Home » Does A Horse Always Need Shoes: Hoof Care Knowledge

Does A Horse Always Need Shoes: Hoof Care Knowledge

Hoof care is critical when it comes to maintaining the overall health of your horse.  One of the most frequently asked questions I hear from other equestrians is whether their horse actually needs shoes.  This depends and is not always a cut and dry answer. 

Not all horses require shoes all the time.  Breed, activity level, hoof hardness, riding disciplines and location all help determine if a horse requires shoes.  Horses with low activity levels or hard hooves may not need shoes.  Horses that are ridden often, are prone to chipping or participate in high speed disciplines will benefit from the added support and traction.

Let’s dive into the specifics of horse shoes and determine if they are a good option for your horse.

Purpose of shoeing a horse

The basic purpose of shoeing a horse with a standard horse shoe is to protect the sole and hoof wall from chipping and bruising while providing extra traction.  

Certain styles and shoe materials are designated for specific purposes.  For example, some shoes have a rubber sole that covers the bottom, partially or completely, to provide the frog extra protection.  Some shoes are designed with studs or spikes to give extra traction for steeplechase riders.  These types of shoes are placed on the horse just before the race and are taken off immediately after.  

Some types of horse shoes are used to correct the angle of problem hooves.  If a hoof has been trimmed extremely short or the angle of the hoof is too shallow, 3 degree aluminum shoes can be used to keep the horse from standing on his heels and encourage regrowth at the proper angle.  

Horse shoes are placed only on the front feet in some cases as well.  Mules used in pack strings often have shod front hooves.  They have extremely hard hooves and great balance already so the front shoes are only added to provide extra traction on mountain trails.

What happens if you don’t put shoes on a horse

Horses naturally do not wear shoes.  They have evolved with the ability to maintain their own hooves given the correct environment.  Wild or free range horses are constantly moving and rocky terrain naturally prevents their hooves from growing too long.  Domestic horses are usually kept in pastures and smaller areas that don’t allow for proper wear on their hooves.  

If you don’t put shoes on your horse and he has unhealthy hooves that chip or bruise easily, you may find your horse going lame more often.  This can happen even if you are not riding him.  Simply stepping on a rock in the pasture can cause hoof damage in some horses.  Weight from a rider will exacerbate the pressure on their feet which also leads to lameness if they step on a sharp or hard object.  

Many unshod horses have strong, healthy hooves and will never go lame or have other hoof issues.  You can work with and ride your horse just as you would if he had shoes on.  Certain horses are just as sure footed if not more so than when they have shoes on.  This is something you will have to determine from experience.  

Try working and riding your horse both shod and unshod to see if you can get away without shoeing.  However, please note that you should really be making the decision to shoe or not with a professional farrier who can evaluate your horse’s feet to be on the safe side.  It is far better to provide more protection than to damage their feet.  Horses with unhealthy and painful feet suffer greatly and take a long time to heal. 

How often do horses need shoes

Horses require new shoes on average every 6 to 8 weeks.  The metal shoes might not necessarily be worn out yet but the hoof has grown since it was placed.  Shoes prevent the bottom of the hooves from naturally filing down as a horse walks.  Sometimes a farrier will determine that a shoe can be reused but most of the time they will simply fit a new one.  

Horses without shoes will still need regular hoof trimmings and 6 to 8 weeks is still a good checking point. Since bare feet trim down naturally, some horses won’t require trimming as often.  Time of year, weather, ground terrain, and activity levels can also change how often your horse needs their feet trimmed.

If left unattended, horse hooves can grow extremely long, curl, or even splay outward and become extremely painful and prevent the horse from being able to walk. 

How expensive is a farrier

Farrier fees are quite reasonable in my opinion.  You can expect to pay around $45-80 for trimming bare feet and up to $130 for trimming and setting four new shoes.

It’s back-breaking work and there is always the chance the farrier will be injured by the horse.  They charge per session and extra if special shoes are required.  Most farriers make house calls but some also have a space where you can bring your horse to them.   

Do horse shoes hurt the horse

Horse hooves are like dog and cat nails, you can trim away the bottom portion without them feeling any pain.  If a hoof is trimmed too short it can be painful and even bleed.  They will have to grow out and heal before the sensitivity goes away.

Horse shoes do not hurt if attached properly.  A farrier knows the proper angle and position to place each nail.  The nails are pounded through the outer hoof wall where there is no feeling.  

Crimping the nails down into the hoof wall to hold the shoe in place also does not hurt.  

However, if angled incorrectly, the nail could be driven into the live part of the hoof and cause pain.

Can you trim and shoe a horse yourself

Trimming and shoeing a horse yourself is a viable option if you have the proper training.  Taking a certified class or farrier program is highly recommended and a responsible thing to do before tackling the steps yourself.

Of course, anyone can buy the farrier tools necessary to do the job.  You can even watch videos on YouTube showing you step by step how it’s done. 

However, if you cut too deep, at the wrong angle, attach nails incorrectly, etc. you can cause serious damage to your horse’s feet that will take months or longer to correct and heal.  You could potentially cause permanent lameness as well if you damage the hoof bad enough.  

For me, this risk combined with injury potential to myself during the process, is never worth it.  Sure, if the frog area is getting rough and a small piece is hanging off you can trim that.  But other than that, I always leave trimming and shoeing my horses to a professional farrier.

Final thoughts

Not all horses require shoes all the time.  Shoeing a horse is something you can experiment with.  Try using shoes for a period of time and then go without.  Watch for discomfort and inspect your horses hooves often.  You may find that your horses hooves remain healthy even without shoes.  Either way, consult with a trained farrier.  They often have better insight into what is best for your horse.