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Barefoot Versus Shod - Which Is Best?
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Barefoot Versus Shod - Which Is Best?

Some years ago along with the avalanche of natural horsemanship gurus and horse whisperers a new fad arrived in the horsey world: barefoot trimming. Suddenly, every horse on the yard from dressage stallion to kiddie's Shetland pony was stepping out minus shoes. Barefoot practitioners popped up from out of nowhere extolling the virtues of the new trend. Farriers were unimpressed as they watched their client bases shrink as more and more owners jumped on the barefoot bandwagon.

"It won't last." one old-school farrier told me confidently. "You just wait till their horses all go lame and they can't ride 'em. They'll soon change their minds about this bloody New Age rubbish."

Over a decade later however, barefoot is still going strong and the majority of its practitioners are now certified and registered with one of the many barefoot organisations. So what, if any, are the benefits of leaving your horse unshod?

Economy

The obvious advantage for the owner is a large financial saving. You don't have to pay for expensive new shoes every four to six weeks and you can learn to maintain your horse's trim yourself if you want to. Supporters of barefoot also suggest that the shoeless horse moves more naturally and will be healthier which in turn means fewer vet bills. You will also be less dependent on the availability and reliability of the farrier so no more problems with lost shoes the day before a show and a week's wait until the farrier can fit you in to knock a shoe back on.

Healthier hooves

The hoof is designed to act as a shock absorber and to flex in all directions. Robbed of this flexibility by a rigid shoe, the circulation inside the foot is reduced causing weakness and increasing the likelihood of injury, damage and disease.

Anatomically, the frog should be the weight bearing apparatus of the hoof. Shoes raise the frog clear of the ground and the strain is then placed on the hoof wall instead. Shoeing the horse therefore drastically reduces the foot's natural shock absorption function with the result that much of the concussion sustained as he moves is borne directly by the joints. Add to this the weight of his rider, work on hard surfaces and jumping to the mix and you can see how soundness issues arise.

Improved movement

The weight of shoes affects stride length and alters the flight of the limbs. A shod foot also lands differently which can affect the horse's natural action.

As horses cannot actually see where they are placing their feet, they rely heavily on feel when moving across different types of terrain. This 'proprioception' is pretty much deadened by shoes making the horse more likely to stumble and trip.

Safety

Even with the addition of road studs shod horses can be prone to slipping on tarmac. Barefoot hooves have far better grip which makes roadwork much safer.

Shod hooves can cause horrendous injury to both other horses and to their handlers. Barefoot is clearly a much safer option for horses which are turned out in company.

Farriers' viewpoint

Farriers however challenge some of this reasoning. They argue that horses are shod for two main reasons:

to protect the hoof against damage due to every day wear and tear; and to protect and preserve trimming carried out to balance the foot and limb correctly especially in cases where remedial treatment is required following injury or disease. Some horses have naturally poor foot confirmation and without the balancing and strengthening effect of shoes, they would have continual problems remaining sound.

Farriers agree that the hoof is designed to absorb concussion and the pump action as it strikes the ground helps blood to circulate. Shoeing does to some extent compromise this but they insist that the shoes are applied to the front of the foot where there's little or no movement or flex. The majority of the shock absorption through the hoof wall takes place in the rear two quarters where the shoes are not nailed on.

The shoe also relieves the weight from the sole of the foot which is not designed to take the load like the wall. Bruised soles can lead to various problems from sore feet to pedal arthritis and even laminitis. Shoes can be specially designed to rectify problems like navicular, poor foot balance etc. Trimming alone cannot do this.

It is accepted that shoeing is not natural for the horse but then neither is being ridden, jumped, stabled etc. Horses are shod specifically for the job of work they are expected to do; for example, racehorses are shod with very light aluminium racing plates. Human beings are not born wearing shoes – we choose appropriate footwear for whatever activity it is we are doing and horses are the same. Some horses can go barefoot quite happily if they are not in work and some will manage quite happily just with front shoes on but a horse is far more likely to become unsound and sustain damage to his feet if he is expected to carry out a job of work barefoot.

