To Shoe or Not To Shoe

by Keith Seeley

To shoe or not to shoe, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to… Oh. Sorry. Wrong story.

Well, regardless, it is a good topic to touch upon these days, what with the trend towards one extreme or the other. One can’t help but notice that there are so many people advocating having your horse go barefooted is best. For the most part, these people are not equine professionals, but rather every day horse owners who have had one bad experience after another with this shoer or that shoer. It’s not their fault. They are trying to do what they feel is best for their horse and wanting to help educate others like them, based on what they’ve learned. The flip side of the coin is your professionals who are staunch supporters of shoes for one reason or another. Shoes are meant to protect, support, help heal the foot, and generally it’s simply a mind set that’s hard for them to see past. It’s the tried and true method that’s been done forever. How can it be wrong? From each of their own perspectives, own training and/or experiences, they are all valid reasons. But, are they right? What I hope to do with this article is provide you with a little information, a little knowledge, a little ammunition if you will, as to allow you to make your own conclusions and hopefully have a better idea of what to do and when.

Let’s examine the two extremes a bit closer first. The advocates of shoeing tend to be your farriers and your vets. The vets recommend, and at time, require you to have one type of shoe or another applied to your horse in order to correct a problem. They are drawing on the knowledge they gained in vet school. They learned a few of the basic shoes, their ‘supposed’ purpose, and how they ‘supposedly’ work, from a farrier who was hired by their college to give them a crash course in farriery. This however, arms the vets rather poorly, as they only have about a days worth of training in what farriers go to school for months to learn. [And that month is ONLY for the basics.] Ok, so let’s talk farriers while we’re at it. Many farriers in this country are independents and most likely learned from hands on from their father, grandfather or from their local, long time farrier. Most of the rest attended one of the many schools dedicated to teaching horse shoeing. Hence, shoeing is the primary focus for many of these schools and shoeing is the means by which they learn to fix, repair, enhance, modify or alter a horse’s hooves and/or method of going. It’s what they do for a living; they shoe horses! BUT, it’s not the only thing we do. Farriers learn over years, work towards advanced certifications and continue their knowledge in as many ways as they possibly can, (if they’re truly dedicated to helping horses) in order to learn the best shoe, the best trim, the best method, the best way to modify a shoe to achieve the desired goal for your horse. Farriers also learn how to balance the horses’ foot and body, learn how to repair hoof problems, and learn how to keep your horse as healthy as possible (at least they are suppose to). In short, it’s called ‘corrective shoeing’ or ‘corrective trimming’. Farriers are trained to take many, many variables into consideration before they recommend and perform their services.

Let’s examine the other side of the coin now, shall we? The advocates for a horse going barefooted, in my experience, have tended to be people who are not vets, not farriers, and not people who have studied the curriculum that either the vets or farriers have. Does that make them uneducated about the horse and his feet? NO! Quite often, these people are very knowledgeable. They study the writings of many of the masters. They search the internet for articles, diagrams, etc, etc. They think, they practice, they search for one idea or another that seems to make the most sense to them. They, in their own way, are as well educated as either the vets or farriers when it comes to the hoof. Their advantage is, they tend to think outside the box, so to speak. They aren’t tied down by tradition or conventional thinking. They tend to be more holistic in their approach to fixes or cures. They believe in finding a natural approach to repairing the horse or its hooves. They seek the gentle and kind vs. the harsh and rigid. Hard to find fault with they’re thinking, isn’t it?

So who’s wrong? Or, more over, who’s right? That’s a darned good question and I’m glad you asked. For what it’s worth to anyone, here’s my opinion. In their own ways, they are both right and they are both wrong. (Well, what did you expect me to say?? It does sound like a politicians’ answer though, doesn’t it. Oh well.) From their point of view, their arguments hold water. But (and here’s were we start getting to MY opinion), neither of these extremes take the whole problem, the whole situation and the whole horse into account. They aren’t looking at the big picture. And it IS a big picture. There are a lot of aspects to be considered. Let’s see if we can highlight the majority of them.

The questions that need to be asked are, does the horse appear to have any problems? What are the horse’s symptoms? What is the horse doing from a posture or stance standpoint? What foot or part of the body is the horse favoring or not favoring? What is the condition of the feet, and has the horse been diagnosed as having any particular problem? If there aren’t any visible or evident problems and the horse appears to be ‘normal’, then the next questions that should be asked are, what is the horse going to be used for? How often will it be used for this purpose? Is this use seasonal or all year long? What is the terrain or the environment like that the horse will be used in the most?
These are all questions that you, the horse owner, should be asking. In all honesty, your farrier should be asking the same questions.

