Metal shoes were first introduced to assist in the maintenance of horses’ feet. Primarily, this was done to protect working horses that were required to operate for long hours on cobbled streets. The punishing terrain and long working hours meant that the wear and tear on the horse’s hooves was considerable and metal shoes enabled horses to work more comfortably for longer periods. This trend continued and shoes were developed for a variety of different equestrian activities and disciplines.
More recently, however, it has been found that metal shoes can be detrimental to working horses. Firstly, the metal shoe constricts the hoof’s natural movement in that, in a natural situation, the hoof expands and contracts as the horse moves. When weight is applied to the hoof, a small degree of expansion occurs which is released when the weight is removed. This hoof action reduces the strain placed on the tendons of the leg and reduces the chance of compaction injuries. Furthermore, the barefoot horse is able to feel its feet and is subsequently more sure-footed than its shod counterpart.
Competing on a barefoot horse has gained popularity and momentum, particularly in the endurance riding discipline where horse and rider are expected to cover long distances of variable terrain. When examining the hooves of these competitive horses, it is amazing to see how much the shape of the hoof varies depending on the terrain the horse lives and trains on. Horses in stony areas will tend to develop smaller hooves, giving them the ability to negotiate difficult ground. In comparison, the barefoot horse that trains primarily on soft sand will develop a much wider hoof, spreading particularly at the heel. This gives the horse a greater surface area, thereby preventing it from sinking deep into the sand and enabling it to move more effectively and with less effort.
Riding over certain types of terrain, such as flat rock or heavy mud, the difference between the shod and the barefoot horse is quite astonishing. After riding without shoes, the shod horse suddenly feels much less foot sure and less secure – having no feeling in the metal shoes means the horse is less aware of the terrain behind its feet and less careful in its selection of hoof placement. In such instances, the barefoot horse is much more capable and stable and less likely to cause injury to either itself or its rider.
Of course, not every horse will do well without shoes. The quality and the strength of the hoof are dependent on many different influences, from breeding and conformation to diet and living conditions. Thoroughbreds in particular seem to struggle without shoes – possibly as a result of too much inbreeding or because the majority are shod at a young age in order to participate in races. The strongest hooves definitely develop when a horse has never been shod, although rehabilitation from shod to the barefoot horse is usually successful given a little time and patience.