hoof Information: Think Like A Horse
- Video NATURAL HOOF CARE for healthy BAREFOOT HORSES:- has DVD available
- Video: How To Put On Horse Sneakers With Nails And Why Better Than Metal Shoes:
- Video: Breaking the Cycle of Hoof Lameness: Navicular, Laminitis, Pedal Osteitis:
- Video: Physiology of the Horse’s Hoof, provided by extension:
- Eventing Barefoot: Is It Possible?
I hope you found this post interesting and helpful. I just wanted to help people be more aware of other options aside from metal shoes and show the benefits of healthy horses going barefoot.