Can All Horses Go Barefoot?

The question as to whether a horse can go barefoot is a common one. Often asked by farriers or horse owners. Sometimes it feels more like a test, than a question they really want the answer to. It’s not asking about a specific horse, but more generally about all horses. It’s a bit of a jumble of ethics and practicality, idealism and realism.

I’m not anti-shoes. I refuse to be anti-shoes, if for no other reason than it would limit my ability to help horses and the people who care for them. But really, shoes are a tool, being anti-tools would be weird, and while I’ve often been accused (unjustly!!) of being weird… I’m not weird for that reason.

Horses are born barefoot. That’s how they come as standard. They all come ‘factory fitted’ with these hoof things on the bottom and for millions of years these odd hoof things have served them well. They’ve been shod for a relatively short period of time.

Shoes are the optional extra. They’re the add on. Underneath those shoes… *whispers* the horse is barefoot!!!

It’s not a case of can they go barefoot. They are barefoot. Why do we even call them barefoot? All barefoot horses are just horses. That’s how they’re made. Shod horses, are horses + shoes.

It’s the horse owner who can’t go barefoot. I don’t want that to be read with any sore of blame, shame or judgement. It’s simply an observation. The shoe is necessary because the foot is not capable of doing what the owner wants it to do without it.

In 12 years I’ve found 2 horses that couldn’t go barefoot. 1 was due to damage done by brutal trimming leaving extensive damage the other was logistical (for want of a better description – it was temporary and the best of a bad bunch of options).

On both occasions I had to work quite hard to convince everyone shoes were the best option, and yes, I may be willing to accept the ‘weird’ title for those conversations, it certainly felt weird at the time!

Are We asking The Right Question?

But when we ask if a horse can go barefoot… Maybe we need to phrase the question differently. ‘Is the damage to this hoof irreparable?’ ‘Is an external metal support structure the best way to solve this problem’ Even a simple ‘Why does this horse need shoes?’ would be good.

It’s not just that we’re asking the wrong questions, often we’re looking at the wrong problem. Are we trying to find a way for a horse with a collapsed hoof to perform beyond it’s physical capabilities, or are we trying to find a way to heal the collapsed hoof?

The answer to the first question is shoes. The answer to the second question is rest and rehabilitation.

Shoes are freakin awesome at making a hoof perform beyond its natural capabilities. But is that ok? If a horse had blown tendons, we wouldn’t slap a metal brace on it and continue riding it. But for a collapsed hoof we do that all the time.

The horse seems to be able to cope like this, but is that actually ok to do? The shoe doesn’t replace the lack of soft tissue, so there’s all sorts of damage being done to the horse, because a bit of external metal is simply no substitute for half the internal structures in the foot being too weak.

Shoes are a tool. Sometimes a useful one. I have a friend with a knee injury, and I’ve had to advise her to get a metal knee brace. (She had a non-metal one). The metal brace is a tool. She needs it for protection right now. (you know who you are and stop forgetting to put it on!!!)

But no-one is having a ‘can humans walk without a knee brace’ conversation. And quite frankly. If she was able to rest the thing, then the brace wouldn’t be needed but… Family, horses, life…the brace helps her perform beyond her capabilities.

What About Genetically Weak Hooves?

What if a horse’s hooves just aren’t genetically up to the job? Well… glossing over that I think that excuse is dramatically over used…

A Shetland is genetically unsuited to cross country (unless part of a daring escape from a field – there’s a reason they were put on an island you know!!). No-one would use a Shetland for 3-day eventing… right? That would be insane. We can clearly identify the problems with this.

Yet we seem fine declaring a horse’s hooves genetically incapable of performing a certain task then demanding that horse go ahead and perform that task. Repeatedly.

Transfer that thinking to any other field and it’s seems facetious to say it. Applying that thinking to hooves and it’s labelled unrealistic and overly dramatic.

Like… We don’t drive cars with no air in the tyres, yet we do ride horses with collapsed heels. If the ground clearance of said car was too bad, we wouldn’t jack it up and keep going. Yet we put wedge pads on the hoof and keep on keeping on…

Is it ok for us to demand this of our horses? Are we being honest enough with ourselves to even realise this is what we’re doing?

Can A Hoof Be Too Damaged?

I don’t think I’ve ever met a horse owner who doesn’t love their horse. Who doesn’t sacrifice for them, worry about them, and do whatever they can to provide a good life for them. Shod or barefoot, we all do that. We have horses because we love them.

Yet I have often spoken with owners who proudly tell me their horse could never go barefoot. There’s a variety of reasons, but they all boil down to the horse being in pain without shoes.

Their horse NEEDS shoes because it is in pain without them.

