Why Do Horses Need Horseshoes?

person showing horseshoe on horse
© ValenPh/Shutterstock.com

Written by Lisha Pace

Updated: October 14, 2022

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Pick up a metal horseshoe and hold it in your palm. The first thing you’ll notice is the horseshoe is heavy! It’s hard to believe these metal things are put onto the hooves of horses, but it’s true. Many types of horses clop around in horseshoes throughout the year. This brings a simple question to mind: Why do horses need horseshoes?

Horses need horseshoes to protect their hooves from rough and uneven surfaces. Here, you will find out about what horseshoes are made of and who puts them onto a horse’s hooves along with much more!

What Are Horseshoes?

Horseshoes can be attached using nails or special glue.

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Horseshoes are U-shaped pieces of metal that are attached to the bottom of a horse’s hooves. The U-shape mimics the appearance of a horse’s hoof. Normally, a horseshoe is attached to a horse’s hoof using nails. However, sometimes a special glue is used to temporarily adhere the shoe to a hoof.

Who Puts Horseshoes on a Horse?

A professional called a farrier is trained to put horseshoes on horses. A farrier is sometimes called a blacksmith. This individual is responsible for trimming a horse’s hooves, filing them, and cleaning them. In addition, a farrier fits a horseshoe to the dimensions of a horse’s hoof. When it’s time to take off the horse’s shoes, a farrier does that as well.

A farrier must be physically strong. This person has to grasp a horse’s hoof to prepare it for the shoe, then put the shoe on. Not all horses are excited about having their hoof held in place! Also, a farrier has to be able to recognize health issues related to a horse’s hooves. These professionals work in all types of weather and a variety of environments. Farriers usually travel to visit horses instead of the other way around.

Why Do Horses Need Horseshoes?

Well, the truth is not all horses need horseshoes. A horse can go unshod, or barefoot. But there are some valid reasons for horses to wear them.

The main purpose of horseshoes is to protect a horse’s hooves. Horse hooves are kind of like a person’s toenails. Hooves and toenails are both made of keratin. They grow and need to be trimmed and filed like human toenails.

When looking at why horses need horseshoes, it helps to look at the lives of wild horses as compared to domesticated ones. Wild horses wander around on different types of terrain. This helps wear down their hooves keeping them short and in healthy condition. Furthermore, a wild horse living in a dry climate is walking on hard surfaces most of the time. This makes their hooves stronger and thicker. A horse with thick hooves is not likely to be injured if it steps on a sharp stick or rock.

Alternatively, a horse living on a farm or a ranch doesn’t wander around as much as a wild horse does. The terrain is likely the same all over the property. So, a farrier has to trim and file the hooves of a domesticated horse to keep them from getting too long.

Think of where most domesticated horses live. They live on farms, ranches, and in barns in backyards. The ground they walk on is soft and maybe even muddy. The relatively soft ground a domesticated horse walks on doesn’t strengthen its hooves. The hooves of domesticated horses become less sturdy over time due to the type of soil they move around on. This can prompt some horse owners to put shoes on their horses.

Another factor regarding why a domesticated horse needs shoes has to do with weight. A domesticated horse carries more weight than a wild horse. For instance, some domesticated horses are ridden by people of all sizes. At one time, domesticated horses were used to pull wagons, plows, and carts. Some horses still pull carts and wagons today. All of this extra weight carried by a domesticated horse contributes to weakening its hooves. It may even cause their hooves to break and crack.

A horse that spends a lot of time in its stall is standing on moist ground. The straw or bedding used to cover the stall’s floor can become moist when the horse urinates. Urine contains ammonia which is a substance that can break down the softer parts of a horse’s hooves.

Can a Horse Benefit from Wearing Horseshoes?

A horse’s hoof must first be cleaned and filed before attaching new horseshoes.

©iStock.com/K Neville

Yes. We already know that horseshoes protect a horse’s hooves. But there are other specific benefits to consider.

