What’s the big debate between choosing shoes on your horse and choosing barefoot? Personally, we believe that it should be the owner’s choice. A choice that should be made with a few key details in mind. Does your horse work hard? Do you commonly ride over rough terrain? Are you repeatedly exposing your mount to new footing as a result of competition travel? Does your horse seem to be hesitant to move out? Would shoes make the job that you’re asking your horse to perform easier? Could you possibly prevent an injury by keeping your horse shod and adding studs during inclement weather or questionable riding conditions? Most importantly, is it in the best interest of the horse to be shod?
When we see the argument that horses lived for hundreds and thousands of years without shoes, so they must not see them, it is inevitable that we’re going to roll our eyes. Horses lived all those time without shoes until people came along. Homo sapiens have done a few key things that have changed how the foot grows and develops, including moving horses into areas they likely would not have lived if they were still wild. We, as people, also have bred for very specific traits in horses since we took over developing specific breeds by looking for key things for certain disciplines. Nature ensures that the strongest, fittest, and those with the best genetics survive and reproduce. Humans basically ensure that horses with a few of the traits we like reproduce, regardless of the other issues they have. Uphill? Short back? Nice movement? Crappy feet? Breed it. Smooth gaits? Low headset? Big build? Crappy feet? Breed it. Of course horses, the brilliant creatures they are, have adapted to much of what we have done.
Because of both this selective breeding for what we’ll call “non-wild-type” physical extremes as well as the introduction of physical activity that horses would not partake in during their everyday quest for a full belly of grass, the function of the modern horse’s hooves has evolved with the species and the sport. The modern equine diet is also often times far removed from the typical ancestral diet; this can in turn affect the hooves in ways beyond genetics. So what do we do once we realize that we may have just isolated our beautiful beasts of burden from their “original” genetic makeups, lifestyles, and diets? Panic, stop riding, and throw them in a field to live out the rest of their lives? No! We problem solve like the adults that we are and decide what’s best for the beast.
We’re pretty sure every horse owner wishes they could have a barefoot horse, but for some horses it’s not possible, and in those cases it only makes sense to do what is right and put on shoes. Renzie has one horse, Bella, who is wearing front shoes. Michelle has three horses: Devon, Roux, and Sulley. Devon and Roux are currently barefoot while Sulley has shoes all around. Each horse has a separate set of reasons for being shod the way that they are and we’re going to break down that process for you.
Bella was barefoot until she was four years old and some change. I was having issues with her feet chipping weeks out from her appointments, she was tender on rough ground, and she was unsure of her step while working. I talked to both the barn owner (my boss at the time) and the farrier before deciding to put shoes on her. I’d been waiting until I could start jumping her, at which point she would get the shoes for added heel support for jumping over 2ft, but doing so earlier ended up being smarter. Her feet stopped chipping, she became more confident in her step which improved the quality of our rides. She’s so confident in herself now that she ends up moving so well that she actually takes her shoes off on a regular basis (about the second she gets any heel back on). Even with bell boots she’s proving to have thumbs. To keep her from ripping off her hoof (which she has done a couple of times over the years) with her shoe, I use Keratex after every ride when it’s wet and every other when it’s dry. The key for her is to keep up good hoof care and have the farrier out on a 4 to 5 week schedule and she stays sound (although she loses a shoe a week before she’s scheduled, every time). She is currently in a regular ol’ shoe with toe clips.
Devon went from being my “kid horse” hunter/jumper and first dressage horse through about 1st level to retired in a field. Because he’s 26 years old, living off of the land with a small amount of (gruel) feed and hay supplemented to fill in any nutritional gaps in his au naturale diet and is no longer ridden at all, he has no need for metal shoes. He’s an OTTB but has reasonable feet and dealt with minimal soreness in transition. Simple.
Roux was my first FEI horse and is now semi-retired at the stable where I also keep Sulley. He’s a warmblood with a big heart and a few unfortunate conformation flaws. Because of the high demand the upper levels of dressage had on his legs in particular, he started off in normal shoes and then went the most comfortably in therapeutic shoes with padding throughout the later part of his career. Once he was retired from competition as a result of injury-causing cataplectic episodes, I decided to see (after having obtained the blessings of both the vet and the farrier) if his new lifestyle would now be sustainable without the expensive sneakers. He was very sore and his hooves cracked horribly, but he was comfortable enough in boots so I decided to persist. After about a year of being worked gently in a sport-type boot and being turned out in a canvas style boot that he wouldn’t leave behind him in the pasture, the soreness dissipated and now he wears no boots at all and is comfortable barefoot in light work, no more. Hoof wall quality has been a little bit of a struggle, but after his Cushing’s diagnosis and subsequent medication, that seems to be improving as well.
Last but not least, Sulley is my current ride and must tolerate a strenuous schooling and competition schedule. He travels often and must walk across, stand in, and perform comfortably on a number of different surfaces. He wears four metal shoes.
Shoes have, and probably always will have, their place in the equestrian world. For both professionals (Michelle) and amateurs (Renz) shoes play a pivotal role in keeping horses happy, healthy, and sound. Because of this, it’s hard to see where anyone can argue that using shoes is harmful, abusive, detrimental, etc. Join any horse group on Facebook and you’re going to stumble across some post about what to do with a horse’s feet, and then you’re likely to see where someone has felt the need to make a demeaning comment about shoes. Why people feel the need to be unnecessarily rude about a choice that is made to keep a horse comfortable, we will never understand. This is something that Renz has encountered in real life, though on a lesser level. The authors would never suggest shoes to anyone unless they felt it would seriously improve the horse’s quality of life. Shoes are expensive, we get it, but on occasiona they’re necessary.
Yet it remains that keyboard warriors, probably the same that trash talk big trainers for things they don’t understand, attack other horse owners for their right to make a choice that they feel is best for their horse. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Make the best choices so that our horses can be happy, healthy, and comfortable? Particularly when we ask them to allow us to ride them and to perform jobs that are, let’s face it, relatively unnatural? We have to train horses to boldly go up to the base of fences; we have to train them to piaffe and passage on cue. They are capable, obviously, but one of the best pieces of advice comes from Denny Emerson, who we’re going to quote very very loosely here: horses are naturally lazy creatures. They prefer to stand around and eat. They might gallop for fun or fear here and there but if you watch your horse in turn out it’s more likely that you’ll see them eating rather than frolicking around jumping over obstacles. Working is hard and if they’re going to do hard work for us, we should take care of them using all of the tools in our toolbox. Whether your horse goes best in plain shoes, therapeutic shoes, plastic shoes, sport boots, or nothing at all is up to you to find out – and don’t forget that as lifestyle changes happen, you may have to make a new decision! Guess what? That’s perfectly okay!