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    To Shoe Or Not To Shoe: Exploring Options For Horse Residents

    Picture of a horse hoof and pick.

    If you care for horses at your sanctuary, then you likely know about the importance of good hoof care and how this can greatly affect the health and overall well-being of horse residents. But where does shoeing come into play? Do all horse residents need to be shod or unshod? Several considerations must be factored in when determining how to best care for their hoof health in terms of shoeing. Ideally, horses shouldn’t have to be shod, but due to human interference in terms of domestication and breeding and the health of the horse and the topography of the area you live in, it may be necessary in these cases to provide shoes for your horse resident. This resource explores the upsides and downsides of the shod and barefoot approach and factors to consider when deciding what is best for your horse residents.

    Individualized Care
    Whether or not to shoe horse residents shouldn’t be a generalized decision. There are pros and cons to shoeing; in many cases, shoeing a horse could cause issues that weren’t there before. However, there are other situations where a horse resident will require some type of shoe, either due to health or injury or due to genetics and rough topography in the area. In the latter case, horses can often be gradually introduced to being unshod, avoiding the need for horseshoes. Regardless of your leaning in terms of whether to shoe horse residents or not, it is vital that you consider the individual and avoid generalizing hoof care decisions. 

    Discuss With A Compassionate Farrier And Equine Veterinarian
    When making this decision, discussing the resident’s overall health, activity level, and hoof health with your equine veterinarian is important. You should also discuss these and other management and environmental factors with a trusted farrier. However, remember that not everyone has a compassionate approach to horse care which unfortunately includes humans in the field of veterinary medicine and hoof care. Be wary of anyone who proposes a single approach without first considering the individual.

    A Brief History Of Horseshoes

    Horseshoes were developed thousands of years ago to protect horses’ feet while maximizing their output in farm situations and offsetting the extra weight on their bodies due to frequent riding and extended travel on difficult terrain in all-weather conditions. The design and materials vary between time and place, from animal skin or woven plant matter in the earliest designs to metal or even plastic, wood, or rubber shoes currently in use. Some of the main purposes of the various designs are to provide protection from riding across hard surfaces, traction on slippery surfaces (often for work, racing, or other sports), altering the gait of a horse for certain types of sports, or acting as a corrective or therapeutic remedy for a number of hoof or leg conformation or health issues. We are far from the early days of horseshoes, and a horse’s needs in a sanctuary environment are not focused on performance or labor, so many of these reasons don’t necessarily apply. That being said, there are other reasons some sanctuary residents may do best with shoes, though other residents may not require shoes. In fact, shoeing some horses may result in injury or other hoof issues. So what is the best approach? Barefoot or shod? Well, it depends. Let’s look closer at the barefoot versus shod approach:

    Putting Residents First
    Although referred to in this resource, The Open Sanctuary Project does not condone using horses for performance purposes, including labor, carrying weight, or sports. We believe that a horse’s best interests and autonomy should always be considered before those of humans. To learn more about ways you can enrich the lives of the horses in your care, check out our enrichment resource here. 

    The Barefoot or Unshod Approach

    For many, shoeing a horse is just “the way things are done” because that’s how they have been done for so long. However, as noted above, the need for shoes was initially due to hooves needing added protection from the additional stress and wear and tear from agricultural labor, carrying weight over distances, and sport. If you care for a healthy horse resident with healthy hooves, there is a good chance they don’t need shoes! In fact, shoeing them may actually cause issues that weren’t previously there. A few factors can affect whether a horse resident is better off going barefoot or not. Let’s look at the reasons why a barefoot approach might be favored: 

    Graphic of a smiling horse with bare hoof prints next to them.

    Potential Benefits Of The Barefoot Approach

    The main reason for “going barefoot” is that it is more natural. Horses weren’t meant to wear shoes. Wild or feral horses don’t wear shoes at all, but they also don’t have unnatural conditions that affect the hoof health and needs of many domesticated horses. They cover a lot of ground each day over different terrain, giving them tough soles and wearing down their hooves, preventing excess growth. This isn’t to say that wild horses never have hoof problems. They can, and some certainly do. However, being barefoot allows a horse to move more naturally, eliminates injuries from nails, and reduces injuries from hooves being angled in an unnatural position. Going barefoot can actually improve hoof health in many horses. In summary, some benefits of the barefoot approach include:

    • Natural movement
    • Natural angle (if trimmed properly)
    • Natural expansion and contraction
    • Unrestricted blood flow
    • Less force of concussion on hooves and lower limbs
    • Optimal proprioception (the sense that allows you to know where your various body parts are in relation to the environment and each other)
    • Potentially less stress on the hoof wall if trimmed to allow other structures (sole, heels, frog, bars) to take part of the brunt of the force
    • Healthier, stronger frog and heel
    • Reduced injury from heels being angled in an unnatural position
    • Lack of injury due to nails
    • Safer cohabitation with other residents as the shod hooves can cause greater injury to other residents if they are kicked by a shod horse

