By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
As each riding season winds down I find myself reflecting on the ups and downs of the past season and make a short list of issues and concerns that need to be addressed. Each season the problem of horseshoes falling off prematurely ranks high on that list. Trail riders regularly describe their frustration with shoes that fall off after several days or even several hours of use. We can put a man on the moon but it seems that we can’t keep shoes on our trail horse’s feet!
This is a serious problem. A horse that heads out on a lengthy ride over variable terrain and loses a shoe can be in serious trouble. Maybe you notice the missing shoe and maybe you don’t. Maybe you have many rocky miles to ride just to get back to the trail head. The potential for injury and damage is compounded if your horse has small, soft, or thin walled hooves.
Shoeing jobs that may do perfectly well under normal conditions, may do poorly in rough wilderness trails.
Through the years we have come to the understanding that keeping shoes on our horses is paramount if we are going to have a successful season. Barefoot riding is perfectly acceptable on many trails provided the horse’s hooves are adequate, but for regular use on trails with rocky sections shoes are a must. Presently I shoe about 40 horses a year and over the years I have observed and consulted with many farriers. The information in this article is based on experience and discussions with farriers and assistant farriers who understand the needs of trail horses. Good farriers have a wealth of knowledge and theory that allows them to shoe competently for a variety of situations, including corrective shoeing. Unfortunately, knowledge and theory does not necessarily translate into a shoeing job that will make shoes stick in rough country; the following suggestions are things I have discovered that greatly reduce the chance of a shoe falling off prematurely:
#1 – Place nails in all eight holes. Some farriers leave out the rear nails to allow the back quarter of the hoof wall to flex outward with the pressure of each step, rather than being solidly bound to the shoe. However many horseshoes, like the St. Croix Eventer, have the nail holes further forward than traditional shoes and there is really no reason to leave the rear nail out. When given a choice with traditional shoes, such as the Diamond Toed and Heeled horseshoe, the rear nail should still be placed in as it is important in anchoring the shoe. The potential for injury after losing a shoe is far greater than the possibility of a problem developing from placing in the rear nail, which has been common practice for many years.
#2 – Do not allow the rear branch of a shoe to extend behind the hoof. Even if the branch of the shoe extends behind the hoof an eighth of an inch or less, every time the horse lifts its foot it has the potential to rub and catch on debris, eventually loosening the shoe. The reason some farriers leave excess shoe sticking out the back is to increase the surface area. I do not know how much of a benefit one eighth of an inch would provide, but having it stick out is possibly the primary reason shoes come off, either while riding rough trails, or when a rear foot catches on the protrusion when it steps forward. Many farriers will say they will leave only the width of a dime sticking out but in reality it becomes the width of three nickels — too much.
#3 – Do not excessively curl in the rear branch of the shoe. The rear branches of shoes do need to be bent inward to match the contour of the hoof; excessively curling in the rear branch will leave it hanging over the hoof wall. When the horse steps on odd objects, pressure on the curl will twist the shoe and eventually loosen nails. The curl can also catch on roots, stones, and other debris.
Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
The prepared surface of the horse’s foot must be flat so that the attached shoe is perfectly flush with the bottom of the hoof. Gaps between the shoe and the wall will allow the shoe to flex, eventually loosening nails and the shoe.
#4 – When the shoe is in place and you run your hand down the hoof you should not feel or see the shoe extending beyond the periphery of the hoof wall. It needs to be seated flush or just inside the outer edge of the hoof wall otherwise each time the foot is lifted the shoe will rub and catch on debris, sucking mud, etc. Farriers will often place a shoe so that the rear half of each branch is slightly wider than the hoof wall. This is so that when the rear quarters of the hoof flex out with each step they spread out to meet the full surface of the shoe. Again, it is good theory but if the shoe is wider than the hoof the shoe is more likely to loosen under variable trail conditions than if it is flush.
#5 – The prepared surface of the horse’s foot must be flat so that the attached shoe is perfectly flush with the bottom of the hoof. Any gaps (scoops) between the shoe and the wall will allow the shoe to flex with each step, eventually loosening nails and the shoe.
#6 – The nails need to be placed so that they come out in a pattern an inch or slightly more from the bottom of the hoof. Too often nails emerge shallow — a half an inch up or less — allowing nails to pull through, especially on thin hoofed walls.
#7 – When the nails are finished being clinched (bent over), they are commonly rasped flat to reduce bulk. Lightly rasping them is fine but excessive rasping will result in the remaining bent nail breaking off when riding through rocks and roots. When the clinch is gone nails tend to loosen and pull out much easier. Therefore, avoid heavy rasping.
The farrier who shod a horse that is happily riding over prairie trails may earn kudos from a satisfied horse owner, but that same horse owner might howl with anguish as the same shoeing job hits the big mountains and shoes fly off after a day or two of rocks, roots, and mud. If you have an open minded farrier you might ask him or her how they shoe trail horses.
Many horse owners are reluctant to ask questions for fear that it may be taken as an insult, questioning the farrier’s ability or way of doing things. Likely, the friendliest way to get an understanding of how trail horses are shod is to ask a few questions on the phone when you book your appointment, and some form of a warranty is not out of line. If a shoe comes off in less than a few weeks, do not blame the terrain. Many ranchers, outfitters, and trail riders ride shod horses for weeks on end over all terrain without losing a shoe. It’s more about common sense than rocket science.
Main article photo: Robin Duncan Photography