When I talk with horse owners who are pondering the shoeing question, I ask all of these questions and then some. I take all kinds of factors into play. But let me try to break this down into some simple terms. If you have a working horse, be it barrels, eventing, roping and the like, and you do this on a regular basis and it’s over all types of terrain, chances are, you’re going to figure you’re going to need to have your horse’s feet shod. If you are competing at the lower show circuit levels and you do dressage or jumping or western pleasure, chances are, you don’t need to have your horse shod. If you enjoy trail riding and you don’t ride many places where your horses’ feet get chewed up and bruised, most likely, you don’t need to have your horse shod. If your horse was previously used for something strenuous, but doesn’t any more and the horse is shod, you should really consider having the shoes pulled. If you do a little of this and a little of that with your horse, but you don’t ride places where the feet will be excessively warn or beaten, you most likely don’t need to have your horse shod. If your horse is retired and is now a pasture pet, you certainly don’t need to have it shod. Simply put, the factor for shoeing should be the activity level the horse will be used for, the amount of physical wear on the feet, the excessive abuse the feet might take, and NOT because of peer pressure or because it looks nice. Shoeing should be to accommodate the activity level or the terrain the horse is to be used in. A caveat to the issue of shoeing your horse because of use and wear is, during the off season, or for some period (or periods) of time during the year, let your horse go barefooted. Take the shoes off. Let the feet rest. A minimum period of three consecutive months a year would be a nice start. If you activity level will allow it, go longer in-between shoeings. The longer the feet go without shoes, the better the inside of the hoof can repair, can be function fully and can affect the outer hoof wall with strong, healthy tissue. Repeated constant shoeing over years of time is most likely going to catch up with you, and your horse. The feet will break down, it’s just a matter of when.

Now then, let’s move on to lameness issues. If your horse is foundered, laminitic, has dropped or sunken soles, or has just about ANY kind of hoof ailment, you should NOT shoe your horse. (What did he just say???) In simple terms, don’t shoe an unhealthy foot. I know that goes against how the vast majority of the vets and farriers where trained, but it only makes sense. Don’t put a shoe on an unhealthy foot. Here’s why. It will likely take up to four times longer (with a farrier who knows what he’s doing) to fix a foot problem with shoes than it will without. How can that be you ask?? It’s common since and simple mechanics. The foot can not fully function, or complete its cycle as I like to call it, with a shoe of any kind nailed OR glued in place. It can not flex properly, obtain the proper amount of sole and frog stimulation and it can not move as much fluid through the foot as it can without shoes. Let me say this again, the foot can NOT get the full support and stimulation with shoes on. Therefore, over time, the foot begins to break down. A healthy hoof breaks down slowly, perhaps over many years, but it breaks down faster if it is already unhealthy. It is important to give any horse with shoes some time off from being shod, preferably at least three months; longer if possible. Again, the plain and simple points are, don’t shoe a horse that doesn’t have a usage factor that dictates the horse be shod and don’t shoe an unhealthy hoof. Period. Here’s one other way of looking at the lame horse. Does it make sense to take a horse, which is already in great pain from something like founder or who is trying to abscess, and drive nails into its feet to hold on a solid piece of metal? Of course not. There are better ways to help your foundered or lame horses without having to put him through even more pain. It has taken me years to find what that better way is, but I believe I have found it. But that’s a story for another day. Today, we’re discussing shoeing vs. not shoeing. Please don’t shoe an unhealthy foot. I’ve borrowed a phrase from the alcohol industry and turned it around for our purposes. Please shoe responsibly! I hope you’ll think about that.

Well, I hope I have managed to appeal to you as a voice of reason, a middle ground, if you will. I hope I have helped you to see that there are right reasons and wrong reasons to shoe. I hope I have helped you understand that the supporters of going barefoot are not necessarily wrong, but are not necessarily taking all the variables into consideration. I hope I have helped you understand that just because we, farriers, shoe horses for a living that this isn’t the only thing we are trained to do. I hope you understand that you should not shoe your horse if it is lame. Help him get better before you put shoes on him again. Folks, there are many opinions floating around these days. There are many options as well, but they are not all right for each and every situation or each and every horse. There are many MANY variables to consider when working on any horse for ANY reason. Do your homework. Research and study; and determine what the best situation is for your horse. Oh, and one last thought, be kind and considerate of your horse. After all, horses are people too.

If you have problems or questions and would like to speak with Keith, please call him at 770-312-6909, or e-mail him at keith@keithseeley.com.