Farriers argue further that they are regulated by law. The Farriers Registration Act is a welfare act designed to protect horses and farriers can be disciplined or even struck off if they cause harm to a horse through their negligent shoeing of it. There is currently no such legislation governing barefoot trimming practitioners so if a horse is lamed as a result of their work, the owner has no redress. There are in fact around 18 different barefoot organisations currently in the UK, each with slightly different codes of practice.

In order to qualify and begin working, farriers have to train for four years. They also study shoe making and equine anatomy at college before taking a diploma qualification to become a Registered Farrier. Registered Farriers also have insurance. If they choose to, barefoot practitioners need only take a correspondence course which does not include any practical work whatsoever.

So the argument rages on. What do you think? To shoe or not to shoe; that is the question.

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  1. PonyGirl
    PonyGirl
    Another good article. Right now, none of my horses are shod. Money was short, and both my working horses had been used to being unshod for years. I only work my horses on the track, which would be like only working in an arena which had been harrowed. So their feet do not wear down to the quick on the soft surface. I have not worked one of my horses during the winter yet, so he may require shoes during that time since his feet won't grow as much and may wear down. I think horse shoes are like any other piece of horse equipment. They are there for specific purposes. If your horse doesn't require them, then there's no reason to have them. But as you pointed out in your article, they can be helpful in many situations. For many years I kept my horses shod continuously and I never found shoes to cause any problem. I think the shoer more than the shoes makes a difference. I have a licensed shoer trim my horses' feet, so I get the best of both worlds. Even before the "new wave" of barefoot enthusiasts, many horses in my part of the US were trimmed instead of shod, if they weren't doing road work, or other work which would wear their feet down. Many people also shod their pastured horses in front and left them bare behind, to minimize damage if they kicked each other.
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    1. autumnap
      autumnap
      Thsnk you! As you say, it's really all down to how good your farrier or trimmer is. x
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  2. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. Very good post! I prefer barefoot unless I'm going to travel on alot of gravel or asphalt. Both can chew up a foot in no time, causing all kinds of lameness problems. Having said that, I would prefer to use a quick boot or vet tech applications. The quick boot will virtually protect the entire hoof, while the vet tech app protects the bottom of the hoof only. The added protection is worth it over an iron shoe in my humble opinion.
    Log in to reply.
    1. autumnap
      autumnap
      Thank you! Yes, I'd be worried about riding a barefoot horse on anything other than a soft surface. You can get hard-wearing silicone inserts which can be fitted underneath a shoe to protect the sole when the ground goes very hard as it is here at the moment. x
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  3. arabobsession
    arabobsession
    Good article, I have left my mare barefoot and I know her previous owner never shod her. I have a regular farrier who knows all her issues, as she has foundered before, and he explains what he is doing, why he is doing it and we have a good enough relationship that he feels comfortable enough telling me straight, that is something that I truly appreciate and he has my deepest respect
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  4. BiologyBrain
    BiologyBrain
    While it is true that common thought indicates barefoot trims cannot handle hoof problems like laminitis, founder, navicular, etc, it isn't always true. A good barefoot trim, especially over a period of time can bring a horse back to soundness. Even a horse with poor foot conformation is likely to benefit from a good barefoot trim over a period of time since Mother Nature is often the best cure for what ails us & our equine friends. I'm not one for all-natural is always better than man-made/managed, but I think with hooves, most horses would be better off if they were properly trimmed barefoot. Even horses moving over rocky ground can benefit from proper barefoot trimming. After all, the US's feral horses are barefoot over rocks, sand, and the like as often as they're on dirt and grass. For a feral horse, no foot means you're someone's dinner... When we breed horses for looks and don't take into account their overall conformation or especially their hooves, we produce horses that suffer with foot ailments throughout their lives. Yet, even these poorly conformed horses can lead healthy productive lives with appropriate barefoot trimming and conditioning.
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