Seeing as shoes have no pain relieving properties as such, then the horse is probably in pain with them. But in the same way that a plaster cast can help you walk on a broken leg, a shoe can help a horse walk on a sore foot.

There are people who need wheel chairs to get about, or prosthetic limbs, zimmer frames, walking sticks, support dogs etc. But never once have I heard anyone ask if people can go without these things.

Yes, there are cases where the hoof is just too damaged to go without shoes, but are the shoes being used to provide comfort, or to continue to make a horse perform beyond it’s capability?  The hoof is part of the horse. It’s a really important part of the horse. If you’re making the hoof perform beyond it’s capability, then you’re making the horse perform beyond it’s capability.

Too Much Wear?

About now there’ll be an outraged cry about needing shoes to protect from wear. It’s an interesting dilemma. There’s 3 main causes of that problem

1. The foot is slipping too much on landing.

A shoe, being metal, has less traction than a hoof, so it’s not unusual for a shoe to receive far more wear than a barehoof would, so don’t assume that wearing through shoes would equate to wearing through the hoof that fast.

A horse with a gait abnormality causes more wear on their hooves. This one can be a problem, though I tend to prefer to address the gait issue. If that can’t be done, it might be worth considering if the horse is in too much work for the problem they have.

Also worth a mention, is the added concussion of a shoe can exacerbate the gait issue, in which case a barefoot, or booted horse may in fact have a straighter movement, and thus less wear.

I remain unconvinced that shoes are the solution to wear problems caused by gait issues.

2. The horn is too soft

If the horn is too soft, there’s a problem with the nutrition getting to the foot. Needing shoes for this reason makes no sense at all. Essentially, you’re shoeing a mineral imbalance or gut function problem. A healthy horse will produce healthy horn. This is a health problem

3. The growth is too slow

This is pretty much the same as the horn being too soft. Diet, gut function, circulation. The solutions are found there, not in the application of metal to the underside of the horse. Growth is the production of healthy tissue (soft tissue, horn etc). If you’re not producing healthy tissue, then there’s a health problem.

A less common cause of too much wear is simply that you ride such an incredible number of miles on a hard, abrasive surface on your horse.  While I do admit that shoes can be helpful in this situation, I can’t help but be concerned about the level of concussion that those shoes then put through the horse’s body.

I’ll concede, shoes might be necessary to keep up with wear, but I counter that in those instances too much damage is being done to muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, bones, nerves… you know… the horse (and on occasion the rider – I’ve met people using special saddle pads to reduce concussion as their body can’t handle it?!?!?!?).

Boots are an effective solution here, and can even be used intermittently as some wear is good. It works for top level endurance riders… 

Also worth a mention is bare hooves grow faster than shod ones.

Why Do They Need Shoes?

We need to remember that horses come barefoot as standard. If they’re not able to function without shoes, then why is that? It’s only because humans have caused so much damage, or are currently not providing a suitable environment.

This is why I feel like the ‘can all horses go barefoot?’ question is some sort of test. It’s a fairly loaded and emotive question. It’s a question which is sometimes asking for advice, for help, for a solution for a problem they see as unfixable.

Sometimes, however, it’s looking to start a fight. It’s asking me if I think they’re wrong. Which I don’t. I try not to get caught up in right and wrong. I’m more interested in brutal honesty about where we are now, clarity about where we want to get to, and an effective, manageable plan as to how we’re going to get there.

It comes down to the questions we ask ourselves. When you’re asking, ‘can a horse go barefoot?’, you’re assuming a shod horse is normal. It’s not. It’s common, but it’s not normal. Barefoot horses are normal. Barefoot horses are just horses with no added extras.

With all that said, I’m going to sound a little contradictory in that I don’t think all horses should be barefoot right now. That’s the difference between the answer to the question ‘Can all horses go barefoot?’ and ‘Should all horses be barefoot right now?’

If you think about it. As barefoot horse owner, walk into a large feed store (no need to drive there, this can be a metal exercise to save on fuel) and look around. How much of that store is filled with feeds and supplements you wouldn’t feed to your horse. How much of that store is filled with the kind of feed you know will produce a horse with good sound feet.

Now imagine all that feed you wouldn’t use disappears. Is there enough ‘good’ feed left? Repeat this exercise for livery yards, grazing, professional advice?

Until we improve the way horses are kept, they do in fact need shoes. It would be great if we could be genuinely honest with ourselves as to why shoes are needed though.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, you don’t have to agree with me, but please, this is an emotive topic so play nice, if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it. (And if you are comfortable being mean to someone’s face, you may find I don’t allow my blog to be a forum for you to do that).

