History of the Horseshoe

by Staff Writer

The horseshoe, an iconic emblem recognized worldwide, holds a place of distinction. Be it among equestrians or those distant from the equine realm, its identity requires just a fleeting moment to discern. This symbol embodies good fortune, leisure activities, and, of course, equine footwear. The lineage of horseshoes extends back to the earliest interactions between humans and horses.

The Purpose of Horseshoes

Throughout millennia, safeguarding a horse’s feet has ranked high on the list of priorities for horsemen. As early as 400 B.C., Asian horsemen crafted booties to shield sore hooves and preempt future injuries. Constructed from hides, grasses, and reeds, these foot coverings introduced an extra layer of cushion between the hoof and the unyielding terrain beneath.

It wasn’t until approximately the first century B.C. that horseshoes made of metal emerged. The Roman poet Catullus, in a poem, alluded to a mule’s lost shoe. Romans substituted natural fibers with steel, birthing what became known as the “hipposandal.” This solid piece of steel, reminiscent of a modern sneaker, enveloped the entire hoof, secured with straps. This concept served as inspiration for contemporary hoof boots.

Crafting Horseshoes

Before the Industrial Revolution, all horseshoes were painstakingly handmade. Blacksmiths embarked on the process with flat pieces of steel, known as bar stock. These pieces were heated in a coal furnace until red-hot and then meticulously shaped into a “U” form using an anvil. This transformation ensured a custom fit for each pair, tailored to the horse wearing them.

The advent of manufacturing revolutionized horseshoe production. Visionary engineer Henry Burden envisioned a mechanized means of mass-producing horseshoes. He introduced his invention at the onset of the Civil War, eventually expanding to nine machines. Each machine churned out 60 horseshoes per minute, a stark contrast to the 60 to 70 minutes previously required for hand forging. Notably, Burden’s enterprise supplied nearly all the horseshoes for the Union Army.

Doug Butler, an accomplished farrier and hoofcare expert, remarked, “It’s been suggested that the outcome of the war was attributed to the Union’s well-shod army. The South lacked manufacturing facilities for horseshoes and would raid Union supplies.”

Increasing Options In the late 1880s, the Phoenix Horseshoe Company emerged in Poughkeepsie, New York. These two entities, along with the Romans, monopolized horseshoe production until the conclusion of World War II. The Phoenix shoes manifested in long-heeled and short-heeled variations, referred to as the “cowboy pattern.”

Butler reminisces, “We had only two companies, and now we have hundreds of horseshoe types. A survey from decades ago identified 800 different horseshoe varieties. I imagine that today’s count exceeds 1,000.”

Many contemporary farriers rely on manufactured shoes for their operations. Pre-formed “U”-shaped shoes save time, although some shaping is necessary before nailing them on. Certain farriers, valuing precise control over shoe shape, opt for the traditional approach of hand forging.

Varied Materials

Steel continues to reign as the predominant material for horseshoe construction. An exception emerges with racehorses, which favor lighter-weight aluminum shoes.

Two fundamental steel horseshoe styles are the flat plate and the rim shoe, known as the concave fullered shoe in England.

• The flat plate presents a smooth surface, with nail holes being the sole texture variation.
• The rim shoe boasts an indentation, or crease, that traverses the shoe. When dirt accumulates in this groove, enhanced traction is achieved—a feature valued by many riders.

Technological advancements and research have impacted horseshoe designs. Synthetic materials like plastic and polyurethane are now widely accessible. Butler recounts his first encounter with plastic shoes in the 1960s while studying at California Polytechnic College. Initially skeptical, he found that the modern versions possess improved designs, often featuring clips for secure attachment.

Embracing High-Tech Horshoes

The realm of horseshoes has transcended into the high-tech sphere. In the Netherlands, researchers employ 3D printers to craft custom therapeutic horseshoes, aiding in the healing process. Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization showcased the potential of 3D printing by creating titanium horseshoes for a racehorse in 2013.

Butler reflects, “Much of our horseshoeing knowledge is being rediscovered. Turn-of-the-century books contain valuable information about proper hoof care, albeit hindered by the limitations of their time.”

Does My Horse Require Horseshoes?

The necessity of horseshoes for a horse hinges on factors such as age, conformation, and the type/level of work it undertakes. Horseshoes can enhance performance, shield hooves from rugged terrain, and provide relief from discomfort. The equine hoof, analogous to human fingernails, is composed of keratin. While hooves are naturally resilient, the continual impact with the ground leads to wear. Horseshoes mitigate this wear, allowing hooves to regenerate between farrier visits.

Notably, not all horses require shoes, with some thriving comfortably without them. Initiate a dialogue with your farrier and veterinarian to ascertain the best course of action for your horse’s well-being.