When discussing the “barefoot or shod” aspect of horse care, our fellow horseowners emphatically tell us their choice is better. Wherever you stand on the issue, you’re likely to acknowledge that a large number of us fall into the gray area between the two viewpoints.
It’s important to know the benefits and risks of both approaches, to ensure your horse is receiving the best possible hoof care. Discuss the seasonal (and potentially permanent) barefoot option with your farrier. 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.
Ohio farrier Bryan S. Farcus, MA, CJF, answers specific questions regarding the barefoot vs. shod issue:
Can all horses go barefoot?
A vast majority of horses can be barefoot if they are not expected to perform. Many “out to pasture” horses do just fine without shoes as long as they are visited by a farrier for routine trims. For “working” horses, shoes can be very beneficial and even a necessity in some situations. Supporting the entire limb and providing traction for “sure-footedness” are two benefits of having your horse shod.
What are the benefits of going barefoot?
The biggest benefit is the chance for the horse’s hoof wall to regenerate and grow out beyond the old series of nail holes. Over time bacteria or fungal problems can arise if the hoof wall loses it integrity. I have seen poorly fitted shoes or shoes left on too long cause hoof weakness in general. A little time out from shoes and observing how the hooves react while being barefoot can provide a farrier a great deal of information on how the horse “uses himself,” including clues as to what his optimum balance is, hoof breakover patterns, landing and loading tendencies.
What should we be aware of when pulling shoes?
The biggest concern is sole tenderness or what many refer to as “shoe dependency.” It is always a good idea to transition your horse out of shoes in a reasonable manner. Try to keep your horse in a moderate climate for the first couple of weeks and pay attention to his reaction when he travels from softer to harder surfaces. Some commercial hoof/sole solutions are available to help toughen feet as is a wide variety of hoof boots that are easy to fit and can help him make this transition.
How do we decide if our horse should stay barefoot or go back to shoes?
The answer lies in your powers of observation. It is not fair to any horse to simply declare that he will now be barefoot, if he’s spent most of his days in shoes. In most cases, the decision of “if or when to re-shoe” will depend on what kind and how much work he’ll be expected to do. It’s also important to mention that if he showed any symptoms of illness or lameness while barefoot, consider giving him a good “going over” from head to toe before rushing back to shoes and a heavy work routine.
Whether your horse is wearing shoes or going barefoot, Farcus emphasizes, “Farrier visits for horses are similar to dental visits for humans, in that it’s always easier and less expensive to do preventive work, rather than damage control.”
In the end, the overall health and safety of your horse are crucial when deciding whether to shoe your horse or keep him barefoot. You and your horse care team know best.
Ellen Haight, Editor of Holistic Horse magazine and eNewsletter, enjoys recreational rides with her (currently barefoot, occasionally hoof boot-clad) 26-year-old large pony in the Rocky Mountains of south-central Colorado.