There have long been debates surrounding horseshoeing and whether or not it’s necessary for all horses. So, if you find yourself asking “Why do horses wear shoes?” you’ve come to the right place.
Now I’m not talking about a nice pair of trainers for your horse. I’m talking about the U-shaped metal plate attached to their hooves.
In this article, we’re looking at everything you need to know about horseshoeing, including if horses should wear shoes, how they work, the pros, cons, and possible alternatives.
What Are Horseshoes For?
Horseshoes have been around since the early domestication of horses – 6,000 years ago. They were primarily used for working horses to prevent any damage to the hoof that might put a heavy lifter out of work. Remember, back then, horses were needed in agriculture and mining, without them, some industries would come to a standstill.
So, it makes sense why humans would want to find a way to prevent their trusty steeds from getting hurt or sick from the hoof upwards.
You might wonder about wild horses, after all, they don’t need horseshoes. But domesticated horses run and live in very different environments. Wild horses’ hooves develop differently from domesticated horses’ feet. Think about it, trail riding or riding in an arena versus outdoor mountain riding offer very different terrains.
Throughout history, horseshoes have come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Today, most horseshoes are made with steel or aluminium.
In its simplest form, a horseshoe compensates for some of the load on a horse’s hooves. That’s why most eventing horses wear shoes or hoof boots, they compensate for the pressure brought on by jumping and running.
Similarly, police horses wear shoes to compensate for the pressure from pavement walking.
The same goes for racers; racehorses wear shoes to grip surfaces while running at top speeds, pulling them across the finish line faster.
Side note, learn how fast a horse can run – the horseshoe thing might make a bit more sense once you do.
Some shoes even have studs like a football boot to give extra grip in the snow, ice or slippy grass
Additionally, horseshoes have medical purposes for issues like:
These are often seen in wild horses that become domesticated, so it’s something to keep in mind.
Types of Horseshoes
There are various horseshoe types. To fit your horse with the best shoe, it’s best to be aware of the different ones out there:
Regular: The common horseshoe, resembling a U-shape, made from steel or aluminium on most riding horses.
Bar: A bar at the heel of the shoe for additional support.
Rim: A shoe with a deep groove in the middle, providing more traction for things like barrel racing.
Heart Bar: A horseshoe with a bar at the heel and an extra piece for soft underside (frog) support. It is mostly used for horses with laminitis.
Egg Bar: A horseshoe with a bar extended over the heel.
The type of horseshoe you choose should be based on where your horse rides, how they ride, and whether there are underlying medical conditions to consider. For example, wild horses don’t wear shoes, but they don’t need to considering how the horse’s hooves have developed over time in the same environment.
How Are Horseshoes Attached?
People that attach horseshoes are called farriers. They use a special type of nail to attach the shoe to the outer part of horses’ hooves.
Once the nail has gone through the outside part of the hoof, the top of the nail is trimmed and bent over resembling a type of hook (called clinching). From there the farrier begins to file any sharp pieces of the hoof wall and clinched nails away, ensuring that the shoe fits the hoof correctly.
Like human nails, the hoof will grow out and begin growing over the shoe, this indicates that it’s time for a new horseshoe session.
How Often Do Horses Need Shoes?
Generally, if a horse has no injuries or medical conditions their shoes should last about four to six weeks. But each horse is different, so keep an eye on horse hooves to ensure they aren’t growing over the shoe too quickly.
The farrier will trim and file the horses foot every 4 to 8 weeks to enure they don’t grow too long
Do All Horses Need Shoes?
You might be thinking, why do horses need shoes to begin with? The truth is, not all horses require shoes, and it’s totally fine for horses to go barefoot if that’s what you as an owner decide. But there are several reasons why you might consider putting horseshoes on your riding companion:
Consider the activity: You need to look at the types of activities you’re doing with your horse. If your horse spends most of its time on well-maintained soft surfaces then there shouldn’t be a need for shoes. However, if you’re taking your horse anywhere near rocky or rough terrain horseshoes can protect the hoof from a variety of injuries.
Sensitive hoofs: Just like human feet, some horses’ hoofs are more sensitive. If your horse struggles on anything other than soft grass, horseshoes are probably your best option.
