What does it mean for your horse to have balanced hooves? Is it necessary to have a farrier come to balance your horse’s hooves? Should your horse wear removable boots instead? Barefoot vs. horseshoes vs. boots; which way is best?
These are all perplexing questions and can overwhelm some horse owners, especially with all the conflicting information available on both barefoot and shoeing options. Fortunately, we are going to explore both sides of the argument and attempt to shed some light on the debate.
It is accurate to state that historically, in nature, horses did not need shoes. They survived just fine without our intervention and even thrived with the absence of metal nailed into the bottom of their hooves. However, horses in the wild were just that - wild. Now that we have domesticated them, horses spend a great deal of time in stalls or paddocks, competing in rings, or competitively trail riding. They were not meant for such extended activities, and therefore, their hooves cannot handle the stress attached to these conditions. Some may argue that allowing time for the horse to become conditioned, in both their body and their hooves for these events, will reduce the chance that the horse becomes injured.2 Unfortunately that is not realistic. In the wild, horses that had weak hooves would naturally be selected against, reducing that trait in future generations. What we have done through breeding, though, is to allow those weaker traits to be passed on.1 Therefore if the horse genetically has weak hooves, they are susceptible to breakage, no matter the amount of conditioning. This is why it becomes necessary to shoe horses, so that large pieces of hoof do not break off causing infection or lameness.
Similar to people, shoeing a horse can have an effect on their spinal health.1 According to our own Dr. Jessica DeWitt, in some instances, it is necessary to shoe a horse due to certain medical conditions. If the condition causes the horse to wear down their hooves faster than the natural rate, they need to be shod. Shoeing protects the integrity of the hoof and, when properly balanced, allows for healthy spinal alignment and promotes soundness.
While shoeing will mostly protect your horse, there are also some drawbacks to consider. Most importantly, it is necessary to keep shoes clean and maintained by a farrier to prevent injury and lameness, since your horses hoof grows constantly and debris can become wedged between the shoe and hoof. Additionally, shoes can sometimes become snagged on steps or rails, also potentially causing injury.
Which bring us to the “barefoot” side of the argument. As Tim Ware astutely states, “If your horse is lame today, how do you know the lameness is not coming from attempts made years ago to ‘balance’ the hoof? You can’t really know for sure.”2 True. Judging from the some of the potential side effects, we honestly have no way of definitively saying that horse shoe balancing does or does not cause lameness. A real hindrance to the shoe argument is that no two farriers can agree on what a properly balanced hoof looks like. Some take X-rays and measurements while others simply go by looks alone. And what one farrier says is “balanced” another may scoff at. Consequently the work of a farrier that claims to be “balancing” your horse may very well cause the horse to be lame several years down the road.
An added consideration to shoeing is your horse’s activity level. According to Ware, “The shoes you put on to enable you to go on seven-hour trail rides five times per year may lame your horse during the 360 days per year you are not on a sever-hour ride.”2 If your horse is generally mildly to moderately active, it may not be necessary for them to be shod all year. In fact, metal horse shoes are known to restrict the expansion of the hoof when weight-bearing, potentially causing pain and lameness. If you ride or compete moderately, a great alternative to shoeing is removable boots. They need to be properly fitted to your horse by a farrier and can be put on during times of work and taken off during times of rest. In the event of choosing boots, your horse still needs to have its hooves trimmed, either by you or a professional.
Shoeing and balancing your horse is tricky business. There are both positive and negative aspects to each argument. When making your decision about which route to pursue, always involve your veterinarian and a farrier you trust. It’s extremely important to be selective when choosing a vet and a farrier. Make sure they are qualified and that they are willing to listen to your concerns before making judgment calls. Ultimately, it’s your decision whether or not to shoe your horse. Be sure to take into account your horse’s activity level, age, health, and physical condition. Avoid making decisions because one method is more “popular” than another and base your decision on research and facts.