Metal shoes are an old-school, permanent solution to a temporary problem.
I believe that barefoot is almost always better. The hoof is intended to flex upon impact, and nailing rigid material to that just doesn’t make sense from a biological perspective. That does not mean that horses are equipped to go out and do all the things we ask totally barefoot! My solution? Hoof boots.
The Importance of a Good Trim
Before anything else, a balanced trim is needed for any horse to find comfort. There are many experts out there who have different opinions on how much to trim, the way to trim, and how aggressive you can be to change the shape of the hoof. Do your research, and ask potential trimmers good questions.
Tips from my experience? Avoid people who shy away from the word “trimmer” and standby the word “farrier”. If you ask them something specific, such as “do you like to remove much bar?” and they don’t have an answer, say goodbye. If they look at your horse and ask, “well what exactly did you want me to do here?” – say goodbye.
I really like people who have studied the ABC method of trimming, and there is a super informative FB group you can join to get advice, as well as a book you can purchase to learn to DIY. Personally, I am not good at it, but I do maintenance work between trims to keep my boys comfortable.
A basic understanding of hoof anatomy will help you in every way. You should familiarize yourself with what a healthy hoof should look like, so that you can compare your horse’s hoof to that and know when things might be taking a turn for the worse.
There should be a distinct white line all the way around the hoof just a little ways away from the outer wall. It is much easier to see after a fresh trim if you are having trouble seeing it! Horses often have some level of white line disease, which becomes apparent when the white line looks porous or is degraded. Thrush is the better known symptom of diseased hooves, but the white line is suffering on more horses, more often, than you’d think. Tucker has had issues with his all his life! I just didn’t know about it until relatively recently, because his feet looked “normal” to me based on my experience.
There are also these things that traditional farriers often ignore completely, called bars. They can become overgrown & embedded on some horses and cause lameness that even some veterinarians might not recognize. What can happen is that they build up and actually push up into the foot of the horse, causing mild to extreme discomfort with every step. These things can become so embedded, that when cut away, they drop out within an hour and you can literally cut more away…I’ve seen this first-hand with Trubee!
The Hoof Pump
Common knowledge does not teach us about the blood-pumping role of the hoof. The flexibility of the hoof. If it did, people would not stick old or stiff horses in stalls. We would be less inclined to nail metal to the horse’s foot. Movement might be honored just a little bit more…
With no muscles in the lower leg to aid in pumping blood, the hoof becomes the pump. Every step the horse takes pumps blood through the leg of the horse via pressure exerted downward on the structures within the hoof. Upon impact, the hoof actually expands slightly, bringing blood downward. When the hoof is lifted, the pressure is released and the hoof compresses, pushing blood upwards. I’ve attempted to roughly illustrate this for you! There are lots of specific structures at play here, but I’m purposefully not getting too detailed here.
The Need for Shoes
A horse’s hoof adapts to the environment in which it lives. Most horses live in footing that is fairly uniform, and generally soft. That means their hooves become ideal for that type of footing – perfect for our arena horses! But what about our trail horses?
When we take a horse from their nice soft home setting and bring them somewhere hard or rocky, we will cause them to become footsore. Things like abscesses become more likely, along with bruising and general discomfort for the horse. Also the hoof might wear down too quickly, because it is too soft – imagine your bare feet running down the road, vs the calloused feet of someone who walks the road barefoot everyday.
Most people solve this problem by securing metal shoes to the horse’s hoof – and this DOES work. It solves the problem. But it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
The horseshoe problem is very comparable to the human problem regarding shoes… our feet are soft, and when we go running around outside we need shoes. Does that mean we wear those shoes 24/7? Lounge, relax, sleep in those shoes? No, we would never do that. Our feet and our bodies would hurt if we did that.
Regarding the shoes themselves, our human shoes are purposefully designed to be flexible, shock absorbing, and to allow our feet enough room to maintain circulation. Performance shoes have every detail considered – take a look at a description from Nike about their running shoes:
“The shape of the Nike React foam midsole is all about zonal performance, providing support for the 3 phases of a runner’s stride—flexibility at toe-off, a smooth ride at mid-stance and cushioning at contact.”
“Absorbs Impact: The rubber outsole helps absorb impact and provide multi-surface traction.”
Human shoes aren’t metal on the bottom, they are rubber or other materials designed to absorb & diffuse shock. Not only do we commonly nail slippery, non-shock absorbing metal to the horses feet, we are securing their hoof to a rigid material that restricts the hoof from flexing upon impact. Fortunately, metal horseshoes are no longer the only option available to our horses.
Today's Solution: Hoof Boots
The easy, cheaper, healthier, more natural and comfortable and effective way of accomplishing the main reasons we shoe horses? Hoof boots.
There are tons of brands out there nowadays so that you can find the perfect boot to suit your needs. Some are more difficult to put on than others, some are lower profile, others are plain simple to use.
You boot your horse when they need it, and you let them enjoy being in their natural state when they don’t. They are the temporary solution, to a temporary problem. Of course they can also assist in the therapeutic department for horses needing hoof rehab. Horses who founder can find hoof boots to be literal lifesavers.
My go-to hoof boots are Cavallo Hoof Boots! Their ease of putting on, durability, and functionality have me hooked. I’ve tried a few other brands, but they either broke or were too difficult to put on. I recommend Cavallo’s Treks but they’re all excellent, even their Entry Level Boot! You can grab a coupon for 20% off here.
Hoof boots won’t save your horse from bad trimming. Bad hoof care is bad hoof care. A great shoeing job will always be preferable to a terrible barefoot trim! And shoeing a horse is better than letting a horse waste away. In an ideal world, our horses live on diverse land that enables their hooves to be strong and resilient without human interference. We also all live in perfectly sized homesteads with sustainable farms and live happily ever after… But until we find that world, we’ll just settle for the best that we can do with the best we’ve got. ✌️