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To Shoe or Not to Shoe


Brent Pugh
Interview by: Tootie Trouy

To shoe or not to shoe? That is the question. We know horses in the wild do not wear shoes, but do our domesticated ones need to wear shoes? Equine veterinarian Brent Pugh, MS, D.V.M. of mid South Veterinary Services of Millington, TN answered questions about this issue.

1. What are some pros to keeping a horse barefoot?

Horses allowed to go without shoes have both medical and financial benefits. Financially, the upkeep of horses without shoes tends to be less expensive. Shoeing a horse costs the farrier more in materials on top of time and service; this, in turn, increases the fees paid to farriers for their services. Also, there are no loose or lost shoes to deal with at the last minute before a trail ride or a show.

The acclimated and well cared for barefoot horse generally has thicker soles, stronger hoof walls, wider and stronger heels, and healthier frogs. This does depend heavily on hoof conformation, environment, use of the horse, and quality routine hoof care. There are also no nail holes through the hoof wall to allow the introduction of keratinolytic (hoof wall consuming) organisms.

Barefoot horses have the freedom to feel the ground with their hooves and use the traction devices anatomically provided for performance. Innate traction devices include the frog, bars, hoof wall, and lateral commissures of the frog. The heels are also able to expand and contract freely with ground contact as the frog absorbs and flexes. Both together aid in shock absorption and improved blood flow through the foot and distal limb. The coffin bone has continued support with sole and frog in contact with the ground and/or indirectly through the “dirt pad” held in the bottom of the hoof.

2. What are some cons to keeping a horse barefoot?

Barefoot horses can also present a handful of problems. Most barefoot failures have to do with poor conformation or hooves that are not acclimated to terrain exposure without shoes. Especially during the summer when flies are rough and the ground becomes hard, horses will stomp, causing chips, cracks, and injury to the hoof. Many horses have “tender feet” that prevent them from going without shoes. This is generally not a problem at home on the pasture.  Soreness usually results once a horse is ridden over different terrain from what their hooves have become acclimated to, such has asphalt or gravel roads. Many performance or work horses need shoes in order to protect their hooves, as well as increase performance. For example, many of the draft breeds that pull carriages over asphalt could not last without routine shoeing. The concrete is too abrasive to the hooves and their soles have no protection from objects on the streets. The eventing horse benefits from shoes that aid in traction, as takeoff for jumps is from wet grass sometimes, and because of the variety of terrains a course may present. Another example for the benefit of shoes is the barrel horse. Although the deep dirt is soft to their hooves, it can also be loose. The dirt that fills the shoe provides traction through friction with the dirt in the arena and also helps absorb shock as the hoof lands. Shoes are also needed many times for horses with hoof defects, lameness, or various injuries.

3. What are some instances where shoes are unavoidable?

Many horses’ hooves become dependent on shoes, just as we cannot go long without protection over our feet.  A horse that has had shoes most of its life walking through lush pastures and soft soil will unlikely be able to suddenly travel over rocky terrain on a trail ride with no shoes. Therefore, the hoof’s history and owner’s intended use often determine the need for shoes.

Through breeding to select for other desirable characteristics, often genetically inferior hooves are passed down. These horses, either through this process or constant shoeing from a young age, were never allowed to develop a durable hoof that can comfortably travel without shoes; therefore, they do not perform well or have a good life quality without shoes.

4. What is your personal opinion on the issue?

Our domestic horse is not “natural” and common sense must be applied to what our horses hooves need, based on what we, the people, have done or need our horses to do. Compared to “natural” wild horses, our horses are trailered, graze in pastures with soft soil and lush grass, boarded in small stalls, fed harvested hay, eat feed from a bag, get fly spray, and get ridden. None of this happens, along with many other things, to the wild horse.

Many horses for whom I do farrier and veterinary work for will go barefoot 9 months out of the year and only get shoes when primary trail ride events arise in the spring or fall. These horses’ hooves are acclimated to their environment as barefoot, but should they suddenly go to rocky terrain without shoes, they may become lame within a day.

In order for a horse to transition from shod to barefoot, it often takes a long period of time and gradual exposure to different terrains in order to develop a callused, hard sole. Remember, our horses are creatures of habit and any change, whether feed or foot, must be gradual.

The single most important part of successful hoof care, whether shod or barefoot, depends on a qualified farrier. The farrier must be capable of properly trimming the hoof, recognizing and dealing with hoof problems as they arise, providing the best advice for that horse/client, and most importantly, the owner must have the farrier out routinely. Both shoes and barefoot can be failures if the farrier seldom cares for the hooves. Clients should exercise confidence in their hoof care professionals and common sense in what is needed for their horse to determine if and when shoes are warranted.

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