Natural Horsekeeping: To Shoe or Not to Shoe?

That is always the question. Jody Webb, the “Natural Horsekeeper,” takes a common-sense look at the great shoeing debate.

bare foot trimmer Dea Anna Johns (my farrier) used with permission

Barefoot trimmer Dea Anna Johns, used with permission. Photo provided by Jody Webb.

The horseshoes-or-barefoot debate is one of those discussions that always seems to get horse people’s emotions running high. In reality, however, the decision should be based on good, solid common sense. Here are the facts that should help you shape your shoeing decision!

A bit of history

Horseshoes have been around for a very long time. I first heard that horseshoes were invented by Genghis Khan (circa 1262) but archaeologists have found a horseshoe-like object invented by the Romans (called a “hipposandal”) as early as around 100 A.D. Because iron was the original “recycled” product, remelted and reused, it is hard to pinpoint when the first horseshoe came into use. Although some credit the Druids, there is no hard evidence to support this claim. In 1897 four bronze horseshoes with what are apparently nail holes were found in an Etruscan tomb dated around 400 B.C.

Since that time, man has worked to improve not only the horse shoe, but a variety of hoof boots in an attempt to not only make a horse more comfortable, but to perform better.

“The History of Horseshoes” by Rachel Cohen ( November 19, 2011) has this to say about horse shoes:

Many changes brought about by domestication of horses have led to a need for shoes for number of reasons, mostly linked to management that results in horses’ hooves hardening less and being more vulnerable to injury. In the wild, a horse may travel up to 50 miles per day to obtain adequate forage. While horses in the wild covered large areas of terrain, they usually did so at relatively slow speeds, unless being chased by a predator. They also tended to live in hot and dry steppe climates. The consequence of slow but nonstop travel in an arid climate is that horses’ feet are naturally worn to a small, smooth, even and hard state. The continual stimulation of the sole of the foot keeps it thick and hard. However, in domestication the ways horses are used differ from what they would encounter in their natural environment. Domesticated horses were brought to colder and wetter areas than their ancestral habitat. These softer and heavier soils soften the hooves and have made them prone to splitting, making hoof protection necessary. Consequently, it was in northern Europe that the nailed horseshoe arose in its modern form.

There is no doubt that the domestication of horses has changed their lifestyles greatly from what nature intended. Most horses are no longer herd animals, live in stalls, have very little or no grazing time and are more pampered pets than anything else. Unfortunately for our four-hooved friends, trends swung too far to the “kept” horse and took them away from keeping horses in as natural a state as possible. Early on in my horse-keeping years, horses ate entirely too much chemical-based feed, everyone had to wear shoes and training became more about the equipment then how to address a horse mentally. With the advent of more natural (as opposed to forced) training methods, and with people becoming more aware of whole rather than processed feeds, the keeping of horses is shifting to a more natural state than has been in the recent past.

The pendulum is still swinging pretty wildly however: some schools of thought believe that horses need to be kept outside, in herds, with no blankets, on grazing or hay only… “au naturale!” This is a great concept, but not practical in many ways. Each horse and owner need to be treated as an individual and their needs need to be met where they are at on a given day, not stuck in any certain box that follows the latest fad of horse care.

Shoeing or barefoot trimming are two such concerns. Obviously, man felt there was a need to invent the horseshoe in the first place. As horses were the main form of transportation up to a century or so ago, and they were ridden hard and long hours, it was necessary to find a way to preserve their feet. The saying “no foot, no horse” can be traced back into the 1800s but probably started far before that, considering the importance of horses and hoof care in civilization. So for the last couple of thousand years, the horseshoe has pretty much stayed the same, though it has expanded to cover issues with our modern knowledge of horse anatomy.

To shoe or not to shoe?

With the current knowledge of horse anatomy, science has been able to break down exactly what is going on inside that mysterious little hard-shelled foot. It’s not just about how many miles your horse can go anymore, but how shoeing and care can address issues within the hoof. But also with such knowledge has come the understanding of how horses can live bare footed lives and be anywhere from pasture ponies to top level competitors. It’s all in the health of the hoof.

Some horse have definitely benefited from all of this information. Laminitic horses are often more comfortable with shoes; on the opposing side, many horses that have been chronically lame while shod have been “cured” with the knowledge that comes with good diets and a smart barefoot trimmer.

As with other somewhat controversial topics about horse care (blanket or no blanket, clipping or whiskery, etc) in the end it’s not about “are shoes better than barefoot” (and let’s not forget boots!) but it’s about what is best for the individual horse. The topic is not often as simple as “shoe or no shoe” but should also include the horse’s diet, the conditions the horse is kept in and the abilities of the owner.

I have personally taken horses that I was told “would never go without shoes” and completely changed their diets and the way their care was managed, and spent a couple of years turning them into a horse that could comfortably walk across gravel barefoot, simply because their lifestyle didn’t really warrant shoes. It just had become either what the past owner had the knowledge to change or was too difficult for them to fix. I am personally a “no shoe” person with a caveat… you use shoes when they are the best answer for the horse’s health and welfare.

Horse-people hangups

As horse people tend to be very opinionated, it’s a given that some of the decisions we make may have be more emotional than logical. This unfortunately does not always serve our horse friends well. Decisions for our horses should not be made emotionally, egotistically or ignorantly. Every horse owner out there has a brain and we should always be open to learning new things and to making changes that best serve our horses. Shoeing or not shoeing is one of those topics. The decision has a much broader scope than whether you are slapping metal on their feet, or suddenly going without that added protection. And as most farriers and bare foot trimmers are also horse people, they can be very opinionated about how their particular specialties should work. In the end, no matter how long you have known your “horse professional,” you should be willing to move on if they aren’t able to meet the needs of your horse. It may take some thinking outside the box and further education, but in the end you will have a healthier, happier horse.

An end note

Remember that transitioning from one type of foot care to another may take time. It is easier for a barefoot horse to go to shoes than for a shod horse to go barefoot. Ask a lot of questions and don’t expect miracles: it takes time to fix foot issues. Just because a hoof care professional has been taking care of feet for a long time does not mean they are the best educated. There is so much more information out there in the last ten years alone that farriers and barefoot trimmers need to keep up on their education and be constantly learning. As a horse owner, you should be learning too, so you can make those educated decisions about your hooved friend.

Remember… no hoof, no horse!

Jody Webb is the “Solepreneur” of AverageJo Equine, with a line of all natural supplements for horses and dogs. Her Wild Horse and Wild Dog line of products is the focus of years of research with the goal of taking your pets away from chemical laden feeds and supplements and taking them back to as close to nature as is possible in a tamed environment. With her three horses, two dogs, two cats, various rescue horses and their individual issues, there are plenty of willing volunteers with which to perfect each product. This desire came upon finding her then new horse Gideon was suffering from a metabolic disorder called EPSM. Though this disorder can never be cured and there will always be lifelong health issues for Gideon, he has gone from a cranky, underweight and severely in pain train wreck to a sassy and healthy looking beast! Jody is now taking her knowledge learned from owning such a difficult animal to moving on and helping other horse and dog owners have healthier, happier pets. Her writing comes out of the joys and pains of owning such a challenging animal. Learn more about all-natural horse products at Jody Webb’s blog,

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