To Shoe Or Not To Shoe Your Horses

What is a person to do?

To Shoe Or Not To Shoe Your Horses

By Bryan Farcus

Thinking back 15 or 20 years ago who would have imaged that we would have all this information at our fingertips? Just click-on to the web, or tune-in to the social network and like magic, you’ll find the answers to all your problems! Right? Unfortunately, not. In today’s world we are actually being bombarded with so much information that we can’t decide which answer is the best. With our horses it even becomes more chaotic. For every question we can find just as many “dos,” as we find “don’ts.” With this, doubt will inevitably flourish. Then, perhaps, as things become more complicated it may lead us to readily accept just about any approach in order to reach a conclusion.

Lately it seems that we tend to lean toward the “all natural” approach for everything from soda-pop to shoeing. As to not offend anyone in particular, I will simply say that to trim and/or properly shoe a horse requires an intimate understanding of each horse as an individual. Therefore, a generalized approach, derived from an analysis of other horses in other situations is not always applicable, nor is it practical. We must consider all the variables that surround a particular horse. In my personal view, people shouldn’t tell people if a horse needs shoes or not, instead horses should tell people. Obviously, this requires that we do all we can to observe our horses in their current conditions before we decide to shoe or leave them barefooted. Yes, it is true that the study of wild horses in their environment will give us a basis for what healthy feet should look like. But, let’s face it, most of our modern horses are given different challenges—ones that may require a different approach.

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Quite often in my shoeing practice, I receive phone calls or emails from concerned horse owners who want to know whether or not their horse needs shoes. I am always concerned that, without knowing the entire situation, I may not give them the best advice. Whenever possible, I will arrange a visit to see the horse. Though there are many horseshoeing books that offer you evaluation/observation tips regarding the issue of shoeing a horse (or not), it was in a text written by Dr. Doug Butler, The Principles of Horseshoeing, II, that I found the most detailed explanation. Butler begins his discussion regarding the application of horseshoes with this straight-forth statement: “The aim of (physiological) horseshoeing is to minimize the harmful effects of the horseshoe, and to take advantage of its useful effects.”

He then continues by specifying, “The horseshoe is a beneficial tool (for the reasons listed below) it will:

1. Protect the horse’s foot from excessive wear and resulting tenderness when its continuous use is necessary.

2. Provide traction when necessary for safety and/or speed on slippery surfaces.

3. Correct or influence the stance and/or gait of the horse.

4. Correct or improve “abnormal” and pathological conditions of the feet and or legs.”

By now, you may be asking yourself, how does this apply to my horse and me? Well, simply stated, anytime you place horseshoes on a horse it should always serve to promote/maintain strong feet, strong legs and strong gait.

Therefore, the decision to shoe (or not) should be one that is based on an evaluation of a few principle concerns. Together, you and your farrier should examine the following:

1. Quality of the horse’s hooves (i.e. the presence of any deep cracks or extreme distortions of the wall). Flatter-footed horses can easily become tender if on hard ground and shoes can help prevent bruising.

2. Position of the limb-to-hoof axis. Often referred to as the “natural angle,” this strong supportive alignment should always be sustained when shoeing, regardless of the intent or style of shoe that is being used. The three-phalange bones that are closest to the ground are the long pastern, short pastern and coffin bone. They should be in a chiropractic alignment, of sorts, which results in a maximum advantage for the horse to utilize his weight-bearing capacity to its fullest ability. If the horse’s digital bone column alignment is sacrificed, he will be susceptible to various hoof/leg problems (i.e. collapsed/“over-under run” heels, long toe/low heel syndrome, contracted heels, club footedness and limb length disparity).

3. And last, the consideration of his workload. Certain jobs the horse may be asked to perform may require a particular type of shoe. For instance, a trail horse will need traction for those slippery spots. He may need all four shoes if the trail is extremely uneven. He might also require preventive pads in the event that he is asked to travel on rough surfaces. Conversely, a reining horse is frequently asked to perform quickly and slide for a distance. He will need non-traction type hind shoes.


By the natural weight distribution of horses, front ends normally carry 60 percent of the horse’s load, while hind ends carry 40 percent. This often results in the need for more supportive help by shoeing front feet. Perhaps, hind feet will only need a rebalancing trim.

Pastured horses and their buddies may be safer without shoes or front shoes only, if kicking is a common habit.

A break from shoeing during the off-riding season can be beneficial, in order to allow stressed-out, over-nailed hooves to regenerate.

Mares that are about to foal should be left barefoot on hind feet to reduce the risk of injury to the newborn.

Horses with chronic shoe pulling problems often suffer from short, tight-fitted shoes, which over time will weaken a foot by contracting the heels (drawing them closer together).

Keeping shoes on at “any cost” may prove to be too big a price to pay! Perhaps, these horses would be better off without shoes?

Whether to shoe (or not) is a decision that is best made in cooperation with your farrier, vet and trainer. I choose to hold on to the belief that when we all work together the decisions we make can only get better.


By Bryan S. Farcus, MA, CJF

At some point, as a horse owner, you will be faced with the task of finding a farrier. This is not as easy as one may think. In a brief preliminary search, you may have scanned the phone book or a local newspaper only to find no mention of a horse shoer, blacksmith, or farrier.

People ask me why is this? In my experience, word-of-mouth is the best way to find a farrier.

My mentor and farrier friend of 35-plus years experience once said, “Your best advertisement will be your horse’s feet—they are your walking billboard.”


1) Does he/she have a good reference? Not only from your “horse friends’” comments, but more importantly, from the soundness of your friends’ horses.

2) Is he/she dependable?

3) Does he/she hold an actual certification and not just a certificate? These days it seems as though many certificates are awarded based on mere attendance and not on any real standard of skill. There are many weekly programs offered at various colleges that are aimed at awareness of the shoeing craft. Though these are great programs for horse owners and beginning farriers, such programs should not be confused with those that are exclusively skill-based. Most reputable, professional farrier programs will encourage students to follow-up their schooling with an apprenticeship and then work towards testing, in order to acquire a formal level of certification. Farriers who complete this process then receive a national card from one of the following: AFA, BWFA, or AAPF. Most of these professional associations offer a referral service, listing registered farriers by region.

4) Does he/she understand the nature of horses?

a) Internally—the anatomy and science.

b) Externally—the conformation and basic movement patterns. And, in my opinion, the most important:

c) Mentally—a humane horsemanship approach to horse handling.

Chances are the easiest question to ask and answer, yourself, is this: Would you want an automobile mechanic, who claims he can solve your car problem but doesn’t know how to drive, working on your car? In the world of horses, it’s not all that different. Horsemanship (learning how to operate and conduct ones self around a horse) is of the utmost importance for farriers to have first-hand experience.

I am a strong proponent of every professional farrier having a solid background in areas that are “often skipped over,” such as handling, riding and health care management. To become a successful farrier, one needs experience in these areas to truly understand the “needs” of the horse and “wants” of their owners.

For Related Reading/Resources:

Dr. Doug Butler and Jacob Butler, The Principles of Horseshoeing (P3)

Dr. Doug Butler, The Principles of Horseshoeing II

Lyle Bergeleen, “Hoof Talk”

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