People opt to remove the metal shoes either to improve the health of their horse, or to cut costs. I can quickly tell you that going barefoot will save you money. If your horse needs hoof protection - hoof boots are the obvious choice if you weigh the costs! If you've already decided you want to go barefoot, I will be adding a guide on how to do so. This post explains the need for hoof protection, the downfalls of the metal shoe, and touches on the alternative options available.
Why Hooves Need Protection
The horse evolved with a very adaptive hoof! It grows continuously, and can be extremely hard and sturdy. Depending on the environment the horse resides, the hoof may be small, or large and wide. In the wild, horses are known to travel up to 50 miles a day to graze and find water. Their hooves do just fine in these cases, remaining hard and self-trimming - so why can't they tolerate the wear & tear once domesticated?
Have you heard about the need for wind to allow plants and trees to grow strong? Without wind, a tree might grow fast & tall, only to fall over when it lacks the roots and strength to support itself. Horse hooves are similar - if you keep a horse in a stall or soft pasture for most of its life, the hooves cannot suddenly hold up to carrying a rider for miles, especially across rough terrain or through intense training. The hoof will break down, crack, deform, and cause all sorts of issues throughout the entire body.
A horse might only spend a few minutes laying down each day; the remainder of the time they are standing on their four hooves. The health of the hoof influences the health of the entire horse, and is often overlooked. I do believe there are many healthy horses out there with metal shoes - I just also believe that there are many more horses that are restricted in some way due to their metal shoes. The question should not be "how can I prevent the hoof from breaking down when the horse is put to work" but rather "what is the best way to protect the horse's health and comfort when they are put to work". Metal shoes are an answer to the first question, but they are simply not the answer to the second.
Where Metal Shoes Came From
Use of hoof protection dates back to the beginnings of utilizing domesticated horses to carry riders and loads. Made to work in unnatural conditions, it was obviously noted early on that horses would need some form of protection to prevent excessive wearing of their hooves. Before metal shoes, people did attempt to use other materials such as rawhide to create a primitive hoof boot, but lacked the technology to make this effective and economical. Nailing on metal shoes became common in Europe around 1000 AD, and a bit later in China.
Things have changed a lot since year 1000. Humans have advanced quite a lot in the field of healthcare and wellness. Progress took time, and many ancient techniques lasted centuries. Let's take the common medical practice of bloodletting as an example. It was used for over 2000 years, and was believed to help patients based only on very shaky evidence. Bloodletting originated from Hippocrates believing that menstruation functioned to purge women of bad humours…and was later carried out by barbers instead of physicians. So, a practice based on the female period was performed by barbershops throughout the Middle Ages in Europe to treat just about any ailment a person might possess. This practice was continued as late as the 20th century!
Sometimes, the patient might improve due to a reduction in blood pressure - this is not why the blood was spilled, but the occasional success supported that this was helpful. Most likely, patients who recovered after receiving this treatment did so in spite of the bloodletting, and not due to the bloodletting. There may have also been a placebo effect going on! Today, it is commonly recognized that such a practice was harmful to patients in a vast majority of cases.
I like this story because you can easily swap out people for horses, barbers for blacksmiths, and horseshoes for bloodletting.
How the Hoof Functions
Science has allowed us to learn more about our equine friends, too. We now understand how the hoof functions, and how environment plays a significant role. It is understood that the hoof adapts to its environment - so a horse kept in a soft footed, small pen has a slow-growing hoof that is best suited for traveling on similar terrain. A horse kept on rough terrain that needs to move around a lot, will have a harder hoof that may grow faster to keep up with the wear of increased movement. Of course, both scenarios are assuming a healthy horse receiving proper nutrients and balanced hoof trimming.
Anatomy has taught us to refer to the hoof as a "second heart". The hoof functions as a pump, each step a horse takes pumping blood to circulate nutrients throughout the hoof and leg. The lower limbs of the horse lack muscle, and without muscles to pump blood, the anatomy of the hoof steps up to the plate. When the hoof expands on impact, it brings blood downward. As the hoof is lifted and the hoof contracts slightly, the blood is pushed upwards. This pump functions because the hoof is flexible. Yeah...metal shoes? Not flexible.
