September 2017 - Barefoot or Shod?

A simple choice: Or, is it?

by Lauren Mrozowski

Horse owners are faced with many choices on a daily basis. With the amount of information available from a multitude of sources, including the Internet, sometimes there is so much conflicting opinion and information to sift through that these choices can be difficult to make. One of the most important of these topics is the hoofcare of your horse. As the age-old adage points out “no hoof, no horse” and truer words have never been spoken. In conjunction with your farrier you must create a plan that enables your equine partner to be happy, healthy, sound and able to do his job comfortably. Below I will outline some of the considerations that go into making this complex decision of “barefoot or shod?”

Firstly, I would like to point out that it is important to keep in mind that this is not a question of which is “better,” but a question of which hoofcare modality is better for a particular horse, in their own unique situation. Just because one approach works for a friend’s/trainer’s/Olympic rider’s horse doesn’t mean that it may be suitable for your own.

Many fads come and go, but sound hoofcare principles are timeless. When talking about a horse being “shod,” that term encompasses all forms of hoof protection. Whether it be steel, aluminum, composite, a boot, and the myriad of attachment methods available including nails, glue, casting, velcro, or straps etc. So essentially we are discussing whether the hoof is “protected” or “unprotected.”

Secondly, hoofcare is not static. Over the course of a horse’s lifetime there may be dozens of management techniques that are effective during different time periods. What has worked for your horse in the past may no longer be appropriate given current circumstances. It is important to keep in mind that their needs change dramatically over time, and that a horse that has “always done fine barefoot” may no longer be suited for that. Conversely, a horse that has always needed shoes may no longer need them at a certain point in time. Every horse is different, and each year of their life they have different needs. It is important to remain flexible, and not to get too attached to one particular approach. From moment to moment, everything changes. Which makes the profession of a farrier endlessly interesting, and always challenging!

Wear and Growth
This is perhaps the simplest reason to choose barefoot or shod (protected or unprotected). The basic tenet is that when wear exceeds growth, the hoof needs some protection. Frequency of use will also factor in. Historically, battles were won and lost based on whether or not the horses had hoof protection. Armies with shod horses could travel farther and faster, otherwise they had to rest their horses so that wear did not exceed growth. Finding creative ways to achieve protection of the equine hoof is what resulted in the modern day horseshoe and all of its permutations.  All other considerations aside, if the hoof is wearing more than it is growing, the horse needs some help.

Conformation and Loading of the Hoof Capsule
Another important influence on this decision is a horse’s conformation, and how that affects wear, growth, distortions and the biomechanics of movement. There are very few horses with perfect conformation, and each variance from “perfect” influences the hoof capsule. The shape of the feet will also have consequences. Whether they are upright, flat soled, long toed, low heeled, flared, high/low, club footed, etc.

For example, a club footed horse will have excessive wear and chipping of its toe over the course of a cycle as the heels grow taller. Or a horse that toes in or toes out can develop flares on one side of the hoof, and excessive wear on the other. Anything whatsoever that causes uneven load will create uneven hoof growth and wear, as the hoof capsule remodels in response to the forces placed upon it. Because of this, your farrier may notice that your horse has a lameness problem by noting telltale signs of distortion and wear, long before it is apparent to the rider. If the hoof capsule cannot be kept reasonably well-balanced over the course of a cycle due to this, then shoes are a better option to prevent uneven wear and distortion. If the feet and legs cannot be kept balanced, the end result will be stress on the supporting tendons, ligaments, and the bony column itself, which will affect the soundness and longevity of the horse.

Medical History/Prior and Current Lameness Issues
Whenever I am working on a new horse, I try to get as complete a medical history as possible. Certain medical conditions influence hoof health, and dictate the proper protocol for care. Don’t leave out any details when conveying this to your farrier. Or even better, send them vet records, reports, and radiographs ahead of your scheduled appointment. Both past and present concerns are relevant. Some conditions can be managed barefoot, and some need more complex approaches requiring a certain type of shoe and other therapeutic tools.

Hoof Health
The resiliency of the hoof capsule is influenced by many factors, including genetics, breed, age, nutritional status, husbandry and environment. Some horses will never have the type of foot suitable to a barefoot lifestyle no matter how much they are supplemented. And some horses that thrive barefoot at younger ages are no longer able to do as well as they age. Some of these factors can be influenced, and some are just the luck of the draw.

Housing & Riding Environment
Some stabling environments are more or less conducive to a barefoot lifestyle, and the same applies for shoes. If a horse is out on hundreds of acres in the mountains living in a herd setting, the wedged egg bars prescribed by the vet may not be a realistic approach. Or for the horse living in a gravel paddock stomping flies all day, barefoot may not be a good idea either. Sometimes the housing environment needs to be changed to meet a particular hoofcare goal.

The riding environment matters too. Is the horse ridden on rocky trails? Is it at barn with abrasive footing? An older lesson horse that drags its toes in the sand arena? Shows at facilities with sticky or abrasive footing? Discuss this with your hoofcare provider.

Climate/Time of Year
In addition to the housing environment having a large influence on hoofcare choices, climate plays a role as well. Each season has its own challenges, as well as each region of the country. Is it too wet? Too dry? Changes drastically from wet to dry? Is the hoof brittle and chipping? Or over saturated and too soft? Is it winter and thus slow hoof growth? Or spring and the hoof is growing faster? Certain times of the year are also more appropriate for transitioning a shod horse to barefoot, typically when the ground is not too hard or dry, and when hoof growth rates are higher.

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Owner Involvement
This also affects hoofcare. A barefoot horse often needs to be kept on a shorter schedule to properly maintain the hoof capsule. If the horse is in a therapeutic shoeing package, frequently there are special management instructions that go along with it (I.e. no pasture turn-out, use bell boots, keep in a dry stall, etc.) As an owner, make sure that you do your best to adhere to the recommendations that go along with a particular hoofcare approach. This will allow you to see the best possible results with your horse.

Discipline and Traction Needs

The discipline of a horse also factors in. Each discipline has its own particular demands, and hoofcare needs to enable a horse to perform at their best. And as a horse moves up through the levels those needs may change. Traction is also a concern, if the footing is abrasive and the horse needs more slide, or studs on a jumper, or borium on a parade horse for slippery concrete. Some of these needs cannot be met barefoot.

Temperament
Believe it or not, a horse’s temperament is at play when choosing your best hoofcare option. How does the horse stand for the farrier? Does it need sedation? Will it tolerate shoeing? If it needs glue-ons will it hold still long enough for the glue to properly set? Does the horse like to paw, and wear down a toe? Does the horse like to stick its legs through the fence? Does the horse kick? Is it out with other horses? Does it like to stand in the pond all day? How does it behave under saddle? In turn-out? The answers to these questions will influence the best hoofcare approach as well. Often your farrier will make mental notes on this as they observe your horse at your appointment.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that this is a complex decision based on many factors. Having open communication with your farrier, and the other members of your horses’ team of caregivers (veterinarian/trainer/barn owner/groom/chiropractor/body worker etc.) will enable them to create a customized approach that enables your horse to be their very best.

Happy riding!