Why Do Horses Wear Shoes? Are horseshoes necessary?

Horse legs galloping with horseshoes
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Many people wonder why horses wear shoes. What's the purpose?
And do horses have to wear shoes?

Horse in field wearing blue shoes - horseshoes
Not that kind of shoes!
This kind: 
Horseshoes by wall
Before we discuss why horses wear shoes, let’s discuss whether horses even need to wear shoes.
People have different opinions about whether or not horses even need to wear shoes.
Some believe shoeing a horse is necessary for protection of the horse’s feet.
But others claim that horseshoes could cause more harm than good. They say, “Horses weren’t born with shoes; wild horses don’t wear shoes!”
This is not meant to be professional health advice for your horse. I’m not a veterinarian nor a farrier.
That being said, we’ll look at both sides of the argument on whether or not horses should be shod.
And we’ll discuss some of the reasons why horses sometimes do wear shoes.

First, Some Brief Facts About Horseshoes

As you probably know, a horseshoe is a metal (or sometimes other material) U-shaped piece that is (most often) nailed to the wall (the hard part) of a horse’s hoof.
Don’t worry, the hard part of a horse’s hoof doesn’t have feeling in it. It’s basically the horse’s toenail. The part that has feeling is the pad of the hoof. It’s like our toes and toenails. When we cut our toenails, it doesn’t hurt.
So as long as the shoe is properly applied, it won’t hurt at all.

There is some debate about when nailed-on metal horseshoes were actually first used, but most historians agree that they’ve been around for several centuries. And that around 1000 AD, nailed horseshoes made of cast bronze became common in Europe.

Very old rusty horseshoe
Horseshoes are usually made of steel. Other materials used include aluminum, rubber and plastic.
The material chosen will depend a few factors, such as the type of surface the horse will be walking on most often, the activities he will be participating in, and how much traction he needs.
Horseshoes can also be glued on, for horses whose hooves don’t hold nails well.
Someone who specializes in shoeing horses (as well as other equine hoof care) is called a farrier. A good farrier will also trim the hooves properly, so the horse will stand in a balanced way.

What are the Benefits of Shoeing a Horse?

Domestic horses are not wild horses, and they live in a much different environment, and have different activities than wild horses.
Therefore, there are some benefits of shoeing a horse:
  • Protection

The first and most obvious benefit of shoeing a horse is protection of the hoof from wear and damage, especially on weak hooves.
Some horses have weak, brittle hooves that are prone to splitting and cracking. This can cause the horse to be sore or lame, and can lead to infection.
Most domestic horses live in a pasture or paddock without hard surfaces to toughen the hooves naturally. So wearing shoes will help protect the horse’s feet from rocks and other obstacles he may encounter on a trail ride or other activity outside of his regular habitat.

Horseshoes designed for sporting events can reduce stress in the legs, joints and hooves of the horses participating.

If you ever see police horses in the city, you’ll notice that they’re usually shod for protection on the pavement.

  • Correction and Comfort

Sometimes, a horse will have hoof or leg problems that can be corrected or eased by special horseshoes.
This can help the horse to be more comfortable and have a better quality of life.
  • Traction

Certain types of horseshoes are designed to provide traction on some surfaces, such as ice or other slippery terrain.
When competing in sporting events or doing certain types of work, extra traction is usually needed.
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What are the Risks Associated with Shoeing a Horse?

Some possible risks are:
  • Nail Prick

It’s possible for the farrier to misapply a nail when shoeing. This can be extremely painful for the horse and can cause lameness.
  • Solar Bruising, Thrush, Hoof Wall Separation

From my understanding, these aren’t commonly caused by horseshoeing. However, poor shoeing can lead to bruising or cracks in the hoof wall, which can lead to infection.
  • Sheared Heel

This is when the hoof is crooked, like the horse’s foot is leaning to one side. If the hooves are incorrectly trimmed, the shoes will be put on incorrectly. Therefore, the horse will be imbalanced – his weight won’t be distributed properly – which can lead to lameness.
  • Poor Shoe Fit

Horses need shoes that are the appropriate size. Larger shoes may cause injuries to the horse’s hoof while smaller sized shoes can lead to chronic pain.
Improperly fitted footwear also can cause issues with a horse’s gait.
  • Improper Traction

Shoeing can change a horse’s traction in a negative way at times. It can cause too much traction on softer ground, and too little on slick surfaces. As I mentioned above, sometimes it can benefit a horse to have a change in traction, but each situation is unique.
  • Improper Hoof Flexion and Shock Absorption

Though some shoes can help with shock absorption, it’s also possible that adding a hard metal shoe with nails to the horse’s hoof can impede natural shock absorption. The hoof is designed to slightly expand and contract. So some argue that wearing shoes can lead to injury.
If any of these problems occur with shoeing, it’s most likely because the horse wasn’t shod properly, not necessarily due to the shoes themselves.
However, I’ve never had any of these problems happen to one of my horses, and none of my friends or family have either.
Make sure you use a competent farrier – even if they’re a little more expensive, it’s worth it. Actually, it’s a necessity to have a qualified, capable farrier for your horse’s well-being.
A farrier shoeing a horse, bending down and fitting a new horseshoe to a horse's hoof.


Horses do not always need to wear shoes, but they can be beneficial in certain situations

Whether a horse needs to wear shoes depends on several factors, including:
  • Hoof health – are his hooves strong, or do they tend to split?
  • Foot conformation    – does he need correction in his posture?
  • Terrain/surface he spends time on – in the pasture, or long trail ride on rocky terrain?
In my personal experience, one of my horses had hooves (one hoof especially) that were prone to being brittle. I would have her shod when I knew I would be doing a lot of trail riding for the summer.
But most of the time, I haven’t shod my horses, because it hasn’t been necessary for the terrain and other circumstances.
Horses who have conformation or hoof issues, or participate in certain activities (like equine sports) will most likely need to be shod.
Horses who don’t have conformation or hoof issues and that perhaps are just ridden in the pasture may never need horseshoes. (They will always need proper hoof care, however.)
There’s no “one shoe-size fits all” answer that’s right for all horses. 
If you’re unsure whether your horse needs shoes, consult with your veterinarian or farrier for advice on what would be best for your individual horse’s situation.
Many experts agree that even if you do decide to shoe your horse, it’s good for him to go “barefoot” for at least part of the year.
If you have a horse, is he or she shod? I would love to hear your thoughts!
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