Do Dressage Horses Need Shoes?

Farrier Doug Butler gives his opinion on this common dressage horse shoe debate and discusses important factors to consider when making this decision.
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Farrier Doug Butler gives his opinion on this common dressage horse shoe debate and discusses important factors to consider when making this decision.

Question: How important is it to keep shoes on a dressage horse's hind hooves? My horse is a 5-year-old Thoroughbred gelding. His feet are not cracked and they seem strong. He was out of training for about a year before I recently purchased him. I'm now wondering whether shoeing will make a difference in his way of moving? Also, how much can a farrier do to help my horse have nicer gaits for dressage?

Answer: Shoeing does affect the way a horse moves, although this is usually less than the effect of correct training and riding. I believe that shoeing only the front half of a horse puts him off balance and, without hind shoes, a horse may get sore behind and become less collected in his gaits. Either the horse should be left barefoot all around or shod all around. If he is sound and you ride primarily on turf and in arenas, he may never need shoes. If you ride over abrasive ground that wears away the hooves faster than they grow, you should have your horse shod all around.

The effects of shoeing on gait may be subtle or dramatic. The sensitivity of the horse to change, the speed he travels and the type of footing are all contributing factors. From a farrier's perspective, a horse's gaits are affected by four factors: foot balance, foot protection, shoe configuration and shoe weight.

Foot balance is three-dimensional-side to side, front to back and from above and below. Farriers must consider and accommodate flexural foot deformities when the hoof is viewed from side to side. They must consider angular foot deformities when the foot is viewed from front to back. And, they must consider rotational deformities when it is viewed from above or below.

Foot protection prevents injury and wear, helping to maintain balance over the shoeing interval of six to eight weeks. Horses that have more serious conformation defects require shorter shoeing intervals and are termed "high maintenance" horses. For example, feet with flat or thin soles and thin walls (very common in the Thoroughbred breed) are benefited by a wide-webbed shoe that protects the sole from bruising. Shoes are often fit past the buttress of the heels to support the flexor tendons of the leg in horses that have underrun heels. Severe cases may need egg-bar or heart-bar shoes.

Shoe configuration has a significant effect on gait. The area of the shoe that interacts with the ground affects the time the foot spends on the ground in relation to the time it spends in flight. For example, traction devices hold the foot on the ground longer, rocker toes make breakover easier and egg-bar shoes prevent the heels from sinking into a soft ground surface. Shoe wear is an important clue to movement. Horses with shoes wearing evenly are moving with minimal stress.

Shoe weight can help a horse move boldly and smoothly by adding momentum and support to his legs. For example, stout horses need heavier shoes to support the foot and prevent excessive wear. Horses sensitive to weight (especially lighter-boned horses like Thoroughbreds) may benefit from aluminum shoes. Aluminum is one-third the weight of steel and may help a horse move with a flatter, more ground-covering stride. However, aluminum shoes also wear out much faster than steel and may not last the normal shoeing interval.

Finding the right shoeing combination for your dressage horse may be a matter of trial and error. It may take two to three shoeings for your farrier to discover the solution that will help your horse give his best performance. The results need to be consistently applied at regular intervals to keep your horse sound and moving in his most desirable form. A competent farrier can help you shorten the learning curve.

Doug Butler, PhD, FWCF earned his doctorate in equine nutrition and veterinary atanomy. He is a veteran farrier educator and author of Principles of Horseshoeing II. A certified journeyman farrier and Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers (FWCF), he runs a farrier training and consulting business in LaPorte, Colorado.

The article originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of Dressage Today.

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