02 Aug The Purpose of Horseshoes: Complete Beginner’s Guide
Have you ever wondered what’s the purpose of a horseshoe? You throw them back and forth trying to win a game, you hang them above a door for luck, and most commonly, you see them nailed to a horse’s hoof.
So, what is the purpose of a horseshoe? Horseshoes, like human shoes, offer protection and extra support to a horse’s hoof. They also help to prevent wear and injuries to the foot. Horseshoes can benefit a horse in the following situations:
- A horse that has soft and tender hooves
- A horse that performs vigorous riding or exercise
- A horse with cracked hooves that need to be held together
There’s an age-old discussion in the horse world about whether or not horseshoes really benefit horses. I believe that in the latter cases, they really do. Having a clear understanding of how horseshoes work will help you decide whether or not your horse can benefit from them.
Soft & Tender Hooves
What Are Soft & Tender Hooves?
If a horse has soft and tender hooves, it means that its hooves are sensitive. Have you ever attempted to walk barefoot across a bunch of gravel? If you have, then you know how painful it is! A horse with sensitive feet will basically feel the same way you would when it comes to crossing rough terrain.
Hooves vary in toughness and durability. A soft hoof is exactly as it sounds; it’s soft! A hoof that’s tough and solid can withstand more trauma that one that is tender and sensitive. Some horses will naturally have softer feet, while sometimes weather and moisture in your area can cause your horse’s hooves to be softer.
A horse that lives in a dry arid area will most likely have tougher feet. The ground will be more rough to create callouses and the arid environment will dry the feet out, making them solid. A horse that lives in a more wet or temperate environment may have softer feet since field terrain will be gentle and even and moisture will tend to keep the hoove tender.
Why Sensitive Hooves Need Horseshoes:
Sensitive hooves could use horseshoes to provide extra protection. Sensitive hooves easily suffer from bruising, trauma, and pain due to direct contact with rocks, hard ground, or uneven terrain.
I’ve seen a horse that had feet so sensitive, you could notice it in the way they walked in the arena. They moved stiffly with a hobble to their step. Luckily, I saw this horse get to enjoy life again when the owner decided it time to put shoes on.
How Horseshoes Would Help:
Horseshoes would help a horse with sensitive feet by offering a cushion or a block between the ground and the hoof. The shoe would help to elevate the horse’s hooves far enough off of the ground that the sensitive sole of the foot could not be jabbed or evaded by rocks or hard terrain.
When a horse with sensitive hooves gets horseshoes, the shoes now take the brunt of the trauma that the hoof would usually take. If you’ve ever tried walking across gravel barefoot, then you know how much easier and painless it is to walk across the gravel with shoes on. Horseshoes will do the same for your horse!
What is Vigorous Training?
Horses that are vigorously trained and exercised will benefit from shoes. Some of the horses I’m talking about are horses that are ridden for long amounts of time frequently, such as trail horses, endurance horses, fox hunters, or eventers. I would even consider horses used for lesson programs or horses that regularly compete.
The majority of these horses are ridden and trained every day, some on a very strict regimen to help keep them at a maximum fitness level. If you ride your horse twice a week for 30 minutes, I wouldn’t consider them in a vigorous training routine.
Why Training Would Elicit Horseshoes:
The reason more riding and training would elicit horseshoes is that the horse being ridden experiences more footfalls that a horse just sitting in the field. When a horse is being trained, they are constantly being asked to move their feet. The more the hoof is used, the more wear and tear and trauma it will experience.
How Horseshoes Would Help?
Horseshoes would benefit horses being ridden more frequently for longer periods of time by absorbing the shock and trauma of the hoof repeatedly hitting the ground. They would also work to protect the hoof from hard and uneven terrain.
Trail horses, endurance horses, and fox hunters can all cover rough terrain over a great distance; shoes would protect the hooves from getting too roughed up.
What Are Cracked Hooves?
Cracked hooves are just what they sound to be: hooves with cracks and chips in them. Cracked hooves can be caused by a number of things, like a horse crossing rough terrain and when the hooves experience a lot of moisture and then a dry spell repeatedly.
These cracks will rarely ever cause pain to your horse; however, if you notice that the horse is limping due to a crack in the hoof, you’ll want to call the vet.
Cracks in hooves usually run vertical, toward the coronet band. Some cracks can get too far up the hoof and cause the hoof to start dividing. This is when horseshoes would be handy.