  • nic says:

    I agree with everything you have said. The one thing you didn’t mention, though, is that a lot of people try to stay barefoot to save money on shoes. I found that I struggled to keep my horse barefoot due to poor trimming. I have now found a fabulous barefoot trimmer who does a completely different trim to a farrier, spends a lot longer trimming and, therefore, costs more. It is the most worthwhile money I ever spend on my horse!

  • Really good article Debs. I was with you until your last contradiction and then I knew where you are coming from. We will have to debate this at some point. Have a great Chrismas.

  • Christine miller says:

    I agree with your comments and I loathe how standard it is to think it is ok to put nails and steel on an animals foot just because it suits us to do so.
    Anthropomorphic behaviour is rampant with horses; shoes, rugs, stables, bags of food etc. All for our pleasure.
    I speak to quite a few trimmers who say ‘I’m not against shoes’. Well I think it’s time we were all against shoes. This is not what horses need.
    What they need is owners who are educated to understand their basic requirements – freedom to roam for food, hay, living in a herd environment, natural shelter. Not a lot too ask for and far cheaper on the pocket than stables, bedding, shoes, bagged food, blankets. The list is almost endless.
    At one time it was normal to smoke cigarettes but education changed all that and for as long as barefoot advocates say they are not against shoes, the door is open for arguement.
    No one would argue that cigarettes don’t harm you, therefore why would you say nailing a shoe onto living cells is not equally harmfull.

  • Linda Chamberlain says:

    Great article, Deb – very thought provoking – and agree with your conclusion that the world isn’t yet ready to support an entire barefoot horse population. I would say that, at the moment, it is struggling to keep up with the number of owners wishing to keep their horses without shoes. There aren’t enough specialist trimmers, too few livery yards that cater for their needs and a shortage of suitable feeds. It’s changing, thank goodness. Once there is enough demand from owners, it will have to!

  • Evette says:

    Fabulous article that gives fuel to my argument against metal shoes. I know people who pull their horses shoes in the Winter but slap them back on in the Spring because they are going to be riding. If the got through the whole winter barefoot, why would you do that?? They think it’s a question of wear. There are very few independent thinkers out there.

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      That was always the way shoeing used to be done. Shoes were never meant to be on all year round. We’re slowly getting there. People are questioning things more. Keep asking those questions 🙂

  • Rebecca says:

    Love it, hit the nail on the head!
    I am not anti shoes but I love barefoot – to be honest when I started there was no thing as a barefoot horse, I was just the wiedo without shoes. I simply looked at the feet my new young horse had and said it would be a shame to put shoes on those. In 14 years I have not regretted that decision. She has been everywhere and anywhere with strong sound feet. I have learned a lot about diet, nutrition and management through the other horses who have come to me and needed more support to keep their hooves healthy but a healthy hoof is the first priority and I agree entirely a shoe should not substitute for that. In two cases have I felt shoes were the right way forward for horses because they needed more work to build muscle to use the foot correctly, in both cases when the body is fit and strong I believe the feet could function without the shoes. It is not one case fits all but that each individual horse and situation needs to be assessed around the limitations of the circumstances.
    Thanks for making me think and smile.

  • Michelle says:

    This is a great article. Really says a lot of realistic facts. I think metal and horses is just a bad combination in any regards. If a horse needs more support because of where they are in the moment why not boot or use some of the amazing new alternative shoeing products? In this day and age it seems there are a lot of options and none of them have to be metal. When you have a horse with only what nature intended them to have…on their hooves…it forces you to stay intune with what a horse needs to live a full and healthy life. They give us so much why not give that right back to them? ✌️❤️

  • Betty says:

    Thank you for your very informative article. Have a great Christmas and Happy New Year. I look forward to more of your articles. Betty

  • Rosemary says:

    Loved reading this. I know so many people who just don’t want to hear that shoes aren’t necessary and not even prepared to learn something new. This article is preaching to the converted though and I wish more horse owners/riders would read and educate themselves. You’re never too old to try something new.

  • Pat says:

    Hey Deb
    BRILLIANT

  • Pat says:

    …. as I was saying before I RUDELY interrupted myself by hitting the ENTER key … BRILLIANT article – and everything there is DITTO ME! Thank you!

  • Diana says:

    So very true! Your blog is always interesting but this article is brilliant!

  • Lisa says:

    Love this!!! My large hunter/jumper mare has been unshod for a couple yrs now and I find it to work well for her. Definitely not the norm in my segment of the industry… And I have found myself really thinking about what I was taught since a young age about horse care and why they wear shoes. Very interesting when you do finally take a step back and spend the time to educate youself. I am very confident my horse is better off for it!

