When it comes to discussing the “shoes vs. barefoot” aspect of horse care, avid proponents of each approach eagerly tell you that their way is the best way. No matter where you stand on the issue, you can’t help but acknowledge that a large number of horseowners fall into the gray area between the two viewpoints. We shoe our horses when circumstances call for it and let them go barefoot the rest of the time.
If you’re considering removing your horse’s shoes for the upcoming winter months, timing is key. To ensure your horse enjoys a relatively seamless transition from shoes to barefoot, know the benefits and risks, and don’t wait until the ground is frozen to have his shoes removed.
WHY PULL SHOES?
The biggest reason horseowners pull their horses’ shoes for any length of time is the simple fact that they won’t be riding as often as they would during warmer months. Other sound reasons include:
- safety concerns pertaining to snowy or icy footing
- desire to let the hoof “breathe”
- financial savings
Pennsylvania farrier Dave Duckett FWCF suggests, “On average, when removing shoes, good strong feet will be resilient enough to sustain the occasional hour of work or a little enjoyment on the weekends riding. Even with good strong feet this does not guarantee that your horse can go barefoot and perform with comfort. There are no clear cut guidelines any professional can give – it’s an open and subjective debate.”
Duckett explains that the hoof structure of certain breeds is also an important element of concern when considering removing shoes and going barefoot. “The Thoroughbred, for example, suggests a light and fragile foot structure which is inevitably vulnerable to the uneven terrain that may be encountered on an average trail ride.”
Don’t let the latest trends sway you, Duckett warns. “No matter what is promoted through the media or what is in vogue, the welfare and comfort of the horse should be paramount. If your horse or pony is in any form of distress through foot-related issues associated with going barefoot, the feet need to be protected, followed by a thorough evaluation by an appropriate professional.”
BENEFITS OF BAREFOOT
Discuss the seasonal (and potentially permanent) barefoot option with your farrier. A big wintertime advantage is reduced “snowballing” -- clumping/packing of snow in the hoof. If the decision is made to pull your horse’s shoes for the winter, take the opportunity to more closely observe the unobstructed growth of each hoof.
Duckett points out: “At the initial stage of removing the shoes, the feet will chip and break up, which may seem unsightly to some; at the next trimming interval they can be rounded off back to an acceptable and comfortable level.”
Come Spring, when the discussion resumes on ‘to shoe or not to shoe,’ most farriers welcome the sight of hooves that have been allowed to grow and wear naturally. They can then tailor their trimming/shoeing approach to optimally accommodate each horse’s unique hoof characteristics and adjust to the animal’s individual needs.
“For the first set of shoes in the Spring,” Duckett explains, “the outer-edge of the hoof may be rounded off or broken back. In these cases, the shoe is placed in a safe position that may leave the outer edge of the shoe exposed. This is reconciled at the next shoeing interval when the foot is trimmed and the shoe correctly fitted. At this stage the shoe will conform and follow the foot’s natural profile and the outer edge of the shoe will not be exposed.”
WHEN NOT TO UN-SHOE
If your riding routine remains as active during the winter months as it was the rest of the year, and your horse has never or rarely gone barefoot, pulling shoes may not be advisable. A viable option is the use of hoof boots, which offer protection during workouts, while allowing the benefits of barefoot during turnout.
“If your horse has any discomfort at all,” Duckett says, “his feet should be protected. Not all horses can go barefoot, by nature of breed and structure of the foot.”
Horses wearing shoes for therapeutic reasons (navicular, cracked hooves) should not have their treatment protocol interrupted unless agreed upon by their practitioners.
Overall health and safety of your horse are crucial when deciding whether to pull shoes. You and your horse care team know best.
Ellen Haight, Editor of Holistic Horse magazine and eNewsletter, enjoys recreational rides with her (currently shod on the front hooves) 23-year-old large pony in the Rocky Mountains of south-central Colorado.