Why Do Horses Need Shoes

by | Feb 2, 2020 | Equine Health, Equine Hoof Care

Virtually every horse person knows the familiar sounds of horses – happy nickers, snorts, munching hay, and of course, the clippety-clop of horse hooves. As symbols of good luck, many believe that horseshoes belong with horses automatically. At the same time, with the current debate of barefoot vs. shod in the horse industry, many are left scratching their heads and wondering what the point is of horseshoes at all. It is a good question – Why Do Horses Need Shoes?

Why Did People Start Giving Horses Shoes?

The first examples of horses wearing shoes appear in history around the time of the Roman Empire. Soon after this, farm horses also began wearing metal shoes to protect their hooves from excessive wear and tear. This became more and more of a common practice as roads began to be constructed out of stone and other harder materials. People found that protecting horses hooves with metal shoes kept the hooves from wearing down as quickly. There was another factor that the shoes protected the hooves from: as horses were kept in stalls during the day, they began to stand for a longer and longer time on straw that had been dirtied by manure and urine. These substances caused the horses hooves to grow weaker, in addition to the pounding the hooves got from traveling on cobblestone streets. Attaching metal shoes kept the hooves slightly elevated off the stall floors, where the waste collected, protected the hooves from the breakdown of the hoof wall that these substances caused. City horses began wearing metal shoes as a common practice, and this has been carried down to modern times.

Today, horses who are in regular work are those which wear shoes most often. The most notable examples are the carriage horses that work in cities, and sport horses in regular exercise. Most horses that work often on different terrains need the support of shoes to keep their hooves from wearing down artificially quickly. Horses that jump and run on grass (for example, polo ponies, eventers, show jumpers, etc.) may benefit from studs in their shoes to give them extra traction on the slippery surfaces. The rich diets of modern horses can negatively impact hoof growth. The hooves grow fast, and high sugar content in many commercial grains can increase the risks of founder and laminitis. Furthermore, most horses are kept in stalls with minimal turnout time, or on grass fields, neither of which provides the rough surfaces necessary for rasping and wearing down the horses’ hooves naturally. These two factors – unnatural growth based on diet, and unnatural living conditions – can lead to overgrown, weak hooves which need the support of shoes to keep horses from developing sore feet, hoof cracks, and other conditions.

But What About Going Barefoot?

Many people say that barefoot is best, that Nature has equipped horses to have hooves that are good enough on their own. With proper, natural diet and lifestyle, any horse can go barefoot. Is this true? The answer, as is so often is, may be yes and no.

Yes, American mustangs, Chincoteague ponies, Camargue horses, Przewalski’s horses, and Australian brumbies in the wild do not wear shoes. Yes, the equine hoof has amazing adaptive properties that are able to adapt to a variety of conditions and promote the wild horse’s survival. Yes, there are many domestic horses that do not need shoes (my own horse being one of them), and the odds of having such a lucky horse are greatly helped by proper diet and lifestyle management (maximum roughage in the diet and as much turnout in varied terrain as possible). That said, a nine-year-old wild horse is considered ancient. The wild is cruel, and those who live reliant solely on Nature there often die painfully and young. Our horses have been domesticated, eat an artificial diet and live in an artificial environment with artificial demands put on them. It is important to take these factors into account when making decisions about our horses’ care, including whether or not to put shoes on their hooves.

The best situation for any horse would be a balanced diet, with the majority of the diet comprised of roughage (hay and grass from grazing) and as close to 24/7 turnout as possible. These factors are the most supportive of healthy, barefoot horses.

What Are Some Health Reasons That Horses Need Shoes? What Kind Of Shoes Could Be For These Cases?

There are about as many types of therapeutic shoeing as there are farriers who perform it. Modern technology has allowed for glue-on shoes of silicon and plastic, different styles of nails, and different inserts that can be placed between the shoe and the sole. There are some common practices for different conditions. Conformational defects, laminitis, thin-walled hooves, tendon injuries, and hoof cracks are the most common conditions addressed by therapeutic shoeing.

 In foals under four months of age, the bones and joints are malleable enough that certain conformational defects can be addressed. Foals this young are often given plastic glue-on shoes that are shaped to encourage the legs to adopt the proper conformation. This is effective for collapsed tendons, toeing in, and toeing out, but must be started before the growth plates begin setting the leg bones in place. Special wedges and inserts can be placed between the shoes and the hooves in horses suffering from tendon injuries and laminitis. These wedges can be inserted to relieve pressure on different parts of the hooves and legs. Finally, for horses that have hoof cracks, there are different styles of shoes with clips to hold the hoof together while the crack grows out.

What Are Alternatives To Shoes?

For horses that travel only occasionally over rocky terrain, the Cavallo ELB hoof boot is an excellent option. The Easyboot Trail boot is another popular option. Both of these boots slide on over the hooves and can be removed after the ride. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for fitting and sizing the boots. No matter what shoes your horse wears (or doesn’t!), he will benefit from regular treatment from a hoof ointment like Farnam Rainmaker. Discuss with your vet and farrier if a supplement such as Farnam’s Horseshoer’s Secret would help your horse’s overall hoof health.


Learn as much as you can about hooves and how to care for them the best way possible. The book The Essential Hoof is full of images and useful information for the conscientious horse owner. Shoeing can be an important part of a horse’s care, and can allow them to do their job in a pain-free way, but it is important to shoe a horse in the way he needs for his lifestyle and career.

Is your horse shod, or barefoot?

About The Author

<a href="https://www.equiniction.com/author/ani-petrak/" target="_self">Ani Petrak</a>

Ani Petrak

Ani Petrak is a freelance linguist and writer based in the Czech Republic. A lifelong English rider and groom, she has experience showing in dressage, hunter-jumpers, trail, and young horse in-hand competitions. She is currently working with a Grand Prix showjumping and dressage trainer while raising and training her young warmblood gelding for a career in dressage, working equitation, and cross-country hacking.

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