Basics of Horseshoeing


   As with other technological advancements, horseshoeing, as we largely practice it today, came from the requirements of war. The ancient northern Europeans known as the Vikings had no navigation technology, which forced them to stay in view of the shore while navigating the oceans. Having plundered the coastal villages of northern Europe with their longships for centuries, they set off overland in search for new conquests across the interior of Europe on their stout northern horses.

   They found that the distance they could travel was limited because the horses got sore footed. The Viking smiths found that they could make shoes from strips of iron, a very precious metal at the time, fashion nails and nail the shoes on. The technique worked so well that the Vikings were able to move their armies across Europe conquering all in their path. Eventually they were able to make their way to what is known today as Italy and help to collapse the Roman Empire.

   After the Vikings withdrew the rest of Europe fell into feudalism and began the period of time known as the "Dark Ages". From the beginnings of the "modern horseshoeing" technique, little has changed except perhaps a greater understanding of the horse and the process. The Vikings utilized the most basic reason for the application of shoes, protection of the hoof from excessive wear. This is the most basic performance-enhancing feature of the horseshoe.

In addition to protection, there are four other categories of shoeing:

   1. Traction for enhanced performance  

  2. Corrective for conformational faults  

  3. Compensatory shoeing for gait faults  

  4. Therapeutic for the treatment of disease or injury


  Shoes can have added caulks, cleats or grabs that penetrate the ground or turf to improve the grip.  

 The creasing or grooving of the bar stock of the shoe itself can increase traction.  

 "Borium" or tungsten carbide can be applied to the ground surface of a shoe.  Borium is harder than rocks or pavement and can dig in to prevent slipping.  

  Shoes that have a ground surface that is softer can help to afford a good purchase on hard surfaces. Many compounds such as rubber, polyurethanes and plastics are used for this purpose.


  The correction aspect of horse shoeing is when the application of the shoe affects a permanent change in the horse's conformation. This is only possible when the horse is still growing. Differential loading of the physeal growth plates causes a permanent change in the conformation of the leg. Mature horses with fused physes are not able to have angular or rotational deviations changed with shoes.


  All other corrective shoeing measures applied after the animal is mature are what I call compensatory. Poor conformation or  injuries are the primary causes for interference of the limbs when the horse is doing its job. Shoes are constructed with different features designed to correct the foot flight to help the limbs not collide in motion. Configuring the shoe to provide more support or to modify the breakover can help manage deficient conformation problems.


  Injury and disease can cut short a performance horse's career. The use of a shoe may help to counter those effects and prolong the use of the horse. Increasing the coverage of the foot and decreasing concussion helps slow cartilage and bone degeneration. The support feature of a bar shoe helps prevent tendon and ligament strains. Increasing the web of the shoe or the addition of pads can help with sore feet by increasing the coverage of the sole. Concussion can be reduced by the use of pads or special shoes with treads.


 Shoes sometimes are necessary for the optimum performance of our equine athlete. Some shoes can, in the quest for the blue ribbon or to be first over the finish line, create a dangerous condition for the horse. For example, increased strain on bones and joints caused by increased traction is going to show up as injuries over the long term.  Overtime, horses shod with to small of a shoe can show the effects of the lack of support and protection. However, shoes have undoubtedly helped countless horses to cope with the job they are required to do with comfort and safety when chosen and applied correctly.

  Many practices in the husbandry of the horses’ hoof are carried out without exploring the validity of what is being done or if there are new alternatives to old techniques. A variety of traditional practices and beliefs are in fact harmful to the horse and yet are promoted as being beneficial. Practices such as greasing the hoof, treating injuries with toxic chemicals, trimming and shoeing techniques can lead to additional costs of ownership because of lameness or loss use of the horse.

   Hoof preparations that are grease or oil based have been shown to increase the incidence of bacterial and fungal infections in the hoof. The notion that a soft flexible hoof is healthier is prevalent in the industry. In fact the hoof capsule should be hard and tough when the environment is dry and abrasive. Hooves adapt to the environment they are in and efforts to stop that adaptation result in problems. The truly ironic thing about this is that great effort and expense is expended to soften feet when this may actual potentially do more harm or cause problems for  the horse trying to work in dry tough conditions.

  Many old style hoof preparations may contain some poisons that have been routinely used to treat wounds of the hoof through the years. Somehow the tough outer hoof capsule leads people to think that it can be treated with the same chemicals as a piece of wood.  The hoof horn is a dynamic tissue that is ever changing and growing.

  It has been common practice for hoof solutions containing such things as formaldehyde, concentrated solutions of Iodine, turpentine or used motor oil to be routinely used on the hoof. There are many reasons not to use these compounds because they are toxic, and even less reasons when there are far better treatments available today. 

  Trimming the hoof to fit the shoe has always been viewed as improper shoeing technique. However there are many farriers and owners who routinely advocate "backing the toe up" for horses that they perceive to have a long toe. Automatically shaping the hoof to this pattern is the same as shaping it to a shoe. The result is a weakened hoof and other related shoeing problems. It is not a one size fits all  type of practice.

  Race track shoeing creates problems by cultivating a hoof shape in the opposite direction. It has been a long believed notion that a longer toe helps to win races by increasing the length of stride and increasing traction. Studies have shown that the long toe does nothing for speed but does greatly increase the chance of injury. The construction of some of the shoes may also creates a poor hoof capsule because of fine nail placement and lack of shoe support. This may cause the farrier to adopt shoeing practices that may harmful to the health of the hoof over time.

   Traditional trimming theory is based on the assessment of the hoof and pastern alignment as the criteria for anterior/posterior balance. This may require that the heels of the hoof be sometimes left very long in order to accommodate this alignment.  Excessive heel length has been shown to possibly create soft tissue injuries down the road A newer criterion for proper anterior/posterior balance of the hoof is to use the solar plane of the coffin bone. This requires different criteria for trimming the hoof and sometimes radiographs to be able to accurately find this anatomical reference.

    There are other times when tradition is still the most practical way of doing things. To break with tradition requires reasoning not rationalization. Question authority and require that the accepted ideas and techniques withstand scrutiny and challenges from new information as it becomes available.

The Trouble with Tradition