Should My Horse Be Barefoot or Shod? It Depends.
By Stephen E. O’Grady, DVM, MRCVS
The topic of having horses go barefoot vs. shod has been discussed at several American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Annual Conventions and always generates some very informative dialog while raising many important questions. I must say from the onset that I favour horses being maintained without shoes when possible, but it depends on multiple factors. Barefoot is not generally possible with upper level competition horses. On the other hand, I also feel that horses can be shod in a very sound physiological manner such that minimal damage to the hoof capsule will occur.
The factors used to make the decision on barefoot or shod include:
- The use of shoes for protection when wear of the hoof wall exceeds growth at the coronet;
- The need for traction, especially in the performance horse for athletic activities;
- Therapeutic reasons in order to treat lameness, diseases of the hoof (such as laminitis), or to address limb conformation.
It is usually not possible for upper level competition horses to perform at the standard required without shoes. Photo: Carterse/Flickr
Any one or a combination of the above reasons may dictate the necessity for shoes. Whether or not it is feasible for a horse to go without shoes will further depend on the owner’s expectations, the owner’s commitment to the project, and the hoof care the horse receives, especially during the transition period. Much of the horse industry is involved in competitive athletic disciplines and the question of whether the horse can compete and perform at a given standard without shoes arises.
Wear vs. growth
Wear versus growth is the first point to consider. Factors include the genetics and breed of the horse, the structure and conformation of the hoof, the surface on which the horse will be worked, and most important, the job the horse will perform. These variables all influence the wear of the feet and will affect the decision as to whether the horse can be maintained barefoot. The structure of the foot is usually the determining factor in deciding whether the horse can remain barefoot.
Figure 1, as referred to in article. Photo courtesy of Stephen E. O’Grady, DVM, MRCVS
Hoof development, particularly for the first three years, is dependent upon stimulation from regular exercise and turnout. Yearlings are often shod for the sales. The majority of horses’ feet remain healthy until the time they are broke and enter training, usually as two-year-olds. As training begins, the hoof capsule and its related structures are still immature. The animal is confined to a stall or small paddock, a rider is placed on its back which leads to additional weight bearing on the feet, and the horse now begins to work. Training may lead to abnormal stresses being placed on an underdeveloped foot along with excessive wear to the feet.
The animal begins to show discomfort and shoes are then placed on the feet for protection. It has been discovered that the horse has receptors in the bottom of its feet and it is speculated that these receptors function in a stimulatory capacity. So the first thing that happens when shoes are applied is that these receptors lose contact with the ground.
Next we need to take into account how the foot is being trimmed and the application of shoes by the farrier. We see right away that the combination of the above factors can, will, and often does change the structures of the foot forever, frequently leading to a weak foot that is difficult to maintain without shoes. You can prove this to yourself by taking a digital photo of a horse’s foot at the start of training and then taking another photo six months to a year later, and compare the difference.
Traditionally we place shoes on these youngsters too early and often shoes are not necessary as long as a few modifications are made in their training program to allow the feet to continue to develop.
Along with the structure of the foot, the exercise program anticipated for the horse without shoes must be considered. Many horses can do well without shoes as long as they are not asked to perform. Light riding may be feasible while competition may not be possible. Finally, the surface upon which the horse is kept or exercised will influence the wear on the feet. A hard surface or abrasive surface such as sand will not be as forgiving as a soft deformable footing.
Related: Finding the Hoof Care Balance - Top Tips & Myth Busters
The need for traction on variable ground conditions can also dictate the choice between barefoot or shod. Shoes act as a traction device and provide more cup to the foot. Traction devices allow horses to hold their footing, prevent slippage, and improve overall performance in competitions such as eventing, jumping, steeplechase racing, and polo. Equestrian sports such as fox hunting that take place during winter are aided by traction devices because of their diverse weather and footing conditions. They provide safety to the horse and give the horse confidence while performing.
An often overlooked advantage of shoes with traction devices is the safety they provide to both horse and rider. Borium or studs in snow and icy conditions allow for safer riding and turnout. Photo: Canstockphoto/Cookelma
A factor often overlooked in the equation is that traction devices provide safety for the rider as well, whether trail riding or competing. Borium or studs provide safety from slipping to a horse turned out in snow or icy conditions. They allow a horse to be ridden or to pull a sleigh on the snow and ice. Sliding plates in reining horses could be considered an anti-traction device as they decrease the friction between the ground and the hoof.
Therapeutic shoeing is used to resolve or improve hoof capsule distortions and it will generally form part of or sometimes the entire treatment for lameness confirmed in the foot. Lameness results from repetitive stresses or overload placed on a given structure or structures of the hoof capsule or structures within the hoof leading to damage.