Lameness: Unfortunately, some horses suffer from lameness which can affect the entire hoof. Horseshoes can protect the hoof by providing cushioning, supporting the alignment, and reducing pressure.
Individual need: As an owner, you ultimately decide whether or not your horse should be fitted with horseshoes. You need to consider the breed, their medical needs, and comfort. Speaking with a specialist farrier is highly recommended to help you make the right choice for your animal.
Activity levels: If you have a busy body that is non-stop on the go from dusk to dawn then horseshoes can provide protection and support to ensure they can go about their days without increased risk of injury or strain.
Regardless of whether you choose to horseshoe your trusty steed, maintaining hoof health is vital to the overall condition of your animal.
Your horse’s hoof type, workload and surfaces it works on will determine it’s shoeing requirements
Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses?
We’ll be the first to say that horseshoes don’t look comfortable, but that doesn’t mean that they hurt your horse.
A horse hoof is made up of an outer capsule that protects internal structures like ligaments, bones, blood vessels, and tendons. The capsule is connected to the internal structure through a tissue structure (lamella).
The capsule itself is made from keratin, that’s the stuff that makes up your hair and fingernails, pretty cool right?
So, when the nails attach to the hoof it goes into the outer hoof wall, which like your hair strands, has no feeling. Imagine hammering your hair into a wall, you wouldn’t feel the nail go through your hair, would you?
However, if you accidentally nailed your ear, you would feel that. It’s the same with horses, incorrect nail placement can be very painful and possibly lead to infection, that’s why finding a specialist farrier is important.
To answer the question, do horseshoes hurt riding horses, no, they shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean extra care shouldn’t be taken. Shoeing horses is a very specialized skill.
Horseshoes don’t hurt the horse if the shoes are fitted by a professional farrier
Are There Dangers to Horseshoeing?
There aren’t imminent dangers, except for what we mentioned above with the nail being misplaced causing infection or pain.
However, it’s still important that horseshoes fit correctly to avoid your horses feeling uncomfortable. Like when we wear shoes that are too small, incorrect horseshoe sizes can make horses sore or uncomfortable. In the long term, it may even cause structural damage to the hoof.
Unfortunately, once the internal structures of a hoof are damaged, it’s a long hard road to fix them. But while the incorrect horseshoes can cause damage, the same goes for not putting shoes on horse hooves. If a rock or stick gets into the internal structure, there’s a chance for damage too.
Are There Alternatives to Horseshoeing?
After all this, you might be wondering if horseshoes are the only option for your riding partner. Luckily, there are some alternatives you can consider:
Hoof boots: Hoof boots are less permanent protection that you can put on when necessary. They are usually made from plastic, rubber, or vinyl. You can also keep them on at all times because they have the required airflow. Plus, they can last upwards of a year depending on activities.
Wooden shoes: Once the hoof is trimmed, the wooden shoe is glued to the bottom of the hoof. These shoes are usually for therapy when a horse is injured as it stabilizes the capsule while letting the hoof wall grow.
Glue-on shoes: If a horse has hoof defects that prevent the nails from being placed, a glue-on shoe is made with aluminium like the regular shoes, but they simply glue on.
So, if you want your horse to have shoes but aren’t entirely sold on the nail application, then one of these alternatives might be able to help.
The Pros and Cons of Horseshoes
Before we finish up, let’s look at the pros and cons of horseshoeing your riding companion:
Protects the walls of the hooves.
Enhances equestrian performance, particularly jumping.
Can treat painful hoof conditions.
Protects the internal structures of the hoof.
Horseshoes are expensive.
Risk of losing shoes, particularly when long-distance riding.
Mistakes during application may cause structural damage to the hoof wall.
Possibility of weakening the natural hoof.
What age should a horse wear shoes?
Baby horse hooves are incredibly sensitive, they need time to grow and get used to the feeling of walking. You should only consider horseshoeing once a horse is fully matured. Some foals may need horseshoes earlier for medical conditions, that’s why we recommend starting the relationship between foal and farrier as early as possible.
Can I ride my horse if it’s lost a shoe?
In general, it’s best to stop riding your horse as soon as it’s lost a shoe to prevent any damage or unwanted injuries.