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Horseshoes: Why Horses Need Them Plus Facts, Uses, and Types

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When my grandson and I were at the racetrack, he noticed the racehorses’ horseshoes appeared different than the ones on his horse. This prompted him to ask why racehorses’ shoes are different and why they wear them in the first place.

The most common reason a horse wears shoes is to protect and preserve its hooves. There are many types of horseshoes, and each has a specialized purpose; for example, racing plates are light for running, rim shoes provide better traction, and egg-bar shoes protect an injured foot.

The practice of shoeing horses began a long time ago and has since developed into a specialized skill used for many purposes. It is not as simple as tacking metal to the bottom of a horse’s foot.

Picture of a racehorse shoes.

Why do horses need shoes?

Horseshoes have been used for centuries to protect horses’ hooves from wear and tear. Today, horseshoes are typically made of metal and are attached to the horse’s hooves with nails.

While horseshoes may seem like a simple concept, they actually serve several vital purposes. First, horseshoes help distribute the horse’s weight more evenly across the hoof, preventing issues such as cracking or chipping.

In addition, horseshoes provide traction on slippery surfaces and help to protect the horse’s hooves from excessive wear. As a result, horseshoes are an essential part of equine care.

In this article, I examine horseshoes’ common uses, explain why they’re needed, and provide information about their designs.

Horseshoes are used to protect horses’ feet.

Horses’ hooves are made of a tough protein called keratin – the same stuff our nails and hair are made of.  They can become damaged from exposure to moisture, pressure, and overuse.

Damage to a horse’s hooves can lead to lameness, problems walking, balance issues, and decreased speed. Soon after horses were first domesticated, humans sought ways to protect their horses’ feet.

They understood that a horse without good feet renders it useless. In Asia, riders covered their horses’ hooves with hides sewn around the entire hoof. During the sixth and seventh centuries, metal shoes began to replace hides.

Picture of our two year old running

Horseshoes are used to increase traction.

Today it is common for horses to wear shoes. Shoes are needed on horses used to pull loads, compete in equine activities, and carry loads. This would include almost all riding horses and horses used to pull wagons.

Also, many people keep their horses in stables, and they will also need shoes. Standing for extended periods on moist bedding weakens a horse’s hoof and creates other foot problems; horseshoes may be beneficial in these situations.

Sometimes horseshoes are worn to enhance the horse’s ability to perform a task. When working or walking on slick surfaces, a shoe provides an improved front or “toe” to the horse’s foot, creating better traction.

Horseshoes can correct a horse’s feet.

Horseshoes are also used to correct the way a horse walks. For humans, we have corrective shoes, and so do horses. These corrective shoes can help relieve painful conditions in the horse’s feet and legs.

Racehorses have specialized shoes to help with any weakness in their legs or feet. However, horses kept in dry terrain and not pushed hard are probably ok without shoes.

Racehorses use a variety of horseshoes.

A racehorse may require a variety of shoes based on the surface of the track and the wants of the horse’s trainer. However, one thing is sure they want a light shoe that will allow the horse to run its best.

Aluminum shoes are the most common type worn by racehorses.

Most racehorses run in aluminum shoes designed for traction and made with smaller, finer nail holes. Racehorses and, more specifically, thoroughbred horses generally have hooves with a thin wall, making them more prone to hoof damage than other horses. To learn about the problems associated with Thoroughbred feet, click here.

Couple in the fact that racehorses spend a lot of their day in a stall, and you have a recipe for disaster. But with a good maintenance plan a proper shoeing technics, they can be kept sound.

Picture of a race horse with rear leg wraps.

Some racehorses wear corrective shoes.

It is not unusual for a racehorse to need a specialized shoe because of the problems they may develop in their leg or hoof. These specialized shoes will be made on-site by a farrier.

The two most common types of corrective shoes used in horseracing are Z-bar and V-bar. A Z-bar is used when a horse hoof has a quarter crack; it helps distribute the weight to heal correctly. A V-bar sits over the frog to help that structure pump blood, and the increased circulation promotes healing.

Most horseracing shoes have a toe grab.

A typical racing shoe is designed with a toe grab. A toe grab isn’t a shoe type but an accessory attached to an aluminum plate. Like a cleat, the thin steel bar digs into the ground to provide additional traction, especially at high speeds.

The height of a toe grab depends on the track surface and the amount of traction needed. Too high of a toe grab can lead to lameness by putting too much stress on the flexor tendons. 

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Common Types of Horseshoes

Horseshoes are made from various materials and come in many shapes and sizes. The most common materials are steel and aluminum, but specialized shoes may include rubber, plastic, magnesium, titanium, or copper.

Fullered front horseshoes

Fullered front horseshoes are the most popular shoes for colts, trail horses, and recreational horses. The center crease, made by a process called “fullering,” fills with dirt, providing more traction and grip.

Rim horseshoe

Rim shoes contain a groove that runs the entire shoe length and provides additional traction for horses traveling and stopping at high speeds.

On an “outer rim shoe,” the outside rim is higher than the edge on the inside of the shoe; on an “inner rim shoe,” the lip on the inside is more elevated. Rim shoes are often used on barrel horses and polo ponies.

Sliders

Sliders are also called sliding plates and are used on reining horses to help them achieve the exaggerated slides for which the discipline is known. A slider is built more extensively than a standard shoe, spanning 1 to 1¼ inches in width.