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      Yes, it’s fascinating how your perspective can change when you step away and look back. For me, ages ago I read something about using different terminology (more accurate/blunt) the suggestion was to use the word ‘cell’ instead of ‘stable’. I didn’t stable my horses at the time, but the theory is a sound one. For me recently I’ve been using ‘external metal support structure’ instead of ‘shoe’ (only in trusted company as it sounds a little crazy and pretentious, but it’s amazing how differently you look at things just by using the description rather than the common name)

  • Gene says:

    An excellent article. Our two RMH geldings have been barefoot for the past 15 years. We will forever be grateful to the farrier we met who suggested it to us. Our “boys” are 18 and 19 now. They have always been fed a premium balanced diet in addition to being out on pasture 10-12 hours a day. Their hooves are hard and healthy. We live in the Blue Ridge foothills where some of the trails can be rocky so they wear boots on the trail. We wouldn’t consider putting shoes on them unless there was a serious health reason, which we cannot imagine!

  • Gail Male says:

    A well balanced article. My ponies are barefoot & in full work with correct diet, trimming & foot care. I don’t preach barefoot to other owners but I have noticed over the last few years that I am getting people defending why they have their horses shod rather than criticising me for not shoeing mine which is what I used to get. It’s a subtle shift in attitude but shows that the barefoot message is starting to get through at some level. I believe that there will in due course be a gradual shift towards fewer horses being shod & the feed industry will gradually adapt to the market forces.

  • Vikki says:

    I love your weirdness, it causes the sort of out of the box thinking articles that make people sit up and listen, or run and hide under their rock screaming “the world is flat, the world is flat”. My favourite bit, the rephrasing of the question “can all horses” be barefoot to “should all horses be barefoot now”.

  • Trac says:

    Boots are such a great alternative to shoes. And just like the way we can get relief when we kick our shoes off at the end of a long work day. So too can the horses. There is no relief from a metal shoe nailed on. I wish more people who think their horses cant go without shoes could be convinced that boots are just as good.

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      Boots can really help to rehab feet, or protect horse’s feet if they need it. I’m not sure I’m 100% on board with using boots to replace shoes though. I’d always rather heal the feet first.

  • Carol says:

    You didn’t really address boots. My TB is natural/barefoot and he wears Cavallos when I ride. I always felt natural is better than not when at all possible. Pasture board instead of stall kept. Barefoot is less expensive and less damaging to the hoof. People get manicures and some get gells or acrylics. W those on the nail, they are extra strong, but once the gels or acrylics are taken off the underlying nails are damaged and weak. Shoes leave nail holes that lead to cracks and chips. Weakening. I love my boots. They last for a long time. Because they only get worn when in use. I’m not a pro rider or ferrier. I’m just a trail rider who wants my horse to stay healthy and happy. So I hope I’m not offending anyone who swears by shoes. That’s you n your horse. My boy n I will take it easy and go without. 🙂

  • Kat says:

    Great article and I’m seriously considering having the shoes taken off my new ISH mare. I think for me the fear factor is not knowing enough about the right nutrition for my horse yet. And fearing that I will “open the can of worms” (quite literally) without wanting to sound ignorant (far from it) but just worrying that I am breaking something open before it can become better and then not knowing whether it will be right for her in the end. But I think having an expert advise me will be best. Thanks again for the article – I have been thinking about it for a while even before I got my horse.

    • Debs Crosoer says:

      Expert support is really worth it’s weight in gold in the beginning. Sometimes it might only be a simple change that’s needed, but without making that change it can be like pushing mud uphill. Good luck with it 🙂

  • Keili says:

    We’ve just got a new horse and have immediately taken his back shoes off (he’d lost one already and hooves are good). But the one front has a crack that means it has to be shod. Looks like an old injury that has caused a weakness or faultline that means the crack starts at the same point We’ll see how it goes but may have to keep them on the front.

  • DLC says:

    Great read.. I wouldn’t dream of wearing metal trainers.
    I have 3 horses free of metal with only one, a T. B., who wears boots occasionally… Happy horses..

  • Catherine Woods says:

    This has to be the best article I have ever read on the subject… I do hope I can remember just a few of your well presented points next time someone asks me “the” question…. naw may be better to direct them directly to this.

  • Jo says:

    Barefoot…Thoroughbred…endurance. If barefoot Thoroughbreds (yes, those that raced and probably had shoes slapped on at one year) can do endurance, most any horse can go the distance without shoes. The key is the trim and applying boots when necessary.

    Some farriers recommend shoes because they make more money or because they love forge work. Vets oftentimes agree with farriers , sadly, because they don’t want to alienate them in the community.

    Think for yourself and make your own sound decision about your horses’ feet!

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