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Why Do Horses Need Shoes? Exploring the Pros & Cons of Horseshoes

Why do horses need shoes? This is one of the spiciest debates in the equine community. Hopefully, this article doesn’t step on any toes, or hooves for that matter! As with most controversial topics, there is no simple answer. Shoeing is a well-established practice that’s been around since about 1000 AD, so the convention is likely not without some merit.

We’ll investigate the details of horseshoeing and weigh the benefits of shod and unshod hooves.

What is a Horseshoe?

A horseshoe is a product designed to protect a horse’s hooves from wear and tear. They are U-shaped bands that fit underneath the foot and add a layer of protection between the hoof and the ground.

do horses need horseshoes?

What Are Horseshoes Made of?

Horseshoes are made of metal or a synthetic material like plastic. Although, metal horseshoes are the most common type, with steel being the dominant choice. Magnesium, titanium, and copper are rarer, but not unheard of for special horseshoes. The kind of horseshoe you purchase will depend on your budget, the activity your horse performs, and their health.

Steel

Steel horseshoes are the most dominant choice because they are durable and cheap. The neat thing about steel horseshoes is that they can be reset for multiple shoeings. Since steel is so strong and malleable, a farrier can reshape steel horseshoes between shoeings. The same shoes can be altered and reapplied, saving riders money by forgoing the cost of a new pair of shoes.

Aluminum

Aluminum shoes are lighter than steel shoes. Their weight makes them the preference for racehorses because they don’t inhibit the horse’s speed. However, aluminum horseshoes are more expensive and wear down quicker than steel. You also can’t recast them for multiple shoeings.

Polyurethane (Plastic)

Plastic horseshoes are thicker than aluminum and steel shoes, but they are the lightest. One benefit of plastic is its ability to absorb shocks. This quality makes them ideal for horses with arthritis or joint issues because it reduces the impact on their connective structures. Plastic shoes last longer than steel and aluminum shoes.

horeshoe on horse pulling wagon

What is the Purpose of Shoes?



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Domesticated horses are subject to conditions they don’t encounter in the wild. In nature, horses live in arid climates.

As people took horses worldwide and put them to work, horses found themselves stepping on soft pastures and mud. The water in these moist terrains softens the hooves and makes them prone to damage. Not to mention, generations of selective breeding have resulted in some weak-hoofed bloodlines.

People recognized the need for some kind of hoof modification very early on. Equestrians have been shoeing their horses for thousands of years.

The practice has its pros and cons, but it serves some vital functions:

Protection

The chief purpose of horseshoes is hoof preservation. Some domesticated horses are prone to hoof damage or wear from hard or wet terrains, intense training, or even unsanitary hay.

The additional weight of a rider or wagon also puts more stress on the hooves. Horseshoes fortify the hooves and give them more durability to withstand these taxing conditions.

Gait Manipulation and Correction

Shoes can alter a horse’s gait. Special horseshoes crafted with particular weights, shapes, and thicknesses can correct unusual gaits that result from bone or muscle issues. In the same vein, special shoes can manipulate a horse’s gait purely for aesthetic purposes.

Medical Use Of Corrective Shoeing

Special horseshoes can protect compromised hooves, ease joint/tendon strain, and alleviate pain associated with these conditions.

Though it’s not intended to alleviate stress, you might want to consider CBD horse products to relieve and ease irritation associated with tendon strain.

Always go to your veterinarian for expert medical advice and treatment.

Navicular Disease

Navicular disease refers to inflammation or degeneration of the navicular bone, which is a vital part of the hoof structure. It’s one of the leading causes of equine lameness. Special shoes that lift and support the heel may improve this condition; wedged and bar horseshoes are both popular choices. These horseshoes can rebalance the hoof and set the navicular bone in its proper place.

Arthritis & Tendonitis

Horses that struggle with joint and tendon pain can be helped by horseshoes. Corrective shoeing rebalances misaligned structures and provides extra support. These corrections decrease the impact on a horse’s connective structures, reduce joint and tendon strain, and ease soreness.

Hospital Plates

Horses suffering from bacterial hoof infections like thrush, canker sores, or abscesses will benefit from a hospital plate. A hospital plate protects the infected hoof from dirt, pathogens, and further trauma while allowing the sole to be accessible for cleaning. Hospital plates need to be attached underneath a horseshoe.

Traction

Horses are expected to perform in all kinds of conditions: ice, snow, mud, you name it. Special horseshoes designed for these terrains provide extra traction and prevent your horse from slipping or getting stuck. The additional grip significantly reduces the strain on your horse’s muscles and hooves.

horseshoe hanging from nail

Horseshoes vs. Barefoot: Is One Better Than The Other?

Many argue that wild horses do not have shoes and they do just fine. This fact is undeniable, but wild horses and domesticated horses don’t live under the same conditions. Others say that a horseshoe causes more damage to the hoof than it aims to prevent. It’s true that improper shoeing can have terrible consequences on your horse’s feet, but should that stop you from visiting the farrier?

The answer to whether your horse should go barefoot or shod is as; there is a lot of grey area to consider. Your horse’s lifestyle, environment, and hoof condition all come into play when deciding whether they should wear shoes.

Barefoot Horses

Horses without shoes are “barefoot.” The hooves of a barefoot horse naturally grow and wear as the horse ages and interacts with the environment. Equestrians claim that forgoing shoes provide more blood circulation in the foot and healthier hoof growth. And of course, you save the farrier and shoe expense, so barefoot is more economical.

That’s not to say you don’t need to take care of your horse’s hooves. Hoof maintenance is a crucial part of horse care. Your horse’s hooves are always growing, and if your horse is leisurely or stays on soft terrains, their hooves will not wear as much. Hoof trimming is required more often in these circumstances.

Barefoot horses should have their hooves trimmed every five to six weeks, but this may vary. Assess your horse’s hooves continually and keep up with cleaning.

Be cautioned! If your horse is suffering from tendonitis, contracted heels, weak soles, or is recovering from laminitis, then going barefoot will not benefit them.

Shod Horses

Horses with shoes are considered “shod.” Environmental and physical stressors in a horse’s daily life can injure the hoof. A shod horse receives some hoof protection from their horseshoes. Because horseshoes can improve hoof traction, a horse with shoes might be better prepared to handle challenging terrains like a rocky mountainside or icy path.

Special horseshoes can also benefit horses with certain health conditions, like arthritis, by easing joint strain.

Shoeing is not without risks. A lousy shoe, or a flawed shoeing procedure, can spell big trouble for your horse. Misplaced nails can cause abscesses in your horse’s hoof. If the shoe isn’t securely attached, it can come loose and get caught on objects.

Snagged horseshoes can tear the hoof wall or cause further damage to surrounding muscles and tendons. And if the shoe doesn’t fit correctly, it can cause undue strain on your horse’s connective structures which results in pain.

Because a horse’s hooves are always growing, shod horses need new shoes every four to six weeks. When a horse visits the farrier for a new pair of shoes, the farrier will trim and clean the hooves before applying the new horseshoes. Then, they ensure the new horseshoes fit correctly and make adjustments to the shoes as needed.

Transitioning from Shod to Barefoot

When you remove your horse’s shoes, their soles will be a little more sensitive than they were in the pre-shoe days. This is simply because they haven’t felt the ground in a while. You might notice your horse stepping more cautiously in the week after they ditched their shoes. To avoid bruising or injury, reduce their workload, or try to keep them on soft terrains. Putting a fresh sole on a rocky path is the perfect recipe for bruising, injury, and pain.

do horses need shoes

Do All Horses Need Shoes?

In short – no. You should shoe a horse if you feel it will bring them more benefit than not. But, if the horse has healthy hooves at low risk of injury, you don’t need a shoe! Lots of riders turn to temporary protective measures, like hoof boots, for times when the horse’s hooves are subject to more strain. Hoof health should be assessed continually. Your horse may benefit from horseshoes at one point, but be better off without them later.

Final Thoughts – Why Do Horses Need Shoes?

Whether or not your horse will wear shoes is all up to you. Many horse owners swear by barefoot, but you should keep in mind what’s best for your horse.

Hoof health, environment, and activity level are the most significant factors to consider when deciding whether to shoe your horse. A working horse should be shod unless they have the hooves of a Pegasus.



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