Frequently asked questions
Why is shoeing horses a bad idea?
The widespread belief that horses need to be shod to be ridden doesn’t stand up to careful examination. Alexander the Great’s famous horse, Bucephalus, was never shod, and yet he carried his master for thousands of miles from the Adriatic sea to the Indus River and through many battles. (Bucephalus died of battle wounds at the age of 30, how many of our horses are still ridden at that age?) The Huns, who also rode their horses for long distance on all sorts of terrains, didn’t shoe their horses either. Even today, in Mongolia, horses are never shod, and yet, they are still the main form of transport in rural areas.
The practice of shoeing horses probably started in earnest with medieval knights, who kept their horses stabled. Shoes were a response to these unnatural living conditions leading to hooves basically rotting away from standing all day in dung and urine and with no natural wear to keep them strong and healthy.
Nailing iron onto a live horse hoof, however, is no more than a quick fix which shows a complete lack of understanding of the natural mechanics of horse hooves and serious disregard for the horse’s well being.
A horse hoof is not a rigid structure. When a healthy hoof hits the ground, it expands slightly, with the heels spreading apart, letting the frog contact the ground. Then when the hoof leaves the ground, it contracts again. This movement has two functions:
- It acts as a shock absorber. At full canter, a horse land with his full weight on one of his fore. If the horse is shod, this blow will put undue stress on the internal structure of the hoof and will reverberate all the way up the limb and into the spine. If the horse is unshod, the movement in the hoof absorb much of the blow.
- The repeated pressure / release on the frog acts as a blood pump, pumping fresh blood in and out of the hoof with every step, keeping the hoof healthy. When a horse is shod, this natural pumping action doesn’t happen any more. Blood circulation in the horse feet get seriously impaired, leading to cold, unhealthy feet, and forcing the heart to work harder (this is why barefoot horses do so well in endurance riding).
Furthermore, on a hoof that is subject to regular wear, the horn will naturally grow faster and stronger. This is why Xenophon, a fourth century BC Greek cavalry officer, and one of the earliest known writer on the subject of horsemanship recommended putting cobblestones in horses’ paddocks. When a horse is shod, his hooves are no longer subject to any kind of natural wear, and without it, the hoof horn softens and weakens.
For all these reasons, barefoot horses always have healthier, stronger feet that shod horses.
Finally, there is evidence that shod horses can’t feel the ground under their feet as well as barefoot horses can. This loss of sensibility in the foot might lead to injuries.
What are the advantages of keeping horses barefoot?
The first and most obvious advantage of keeping horses barefoot and doing your own maintenance trims is a substantial saving on the cost of shoeing. The best option is to get an experienced hoof care practitioner to take the shoes off (if need be) and do the initial trim on your horses. After this, you go from one set of shoes every six weeks to one visit from the trimmer every few months, while doing the maintenance trim yourself in between. Once you have gained more confidence and your horses are fully transitioned, you can do all the trimming yourself and completely do away with hoof care expenses, other than the cost of the rasp.
Other advantages are that barefoot horses never throw a shoe (!), so you will never again have to wait for the farrier, or have your Sunday afternoon ride wrecked by a lost shoe, and that barefoot hooves have much better traction, especially on hard surface, than shod hooves, no more slipping on the road.
Whether it is an advantage is debatable, but it is worth noting that barefoot horses can’t be keep stabled for any amount of time, as standing most of the time in their own excrement is the one thing that will damage horses hooves to the point where shoeing becomes the only solution, so barefoot horses have to be turned out most of the time. It doesn’t have to be in a very large paddock, a large concreted yard would be perfectly adequate if it is mucked out daily, but a barefoot horse cannot be left standing in dung for any length of time.
Bur surely the biggest advantage of keeping your horses barefoot is that you end up with happier, healthier horses!
Can barefoot horses be ridden on the road?
Yes! Not only they can, but they should, as working on hard surfaces will harden the hooves and wear them down naturally, which means less trimming work!
Click here to see a video of two barefoot horses cantering on the road.
Can I do it myself?
Yes! Not only you can, but you should. It will save you money, and make it easier to keep your horses on a regular trimming schedule, and your horse is likely to be more relaxed with you than with a stranger.
While shoeing is a specialised skill, doing a maintenance trim can be learn over a weekend.
It is probably wise to do a training course or get an experienced trimmer to show you how to do it and do the first trim on your horses. You might also want to get someone more experienced to occasionally check your work. Alternatively, they are some good books and videos on the subject. In any case, you will need to learn the required skills somehow. It’s a very worthwhile investment once you go from a set of shoes every six weeks to a rasp every year!
It takes less than twenty minutes to trim a horse that’s in regular work, and it’s not nearly as hard as you might imagine. Many barefoot trimmers are women, and basically, anyone who is physically able to clean up their horses’ hooves could trim them as well.
How often should I do it?
The purpose of trimming is to simulate natural wear, and natural wear happen constantly, so it is far better to trim little and often. In practice, every two to four weeks (depending on how much work the horse is doing) seems to work best. Professional trimmers tend to visit their clients every 6 to 8 weeks but this is not enough. A hoof that’s trimmed every two weeks won’t have time to develop any serious problem, a hoof that’s trimmed every two month is likely to get overgrown between trims, and might develop flares and cracks.. One of the main advantage of trimming your own horses is that you can easily keep them on a tight trimming schedule.
What if my horse is currently shod?
If you horse has been shod for some time, his hooves have probably become weak and deformed from the shoeing. The horn of the sole, in particular, will be very weak. The toe will probably be too long and the heels might be contracted. The frog might have atrophied from lack of use (as it does not make contact with the ground on a shod horse). In short, the hooves are probably in poor condition and will have to go through a healing process before the horse can comfortably be ridden or worked barefoot. Depending on how long the horse has been shod, this transition phase can last several months. During that time, the horse may be “footy” or hard surfaces, and will possibly need to wear boots. Unless you’ve got an old horse that has been shod all his life and is nearing retirement, this shouldn’t discourage you from taking their shoes off, but it is better to be aware of it, as some horse owners give up too quickly, going back to shoeing without giving the hooves enough time to heal.