Why do horses need shoes?
We tend to take for granted that horses are shod. After all, the horseshoe is a universally recognised positive symbol for good luck, fortune and protection. However, increasingly some in the equestrian world are starting to examine whether shoeing is always in a horse’s best interest.
Quite simply, the decision to shoe or leave our horses barefoot depends on the horse and the intensity and nature of work we’re asking it to perform.
Hooves, just like our nails, grow constantly. Wild horses’ hooves wear naturally but that isn’t to say that they don’t sometimes suffer from foot problems that would be treated by a farrier if they occurred in a domesticated horse. Also, natural selection plays a part in the wild: horses with bad feet are likely to die younger and so breed less.
Humans started putting shoes on horses to allow them to do work that might otherwise cause the hoof to wear too quickly and so put a horse out of action and also to help them cross uneven and hard terrain.
“We shoe for longevity and workload but also to improve the balance and correctness in some horses,” explains Tobias Jones DipWCF.
Just as some human’s have stronger and faster-growing nails than others, horses are the same. “If you have a very weak-footed horse with slow growth, such as some Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, we shoe to support the foot with adequate length and width.
“Likewise, some horses have very thin soles and weak feet and a steel shoe offers protection and helps create natural balance,” continues Tobias.
“If you have a horse with great feet, such as a hardy native, that is doing very light work or on a soft surface, the wear to the feet isn’t so much. In such cases, I would say there is a duty of care not to shoe if it isn’t required for protection, lameness or correction,” he believes. “But the horse still requires a farrier to trim to help maintain balance.”
The issue of shoeing was thrown into the spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics when the Swedish showjumping team were the talk of the town and became known as the “shoeless Swedes”. Two thirds of the gold-medal winning team competed barefoot. This included Peder Fredricson, who took the individual silver medal.
Peder has been jumping most of his horses without shoes for some years now. “It started with a horse with an injury that was unsuccessfully treated so we took off the shoes and turned it out,” he recalls. “When the horse came back into work, I just had a feeling that I should try without shoes and jumped some pretty big classes with success.”
Agria, which has been striving for years to reduce the risk of lameness in horses, became involved when Peder wanted to discover whether there is a scientific explanation why his horses appear to perform better unshod.
The Agria Research Fund is collaborating with the Swedish University of Agricultural Science and Peder Fredricson, and launched its study into the impacts on movement and force on the horse with and without shoes in 2021. Results will start to be reported in 2022. “I hope that we gain more knowledge and that new questions are raised to research further into this issue,” says Peder. “Knowledge is the way to everything.”
According to equine vet Lucinda Tichehurst, there are both advantages and disadvantages to shoeing and not shoeing. “It is vitally important that the pros and cons of both are weighed up properly with the advice of your farrier who, even with a barefoot horse, will be required to visit to trim and help maintain good hoof health,” she says.
Advantages of horse shoes
Shoes can help prevent against injury in horses that are ridden or roads and hard surfaces, and those that work intensively.
Being shod reduces the rate of wear of the hoof in horses doing heavy, weight-bearing work such as pulling a cart.
In some horses, shoes can increase performance by addressing medical, conformation and balance issues.
There is little restriction on the type of surface or ground a horse can be ridden on.
Advantages of horses going barefoot
Some horses perform better, especially those working on a surface.
Trimming feet is less expensive than shoeing.
Hoof walls are not weakened by nails.
The weight of a shoe can detrimental to some orthopedic conditions.
Some people feel that being unshod is a horse’s natural state and, therefore, better for it.
Related guides and advice
Keeping your pets cool and safe: Essential tips for hot weather care