Straight bar horseshoe

A straight bar shoe is aluminum or steel and features a bar between the heels, preventing expansion and protecting the heel area from a concussion. It can also protect the frog and the bulbs behind the heel.

Egg bar horseshoe

The egg bar shoe is similar to a straight bar, but it extends further back, up to an inch behind the heel of the hoof. The egg bar shoe prevents impact to the rear portion of the foot and is used for horses with navicular syndrome or sheared heels.

Many other different types of shoes can be used for specific therapeutic or performance reasons.

horseshoes,

Does it hurt to put horseshoes on a horse’s feet?

Recently I watched the farrier trim, rasp, and nail horseshoes to our horse’s hooves. The horses stood stoically and never flinched; this made me wonder how they felt when shoes were placed on their feet.

When done correctly, putting on a pair of shoes doesn’t hurt the horse. In fact, the outer wall of a hoof doesn’t have nerves; it’s made out of keratin, just like our fingernails and toenails. However, a farrier could quick a horse.

Quicking is when the farrier accidentally hits the soft inner part of a horse’s foot with a horseshoe nail; this can hurt them but usually doesn’t cause any long-term damage to their feet. Another way a horse can get hurt when shoeing involves hot shoeing.

Hot shoeing entails heating and fitting the metal to the horse’s foot. However, before nailing the shoe in place, the farrier cools the shoe in the water. The shoe may still be warm, but it typically doesn’t hurt the horse.

Horseshoes must be carefully fitted to the horse’s hooves and must be frequently checked and replaced as needed. While horseshoes do not normally hurt the horse, poorly fitted horseshoes can cause pain and discomfort.

In addition, horseshoes can become loose and fall off, which can also be painful for the horse. If a horseshoe is lost, it is essential to have a new one fitted as soon as possible to avoid potential injury.

There are alternatives to horseshoes.

While horseshoes have been a staple of horse care for centuries, alternative options offer a range of benefits.

Some horses do well barefoot.

You can remove the shoes and allow a horse to go barefoot. If you elect to remove the shoes from a horse, it is normal for him to have tender feet. So it is advisable to allow the horse to transition.

Some people will remove the back two shoes first and turn out their horse for a couple of hours each day before removing the front two shoes. Over time his foot should get durable.

It is no different than it is with humans. If we always wore shoes outdoors and then had to walk outside barefooted, our feet would be tender and uncomfortable. It’s no different for a horse.

If you’re interested in learning more about riding your horse barefoot, you may want to read this article I wrote: Can You Ride a Barefoot Horse on the Road? 10 Tips

Hoof boots are a viable option for horseshoes for some horses.

While horseshoes are the most common way to protect horses’ hooves, a few alternatives may be suitable for specific situations. One option is “hoof boots,” similar to horseshoes but has a velcro strap to keep them in place.

Hoof boots can be used for riding or turnout and offer protection against bruising and abrasion. The more advanced hoof boots are similar to our shoes. They slip over the hoof and typically bind with velcro.

The bottom is made of rubber or plastic with various designs depending on the purpose and surface the horse will be traveling over.

Glue-on horseshoes are often used during rehab.

Lastly, some equestrians have elected to go with glue-on shoes as an alternative to nailing shoes to their horse’s feet. Glue-on shoes give a horse’s feet a break from regular nailed shoes.

They are typically used when horses are rehabbing a foot injury. There are different styles of glue-on shoes. Some mount with clips on the side of the hoof wall, but the more traditional ones are glued on at the edge of the foot.

As with most anything else, maintenance is the key; regularly trim and clean your horse’s hooves and call in an expert if you have any concerns. There are many styles and types of glue-on horseshoes. Below is a video explaining their usefulness and how to put them on your horse.

Why don’t wild horses need shoes?

We see herds of mustangs in federal parks that live their entire lives without shoes when traveling out west. Watching them run over the rough terrain makes me wonder why don’t they need shoes, so I researched the answer.

Wild horses don’t need horseshoes because they genetically have tough hooves through natural breeding; they also harden their feet naturally when traveling. They aren’t used for a specific purpose that requires a specialized shoe.

Evolution

Wild horses have tough, durable feet that are perfect for roaming free in the wild. Through natural selection, those with sound feet survived while others died out.

Regarding domestic horse breeds, humans selectively bred certain types of horses to be faster or more active than others, but they neglected foot health, leading to weak hoofs in many horse breeds.

Travel

The lack of focus on foot health has led to the necessity of domesticated horses needing shoes. Another reason wild horses don’t need shoes is they develop healthy hooves by traveling long distances on hard surfaces.

Work

But one primary reason is that wild horses aren’t worked like domesticated horses; they are not kept in stalls or used to pull loads, carry riders, or walk on unnatural surfaces like concrete.

Conclusion

Horseshoes are a part of the equine world that has been around for centuries. Whether you believe it or not, some horses need horseshoes to be comfortable, protect their feet, and stay healthy.

They can also provide other benefits like protecting against hoof injuries, preventing excessive wear on their feet, and ensuring they don’t slip during rainy conditions. Discarded horseshoes have a purpose; they are used as hangers, welded together for decoration, and even used to play the horseshoe game.

The following is an informative YouTube video about glue on horseshoes.

FAQs

Can a horse race without shoes?

Yes, a horse could race without shoes; however, in all my years around racehorses, I’ve never heard of one competing without shoes.

Do horseshoes hurt horses?

Most horses don’t experience any discomfort when wearing shoes. However, some horses can be uncomfortable in shoes; this typically happens when the shoes are put on incorrectly.