The barefoot versus shoeing issue is a long-standing one. Proponents of shoes will tell you that they keep the horses sound and proponents of barefoot will tell you that shoes just cover up the issues. Before we dive in I want to let you know that I am strongly in the barefoot camp. However, all of my horses currently wear shoes. I wanted to write this article to explain to you guys how I came to that difficult decision and why I ended up putting shoes on my horses even though I truly believe barefoot is better.
First off, as with any health decision, there can be a basic philosophy, but the actual decision has to be based on the horse in front of you. All too often I see people making decisions for their horses based on what they think is better or they think is correct instead of looking at what actually works for the horse.
I will be the first to call out hardcore barefoot people for their horses being lame and in constant pain. If your horse isn’t sound barefoot then there is no reason they should be barefoot. I am all for doing everything in your power to make that horse sound without putting shoes on, but at the end of the day not every horse is sound barefoot. Some underlying medical conditions are simply incompatible with a barefoot horse or require temporary shoeing to resolve the condition.
As the barefoot camp proudly admits, shoes cover up issues. If your horse is perfectly sound with no health issues he should be able to be barefoot with correct trimming. However, a lot of horses aren’t. Shoeing can help cover up the basic issue that your horse has, which might be exactly what you should be doing just like you might give joint injections or other supportive care for health conditions that aren’t fixable. The important thing to note here is that shoes should be used for conditions that aren’t fixable or as a temporary solution to aid in fixing the problem.
Shoes can be helpful to support laminitic horses during their recovery. Without the support of shoes a laminitic horse might not have enough support of the coffin bone which could easily result in unfixable rotation. In this case a shoe could be a great way to help prevent future problems as the horse recovers from the laminitic episode.
Shoes can also be helpful when treating conditions such as large hoof cracks or white line disease. In these instances a shoe can help maintain the shape of the foot and relieve pressure from the damaged sections, which will allow the hoof to grow out and return to normal. Without the shoe conditions such as hoof cracks tend to get worse because the pressure of the horse’s weight on the hoof wall spreads the crack further up. Once these sorts of conditions have grown out and healed completely the horse can easily return to being barefoot with no ill effects.
There are also some horses with unfixable conditions that require shoes for the rest of their lives. For instance, I recently put shoes on my young horse because he was having soundness issues. We x-rayed and found out that these soundness issues were the result of bone spurs on the tip of his coffin bone. As much as I would love my horse to be barefoot again, I know that realistically he is always going to need to be in shoes. Medical conditions such as bone spurs on the coffin bone don’t go away. The only way to keep him comfortable with this condition is to provide extra padding on his feet so that he’s feeling less of the pressure of the bone spurs. This is where the shoes can come in. Yes, I am gladly admitting that I am using the shoes to cover up the fact that he has bone spurs. However, I know there is no other option for him. I can’t throw medicine or surgery at him to fix these issues. So my best bet is to try to cover up the symptoms and make him as comfortable as possible. Therefore he is wearing shoes.
I have had similar situations with all my other horses. Not all of them have a clear medical diagnosis, but with all of them I am confident that they are not comfortable barefoot. After the initial adjustment to not having shoes they are continually sore and unwilling to stride out to their potential. My number one priority is my horse’s comfort, not my hard-headed belief that horses should be barefoot.
That’s being said, some farriers are certainly better than others and some shoeing options are certainly better than others in general. Again you have to look at the specific horse and what problem you’re trying to fix to make those decisions. A good farrier is your first step in making your horse sound whether that’s barefoot or with shoes. A bad farrier can make any horse lame by either trimming incorrectly or shoeing incorrectly. A good farrier can start to correct those angles to make the horse as comfortable as he can be.
Another thing to note is that most people are talking about metal shoes when they discuss the problems with shoeing a horse. Although metal shoes are and have been the industry standard for many years, they do have some significant downsides. Metal shoes do not flex and bend with the horse’s foot as it’s meant to do. This leads to increased pressure and concussion in the horse’s foot. Most hardcore barefoot people will cite this as the reason that you shouldn’t put shoes on your horse. However, there are other options.
Several of my horses wear composite shoes. These shoes offer more flexibility and more padding against the concussion of movement. My horse with the bone spurs is currently wearing composite shoes with an extra shock absorbing pad under the shoe. The theory behind this is that it will reduce concussion with the ground as much as possible while still allowing his hoof to naturally flex and absorb impact as well. Composite shoes can be a great option for those wanting a more natural concussion on the horse’s foot when the horse still can’t go fully barefoot.
However, just like with everything there are certain cases where a composite shoe would be worse than a metal shoe. For instance, I know of another horse that suffers from a deteriorating coffin bone. For this horse I would imagine a composite shoe would put entirely too much pressure on the horse’s sole and make the horse very lame. I can’t say that for sure because to my knowledge the horse has never had composite shoes, but I do know that the shoeing that makes this horse the soundest involves a very rigid shoe and pad to avoid pressure. Again this highlights the importance of both looking at all your options and also looking at the medical conditions you need to combat with shoes.
Putting horses in shoes is a bit like wearing orthopedic shoes yourself. It is to provide additional comfort and fix medical issues that cannot be fixed without proper shoeing. If your horse doesn’t have any underlying medical conditions then by all means you should absolutely be going barefoot. However that appears to be the minority of horses instead of the majority. Maybe you could say that is from bad farrier work from a young age or maybe that is from our societal norm of putting metal shoes on horses. Whatever the reason, I have found that most horses are not actually sound barefoot. Therefore I am left with shoeing the horse I have instead of shoeing the horse I would like to have. So remember, don’t get stuck in the dogma of it all and remember to think about what is going to serve your horse the best and give him the happiest and least painful life possible. Shoeing or not shoeing is just one more aspect of horsemanship that can be used to provide the best possible life for your horse.