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The Whys and Wherefores of Shoeing a Horse

by R.J. Sagely

The feral horses of Shackleford Banks, NC. Can wild and domestic horses' feet be compared apples to apples? 

There is a growing trend in the world of horse-lovers, -riders, -owners that is seeming to almost accept without critical thought that "natural" is better when it comes to good horse-keeping. In many respects, a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural state of a horse is of great benefit to those of us who would ask the so many things we do of our equine friends. A more fully developed appreciation of the natural instincts he will live by without human guidance or interaction enables us to help him when we ask him to live by our rules. But with respect to the shoeing of the horse the "natural foot" mindset may be going a little too far and it may well be to the detriment of the horse. This article will discuss some very pertinent arguments that counter the observations of those who would "de-shoe" all horses without consideration of the actual needs of the individual horse. It will also make a proposition that, as with many, many things equine, the answer to the question of whether to shoe or not to shoe is an unequivocal, "It depends."!

A contention being posited by some folks, who base their premise on observations and research of feral herds that roam the federally managed lands of the western United States, is that shoeing is patently damaging and destructive to the foot of the horse and that it is wholly unnecessary. This is a somewhat extreme representation and begs a number of points that are due some intense consideration before it is determined that a horse in a given setting may benefit from being kept and ridden barefoot. Besides some very dramatic physiologic differences between the "wild" horse and the domestic version, the very way we keep them and the uses to which we subject our animals requires that we do not usurp thoughtful horse management and care with a wistful look to naturalness for meeting all the demands we place on our horses.

To begin with, current proponents of "de-shoeing" look to the wild horse and say that you will find no, or very rare, instances of lameness in wild populations. This is claimed as a direct result of the shape of these feet and therefore since none of those horses are shod, or even trimmed, the conclusion that no horse should be shod is obviously correct. At times the conclusions that are drawn by one investigator have an all too obvious alternative that can be posited by another. This conclusion would be one such. To jump to a position of shoeing as harmful because wild horses are not found to be lame but many shod horses can be found such is to make a Grand Canyon-sized leap of cause and effect relationship.

Here is a fairly obvious reason for the lack of lameness found in wild horse populations. You do not find lame horses in the wild because they die and die soon after the lameness appears. Feral horses often have to travel lengthy distances, upwards of twenty miles daily, for suitable food and water. A lame horse will not last under such conditions. With no shoes to protect congenitally unsound feet or veterinarian prescribing a daily dosing of painkiller to keep him going so he can eat and breed he is soon dead. If it is a congenital lameness then it is removed from the gene pool long before breeding age is reached. Hence, the presence of genes that pass hereditary unsoundness on from one generation to the next are not to be found as they are in human-managed situations. Humans all too often breed for traits such as color or muscling regardless of the soundness of leg and foot structure. And our management practices often dictate that we keep horses in conditions that do not allow for them to wear their feet down as nature intended. Instead the feet will deform or breakdown as the plastic material of their hooves is subjected to the environment we impose on them. Farriery that is well executed, whether just trimming or shoeing too, enables us to help the horse maintain hoof and leg health despite these practices. Asking a horse to withstand our impositions with a "natural" (unshod) foot may not be the kindest thing we could do.

A very outspoken proponent of de-shoeing has made the claim that shoeing is a mostly modern technological development resulting from the stabling of animals by Europeans that began in earnest during medieval times. He goes on to further the assumption of connecting shoeing to the ills of most modern horse lamenesses by proposing that the advent of stabling is when horse lamenesses began to become a chronic state of affairs for horses. While evidence of ancient shoeing is scant there have been findings of crude iron shoes as early as the Roman Empire (the hipposandal). So efforts to protect domestic horses' feet do pre-date medieval times, indicating lameness of the horse has long been a concern and protection long been necessary. It should suffice to say that in any attempt to manage nature there may well be problems. The very act of riding causes the horse to use his body in ways that were not intended in the original design. But again it should be made clear that it is in the execution of shoeing that the danger lies, not in the shoeing itself. That is why man has continued to strive for better and better farriery technology and practice.

This same line of reasoning proceeds to use the Plains Indians as an example of an equine culture that shows proof of the lack of necessity for using shoes. The Mongols of the steppes of eastern Russia and far western China would be another cultural example. The point in favor of de-shoeing based on this cursory version of the facts is refuted by a deeper look at these cultures. The horse was a medium of wealth to these nomadic tribes-people. While they led a very active, equine-nomadic life and had their favorite mount, it is well worth considering that even the lowliest of tribesmen owned a few horses and did not have to ride the same mount day in and day out. And while it is true that their horses did have very tough feet, these folks being more properly impressed with the need to attempt to breed for this trait rather than color or bulk, it must be said that they appreciated the horse's limit to be ridden only so far. This would depend on the type of terrain as to how far that could be.