    This sounds pretty good, right? However, there are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether a resident would do best barefoot. Does your resident horse have:

    • A hoof healthy diet (Ideally being fed throughout the day, spending a lot of time foraging)?
    • Access to pasture (and/or other roomy outdoor space for movement and exercise)?
    • Strong hoof and leg conformation?
    • Access To Dry Ground (Standing in frequently muddy, wet spaces for long periods of time will soften the hooves. It can also cause other issues and should be prevented whenever possible)?
    • An absence of hoof issues (that require orthopedic therapy)? 
    • The Presence of hoof issues (that may be potentially improved through the barefoot approach)?
    • Available transition space (softer ground to provide a transition space if outdoor living spaces are made up of rocky terrain)?

    Outside of a sanctuary context, where horses are used for human benefit, farriers would take into consideration what type of “work” a horse is doing, how much work they are required to do, what type of training or “performing”  they are doing, what distance they are going, over what type of terrain, and how much weight they are carrying, as factors to consider. At a sanctuary, the type of terrain horse residents have access to might come into play. Rocky terrain doesn’t necessarily mean residents can’t go barefoot. It can, however, affect the length of time you transition a resident from wearing shoes to being barefoot. Some individuals that would do well barefoot on smoother terrain may not be able to handle rockier terrain. As mentioned above, each resident is different and should be given individualized care. 

    A Transitionary Period Is Vital!
    If your care team has determined, after careful consideration and discussion with a veterinarian and farrier, that a resident would do better without shoes but has previously been shod, then a transitionary period is necessary. Failure to transition a resident from being shod to unshod can cause discomfort and injury. Using horse boots and gradually increasing times without them can ensure a healthy adjustment. 

    Potential Downsides Of The Barefoot Approach

    Now that we have looked at the potential benefits of the barefoot approach, it is important to consider the possible downsides of the barefoot approach. As you read above, going barefoot is a great option for many horse residents that allows for a natural range of movement, can reduce injuries from horseshoes, and ultimately improve hoof health and resident well-being. However, there are potential issues to be on the lookout for that could be detrimental to a resident’s well-being. These should be considered when deciding the best option for an individual resident’s foot care. These include:

    • Discomfort or injury (due to a lack of or shortened transitionary period or thin or sensitive soles)
    • Injuries to the sole or frog (due to rocky or otherwise rough terrain)
    • Worsening hoof health (in individuals with genetically vulnerable hooves and soles or individuals with other hoof conditions such as laminitis who might benefit from orthopedic shoes)
    • Hoof issues (due to improper trimming or lax hoof health care)

    Proper Trimming Is Key
    If you are transitioning a resident to bare feet, you must have a farrier (or certified barefoot trimmer) experienced in correct barefoot trimming to ensure the health and well-being of the resident. Failure to do so could cause serious issues for residents if their hooves are improperly trimmed.

    Now that we have reviewed the barefoot approach, let’s delve into the shod approach’s factors, potential benefits, and downsides:

    The Shod Approach

    As we discussed above, the barefoot approach allows for natural movement and has a number of benefits for individual horses. However, aside from labor or performance, some domesticated horses may require shoes due to breeding, management practices, or illness or injury. In these cases, horses may benefit from wearing shoes. There are many different types of shoes, and a number of factors influence the type of shoe a farrier may recommend. As previously mentioned, certain shoes are designed specifically for racing, carrying weight, or other labor purposes and are often not applicable in a sanctuary context. However, other types of shoes may be recommended, including boots, depending on various factors. In addition to other uses, boots may be used on horses with sore hooves, to transition from shod to barefoot, to ice injured or laminitic hooves (ice boots), to treat abscesses, or to be worn for other protective or supportive reasons.

    Graphic of a smiling horse with a horse she next to them.

    Potential Benefits Of The Shod Approach

    While typically, the foremost reason for the shod approach is often to protect a horse’s hooves while being used for labor, sports, or other riding scenarios, there are other reasons to consider this approach. In some cases, being shod can actually improve hoof health, correct certain issues, and provide support and protection. Let’s look at some scenarios where a sanctuary horse resident might benefit from the shod approach versus being barefoot:

    • They live in a wet climate where their hooves are frequently in contact with wet earth, causing the hoof and sole to be softer and more vulnerable to injury. 
    • They have limited space and spend much of their time in a stall situation where their soles don’t have a chance to “toughen up” and are exposed to ammonia from urine which may weaken the hoof.
    • They live in an area where the terrain is rough and rocky and have limited space or sensitive soles where the transition to barefoot might be successfully attempted.
    • Attempts to carefully and correctly transition the resident from being shod to barefoot have been unsuccessful, resulting in discomfort or injury to the resident. 
    • The resident has hoof or leg conformation issues that would benefit from orthopedic shoes.
    • They have thin, sensitive soles that are easily injured and the risk of injury is too great.
    • They have a history of abscessed, weak, or bruised soles.
    • They have hoof health issues like laminitis or tendonitis and might do best with therapeutic shoes. (Though some have also found special “barefoot rehab” techniques beneficial for horses with health issues. This should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.)

