Barefoot vs. Shoes

There's a lot of pressure out there to leave your horse barefoot, but it isn't always the right choice.
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There's a lot of pressure out there to leave your horse barefoot, but it isn't always the right choice.

Many horse owners have converted their horses to the barefoot method of hoof management. Some report that the decision to pull their horse’s shoes was made for philosophical reasons, while others cite economic hardship as a motivating factor. No matter what the reason(s), it appears that barefoot trimming is trending upwards, so much so, that one can't help but wonder if a day could come when horse shoes are a rare sight. Download a PDF of this article here.

Hooves that frequently crack and chip may be helped by a patch, like this one, which may require a shoe.

Hooves that frequently crack and chip may be helped by a patch, like this one, which may require a shoe.

Many people have taken a critical look at why we shoe horses and sharply questioned its necessity. 

Why are we shoeing horses? Is it simply because, “That is how things are done”? Blacksmiths have been around for hundreds of years. This age old profession has diligently shod horses through the world’s wars, revolutions and eras. Very few professions have been around this long… so there must be a good reason for it, right? They wouldn't be in high demand after all these years if the job wasn't necessary. So… which is best for your horse? Shoes or no shoes? From the vet’s perspective, decisions should be made for each horse based on how the horse responds to being barefoot.

When a veterinarian is first approached for his or her opinion on the matter, most vets encourage clients to ponder the pros and cons of this decision carefully, offering thoughts on both sides and what is best for that individual horse. As with many horse-related topics, no two scenarios will play out exactly the same way. Therefore, each case must be handled on an individual basis.

Both shoes and barefoot have perceived pros and cons. For instance, some may view the protection that a shoe provides to a hoof to be a good thing, while others believe that the shoe prevents natural expansion and contraction of the foot that occurs in barefoot horses.

Another example is the ability of a shoe to change the hoof angles significantly with the use of wedge pads. There can be benefits to the horse's joints if wedges are added to optimize angles. That said, it's also widely known that the use of wedge pads over time can contribute to contracted and under-run heels. For the average horse owner, the two approaches to hoof management can appear on the surface to be neck and neck.

Here is my advice:

1. No matter which way you decide to go, make sure to do your homework when you select the person to work on your horse’s feet. 

Remember, it takes the average horse about one year to grow out a new hoof. That means that someone can cause lasting damage with just a nip here and a rasp there! Generally, farriers who are certified by the American Farriers Association have a solid baseline level of knowledge and skill. They’re capable of balancing and trimming a hoof and also making and putting on a shoe.

Of course, just because they’re certified doesn’t mean they’re good. On the contrary, there are plenty of talented folks out there who have decided not to go the AFA route. Some may be certified by the Brotherhood of Working Farriers Association, and that's fine, too.

The thing is, you have to do your research, and that means ask around, check out the hooves of horses that the person shoes or trims, and interview the farrier about his or her training, forte and experience. Ultimately, a farrier must not only get along with your horse, but he or she must also mesh well with you. However, nothing trumps competence developed through formal education, continued education and experience. 

2. Don’t buy a line of bull. 

If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. Often, an incompetent farrier will weave a far-fetched fictional explanation of what’s happening when in reality he or she is causing something to go wrong by not knowing what they’re doing. 

For instance, if your horse’s hoof starts to look long, your horse begins to trip or stumble, or if your horse is lame, it’s time to put the brakes on and intervene. No matter what the farrier may tell you, the bottom of your horse’s hoof should be level when you look down its surface.

Also, if your farrier becomes angry when you question what’s going on, you may need to reconsider the relationship. Those who lack formal education in anatomy and the physics of trimming will often provide a sensationalized rendition of what’s going on in the foot. If it’s confusing or doesn’t sound quite right, run it by your veterinarian to make sure that you aren’t getting snowed. Or send the question to us. If we can help, we will.

3. If you pull your horses shoes and go the barefoot route, your horse should not be foot sore forever. 

It’s widely understood that most horses will be sore for a few weeks, maybe even a few months after shoes are pulled. Often, the horse needs to build up callus on his soles to help protect the coffin bones from concussive forces that occur when they walk barefoot on the ground. In some instances, hoof tougheners like iodine must be applied. But, most horses will begin to walk out more comfortably within two weeks to two months after shoes are pulled.

Many barefoot trimmers will tell owners that, after several months of a horse being foot sore, they just need to keep going and the hooves will complete the transformation. The question that you have to ask yourself is, how long do you want to sentence your horse to pain with every step? Two months feels like the upper limit for most owners. In some more extreme instances, barefoot horses will repeatedly get hoof abscesses. If this is occurring on a repeated basis then the owner must make some executive decisions. No one wants to watch a gimp around knowing that it’s being caused by a decision to pull his shoes.

4. If ongoing lameness occurs from either shoeing or barefoot trimming, it’s time to stop, regroup and find a new direction. 

This may require a new farrier, a decision that your veterinarian may help you with.

Bottom Line.
Whether barefoot-pro folks want to hear it or not, some horses aren’t capable of being barefoot. It’s unfair to sentence them to months of continual pain with every step. If your horse doesn’t adapt to being barefoot within a couple of months, you should intervene to avoid sentencing them to a miserable life. 

If you asked your horse whether he wanted to be barefoot or have shoes, he would probably tell you that he would prefer not being in pain with every step. If that means wearing shoes, somehow that doesn’t seem so taboo. Perhaps that’s why the practice of putting shoes on horses has survived for centuries.

Grant Miller, DVM, Contributing Veterinary Editor