The very nature of metal shoes means that horses wearing them are likely suffering from reduced circulation in their lower limbs, which is already happening to the horses kept in stalls or small pens. If your horse is stocked up, taking them on a long walk will help immensely - this is because with each step, you are increasing circulation in the lower limbs along with the rest of the body.
What Happens When Metal Shoes are Used
Metal shoes offer your horse's hooves protection from rough terrain and extensive travel while outside their living environment or while carrying a load. They will prevent the hoof from chipping or cracking, so long as the shoe remains nailed to the hoof. Funny enough - one of the biggest problems with problem hooves, is the shoes often get lost. And that often means they pull off chunks of hoof wall along with the shoe, causing the exact issue the shoe was meant to prevent! I digress.
A horse who is tender on gravel roads will walk off sound once metal shoes are applied, because the hoof is lifted from the ground and the bottom of the hoof avoids contact with the rocks. What this does not account for, is the extra vibrations the hoof and leg of the horse is subjected to with each step that lands on a rock or hard surface. While the horse might not stumble from this pain, it is certainly still occurring. The consequences of this impact can build up over time, showing up in lameness or soreness throughout the body. Or you might never notice anything at all - horses are masters at hiding pain, it is part of being a horse! (If your horse is always shod, you will never know what they could be like if allowed to be barefoot 😉)
In fact, back in 1993 it was noted by researchers at The University of Zurich that “the impact force a shod hoof receives on hard ground is 10-33 times that of an unshod hoof. The vibration in the hoof from the shoe is approximately 800 hz. This level of vibration is high enough to destroy living tissue." If you research HAV syndrome in humans, you will find that it is an unpleasant result of excessive use of power tools. People experience pain, numbness, loss of strength and even bone cysts. Symptoms may occur from use of tools putting out anything from 150 Hz to 1000 Hz. The symptoms of HAVS seem to be comparable to damage done to the horse over time, even if the vibration only plays a part in that damage. After all, horses are walking on their power tools 24/7.
Metal shoes are also slippery - if you ride on paved roads, your traction is even more greatly reduced if the road becomes wet. So metal shoes, while preventing wear and tear of the hoof, also increase risk of slipping while continuously causing tissue damage due to vibration. They can be lost, and in the process cause painful damage. And finally, they cost a lot of money. Every 6-8 weeks, you have to get them replaced. If one comes off before then, you have to get that replaced earlier. The horse might become lame or injured in the process of losing the shoe, too. But they've been used for a thousand years! They must be the only option available! Right? No.
The Alternative to Metal Shoes
Technology has come a long way since leeches were used to treat every ailment. We have medicine now that actually helps you get better, and we have lifestyle choices that can eliminate ailments you might suffer from. We also have hoof boots that actually work.
Hoof boots are the modern horseshoes. They are much like human shoes - designed to be shock absorbent and improve traction. They protect the entire bottom of the hoof from rocks and best of all, they come off when your horse gets home. I prefer Cavallo Boots, as they are easy to put on, they are comfortable for the horse, they stay on throughout all terrain, and they are easy to take off when you're finished.
Lifestyle changes can also be utilized to improve your horse's hooves. With knowledge of how the hoof adapts, we can create living spaces for our horses that promote stronger hooves that better tolerate the level of work we demand of them. Like turning on a fan inside a greenhouse to simulate wind to make plants grow stronger. If we want to ride our horses on gravel roads, then designate a portion of their living space to be gravel! Water areas are great options, as the horse has to walk on the gravel several times a day, and the gravel can prevent mud. Using less abrasive gravel, like pea gravel, can be therapeutic without causing stone bruises. Pasture paradises are becoming popular as well, where you create a track system that forces the horse to walk longer distances to get to food and water. Movement is key to horse and hoof health, so anything you can do to encourage more movement within the space you have available is helpful.
Proper trimming is essential to a healthy barefoot horse. Barefoot trimmers are becoming more commonplace nowadays, but they are still just as tricky to find as a truly good farrier. Ask them questions, and if they are resistant to answer your questions about the anatomy of the hoof, you might want to try someone new. A good trimmer will understand the structures inside the hoof, and how to trim the hoof in a way to maintain balance. Some horses are trickier than others, too! Trubee is one of these horses, and requires constant upkeep between trims to maintain balance.
I have a page dedicated to explaining why barefoot is better, and I'm always happy to chat if you are struggling with making the transition!