Help Your Horse Handle Hot-Shoeing

A reader asks: How do I ease my horse's fear of hot-shoeing?
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A reader asks: How do I ease my horse's fear of hot-shoeing?

Q: I have a 20-year-old Thoroughbred gelding who is terrified of hot-shoeing. He stands happily for trimming and has even been known to doze off while he’s being worked on. He’s never reacted badly to being cold-shod. But as soon as our new farrier turns on his forge, the gelding panics and remains jittery for the rest of the appointment. He also spooks when the farrier tries to apply products to his hoof to seal old nail holes or help with problem cracks. I want to correct this issue to make the experience of being shod more pleasant for my horse and to safeguard the well-being of all involved. But without knowing what is causing his fear, I don’t know where to begin to help him overcome it.

A gradual approach may help frightened horses accept the hot-shoeing process. | © Paula da Silva/arnd.nl

A gradual approach may help frightened horses accept the hot-shoeing process. | © Paula da Silva/arnd.nl

R. Vance Glenn
A: Before I address your horse’s issue, it may be helpful to discuss the basic difference between hot- and cold-shoeing. In hot-shoeing, you heat the steel shoe in a forge before using a hammer to shape it. In cold-shoeing, you shape the cold steel with a hammer, but no heat is involved.

I prefer hot-shoeing for a few reasons. First, it’s easier to bend and shape hot steel than it is to bend and shape something that’s cold and rigid. So I’m not subjecting my body, especially my joints, to the stresses and strains associated with beating on cold steel.

More importantly, though, is that hot-shoeing allows me to provide the best fit for each individual hoof. After I have heated up the shoe and shaped it, I lightly place it on the bare hoof to see how it fits. I then make adjustments if needed. Once I’m confident the shoe fits, I “burn it” to the hoof. In this process, I press the hot shoe into the hoof slightly harder so that the hoof molds to the shoe. This ensures that there are no gaps between the hoof and the shoe, resulting in the best fit. Once I’m sure the hoof and shoe are molded so the shoe will gain purchase, I cool the shoe in cold water, then hammer it in place. (While the phrase “burn it” may sound painful, the horse cannot feel it.)

In my view, cold-shoeing compromises the process a little bit. Some people don’t agree with me, and I know there are some really good cold-fitters out there. But there���s no way you can shape a shoe as easily and as accurately as you can when it’s hot. Hot-shoeing also allows me to readily customize a shoe based on a horse’s needs. I can make a rocker toe to ease the breakover, add clips to hold the shoe on better, put on trailers to add lateral support or make onion heels to support the heels. You simply can’t do that kind of work cold.

In the case of your horse, who’s been cold-shod until now, it’s most likely that he’s afraid of the hissing sound the fire in the forge makes or of the smoke that’s produced when the hot shoe touches his hoof. At age 20, his eyesight probably isn’t perfect, and the rising smoke may look like a ghost to him. With a horse his age, my solution would be to shoe him cold and call it a day. It’s a compromise, I know. But it’s probably the lesser of the two evils if hot-shoeing is freaking him out. The best you can do in this situation might just be to cater to your horse.

If, however, your farrier finds it necessary to hot-shoe him, it may be worthwhile to try a gradual approach. I shoe a lot of young horses between the ages of 3 and 5 at breeding farms. I’ve got to get these guys to hot-shoe from the beginning. Certain horses naturally accept it. They aren’t spooky and they don’t worry about it. Others are frightened by it in the beginning.

For those who are apprehensive, I do things a step at a time. I heat a shoe, shape it hot and then pick up a foot and touch the shoe to it. Then I step away and let the horse be. That way, he sees just a little bit of smoke. Once the smoke clears, I cool the shoe and then nail it on. I may not be getting the perfect fit that I get when the hot shoe remains in place longer and the hoof molds to it, but at least I’m getting something. After two or three shoeing cycles times where I’m not fighting with the horse, I hold the hot shoe to the horse’s hoof for longer to get a better fit. Eventually, the youngster realizes that he’s not being hurt and he accepts it all.

I have had some horses who were really, really bad and needed special shoeing. I had no choice but to do them hot. To accustom a horse like that to the smoke, I put him in a stall adjacent to the area where other horses are being shod. He gets to stand there and smell the smoke all day, watching it come off the feet, and he gets used to it.

Every once in a while I get the odd horse who just isn’t going to accept hot-shoeing, no matter what. If that’s the case, arrangements can be made to have a veterinarian sedate him or I shoe him cold. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just a compromise.

In general, I would say that it’s just a matter of talking a horse into it as you would with anything else. Most good horsemen know that you don’t fight with a horse. You don’t force him into things. You talk him into it. Kindness goes a whole lot further than being mean and tough. Be nice, love on him, put the hot shoe on him and then stop. Give him a minute and give him a treat. Just go easy with him. That’s good basic horsemanship.

Certified Journeyman Farrier R. Vance Glenn has shod sporthorses for more than 25 years. His clients include world-class competitors in eventing, dressage, show jumping and driving. A member of the American Farriers Association, Vance partners with veterinarians on lameness issues that require state-of-the-art therapeutic shoeing. Based in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he travels seasonally to regular appointments in Aiken, South Carolina and in Sarasota, Ocala and West Palm Beach, Florida.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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