Furthermore, the Native Americans often made a sandal type covering of untreated (rawhide) buffalo hide which they laced when wet to the feet of their ponies when going on long distance raids or when traveling through particularly rocky areas of the West. This material dried to a toughness rivaling steel and was certainly rigidly protective of the foot thus encased. It should also be noted that the sheer size of the herds the tribes kept allowed for a horse to spend the majority of its time unridden and therefore replacing lost hoof material from the last time it was used. They ran on ground that allowed for the hoof material to be worn down naturally as they moved to graze and water, much as the feral herds do now. Many warriors had a special pony reserved for hunting, another for war, another as a mount for the wife, and still others for common transportation. And when the horse did pull up lame he was either allowed the time to heal or, if the people were on the move, made a fine meal as a final tribute to his utilitarian, as well as deeply spiritual, worth to these people. Native Americans relished horsemeat and actually liked it second only to the buffalo and found it far superior to the white man's cattle.

The lame horse in such instances was not kept in the herd to be used as breeding stock, a practice so common in modern times that it brings us to the following points. Domestic breeding practices have certainly allowed for the creation of many horse "breeds" whose body type and bone structure have diverged from the horse most often held up as the paradigm for de-shoeing. The mustang or wild horse is a very compact horse, nature decreeing that size to survivability in a ratio that she alone determines and clings to steadfastly. While 15h and 1000 lbs. is neither common nor uncommon in wild horses taken as a whole, it is generally found that feral herds are made up of individuals that are more like 14h and 800 lbs. or less. But the size is a regional factor often influenced as much by man as by the environment. Western ranchers of the past practiced the turning out of domestic stock amongst the wild ones to keep them "bred up" in size while nature often worked to keep them smaller.

Often the stallions loosed for this purpose were draft stock with the intent of keeping some size and bone density to the wild herds. The U.S. Army, as a way of keeping up a steady supply for their remount, would often send fine blooded Thoroughbred and Saddlebred stock west for the ranchers to turn out. This made for a hodge-podge of bloodlines in the wild horses but also allowed for nature to sort out what was best and most serviceable, based on the sole criteria of being able to survive to reproductive age and to successfully gather a harem or bear foals and pass on the good stuff. Horses that could not cut it did not pass their traits onward to the next generation, simple as that. And if the get of a particular sire or dam did not meet Mother Nature or the Army's requirements it was not long for the world.

In areas where this practice has long since faded, the size of the horse has again been reduced to efficiency and survivability by natural selection. A smaller horse has a lower nutritional requirement and his feet pack around less weight. Less weight equates to less stress, which equates to less lameness potential. Compared to a 17 h, 1500+ lb Hanoverian jumping 6 foot fences or a 15.3 h, 1300+ lb halter horse standing on too tiny of ill-bred feet, these wild ones can well go barefoot where a domestic may not. Add to this the reality that a larger horse, often on a foot not bred up to the same standard (yet compensated for by adequate husbandry and veterinary skills that allows for a survival that nature would not allow for a wild horse), that is ridden and made to endure further and greater stress to the structures of the hoof and leg than a wild one ever endures. Well, it should be obvious that a reliable comparison of wild horses with domestic horses is not an apples-to-apples proposition. Neither should their foot care needs be directly correlated.

It might be well to stress further that wild horses are not ridden while domestics are, usually. If not ridden, then at the least they are kept in situations where the natural ability to wear down and shape their own feet by the constancy of traveling about for food and water is an obvious and important difference. Add to this the tremendous additional stresses to the foot and leg from just plain old riding, not to mention the many very athletic riding disciplines we ask them to become skilled in, and the comparisons begin to lose much of the value a superficial look might make relevant.

Apart from the maybe spurious comparisons of domestics and wild horses, a very big reason for the call to de-shoeing is that shoeing, in and of itself, is being called to task as a deformative and destructive practice. The claim is that it causes much more harm than any good done by its practitioners. This claim begs a very important point and the verifiable experiences of many a fine farrier readily indicates otherwise. Good farriery practice is not the culprit and cause of the dramatic increase in horse lameness. Rather it is bad farriery that is the culprit and poor education amongst the horse owners of the world. It is downright irresponsible of both the poor shoer and the uneducated horse owner to allow for the horse to endure such poor effect of a sometimes necessary and effective management practice.

