Hot or Not

Is hot shoeing a good fit for your horse?

From America's Horse

You’ve seen old paintings, maybe a Currier & Ives print, of a 19th-century blacksmith? The village smithy stands, sweat on his brow, over a hot forge, pounding red-hot metal into shoes to protect the hooves of the working horses of the times.

These days, the majority of farriers don’t fit that description. Time was, if a farrier needed a special shoe, say a heart-bar, he’d have to make it himself. Now, ready-made, or “keg,” shoes come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, reducing the need for such self-reliance.

And there are plenty of competent farriers who never use a forge at all as they go about their daily work.

But forges aren’t exactly obsolete. About 30 percent of farriers in the United States use them much like their forebears did. Shoes that are hand-forged can be completely customized to a horse’s needs, and shoes that are heated before they’re shaped can be better contoured to match the horse’s hoof.

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“You can really make it match,” says Dusty Franklin of Minco, Oklahoma, a certified journeyman farrier with the American Farrier’s Association.

Farriers who use forges to shape shoes can also use them to fit shoes precisely to the hoof. To “hot fit” a shoe, a farrier heats it in the forge and then, using tongs or other tools to pick it up, applies it to a horse’s trimmed hoof. The metal burns a seat into the hoof, leaving a perfect imprint.

“One of the things that keeps shoes on the best is two flat surfaces,” Dusty says. If there are gaps between the shoe and the hoof’s trimmed surface, the hoof can move around on the shoe a little, possibly enough to wiggle it loose. A hot-fit shoe provides a better connection to the hoof and then is nailed on normally.

“The more surface area, the stronger the bond,” Dusty says.

Of course, there are tricks to hot-fitting shoes. A farrier doesn’t want to burn down very far into the hoof, and he doesn’t want to get the hoof too hot, lest he risk transferring too much heat to the hoof’s sensitive tissues.

Another problem could come with young or spooky horses, who might not appreciate the plumes of smoke that waft up from their hooves. With those types of horses, Dusty says he’ll opt for “cold shoeing,” where he simply gets the hoof as flat as possible with his tools and then nails on the shoe.

The spooky horses are reacting to the sight and smell of the smoke, not any pain. Horses’ hooves are just like our fingernails; as long as a farrier stays out of the “quick,” there is no pain when nails are driven or when shoes are hot fit.

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Hot-fitting is actually good for hooves. Dusty compares it to a nylon rope: “When you have a lead rope that’s fraying at the end, you burn the end and it stays together and makes it stronger.”

Hoof walls are made of tubules, and hot-fitting essentially melts the tubules together and makes the hoof stronger, Dusty says.

This style of shoeing is also easier on the farrier. When steel is heated, it moves and bends much easier on the anvil.

“Not hitting cold steel year in and year out is easier on our bodies,” Dusty says.

There’s also an educational aspect. When a hot, flat shoe is placed on the bottom of the hoof, the way it burns into the hoof tells a lot about how flat the farrier has trimmed the hoof. Flat spots will burn into the high areas of the hoof, and low areas won’t be burned at all.

Those telltale signs help farriers learn their tendencies and, by correcting them, become better at their trade, perfecting their time-honored craft.