The Importance of Horseshoes

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The debate about whether horses should wear shoes has raged for a long, long time.  Some people feel that horses never wore shoes pre-domestication by man and so should go as nature intended, barefoot.  Other owners feel that domestication has required the horse to work on surfaces that it would not encounter in the wild such as roads and also jobs that were not around a few thousand years ago, for instance, show jumping and eventing so shoes are an essential part of modern horse management.  So who is right?

There is a vociferous group of ardent enthusiasts who maintain that barefoot is best and even have their own trimmers and in the opposing camp, people who have horses that they swear would simply be lame if it were not for the services of a good farrier and a set of corrective shoes.

Shoeing horses

Horses have been shod for centuries and so this is old news.  However, modern techniques and materials and the advent of MRI scanning mean that there is now so much more information about the internal structure of the horse’s foot particularly diagnostically when there is lameness or injury.  And there are now many more options for different types of shoeing procedure and indeed, horseshoes.

Whenever a farrier shoes a horse, he, first of all, removes the old shoe and then trims and re-shapes the foot.  Horses can be shod either hot or cold which refers to actually whether the shoe is heated in the forge on site and applied hot or whether it is nailed on cold.  Hot shoeing is usually considered the preferable option as the shoe can be moulded and shaped to exactly fit the horse’s foot on the day.

Different types of horseshoe

Most horses with no particular issues either conformationally or injury wise are should in a standard hunter shoe which is fullered (grooved) to increase grip.  The shoe has a central toe clip in front and two side or quarter clips on the hind feet.  However, there are many more variants on this standard horseshoe design before you even look at shoeing techniques.  Here are some of the most commonly seen horseshoe variations and corrective shoes that you are about at the moment and a brief summary of what they do.

  • Eggbar – so called because it is shaped like an egg, fitted to horses who need more support in the heel area so typically, horses with low/collapsed and underrun heels and those with navicular syndrome
  • Heartbar – like an eggbar shoe and often used as an alternative option, the heartbar also has a ‘V’ shaped plate which sits over the frog, popular with horses that need frog and heel support

  • Racing plates – a lightweight aluminium shoe used for racehorses as it does not significantly increase the weight of the foot compared to a steel shoe but still offers grip when on grass. These shoes wear out very quickly on other surfaces and for this reason, are usually only used for one race
  • Glue On Shoes – designed for horses who either cannot bear the trauma of nailing on in the conventional shoeing process, for example, a horse suffering from acute laminitis. Also suitable for horses with damaged or very dry/brittle feet who cannot hold a nailed shoe but require the support of a shoe

Studs

Horses that compete regularly and do fast work on grass, usually have studs fitted to their horsehoes.  The shoe is made with a stud hole which is kept plugged usually with cotton wool when the horse is not being competed.  Prior to the event, the stud hole is cleaned out and a stud screwed in and tightened with a special spanner.  The type of stud will depend on the ground conditions on the day – narrow long stud for hard, dry ground and short, fat studs for heavy/wet ground – and it is personal preference whether to have a stud in every shoe and whether to have two studs, one on the inside and one on the outside of the shoe.

Some horses do compete without shoes but certainly, in the sport of eventing, it is become increasingly difficult to manage the cross country phase without the addition of studs.  However, the use of studs is not without its own controversy as part of the horse’s shock absorbency mechanism is the ability of the foot to slide very slightly on landing from a fence which of course the presence of a stud does prevent.

Whether your horse is shod or unshod, he should see either a farrier or registered foot trimmer on average, every eight weeks.  This time span may vary for horses who have issues and shoeing/trimming intervals in some cases can be as short as three to four weeks depending on the individual horse and his specific requirements.

The best position to take in the shod versus unshod debate is to think about the horse and treat every horse as an individual.  There are certainly some horses and ponies who have excellent hard feet with good structure and angles and they will happily go without shoes for their entire lives.  And there are other horses, the Thoroughbred springs to mind, who specialise in flat feet with long toes and collapsed heels and who are prone to all sorts of injuries and ailments and who can struggle to spend a week in work without shoes.  Looking at each horse as an individual with the support of a good vet and farrier or trimmer should hopefully mean that the right decision is made for that particular animal and that could, of course, be a completely different decision to that made for the horse in the stable next door.  Horses for courses!