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 bare hoof 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).