Why Cracked Hooves Need Horseshoes:
While most cracks are simply cosmetic nuisances, they can also cause a horse’s hoof to splay out, throwing off the horse’s balance. Cracks in the hooves are also a great way for bacteria to make its way into the hoof, causing infection and abscesses.
How Horseshoes Would Help:
Shoeing a horse with severely cracked hooves can be considered corrective shoeing. The shoes will help to hold the cracked feet together until the hoof can grow out and be solid again. Shoes will offer a strong solid foundation to keep your horse’s feet solid.
My barefoot horse once got a crack in her hoof that ran all the way up to the coronet band. The hoof started to split down the middle. In order to correct the split and hold the hoof together, the farrier put horseshoes on her.
How Horses Get Horseshoes
Horses get horseshoes by a farrier putting them on the horse. A farrier is a specialized craftsman who studies the horse’s hoof and how to take care of them. The farrier “fits” the shoe by comparing a preexisting metal shoe to the horse’s hoof. If the shoe needs to be shaped, the farrier can alter the shoe by sticking it in a forge, which is an oven that heats up the metal.
Once the shoe has sat in the forge, the farrier can pull it out and begin to shape it using a hammer. Once the shoe is shaped, the farrier will either nail or glue the shoe to the horse’s hoof. Don’t worry, this doesn’t hurt the horse!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Don’t Wild Horses Need Horseshoes?
Wild horses don’t need horseshoes due to the environment and terrain they live in. In the USA, the majority of wild herd live out West, where the landscape is more arid and rough. Because of the long distances the herds travel as well as their hooves being worn by the wild terrain, their hooves tend to stay kept.
How Do I Know If My Horse Needs Shoes?
There are a number of ways to know that your horse needs shoes. Firstly, does your horse have sensitive feet? This can be a hard question to answer if you don’t know what to look for. Does your horse tend to trip a lot? Do they stumble and limp over rough ground? Is the sole of their feet very flat? If you answered “yes,” then your horse probably has sensitive feet and would benefit from shoes.
Other things to take into account is how frequently you ride your horse and for how long. If you tend to ride every day for a good amount of time, horseshoes could help offer your horse’s hooves more cushion.
The best thing you can do is talk to your farrier. Your farrier can judge based on your horse’s conformation, hoof makeup, and your riding activity, whether or not your horse would benefit from shoes.
How Often Does My Horse Need to Be Shod?
Usually, a horse will need to be shod, or have their shoes replaced by the farrier, every 4 to 6 weeks. However, this number can vary depending on the season and your specific horse. It is important to keep a close track of your horse’s shoeing schedule.
If a horse has horseshoes on, their hooves can’t naturally expand like they’re supposed to; hence the frequency at which shoes should be replaced. If you allow your horse to go too long without getting their feet done, they could come up lame. To read more, check out our article, Horse’s Feet Trim Frequency: Easy Guide.
Is There an Alternative to Horseshoes?
If you don’t want to put horseshoes on your horse, there are some alternatives you can research. They are as follows:
- Natural trimming
- Horse Boots
Now before I discuss each one, it’s important to realize that many horse people have many different opinions about horseshoes and horseshoe alternatives. I include this list simply to inform you of other options, not necessarily because I agree.
Natural trimming is a trimming method that strives to keep the horse’s hoof as natural as possible. As in the wild, horses’ hooves are naturally trimmed by the terrain; so in natural trimming, the farrier tends to trim only the parts of the hoof that would be worn naturally.
Natural trimming is supposed to help the horse’s hooves become strong and naturally balanced. This could possibly help horses that struggle with sensitive feet. Natural trimming also tends to work great for horses in a training regimen and horses that have cracked feet.
A horse boot is exactly as it sounds; it is a slip-on boot for horses. If you don’t want to put metal horseshoes on your horse’s feet, but your horse struggles with sensitivity, try these boots! Whenever you go out on the trail, simply slip the boots on your horse’s hooves and off you go!
These boots remind me of sneakers; they usually velcro around the hoof and offer a nice rubber sole that is great for protecting the feet and giving more traction. If you’d like to see what these look like, click here. (Link to Amazon.)
Conditioning your horse over rough terrain can in some instances help to improve the toughness of their feet. By gradually working your horse over tough and rocky terrain, your horse’s hooves can build callouses to help them along.
While sometimes I’ve seen this help a horse with more sensitive feet, I can also tell you that it probably doesn’t work for all horses. I would talk to your farrier or vet before attempting this with your horse.
Are you ready to hit the trails? Check out our article, Horse Trail Riding Gear: Complete Packing List, to learn about all you need for a great trail ride!
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.