    Potential Downsides Of The Shod Approach

    Now that we have looked at the potential benefits of the shod approach, it is important to consider its possible downsides. As you read above, the shod approach can be a good option for some horse residents, offering protection, support, and therapy. However, there are a number of potential issues to be on the lookout for that could be detrimental to a resident’s well-being and should be considered when deciding the best option for an individual resident. Remember, many different types of shoes with varying designs can affect hooves differently; some may have more downsides or benefits than others. Material, method of attachment, weight, and other design features are all factors that can alter the effect of the shoe on the hoof.

    Potential downsides include:

    • Unnatural movement
    • Unnatural angle (if trimmed improperly)
    • Restricted expansion (possibly contraction of the heel, but there is a retrospective study that found contraction of the heel, while more prominent in shod horses, had a number of other factors that contributed to this condition)
    • Restricted blood flow
    • Impeded natural development
    • Lessened sense of proprioception (the sense that allows you to know where your various body parts are in relation to the environment and each other)
    • Potentially more stress on the hoof wall if shod in a way that prevents other parts (sole, heels, frog, bars) from taking some of the force
    • Weaker frog and heel
    • Increased injury from heels being angled in an unnatural position
    • Injury from nails
    • Risk to other residents as a shod horse can cause greater injury if they kick another resident (Some may choose to only put shoes on a horse’s front hooves for this reason, among other possible reasons) 

    The Take-Away

    We know that caring for horse residents and ensuring their health and well-being can be challenging. Good hoof health is vital to ensuring horse residents are happy and healthy. What works for one horse may not be suitable for another. The barefoot approach has many potential benefits for many horses but may not be the healthiest choice for some. A horse with a history of certain hoof health issues or who lives in areas with certain terrain or climatic conditions might do poorly barefoot. The shod approach may provide the necessary protection, support, or therapeutic benefits that these residents require but are not generally necessary for healthy horses with healthy hooves in an environment where they aren’t being used for “performance” reasons. Putting shoes on a horse in this situation may actually cause serious hoof issues that weren’t present before. Of course, hoof health relies on more than whether they are shod or not. Environment, management, diet, and genetics play a part as well, with three of those factors being adjustable to improve the health of a horse resident’s hooves. Stay tuned for future resources on diet for healthy hooves and management strategies for healthy hooves for horse residents. We hope this resource has provided you with useful information to help guide your communications with your equine veterinarian and farrier and can help lead to informed decisions on the best options for each individual in your care.


    Effects Of Barefoot Trimming On Hoof Morphology | Australian Veterinary Journal (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Effects Of Barefoot Trimming And Shoeing On The Joints Of The Lower Forelimb And Hoof Morphology Of Mature Horses | The Professional Animal Scientist (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Changes In Hoof Shape During A Seven-Week Period When Horses Were Shod Versus Barefoot | Animals (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Equine Cryotherapy Device Likely To Be Effective In Treating Laminitis | Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Functional Anatomy Of The Cartilage Of The Distal Phalanx And Digital Cushion In The Equine Foot And Hemodynamic Flow Hypothesis Of Energy Dissipation | American Journal Of Veterinary Research (Non-Compassionate Source)

    The Effect Of Lateral Heel Studs On The Kinematics Of The Equine Digit While Cantering On Grass | Veterinary Journal (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Sensory Receptors In The Equine Foot | American Journal Of Veterinary Research (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Equine Hoof Function Investigated By Pressure Transducers Inside The Hoof And Accelerometers Mounted On The First Phalanx | Equine Veterinary Journal (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Various Aspects Of Barefoot Methodology Relevant To Farriery In Equine Veterinary Practice | Equine Veterinary Education (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Horse Shoes – Back To The Future | The Equine Documentalist (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Do Metal Shoes Contract Heels?—A Retrospective Study On 114 Horses | Journal Of Equine Veterinary Science (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Can The Hoof Be Shod Without Limiting The Heel Movement? A Comparative Study Between Barefoot, Shoeing With Conventional Shoes And A Split-Toe Shoe | Veterinary Journal (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Barefoot Vs. Shod: It All Depends On The Horse | American Quarter Horse Association (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Effects Of Shoeing On Forelimb Swing Phase Kinetics Of Trotting Horses | Veterinary And Orthopedic Traumatology (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.

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