Should horses be shod?

Two professional farriers discuss the merits of barefoot trimming and performance.
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Two professional farriers discuss the merits of barefoot trimming and performance.

Pro: Dave Mathis

hoof





Shoeing horses is situational. Where it works, it’s a great thing. Shoes just make horses a lot more versatile for riding. They help a mounted horse get a hold of the ground and stop harder. Shoes also help horses distribute the extra weight of a rider and tack. But whether they really need shoes or not depends on terrain, what type of riding they’re doing, and where the horse is kept. The fact of the matter is: Every horse can be barefoot. Going shoeless just takes a lot of responsibility on the owner’s part, and not everyone is willing or able to do that. People want convenience. They don’t want to stop and figure out if a horse is sore or if the terrain is appropriate. They want to get up and go. A shod horse stands a better chance of doing that.




Shoeing horses is situational. Where it works, it’s a great thing. Shoes just make horses a lot more versatile for riding. They help a mounted horse get a hold of the ground and stop harder. Shoes also help horses distribute the extra weight of a rider and tack. But whether they really need shoes or not depends on terrain, what type of riding they’re doing, and where the horse is kept. The fact of the matter is: Every horse can be barefoot. Going shoeless just takes a lot of responsibility on the owner’s part, and not everyone is willing or able to do that. People want convenience. They don’t want to stop and figure out if a horse is sore or if the terrain is appropriate. They want to get up and go. A shod horse stands a better chance of doing that.




In the Old West, a cowboy could also pull from the remuda and rotate horses. Many modern riders only have one horse, so it needs to be ready to go. Since the 19th century, strong feet have not been selectively bred for in horses like other traits. As a result horses have weaker feet that they did 100 years ago. We shod three times a year as kids. Now it’s every six to eight weeks. It’s about performance and being ready all the time.




I like the natural deal, but at a certain point, too much foot is gone. Where I live, in Cave Creek, Ariz., the terrain is rocky and abrasive like a rasp. Ride the trails barefoot, and you’ll wear a horse’s hooves faster than they can re-grow, and pretty soon there’s no more foot. That’s why people started shoeing in the first place. Ride in the arena or on sandy loam all day long, and you can ride them for months barefoot, and a barefoot horse is often more fleet-footed. But barefoot or not, if he’s not trimmed right, you’re going to have problems.


Dave Mathis shoes all of trainer Al Dunning’s horses.




Con: Keith Jacobson




No foal has come into this world with a pair of shoes tacked on to those little feet, but a whole bunch leave that way. Postponing the first shoeing as long as possible, at least until a horse is well into its fifth year, will add years of service on the other end of his life. Prematurely subjecting it to shoeing and strenuous work at an early age is counter to the best long-term interest of the horse physically. Just as joints and muscles are still immature, so are a horse’s feet. And, left unshod, most feet get stronger over time.




An old government farrier once said to me: “There are three reasons to shoe a horse: correction, protection, and traction.” In his time, that was spot on. I don’t shoe any horses for the public and trim over 200 for my customers. But I do shoe one of my own horses! Why? Correction. My horse has poor pastern conformation, and his life is miserable without a wedge shoe that takes pressure off the coffin joint. Sometimes shoeing is less onerous than leaving the horse as he was made. Always do what is right for the horse. I think correction is the best reason to shoe. And most horses need protection at some point or other. Today, we can apply protection as needed with a hoof boot, which allows the foot to function fully and be unencumbered by a shoe. The newest hoof boots go on easily, stay on well, and last a long time. And traction will improve greatly, as well. I’ve ridden plenty of shod, barefoot, and booted horses, and the booted horse has the best traction under most conditions. In effect, the reasons to shoe are few.




The 19th century U.S. Cavalry also understood that constant or continuous shoeing degraded the quality and functionality of the horse foot over time; while leaving the hoof unshod at least half of the time restored soundness. This remains good advice today.


Keith Jacobson is a farrier in Colorado.



Reader's Poll:

67% voted shod

33% voted unshod