Do Horses Need Horseshoes?

Are horseshoes human vanity or equestrian necessity?

A farrier uses a tool to fit a horseshoe

Chris Finck / Getty Images

Proper hoof care is essential to a domesticated horse's overall comfort and health, but the question as to whether or not they need shoes depends on the individual horse itself. Horse owners use shoes for various reasons, from protection and therapy to performance in equestrian events. Depending on factors such as how they are used and what type of terrain they live on, there are also reasons why horseshoes wouldn’t be needed. Horse owners should consult their veterinarians and dedicated farriers to determine what best suits their horse and its health.

What Are Horseshoes?

A horseshoe is a U-shaped plate usually made of steel (though it can also be made of aluminum, titanium, cooper, rubber, or synthetic materials like plastic and composites) designed to protect horse hooves from wear on hard surfaces. A farrier, someone specializing in horse foot anatomy and horseshoes, often forges them from steel after examining the horse’s feet to provide a customized fit. Nail holes are added during the forging process using a tool, and sometimes a fullering groove is added to create the traction needed for specific activities and equine events.

Horseshoes attach with small nails that pass through the shoe into the outer part of the hoof. But don’t worry, since this part of the hoof has no nerve endings, the horse doesn't feel any pain during the process (it is similar to cutting your fingernails).

horseshoe
Horseshoe and nails. dabjola / Getty Images

What Is a Farrier?

Farriers are professional experts in horse foot and leg anatomy who manage the health of a horse’s hooves by trimming and shoeing. Most farriers complete farrier school or apprenticeships and have blacksmithing knowledge to help them adjust prefabricated horseshoes to fit precisely to a specific hoof, Some are skilled enough to make their own horseshoes. Your large animal veterinarian will be able to recommend a good farrier in the area, or you can always ask around among fellow horse owners.

History of Horseshoes

Horseshoes were a need-based invention, stemming from the domestication of wild horses as working animals. Early domesticated horses were often exposed to conditions differing from their natural habitats as humans began using them for traveling, hunting, and pulling plows. The shoes provided protection from sharp objects and breakage or damage to the hoof. It is hard to pinpoint when exactly horseshoes were first used; horseshoes made from cast iron, for example, are difficult to date since valuable metal materials were usually repurposed. In 1897, a series of horseshoes made from bronze scraps were found in an Etruscan tomb that dated back to 400 BC, but archeologists have also found evidence of early forms of temporary horseshoes made from materials like leather or cloth. In 2018, a rare full set of well-preserved Roman horseshoes called “hipposandals” were found in England dating between 140 AD and 180 AD.

Why Are Horseshoes Considered Lucky?

It's a common belief that horseshoes are lucky, though it is unknown where exactly the superstition originated. The early Western Europeans thought that evil fairies were driven away by iron, which was a common material used to forge horseshoes back then. Early pagans saw the crescent moon shape of horseshoes as a symbol for fertility and luck. The people of the Middle Ages believed that witches traveled by broomstick because they were afraid of horses, so a horseshoe was to a witch the equivalent of a crucifix to a vampire. Images of the devil with cloven hooves certainly contributed to the legends, as well. St. Dunstan, a blacksmith and bishop from the beginning of the Middle Ages, was said to have fitted horseshoes on the devil himself, making the process painful so the devil would be afraid to enter a house with a horseshoe hanging over the door. During the Crusades of the 12th century, horseshoes were accepted as a form of tax payment and horses were often adorned with a lucky silver shoe before a big parade.

Horseshoes and Horse Health

Horseshoes can improve traction for equestrian events, protect hooves from wearing out, and even provide therapeutic relief. Although some horses can self-maintain their feet, horses who routinely perform repetitive motions from working or showing almost always require shoes to prevent lameness (abnormal gait that can diminish quality of life).

While horses in the wild can maintain trimmed feet naturally as they move many miles a day across different surfaces, most domestic horses require regular hoof trimming to stay comfortable, pain-free, and to prevent foot distortion. Again, the variations depend on the individual horse, as more athletic horses may grow their feet faster than horses who are more sedentary. The need can range anywhere from maintenance every four weeks to up to two months. Excessive growth can even cause the hoof to deteriorate or lead to injuries, fungal infections, bruising, or abscesses. Studies have shown that the foot's internal workings, from the tendons and ligaments to the animal's overall movement, will all be affected by unbalanced hoofs.

Can Horses Go Barefoot?

There are more than a few critical factors regarding whether or not a horse can go barefoot. For example, some horses have diseases or conditions that may require shoeing to relieve pain or stress, while others naturally have tough, smooth hooves without deformities, bone, or muscular issues. 

Wild horses can keep their hooves in good condition as continual movement across a variety of abrasive surfaces and foraging for feed wears down hooves naturally. Domestic horses, on the other hand, require regular hoof maintenance regardless of if they wear shoes or not. Unshod horses who live on the soft surfaces of pastures and stables rarely move enough to wear down their hooves correctly, while shod horses do not wear them down at all.

Horses with good hoof and leg conformation who have limited workload and are able to forage for most of their feed may be able to live happily without shoes. In fact, many farriers prefer that their four-legged clients go barefoot for part of the year, since cold weather can sometimes slow hoof growth rates. No matter the circumstance, horse owners should always speak to veterinarians or farriers to customize a plan for their horse’s overall hoof health.

View Article Sources
  1. Bates, William N. “Etruscan Horseshoes From Corneto.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 6, no. 4, 1902, pp. 398–403.

  2. Panagiotopoulou, O., Rankin, J. W., Gatesy, S. M., & Hutchinson, J. R. (2016). A preliminary case study of the effect of shoe-wearing on the biomechanics of a horse’s foot. PeerJ, 4:e2164. doi:10.7717/peerj.2164

  3. Lynden, Jenny, et al. “Contracting for Care – the Construction of the Farrier Role in Supporting Horse Owners to Prevent Laminitis.” Equine Veterinary Journal, vol. 50, no. 5, Sept. 2018, pp. 658–666., doi:10.1111/evj.12950