A horseshoe is a fabricated product, normally made of metal, although sometimes made partially or wholly of modern synthetic materials, designed to protect a horse’s hoof from wear and tear. Shoes are attached on the palmar surface of the hooves, usually nailed through the insensitive hoof wall that is anatomically akin to the human toenail, though much larger and thicker. However, there are many cases where shoes are sometimes glued.
Since the early history of domestication of the horse, working animals were found to be exposed to many conditions that created breakage or excessive hoof wear. Ancient people recognized the need for the walls (and sometimes the sole) of domestic horses’ hooves to have additional protection over and above any natural hardness. An early form of hoof protection was seen in ancient Asia, where horses’ hooves were wrapped in rawhide, leather or other materials for both therapeutic purposes and protection from wear.
Horseshoes have always been viewed as an aid to assist horses’ hooves when subjected to the various unnatural conditions brought about by domestication, whether due to work conditions or stabling and management. Countless generations of domestic horses bred for size, color, speed, and many other traits with little regard for hoof quality and soundness make some breeds more dependent on horseshoes than feral horses such as mustangs, which develop strong hooves as a matter of natural selection.
Nonetheless, domestic horses do not always require shoes. There is near-universal agreement among farriers that when possible, a barefoot hoof, at least for part of every year, is a healthy option for most horses. However, other farriers are equally adamant that horseshoes have their place and can help prevent excess or abnormal hoof wear and injury to the foot. Many farriers agree that some horses may even be able to go without shoes year-round, using temporary protection such as hoof boots for short-term use.
Recently, there has been a renewed debate over the traditional role of horseshoes. Observations of feral horses and barefoot domestic horses in natural boarding situations (including being kept on roomy pasture, not in stalls) have provided additional evidence that domesticated horses can grow hooves as healthy as those of feral horses and may not need shoes as often as many people think. Proponents of this idea, also known as the barefoot horse movement, argue that with proper care, horses may never need shoes at any time once they have been properly transitioned. Thus, the debate of when, where, why and whether to use horseshoes is a hot topic today.
“Barefoot” or “Natural” hoof care is a burgeoning philosophy and practice that I am proud to offer as just one of your many equine care options, though it can be a source of mean-spirited divide among hoof care professionals, with fanatics on both ends. My expectation of you as a horse owner is that you be educated about hoof structures and the care that is needed based on boarding conditions, genetic pedigree, and each individual animal’s tasks or lifestyle (Please also read about the traditional shoeing process here). My commitment to you is be well versed in these issues and options, so that I can answer your questions and provide the best care for your equine companion or workmate.
–Carl Stephens III