Does Your Horse Really Need To Wear Shoes?
Some horses do, some don't. Here's how to decide.
A reader recently asked "What do horseshoes actually do for the horse? Are they absolutely necessary?"
This is what shoes do for horses: Wild horses walk and graze continuously over a wide range of natural terrains, which causes their hoofs to become hard and strong from the constant stimulation. But domestic animals typically don’t graze over long distances. Instead, they live in fields, stalls, or paddocks that have soft footing. As a result, their hooves are not as strong and hard as wild horses. Unless their hooves are trimmed and shod, their hooves can grow overly long in the toe and become fragile. Shoes provide protection.
Most domestic horses also participate in sports like jumping or barrel racing that put a good deal of concussive force on the hooves, legs, and joints. Shoes help absorb that force and protect the horse’s legs and feet.
Now the on to the first question: Are horseshoes absolutely necessary? The answer is, it depends on the horse and the kind of riding you plan to do.
Ponies have terrifically hard hooves and typically do not need to be shod if ridden by a child. If the pony is going to be doing a lot of jumping (as in Pony Club), shoes on the front feet may be a good idea.
Warmbloods also have terrifically hard hooves, and often are ridden barefoot. World famous dressage Shannon Peters has taken 15 barefoot warmbloods successfully from Training Level to Grand Prix. In her opinion, going barefoot allows the legs to tighten up and frees the shoulders. As a result, she believes her horses move better and straighter. Similarly, top jumping competitor Alex Nicol has competed at the top jumper circuits in the east coast USA and Australia on barefoot warmbloods. She claims that barefoot results in fewer injuries, recurring lameness, and tendon strains. She also points out that barefoot means no cuts from shoes brushing.
If you're thinking of riding barefoot, you need to be aware that this doesn't mean simply pulling your horse's shoes. Your horse's hooves must be trimmed properly. The barefoot trim takes pressure off the hoof walls to allow the sole, frog and bars to bear more weight, and bevels the hoof wall to reduce chipping. The toes are typically trimmed short to aid in breakover and to facilitate a heel-first landing. If the toe is instead trimmed long, it draws the entire hoof capsule forward, which contributes to under run heels.
Other breeds should be shod if they are going to be ridden frequently, particularly if they are going to be ridden on hard ground. Thoroughbreds are notorious for having “shaley” feet, and typically need to be shod because their hooves tend to chip easily.
There are two alternatives to barefoot or nail-on shoes, boots that can be removed and glue-on shoes. Steffen Peter's two-time Olympic mount, Ravel suffered a quarter crack two and a half months before the London Games. To help Ravel heal, a pair of Easyboot Gloves were fitted for his front feet to wear during training sessions. The boots have a tough rubber tread and a neoprene gaiter that fastens around the pastern. This system provides protection for the hoof while allowing it to expand and contract while the horse moves. Garrett Ford, the president of EasyCare Inc., (the maker of Easyboot Gloves), won the 100-Mile Western States Trail Ride (the famous Tevis Cup) in 2012 on a horse wearing hoof boots.
Glushu are glue-on shoes that are as durable as metal horse shoes, but don't need to be nailed on. You can read more about those here.
Copyright Denise Cummins, PhD May 9, 2018
The Thinking Equestrian
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Denise Cummins has over 30 years experience as an equestrian and horse business owner. In The Thinking Equestrian, she shares valuable tips on caring for and training horses, giving riding instruction, and running a successful horse business.