Shoes can be used to change the forces or stresses placed on a given structure within the hoof capsule and unload damaged areas of the foot. Shoes are used for realignment of the distal phalanx in cases of laminitis; they provide continuity of the hoof capsule after resection in white line disease, stabilize hoof cracks and distal phalanx fractures, and provide protection following a puncture wound or foot surgery. Angular or flexural deformities in young horses may be treated or aided by various types of shoes.
The transition period
Will this Arabian foal remain barefoot or wear shoes? The decision will depend upon several factors including his overall hoof health, how well his hoof care is managed, the job he will perform, and his living conditions. Photo: Canstockphoto/Zuzule
A transition period is always needed when changing a horse from shod to barefoot in order to allow the foot to adapt. Adaptation means the hoof wall must toughen and the sole must increase in depth or become thicker to compensate for not wearing shoes. Horses are much easier to maintain in a barefoot manner if they have never worn shoes. The length of time the horse has worn shoes makes a big difference because it has a bearing on the length of time anticipated before the horse develops the necessary sole protection after the shoes come off. The structures of the foot are often of inadequate mass or irreversibly damaged and thus incapable of adaptation.
If a decision is made to remove the shoes, the horse should be taken out of work. We recommend a 30 to 90 day transition period during which time the structures of the horse’s feet are allowed to toughen and adapt to being without shoes. At this point we also change the method of hoof care from trimming the foot to shaping the foot.
Related: Therapeutic Horseshoeing
When the decision is made to remove the shoes, the horse should be taken out of work and given a 30 to 90 day transition period. If the sole is of minimal depth, the horse should be confined and walked on a firm surface daily until the foot structures begin to adapt.
Figure 2, as referred to in article. Photo courtesy of Stephen E. O’Grady, DVM, MRCVS
The only tools necessary are a wire brush and a rasp. Nothing is removed from the bottom of the foot. Using a rasp, the heels are moved back to the base of the frog (when possible) and the hoof wall is not lowered but just rasped on an angle so a rounded edge is created. Flares or excess toe are removed from the outer hoof wall (shaping). We finish by slightly beveling the toe from the toe quarters forward to promote sole growth and to toughen the sole wall junction (Figure 2). If firm pressure (using thumb pressure or hoof testers) on the sole causes the sole to give, this bevel should not be created.
This adaptation phase can be gauged according to the initial structure of the horse’s foot and should be controlled. When a minimal sole depth is present (as evidenced by hoof testers applied to the sole), the horse should be confined or placed in a small area of soft footing and then walked daily on a firm surface until the structures of the foot begin to change and adapt.
Placing the horse in some form of protective boot may not provide the foot the necessary stimulation to adapt. At no time should the horse show marked discomfort as this defeats the purpose. If after 30 days, the horse’s sole has not become firmer and noticeable growth of sole does not appear on the inner border of the sole wall junction, then in the best interests of the horse, it may be worthwhile to reconsider this method of hoof care.
Some barefoot proponents believe that shoes and nails put the horse’s feet on a destructive path and that all horses should be barefoot.
Many barefoot proponents have taken an extremist view that shoes and nails start the feet on a destructive road, purporting this belief without looking at the overall scientific and physiologic picture. There are advocates of the barefoot movement that claim through their research that applying shoes to the horse is detrimental and therefore all horses need to be barefoot. This research claims that nails placed in a horse’s foot are toxic, that the bars in the heels should be removed as they impinge on the circulation and that all horses should be trimmed in the same specified manner.
Yet I have never been able to find this research. I have never seen a scientific publication that states nails are toxic when placed in a horse’s foot. If we think of the hoof capsule as a cone – one quickly sees the necessity of preserving the bars as they provide stability and allow the hoof capsule to expand, which in turn allows the normal physiology of the foot to take place. Finally, if we consider the various breeds of horses, individual foot conformation, structures of the foot, phalangeal alignment, etc., it would appear highly unreasonable to trim all horses in the same manner.
Just as all horses are not created equal, neither are their feet. Shoes have been known to cause lameness and change the hoof capsule. Shoes have also been documented to treat lameness and improve the structures of the hoof. So when we decide whether a horse can be kept barefoot – and many cannot – considering the variables involved, the answer may be: “It depends.”
Related: 10 Things You Might Not Know About Horse Hooves
Stephen O’Grady is both a veterinarian and a professional farrier. He operates Northern Virginia Equine in Marshall, Virginia, which is a referral practice devoted to foot disease and equine therapeutic farriery. He also operates a consulting service and travels worldwide to treat complicated podiatry cases. In 2003, he was inducted into the International Equine Veterinarians Hall of Fame and in 2009, he received the AAEP President’s Award for his work in farrier education.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: iStock/PeopleImages.