Horses & Shoes

Should horses be wearing shoes?

Shoes were invented in the Middle Ages, when horses were brought into castles for the first time, and were tied to a wall in small rooms.  There they stood, for hours, their hooves deteriorating as they were covered with urine and manure.  The horses’ caretakers at first tried to protect the hooves with leather pouches, but eventually came to the realization that metal shoes could be nailed to the hoof.  Problem solved?

Damage caused by shoes

In the short-term, maybe.  In the long term, shoes (and the narrow confines of a stall) proved to be disastrous to the horses’ health.  Shoes reduce blood circulation by approximately 70%, increase the concussive forces on the horse’s hooves and joints by several hundred percent, and result in the debilitating contraction of the hoof.  Because of their effect on blood circulation, shoes have a serious negative impact on the horse’s heart as well as on other organs such as the liver.  To be healthy, the hoof, unimpeded by a nailed-on or glued-on shoe, needs movement, needs to have the correct shape (either as a result of wear caused by movement on hard terrain or by proper trimming), and needs to be in a healthy environment.

Damage caused by confinement

Life in a stall has a negative impact on the health of the horse.  In the wild, horses move between 15 and 20 miles a day.  That movement is critical to their health.  They constantly eat small quantities of food.  They live in harmony among their peers, in the safety provided by the herd.  But we separate them from their herd and force them to live alone in a small stall – they do not feel safe in their stalls, they feel stress.  They get very little movement except during a short turn out or while they have to perform for us in an arena.  We feed them twice a day, which means that the rest of the time, their stomachs are empty and they develop bleeding ulcers.  We also ruin their lungs by forcing them to breathe the stale, dusty air of the barn.  There are many other problems caused by stabling horses, but they are too numerous to list here.

Are shoes necessary?

That shoes damage hooves in beyond doubt, but the issue is whether they are nevertheless necessary for the horse to function.  One often cited reason to justify shoes is that we have bred healthy hooves out of horses because of our single-minded focus on athletic ability.  And yet, if we take a young thoroughbred foal and turn him out with the wild mustangs, he will end up with hooves just as healthy as his new herd mates.  Similarly, if we bring in a young mustang foal and force him to live in a stall and nail shoes to his hooves, he will end up with the same problems our domesticated horses face at such early ages.  Genetics has little to do with the problems our horses face.  The environment we have created for them is the culprit. 

My horse has sensitive hooves and cannot function without shoes.”  As discussed above, shoes reduce the blood flow in the hoof and thus essentially numb the hoof.  When the shoes are removed, the feeling comes back.  At that point, the horse’s hooves will probably be quite sensitive.  This new-found sensitivity might last a day or two, or might last longer, depending on the condition the hoof is in.  If the hooves were trimmed correctly, the horse should be given an opportunity to get acclimated to getting the sensation back in his hooves and should be able to perform within a few days.  However, it is also possible that the horse’s hooves already have significant damage from years of shoeing but the pain from that damage could not be felt because of the numbness caused by the shoes.  Once the shoes are removed and the feeling comes back, the horse will be lame because he is able to feel the pain in his damaged hooves.  Of course, had the shoes been kept on, the pain will not have been avoided for ever – it will have been avoided until the damage became so significant that the pain it caused became so intense it could no longer be masked.  So, if the horse has damaged hooves, taking his shoes off will put both the horse and its owner on notice that there are problems with the hooves that will need to be addressed through, you guessed it, correct trimming, 24/7 turnout, and lots of movement.  Certainly, what we should not continue to do is to mask the pain through the use of shoes without addressing what has caused the damage in the first place.  When the cause of the pain has been removed and the hooves have been given a chance to regain a more normal shape, the horse will be able to perform for us once again.

What if the barefoot horse has healthy hooves but still does not like to walk on gravel or rocky terrain?  We have to use common sense here.  Could you run barefoot on a gravel road?  Probably not, unless you do this on a regular basis.  We all know people who love going barefoot and who can run or jump on terrain that would bloody our own feet.  Horses are the same.  If they live on rocky terrain, then they can go on a trail ride on such terrain without any issues.  However, if they live in a soft, grassy pasture, it is unfair to ask them to go on a trail ride once a week on rocks.  That does not mean that we should ruin their health and put their longevity in jeopardy by nailing some shoes on their feet.  Rather, in these circumstances, we should purchase some rubber boots that will protect their hooves during the trail ride and that can be removed when we get home.

Can barefoot horses play arena and grass polo?  Yes!  The concern in arena polo is that the surface of the arena often consists of an abrasive substance like stone dust.  “Wear will exceed growth,” I was told by my former vet.  It does not.  No matter how often I ride my horses in the arena, I still have to trim their hooves on a regular basis.  I have never even come close to the point where wear equals, let alone exceeds, the growth of the hoof.  The concern with grass polo is different : will the barefoot horse slip?  Here, the answer is no, so long as the hoof is trimmed correctly (there is a special trim just for having the perfect footing on grass).  You don’t believe me?  Call me and ask me for the name of polo players who regularly play polo on grass with barefoot horses, and you can find out from them directly.  They will tell you that their horses in fact have better footing on grass than shod horses.

Help your horses live longer, more productive lives.

What can we do to help our horses?  Turn them out 24/7 in a herd, with access to a shelter such as a run-in shed.  Take off the shoes, and trim their hooves in such a way to restore blood circulation, reduce concussive forces, and allow the hoof to slowly regain a more healthy shape.

***I learned how to trim from Dr. Strasser (but I am not a Strasser certified hoof trimmer).  I believe her methods are the best in reestablishing the proper hoof form in horses whose hooves have been damaged by shoes, or in maintaining the proper hoof form in horses that have never been shod.  Dr. Strasser has been criticized (in my opinion, unfairly) by other trimmers who also advocate keeping horses barefoot, and I would be happy to discuss the different methods of trimming horses with you.


Natania Farm & Polo Club8270 March Wales RoadWarrenton, VA 20186P.540.229.5609F.866.430.7101