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Are Horseshoes Typically Necessary?

Two caregivers petting a tan horse outside.
Niblet is proudly Au Naturel!

If you’re caring for horses, you might wonder whether a horse needs horseshoes. The short answer is no, horseshoes are a benefit for humans, not horses. Horses have all the tools they need to successfully use their legs in a non-exploitative environment by virtue of their biology!

Why Do Horsehoes Exist, Then?

Horseshoes were developed as early as 1000 CE as a way to protect horses’ feet in order to maximize their output in farm situations and to offset the extra weight on their bodies as a result of frequent riding and nonstop travel on difficult terrain in all weather conditions. However, this protection does not take the horse’s natural physiology nor their best interests into account. Employing this vastly outdated technology, incredibly, is still considered to be good practice!

A Note From The Open Sanctuary Project

The Open Sanctuary Project does not condone riding horses or using them for labor. Their interests and autonomy should always be considered before those of humans.

Horseshoes Are Harmful

The two main causes of reduced horse lifespan (about ⅓ of a horse’s natural lifespan) are hoof and leg problems.

As early as 1800 CE, the London Veterinary College found that every shoe applied to a horse’s hooves inevitably forces a dangerous hoof contraction from year to year. They found that equine anatomy books presented contracted hooves as healthy, a practice that continues in certain equine texts today. Horse feet do not stop skeletally developing until the horse is 6 or 7 years old. Fixing a shoe to them young creates the same developmental disorders as foot binding a human.

A large factor in laminitis (inflammation in the living hoof tissue) is how well the corium (the living layer of tissue) is connected to the hoof capsule (the non-living outer part of the hoof). As early as 1910 it was determined that horseshoes significantly affected the quality of this connection.

Wearing shoes forces the corium to constrict unnaturally and bruise, further exacerbating hoof challenges. The horn loses its natural elasticity when trapped in a rigid position, causing brittle and dried out hooves. This issue in itself can cause shock absorption and circulatory system problems.

Although it might seem counterintuitive given the narrative about horseshoes, Luca Bein determined in a 1983 dissertation that a shod horse absorbed three times the impact force as an unshod horse at a trotting speed on asphalt. Nails vibrating inside the horn capsule with each step can cause microfractures and dry out the hoof.

This lack of shock absorption can cause widely-known problems, including arthritis, tendinitis, and permanent damage in younger horses, crippling their coffin bones and causing steep and contracted hooves.

Due to the way that horses walk, a shod horse has to step unnaturally because it forces the entire hoof to impact the ground simultaneously rather than naturally breaking over (similar to a human’s natural walking gait). Imagine having to land flat-footed in every moment of a run! The extra weight of the shoes causes damaging stress on joints and tendons, exacerbated by each day of shod motion. Shoulder and hip problems also quickly arise due to muscular compensation.

Horseshoes shift the weight of the entire horse onto the outside of their feet. This causes damage in the whole body of the horse due to muscular compensation and a constricted foot, causing similar damage as if a human had to walk exclusively on the outsides of their feet.

All of this damage eventually leads to nerve destruction; the horse might not complain because they quite literally lack the circulation and sensation to know that they’re in pain. By the time a horse cannot walk anymore, catastrophic damage has been dealt for a long period of time by horseshoes. Nerve loss and lack of sensory input in their legs can also cause the horse to lose coordination and trip frequently, a dangerous state for such a large animal to be trapped in.

But Don’t They Need The Extra Grip?

Many people hold the belief that horseshoes are a safety concern in that they provide increased grip to horses. On the contrary, horses lose hoof traction with horseshoes. Not only do horseshoes transfer torsion and shear forces into a horse’s muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments, but horses are supposed to slip naturally a small amount with each step. Preventing this natural action is very harmful for the horse’s body.

Horse hooves naturally include a triangular wedge known as the frog on the back of their hooves as well as natural grooves and other traction-enhancing features that prevent slippage. These anatomical advantages are completely bypassed by the much less effective practice of horseshoeing.

Orthopedic Exceptions

Although we do not recommend the use of standard horseshoes, there are a number of shoes and horse boots that are designed specifically to help with horses who are dealing with specific health challenges. These devices are typically recommended by a veterinarian or experienced farrier and provide valuable assistance to the horse beyond that of a standard shoe.

My New Horse Resident Has Been Wearing Shoes Already

Depending on the condition of a horse’s hooves and body, you should be able to simply remove the old shoes in order to greatly improve their overall health. Horses are resilient, and giving them the opportunity to heal naturally and undo years of damage is the best choice for their health and safety.

Alternatives To Shoeing

Though you shouldn’t shoe a horse, this doesn’t mean you should avoid anything to do with hooves! Due to their evolutionary history, typical lack of long distance roaming opportunities, and enriched diet in a sanctuary environment, horses’ hooves grow at a much quicker rate than they wear down through natural use. It’s important that you trim a horse’s hooves regularly. The process of trimming horse hooves is no more painful than cutting your own toenails, but it requires training and regular care to prevent excess buildup, infection, and malformation that can affect a horse’s gait.

It would be greatly beneficial to the horse to establish a relationship with an experienced farrier who understands natural hoof care. Farriers tend to be categorized between those who shoe and those who do not, so be sure to ask about their experience! A pro-shoeing farrier is not necessarily going to provide horses with trimming that is most beneficial to their natural gait and needs.

Harmful Effects Of Shoeing (Abridged) | The Horse’s Hoof

What’s So Bad About Shoes? | Inside-Out Hoofcare

The History Of Horseshoes | Dressage Today (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on August 7, 2020

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