Barefoot vs. Shod: It All Depends on the Horse

Barefoot vs. Shod: It All Depends on the Horse

The debate over whether horses should go barefoot or be shod has been going on for decades.

a farrier rasps a hoof (credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

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By Dr. Thomas R. Lenz

The debate over whether horses should go barefoot or be shod has been going on for decades.

From my perspective, the answer is, “It depends.” I’ve always favored horses being maintained without shoes whenever possible, as I believe in most cases their feet are healthier and they are more comfortable.

However, there are circumstances where shoes applied in a physiologic manner that causes minimal damage to the hoof capsule are indicated. Such as:

  • When shoes are needed for protection when the wear of the hoof exceeds growth.
  • When there is a need for added traction.
  • When there are therapeutic reasons to treat lameness, diseases of the foot or to address conformation problems.

Much of our industry is involved in competitive athletic disciplines and the question arises: “Can a horse compete and perform at the top level without shoes?” That depends on the three factors above, as well as the owner’s commitment to providing good hoof care.

Hoof wear vs. growth is the first thing to consider and depends on the horse’s genetics, its conformation and the surface on which it works most of the time.

Horses with good foot structure (such as a thick and solid hoof wall, good sole depth and a soft, well-shaped frog) can usually go barefoot regardless of the terrain or their use. Unfortunately, in many young performance horses, the foot is not allowed to grow and mature into a “good foot,” as shoes are placed on them early in training. Hoof development, especially for the first three years, depends on stimulation from regular exercise and turnout.

The normal contraction and expansion of the unshod foot aids in pumping blood into and out of the foot. In young horses, the hoof capsule and its related structures are still immature.

Research at Michigan State University has determined that there are receptors in the bottom of a horse’s foot, and it’s speculated that the hoof’s response to exercise is governed by these receptors.

Traditionally, we place shoes on these youngsters when training begins when they are not needed. The result is the receptors lose contact with the ground and the normal maturation of the foot stops. 

The need for traction also dictates the choice of barefoot vs. shod. Most horses do well on various surfaces without shoes but there are times when shoes are indicated. Shoes in and of themselves act as traction devices, as well as providing more cup to the foot. Traction allows horses to hold their footing and improve overall performance in many competitions, as well as trail riding in rough terrain. Borium or studs help limit slipping in icy conditions.

Therapeutic shoeing generally forms part of the treatment for lameness involving the foot, ligaments or tendons. Shoes change the forces on a given structure within the hoof capsule and unload damaged areas of the foot or other leg structures. They are used to realign the coffin bone in the case of laminitis, stabilize hoof cracks and coffin bone fractures, as well as to provide protection following puncture wounds or foot surgery. Angular limb deformities in young horses or tendon injuries are also aided by various types of shoes.

If we think of the horse’s hoof capsule as a cone, it’s easy to see the need to preserve the bars, as they provide stability and allow the hoof capsule to expand, which in turn allows the normal physiology of the foot to take place.

If we decide to shoe our horse, I believe it’s best to minimize the number of nails used to allow heel expansion and lessen hoof wall damage.

All horses are not created equal and neither are their feet. For more information on your decision to keep your horse barefoot or shoe it, talk to your local equine veterinarian or farrier. 

About the Source

Thomas R. Lenz, DVM, M.S., Diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists, is a trustee of the American Horse Council, past chairman of AQHA’s research committee, past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and a member of the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission. He is a member of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame.