Choosing the right shoe for the season

Many people opt to shoe their horses for the show or riding season, then pull them. Let’s explore some pros and cons — and alternatives — to this practice.

I am a farrier by trade. Every day I work with horses, ponies, mules, and donkeys to make sure they can do the jobs their people want them to do in a safe and comfortable way. And every day I hear these words echo in my ears – “No hoof, no horse” – and I know it to be true. Hoof problems and lameness associated with hoof or leg issues are among the most common concerns experienced by equine owners. Along with this concern comes the question of seasonal hoof care, which may include the decision to shoe or boot a horse.

A horse is a horse

Equines are born with a hoof structure that is meant to last them a lifetime. Without going into all the particulars of this structure, suffice it to say that the horse is equipped with all the other body parts that make maintaining a healthy hoof possible. They are foragers and grazers. They move on all types of terrain and seek out food to support their well being. When we keep horses in our own world, we need to be mindful of how much of that natural state we can replicate for them.

I always promote 24/7 turnout with available shelter to simulate that natural nomadic behavior. I encourage quality forage that is tested and supplemented as needed in order to provide the nutritional building blocks for hoof structure and general health. No matter what you do about trimming, shoeing, or booting, it will not be effective or practical if the horse cannot move and if he does not have a good diet. If you keep your horse in a stall or feed him processed food, you will need to understand that it is not without impact. I encourage you to do what you can to let your horse “be a horse”, so to speak.

The case for a barefoot horse

If you are able to turn your horse out 24/7 (or close to it) and offer quality forage and natural supplements, you will very likely be able to keep your horse barefoot provided he is given balanced, routine barefoot trims. Whether you plan to trail ride, team pen, barrel race, jump, or do dressage, the best traction is the hoof your horse was blessed with the day he was born. When cared for, it offers the best balance and surefootedness. White or light feet are not “weaker or softer” than dark hooves, and all horses can grow a better hoof with improved care. This is not to say that if you take your horse from one environment to another, he will not need time to acclimate. But all things being equal, he is in his natural glory when barefoot and trimmed for balance.

Acclimating to different surfaces

If you usually ride around grassy fields, then decide to walk on a gravel road, your tenderfoot may be a little “ouchy”. So I encourage you to introduce new surfaces gradually. But there are very few surfaces a horse cannot tolerate if properly acclimated.

I often hear people say they ride on the road, so they need shoes or the horse will “wear down” too much. Typically, this is related to the fact that the horse has been stalled a lot and is standing in urine, manure, and bedding. Urine and manure can erode the hoof. Even the cleanest wood chip bedding, if too deep, can wick moisture out of the hoof.

The same is true for rocky conditions. A hoof may chip from time to time. But in most cases, this is not at all detrimental to the structure of the hoof and the horse will become accustomed to rocky conditions.

The use of boots

Boots are a popular alternative for many riders who want protection or comfort for their equines under certain conditions, but generally like to keep them barefoot. Boots are portable, removable, and generally reasonable in cost. I do not recommend that you head out for a ten-mile ride the first time you put your horse’s boots on. He does need to acclimate to the boots.

Boots come in a variety of brands, styles, and materials. I have had customers try boots and say, “They come off” or “The horse hates them”. If this is the case, I suggest they try another type of boot. Make sure it is properly fitted and that the style suits the purpose. Talk to others. Consult with your farrier. Read the literature. You can never have too much information when making a choice.

Boots are not intended to be worn 24/7. This is important. They should be used and removed. They are a great choice for someone who has isolated opportunities for riding in more difficult terrains than usual.

The case for shoes

Shoes can be nailed, glued, and tacked on. Traditional shoeing involves nailing a metal shoe to a hoof that is trimmed specifically for the purpose. Nails are driven through the hoof wall to secure the shoe, and it restricts the hoof’s ability to respond to the horse’s weight shifts and movements. Key to this concept is that the nail holes offer ready access to some very sensitive structures, and that the restriction of hoof wall movement greatly affects balance and soundness. There is no clear advantage in traction with shoes.

Glued-on shoes have seen a surge in popularity as the industry recognizes the problems with nails. But glue may not be a viable solution in some climates. In some wet conditions, for example, the glue-ons are routinely lost. Having said that, I would have an easier time understanding the logic of glue-ons over nail-ons.

For those who need sliders, I understand your need for shoes and I have seen increasing success with tacking techniques so that the shoe can be worn for the event and then removed.

The verdict

Lots of ladies hate wearing high heels. They can’t be good for their feet or legs. They can even do a number on your back if you wear them a lot. The first thing many girls do when they get home is kick them off and walk around barefoot. But sometimes they feel they should wear heels. They don’t know why. It really doesn’t make much sense. It is just what is done.

Along the same lines, I often hear people say that because show or trail season is coming, it’s time to shoe their horses. To those who embrace this practice, I would extend to you a challenge: increase your turnout, feed in accordance with forage testing, condition for new surfaces, and try your horse with his balanced barefoot trim. If you find yourself needing some additional protection, consider a removable option such as a boot or tacked-on shoe. A horse that is healthier overall is generally more usable – and he may not need to wear “high heels” any more than you do!