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Can Horses Race Without Shoes? The Barefoot Revolution

Last updated: December 9, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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As a horse race owner, I’m always looking for ways to improve the performance and well-being of my horses. Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the idea of racing horses without shoes – and I’ve been doing my research to determine whether it’s a viable option for my horses.

Barefoot racing is an option for some horses, but it depends on the horse and track regulations. While some horses can benefit from racing without shoes and others may be at risk for injury. Whether or not tracks allow barefoot racing varies, and horse owners and trainers should carefully review regulations and work with professionals to ensure horse health and readiness.

Barefoot horse racing is a controversial topic with advocates and skeptics. This article will explore the pros and cons of racing without shoes, the science behind it, and the future of this movement. Read on to learn more about this fascinating topic and whether it’s a feasible possibility for your horses.

Picture of a horse without shoes getting its hoof filed.
Barefoot horse

An Overview of Shoeless Horse Racing

Barefoot horse racing is the practice of racing horses without shoes or other forms of traditional hoof protection, such as horseshoes. The idea behind barefoot racing is that it allows horses to run more naturally and comfortably, with less risk of injury or discomfort from improperly-fitted or poorly-maintained shoes.

Instead of shoes, barefoot horses have their hooves trimmed and shaped regularly to promote natural growth and maintain proper balance and structure. Advocates of barefoot racing argue that it can improve performance, reduce injury rates, and promote overall hoof health in horses.

Despite the potential benefits of barefoot racing, there is also a great deal of controversy surrounding the practice. Many equestrians and horse racing professionals argue that shoes are necessary to protect horses’ hooves from the wear and tear of running on abrasive surfaces and that barefoot racing can actually increase the risk of injury.

They also point to the long history of horseshoes in equestrianism, arguing that they have been proven to be effective over centuries of use. Additionally, some racing organizations and tracks may have specific rules or regulations requiring horses to wear shoes at all times, making barefoot racing impossible in certain contexts.

To race horses without shoes in Louisiana, an application must be submitted, accompanied by an explanation. I once knew a trainer who raced all her horses barefoot. When I questioned the grip of hooves, she responded by comparing it to goats scaling mountains without shoes.

However, proponents of barefoot racing argue that with proper care and attention, horses can race barefoot safely and effectively and that natural hoof care can be a viable alternative to traditional shoeing practices.

Ultimately, the controversy surrounding barefoot racing highlights the ongoing debate between tradition and innovation in the equestrian world and underscores the need for continued research and exploration into alternative forms of equine care.

Are mare and her foal are both barefoot.
A mare and her foal are both barefoot.

Barefoot and Thriving: Pros of Racing Horses without Shoes

Racing horses without shoes has been gaining popularity in some equestrian circles as an alternative to traditional shoeing practices. Here are some potential benefits of barefoot racing:

  1. Improved circulation: Without the weight and pressure of shoes, barefoot horses may experience improved circulation to their feet. This can help promote overall hoof health and prevent issues like laminitis or other circulation-related problems.
  2. Enhanced traction: Barefoot horses are able to grip the ground more effectively, which can improve their balance, stability, and overall performance. This can be particularly advantageous on certain surfaces, such as grass or dirt tracks.
  3. Better way of going: Some barefoot horses are able to move more naturally and comfortably without shoes, which can translate to a smoother, more efficient way of going. This can be especially beneficial for horses that struggle with gait issues or other movement-related problems.
  4. Stronger, healthier hoof growth: Natural hoof trimming and maintenance can promote healthier, stronger hoof growth in barefoot horses since the hooves are allowed to grow and develop more naturally. This can reduce the risk of hoof-related injuries or lameness and can also be more cost-effective in the long run since horses don’t require frequent shoeing appointments or replacements.

Ultimately, the benefits of barefoot horse racing will depend on the individual horse’s needs and health status, as well as the specific racing environment and conditions involved. Working with a qualified farrier and veterinarian can help ensure that a horse is properly prepared and cared for when racing without shoes.

While there are certainly potential downsides to barefoot racing as well, including the risk of injury from hard surfaces and other environmental factors, the benefits of natural hoof care and improved horse health are compelling reasons to consider this alternative approach to equestrianism.

Picture of horse racing on a muddy track.
Horse racing on a muddy track.

The Risk of Racing Shoeless

While racing horses without shoes, or barefoot horse racing, can have potential benefits, there are also several downsides and risks to consider. Here are some potential cons of barefoot racing:

  1. Potential for hoof damage: Horses’ hooves are designed to be tough and resilient, but racing without shoes can increase the risk of hoof damage on hard surfaces like pavement or rocky terrain. This can cause discomfort, lameness, or even long-term hoof problems if left untreated.
  2. Increased risk of slipping and falling: Without shoes, horses may be more prone to slipping and falling on slick or wet surfaces. This can be particularly dangerous at high speeds or in crowded racing environments, where a single fall can result in injury to both the horse and the rider.
  3. Limitations for horses with pre-existing hoof conditions: Some horses may have pre-existing hoof conditions that make barefoot racing a risky or uncomfortable option. For example, horses with weak or brittle hooves may be more prone to damage without shoes, while horses with deformities or conformational issues may struggle with proper balance and structure without the support of shoes.
  4. Track and racing organization regulations: Not all tracks or racing organizations allow barefoot racing, limiting opportunities for horses and their owners who wish to explore this alternative approach to hoof care.

