To shoe or not to shoe is a hotly-contested debate in the horse world. Some might say your horse is always better off barefoot, while others would argue that shoes could be good depending on the type of work he does. As an owner and caretaker, you have a large responsibility in making decisions that affect the health and wellbeing of your horse. Most times, it comes down to a personal choice based on individual circumstances.
Your horse’s hoof is a complex structure designed to provide traction and absorb shock. The top portion is made up of layers – the hoof wall, hoof horn and sensitive laminae (from the outside, in) – which meet the sole at the bottom of the hoof. The frog is a wedge-shaped rubbery mass that runs from the back of the sole, up the middle. With each step your horse takes, the hoof fibres expand, then contract as the foot lifts. This serves to distribute the forces exerted on the hoof and to circulate blood and nutrients. The hoof wall bears the weight of the horse and the frog further acts as a shock absorber.
This is a system that works quite well naturally, and most horses do fine barefoot, with regular trimming. Adding a shoe to the equation changes the hoof’s ability to function as described. The shoe holds the hoof in place and does not allow for expansion and contraction. This reduces the natural shock-absorbing properties of the hoof. Despite this, horses who compete in certain disciplines, or who are ridden often on rough terrain, may benefit from being shod.
Shoes were invented to prevent the hoof from wearing, to provide additional traction and to protect it from unforgiving ground. A horse who is ridden regularly on roads and gravel, for example, is more likely to experience wear on his hooves than a horse who spends most of his time on pasture or is ridden on softer footing. Additionally, a horse who competes in the sport of show jumping or eventing may require shoes with studs to help him grip the footing in tight turns, for example. Some horses also wear shoes (with or without studs) in the winter to improve traction on slippery surfaces.
It can also be noted that hoof fibres are damaged by the act of nailing shoes on. Fairly recently, some companies have offered a glue-on alternative. If you’d prefer to avoid using shoes altogether, though, hoof boots can be a good form of protection when needed.
Not all hooves are created equal, and numerous factors including breed, age, diet, and environment influence their condition, and, therefore, the management plan required to keep them healthy. It is best to make these decisions with the help of your farrier and to be willing to make changes that are in the best interests of your horse.