Horseshoes can provide traction for a horse that routinely walks on slippery ground. When a horse falls it can become seriously injured. A horse that suffers a fall can break its leg. So, having horseshoes can protect from injury. There are specific horseshoe designs made for walking on slippery surfaces.

A horse with an awkward or unbalanced walk can benefit from having horseshoes. The horseshoes can be made in a certain thickness or a specialized shape to solve the specific walking issues of a horse.

In the racing world, horseshoes can add support to a horse’s feet or legs. Plus, horse racing on mud or wet ground can enjoy more stability while wearing horseshoes.

What Kinds of Horses Need Horseshoes?

Lots of different kinds of horses wear horseshoes. A horse’s activities factor into whether it wears shoes or goes barefoot.

A horse in a dressage competition is likely to wear horseshoes. Dressage is all about the controlled movements of the horse and how smoothly it transitions between these specialized steps. Horseshoes can help a dressage horse’s gait. Domesticated horses that participate in jumping competitions can benefit from wearing horseshoes. The shoes help a horse to move quickly and evenly while maintaining good traction as it moves through a series of jumps.

How Often Do Horseshoes Need to Be Replaced?

Generally, horseshoes need to be maintained or replaced by a farrier every eight weeks. But it’s best to ask your farrier how long to wait before getting your horse reshod. Some horses have certain conditions that affect the amount of time between visits from a farrier.

There are some common signs that indicate it’s time to replace a horse’s shoes. For instance, if a horse loses a shoe or you see that one or more of its shoes is loose, it’s time for the horse to be reshod.

Take some time to lift your horse’s hooves and examine each of your horse’s shoes. Are all of the nails still firmly in place or do some of the nails look like they are coming out? Either way, a farrier can correct the problem. In addition, worn down or uneven horseshoes need to be looked at by a farrier as soon as possible.

Are Horseshoes Painful for a Horse to Wear?

No. It seems like it would hurt a horse’s hoof to have nails put into it. But, you have to look at the specifics of the process. The nails go into the wall of a horse’s hoof. There are no nerves in this area. Of course, a farrier must be knowledgeable and experienced in putting shoes on a horse because there’s always the chance of injuring the horse’s hoof.

What Kind of Metal is Used to Make Horseshoes?

Horseshoes can be made of different materials, but metal is the most common.

©Anastasija Popova/Shutterstock.com

Traditional horseshoes are made of metal. Think about it: Horseshoes have to be made of durable material to support all of a horse’s weight.

Many horseshoes are made of steel. Polo ponies and horses in jumping competitions are likely to wear steel horseshoes so they have sturdy support on their feet. These horses have to move swiftly over large areas of ground.

Horses in the racing world usually wear aluminum horseshoes. Aluminum is a lightweight material that provides support without weighing down the feet and legs of a racehorse.

Some horseshoes are made of copper or magnesium. There are even some made of plastic!

What Types of Horses Should Go Barefoot?

When a horse doesn’t have horseshoes it’s sometimes described as going barefoot. We know that wild horses are always barefoot! But what other types of horses may go without shoes?

A domesticated horse living in an arid climate can go barefoot. If the horse can wander around in a lot of dry fields and meadows, it won’t need shoes to keep its hooves in good condition. A young horse, also called a foal, has very small hooves that are still growing. Foals and young horses can walk around barefoot until their hooves have grown to their full size.

Of course, an owner may choose to leave their horse barefoot indefinitely. It all depends on what activities an owner has planned for a horse or pony.

How Long Have People Shoed their Horses?

Horseshoes have been found from as early as 400 BC. Unlike modern horseshoes made of metal, materials used ranged from plants, rawhide, and leather strap gears referred to as “hipposandals” by the Romans. Horsemen in Ancient Asia made shoes for their horses out of woven plants.

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About the Author

After a career of working to provide opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I am enjoying having time to write about two of my favorite things - nature and animals. Half of my life is spent outdoors, usually with my husband and sweet little fourteen year old dog. We love to take walks by the lake and take photos of the animals we meet including: otters, ospreys, Canadian geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl, and listening to my son's music.

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