Ultimately, the decision to race horses without shoes should be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the individual horse’s health, comfort, and performance needs, as well as the specific track regulations and environmental factors involved. Working with a qualified farrier and veterinarian can help ensure that a horse is properly prepared and cared for when racing without shoes.

Picture of racehorses at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans.
Horses racing at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans.

The Future of Racing: Exploring Alternative Hoof Care for Racehorses

There has been a growing body of scientific research exploring the benefits and risks of barefoot horse racing. Some studies have shown that barefoot horses may have improved circulation and hoof health, as well as better traction and balance on certain surfaces.

However, other research has raised concerns about the potential for hoof damage and increased injury risk without shoes. Overall, the science of barefoot racing is complex and ongoing and requires careful consideration of individual horse health and environmental factors.

Advocates for natural hoof care and barefoot racing argue that traditional shoeing practices can be harmful to horses’ hooves and that natural trimming and maintenance can promote healthier, stronger hooves in the long run.

Some farriers and veterinarians have even developed specialized techniques for natural hoof care, such as the “wild horse model” or “mustang roll.” The advocacy for natural hoof care and alternatives to traditional shoeing underscores the growing interest in barefoot racing and its potential benefits for horse health.

While barefoot horse racing is still a relative niche practice, it has been gaining popularity in certain equestrian disciplines, such as endurance riding and eventing. Some racing organizations have even begun to allow barefoot horses to compete in certain races, suggesting a growing acceptance of this alternative approach to hoof care.

However, the future of barefoot racing in the wider equestrian world remains uncertain as debates and discussions about the pros and cons of the practice continue. As with any new movement or innovation in the equestrian world, the future of barefoot racing will depend on ongoing research, education, and advocacy from horse owners, trainers, and professionals.

Picture of a horse racing without shoes.
Aluminum racing plates.

Shod Horses Risks: The Downside of Traditional Hoof Protection

Traditional shoeing practices have been used in equestrianism for centuries to protect horses’ hooves from wear and tear on hard surfaces. However, there are also potential risks and downsides associated with shod horses. Here are some examples of the risks of traditional hoof protection:

  1. Reduced circulation and hoof health: Shoes can restrict blood flow to the hooves, which can lead to poor hoof health and even lameness over time. This can be particularly problematic for horses that spend a lot of time on hard surfaces or are required to perform at high levels.
  2. Increased risk of injury: A shoe can become loose, damaged, or otherwise compromised, increasing the risk of injury to horses’ hooves. Additionally, improperly-fitted shoes can cause discomfort, bruising, and even long-term hoof problems if left untreated.
  3. Cost and maintenance: Traditional shoeing practices can be expensive, requiring regular shoeing appointments and replacements to maintain proper hoof health. This can be especially problematic for horses with fast-growing hooves or other hoof-related issues that require frequent attention.
  4. Limitations for performance: Shoes can alter how a horse moves and performs, potentially limiting their speed, agility, and overall athletic ability. This can be particularly problematic for horses in competitive racing environments, where even small performance differences can mean the difference between winning and losing.

While traditional hoof protection is still widely used in both flat track and harness racing, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks and downsides involved. Alternative approaches to hoof care, such as natural trimming and maintenance or barefoot horse racing, may offer potential benefits for horses’ overall health and performance.

Working with a qualified farrier and veterinarian can help ensure that a horse’s hoof care needs are properly addressed and managed.

Here is a YouTube video showing how horses’ feet develop when barefoot.

YouTube video

Conclusion

The debate over barefoot horse racing is complex and ongoing, with valid arguments on both sides. Advocates of barefoot racing argue that it can improve horse health, reduce injury rates, and promote better overall hoof care, while opponents suggest that the risks of going barefoot can outweigh the benefits.

Ultimately, the decision to race horses without shoes should be made on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the individual horse’s health, performance needs, and the specific racing environment involved.

I encourage you to explore and consider the benefits and risks of barefoot horse racing. By staying informed and engaged on this topic, horse owners, trainers, and equestrian enthusiasts can help contribute to ongoing research and development in the field of equine care.

If you’re interested in exploring barefoot horse racing further, consider working with a qualified farrier and veterinarian to learn more about natural hoof care and whether it may be a viable option for your horse.

Additionally, staying up-to-date on industry news and attending equine events and workshops can help you stay informed about the latest trends and developments in equestrianism. Whether you’re a passionate advocate for natural hoof care or a curious newcomer to the world of barefoot horse racing, there is much to be learned and explored on this fascinating topic.

FAQs

Why don’t wild horses need shoes?

Wild horses do not need shoes because their hooves are naturally adapted to the environment in which they live. Free-range movement allows hooves to adapt to different conditions over time, and less rigorous performance demands make horseshoes unnecessary.

Are horseshoes cruel or hurt horses?

Horseshoes are not cruel but rather beneficial when applied and maintained correctly. They provide support and protection for hooves. However, ill-fitting or poorly-maintained shoes can lead to discomfort, bruising, or long-term hoof problems.