TO SHOE OR NOT
by Danvers Child, CJF
Whether you're cruising horse sites on the internet or flipping through the equine section at the supermarket newsstand, you'll likely encounter some strongly held opinions. Currently, many of the opinions being forwarded are focused on hoof care; specifically, they're focused on a debate about whether it's better for your horse to be barefoot or to wear shoes.
It's the nature of debate that the middle ground is often ignored, and this debate stays the course, with each side tending to forward their belief as THE way rather than as A way. Interestingly enough, the people at the extremes in this debate are—for the most part—not farriers and hoof care professionals. Instead, they're primarily horse owners.
In fact, the professional farrier is seldom involved in the decision as to whether a horse should be shod or not. More often than not, our clients specifically ask us to shoe their horse or to trim it; it's rare that they ask our opinion on the matter.
When the professional farrier is involved in making these decisions, however, the decision is not generic. Instead, knowledge and experience govern his decision making, and whether he articulates the criteria and variables or not, a number of factors (ranging from environment and usage to conformation) get consideration on a horse-by-horse basis.
Ultimately, if the professional farrier opts to shoe rather than trim, his decision making will hinge on one (or more) of the three basic reasons for shoeing: to protect the foot, to address traction concerns, to alter or enhance gait.
The idea of protecting the hoof encompasses a number of concerns. The obvious need occurs when a horse's rate of hoof wear exceeds his rate of hoof growth, which is most often seen when the horse is working hard on abrasive surfaces.
Likewise, horses working on hard, uneven, or rough terrain may well need some extra protection to avoid breakage and/or bruising. Since the front limbs are more weight bearing than the hind and since they typically have less concavity, you will occasionally see farriers opt to protect the front with shoes, while leaving the hinds unshod. With many horses, this works quite well; however, it can cause problems with growth disparity, timing, traction, and other concerns.
Additionally, a hoof that's been compromised by injury or disease will often need to be protected in some manner, whether permanently or temporarily. While this might bring pictures of elaborate shoes to mind, it can sometimes be as simple as applying a conventional shoe to provide a solid base of support.
The leading edge of the bare hoof, along with its concavity and the texture and shape of the frog, provides a fair amount of traction. In fact, on many surfaces, the barefoot horse will have more traction than the conventionally shod horse. In some situations, however, it's advantageous to add traction. Horses that are travelling on pavement, concrete, ice, and other slick surfaces will often need additional traction whether barefoot or conventionally shod. Likewise, horses working on turf can benefit from studs or concave shoes, and horses being asked to pull a load will often benefit from traction added to a conventional appliance.
Just as we sometimes find the need to add traction, we occasionally find the need to take it away. Horses working in deep footing will often benefit from shoeing that provides them with some sort of “floatation” which keeps them from getting too deep in the ground and laboring. Likewise, usage will sometimes dictate that a horse has some slippage, as with reining horses and—to a lesser extent—calf roping horses. In these cases, shoeing with a wide-webbed shoe, a plain-stamped shoe, extended heels and other specialty modifications or appliances can be beneficial.
The idea of shoeing for gait alteration makes one think of gaited horses, weighted shoes, and exaggerated action. While attempting to modify or exaggerate a horse's gait to meet some breed standard is among the reasons for shoeing, a more solid reason for shoeing to alter gait has to do with the horse's health and safety.
In this respect, shoeing for gait alteration is most often associated with a farrier attempting to keep a horse from hitting himself or interfering in some way. While this type of shoeing can get very technical on racetracks (especially with harness horses), it has its place in the work-a-day world as well. A good farrier can often make adjustments and fine tune an appliance to help a horse that's over-reaching or forging. Likewise, he can make adjustments in breakover—through shoe placement, rolled toes, or rockered toes—to help compensate for uneven gaits.
Whether you're trimming or shoeing, a regular maintenance program provided by a competent farrier is essential to the health and well being of your horse. And it wouldn't hurt to ask that farrier's opinion about what's best for your horse.
This article appeared in the National Foundation Quarter Horse Journal (2003) and in the electronic newsletter of the American Farrier's Association (Aug. 2003)