When bad shoeing is combined with poor horse husbandry, an even greater calamity ensues. It is one for which pointing the finger at shoeing will not change the trouble caused to the horse. Many breed associations, when matching stallion to mare, barely, rarely or even never consider the foot health, function and form as criteria for a potential match. The even poorer practice of turning lame studs and mares out as "breeding" stock because of their inability to perform any longer is commonplace throughout the horse world and only exacerbates the continuation of congenital lamenesses. To blame shoeing as a culprit is seemingly misplaced if practical observation is to be engaged in and then evaluated.

So what is an appropriate purpose for shoeing a horse? While there are many reasons that could be cited for shoeing being a necessity, quite simply the most predominant will be to protect the foot from excessive wear that would occur from riding to the extent that many folks do. That is to say daily or at least multiple days on a weekly basis. The material of the foot does readily grow and will quickly do so with this amount of exercise and proper nutrition. However, the protection reason stands. Often the conditions over which we ride the horse on a single outing, or the amount of time on a given ride, could wear the foot down to soreness were it not for the protection provided by the shoe.

It will be readily agreed that shoeing that is ill-performed is of no benefit to the horse. It is in fact, the proposition here that the complaints of those who call for de-shoeing as a complete and total necessity to relieve the horse of the evils of shoeing would find equal remedy in the application of physiologically sound and effective trimming and shoeing of the horse. Rather than summarily dismissing the importance of shoeing in a particular case by calling for the de-shoeing of all horses, it should be considered the responsibility of the veterinary, horseshoeing and horse-owner communities to become educated enough to recognize when the farriery needs of an individual horse are being well met. This may mean de-shoeing or can equally mean seeing shoeing as a necessity, shoeing that is well executed and regularly maintained. Hard and fast rules about horses and their care are few and far between. This would certainly seem to be true when evaluating the need for shoes or not.

It must be noted that if de-shoeing is to be the methodology of choice for a given horse, the maintenance needs for regular evaluation of condition (wear) and appropriate, most likely more frequent, trimming or just rasping becomes paramount. It must also be noted that if exceptional, though temporary (such as an annual lengthy trail ride), demands are placed on the horse it would be wise to invest in some sort of temporary foot protection. Many new developments in this area have hit the market and the choices for alternative foot protection are varied.

The main point proposed herein to be most important to relate is that shoeing is a case by case, horse by horse decision that should be undertaken at the least by an educated owner, one well versed in the elements of physiologically sound farriery. The owner must be able to recognize hoof health in both a shod and unshod condition. Additional help from a trusted and practiced, professional farrier and/or the veterinarian is advised. Horses need not be shod of necessity; many that are could well go soundly with regular trimming and good nutritional care. For all the amount some horses are used, it would be quite a savings in the long run to just trim the horse. But it is well worth stating too that the degree of owner savvy as to what shape the horse's feet are in takes on an even greater importance if the horse is to be barefoot and especially if he is to be expected to engage in high performance or long duration activities. And if the shoes are being pulled in the hopes that a lameness will miraculously disappear, one that is originally a result of poorly done farriery which remains poorly done, then there will be much heartache and continued needless pain for the horse. Good farriery is paramount, no matter whether the kept horse is to be kept shod or bare of foot.

De-shoeing for the sake of honoring some preferential affectation related to wild horses and the "naturalness" of a barefooted horse is not complying with the responsibilities we should be upholding when we own a horse. If "natural" is the prime essence we demand then horse ownership begs the point entirely. If sharing our life with an equine is the point then we have a lot to live up to, none the least of which is to protect him as best we can from the conditions in our world that can affect his ability to move. Shoeing per se is not such a condition. Bad shoeing is, as would be leaving him barefoot but badly trimmed. Why should you shoe a horse? Well, it depends...


About the author:

Bob Sagely has both made a living and enjoyed a life with horses for over twenty-five years. He has worked as a cowboy, horse "trainer" and farrier and is fascinated by the sudden notoriety of the "natural horsemanship" movement. He was fortunate to have gotten his start from men who taught him things that made sense to him and worked with the nature of the horse rather than against it. As a person who has depended on horses to make a living he has come to understand how hard the horse will try for a human if the human can bring things to the horse that make sense to it. Bob has had several articles published and has been a featured guest on the nationally syndicated radio program, The Horse Show with Rick Lamb. Bob shares his understanding and mindset with others who are looking to build better relationships with their horses.  "The horse is perfect and we just need to get good enough to deserve what they give us," is how he operates, while trying to get better himself all the time. You can email Bob at sagehorseman@yahoo.com or visit his website www.dreamwater.com/sagehorseman to learn more about Sage Horsemanship and the learning opportunities he can provide for you and your friends, four-legged and otherwise.

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