To Shoe or Not to Shoe: Part 2

In this seven part series I sat down with one of this country’s leading farriers to tackle the age old debate of shoeing your horse verses leaving him or her barefoot. The series is both controversial and enlightening and in the end, my goal is to provide information on both sides of the fence so that you may make an informed decision about your horse’s shoeing needs.


“Salty” is carriage horse in Oklahoma City. There are many reasons that he is shod but his owner, a farrier, explained that one of the reasons is so that he may wear these special lift shoes to increase his size from 16hh to 17hh. Size sells in the carriage driving business.

Last week, in To Shoe or Not to Shoe: Part 1 ,I introduced the series and provided a brief history on horse shoeing. In this week’s post, we’ll take a look at the primary reasons horse owners may choose to shoe their horses and why they may sometimes choose to leave them barefoot.

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Part 2 (Initial Shoeing Factors): When thinking about the more traditional shoeing options such as steel shoes or aluminum shoes among the four initial factors to consider are: protection, traction, gait enhancement, and any therapeutic needs the horse may have. Davis explains, “In my practice, protection is the number one factor I consider when attempting to help an owner decide whether or not their horse needs shoes. Are their feet wearing down faster than they are re-growing? If the answer is yes, the horse may need some type of extra protection such as shoes.”

Traction is another common reason owners consider shoes for their horses. “Horses who pull heavy loads, participate in jumping competitions, take part in cutting horse events, or who barrel race are all examples of equines that may benefit from the extra traction provided by shoes,” he says.

Gait enhancement is another factor that owners have considered when questioning whether or not their horse needs shoes. “In addition to the more commonly thought of gaited breeds, owners of certain breeds of trotting horses as well as those who perform in disciplines such as reining that require sliding stops all fall into this category,” Davis continues.

Finally, there are therapeutic concerns. “If, for example, a veterinarian has prescribed a specific shoe to address a problem or issue the horse is facing the health needs of the animal become relevant when discussing his shoeing options,” he explains.

Davis adds, “If an owner has concerns about whether or not they want to shoe their horse, one of the first things we talk about is that shoeing does not have to be long term. Shoe can be an answer to a short-term problem such as bruising. In addition, an owner may choose for a horse to wear shoes for only part of the year such as during the competition season or they may choose for their horse to wear only two shoes such as shoeing the front two feet only. Shoeing is highly individualistic and we can experiment to see what makes their horse the happiest and most comfortable.”

He goes on to say, “While there are obvious reasons to shoe there are other reasons why you may choose to leave your horse barefoot. If he shows, I do take into consideration any requirements of the horse’s intended discipline then try to match that with the quality of the individual horse’s feet and their rate of growth.

If he doesn’t show I consider, among other factors, the horse’s job or lack thereof. I also remind owners that if their horse has any significant conformational faults he or she will require routine maintenance regardless of their eventual decision. He can’t just be trimmed and let go indefinitely. Any chronic injuries to the hoof the horse may have will almost always need to be shod rather than barefoot.”

“The reality is that some horses need protection, at varying levels, and some do not,” Davis says. In addition, there are some cases where leaving a horse barefoot may actually enhance his way of going. “Some horses just do not interfere while barefoot when they might if they were shod. The bottom line is that many horses will tell you if they are more comfortable with or without shoes,” he explains.

He continues, “Shoes can be a tremendous asset to a horse but their single largest disadvantage is the lost shoe. In addition to the temporary loss of use, serious injury can occur if the shoe is not cleanly pulled.”

If a horse’s team of caregivers should lean toward leaving the horse barefoot, Davis advises, “Using or working a horse will increase the rate of growth for his hooves by way of increased blood flow. If a hoof has nothing to wear on it will require trimming more often. Factors such as: the footing in the individual horse’s turnout environment, the footing where you ride, how often you ride, the horse’s conformation, and any existing hoof issues all need to be considered as parts of the equation. In addition, there could also be a lack of usability involved with a barefoot horse as he may be unable to be ridden on certain footing.”

In regards to poor footing, those horses who reside on extremely rocky ground, who are ridden in sandy, abrasive arenas, that live in damp or wet pastures that are taken out to ride on hard, dry ground, and those participating in long, continuous rides over varying terrain may all, depending upon the health of the horse’s hooves, require shoes.

In next week’s post we’ll talk about shoeing options and the healthy hoof. Be sure to stay tuned for future installments covering pasture vs. barefoot trims, reasons to shoe, selecting and keeping a farrier, and optimal hoof care.

About the expert: Jeremy Davis has been a professional farrier for nineteen years. He is a Certified Journeyman Farrier with the American Farriers Association and is a Diplomat with the Worshipful Company of Farriers. He is currently the Farrier in Residence at The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.


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