Merits of Barefoot vs. Shod: Equine Practitioners Discuss

The Barefoot vs. Shod table topic session at the 2008 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif., was very well-attended, and the attendee participation was excellent, according to the session moderators. The purpose of this session was to look at the merits of each method of hoof care rather than debate if one is better than the other. Equine practitioners are often asked for their opinion and input because owners often read or are told that having a horse barefoot is far superior to having him shod and that it's the only acceptable method of hoof care.

The barefoot, or natural, trim has its roots and has been patterned after the so-called research on the wild or feral horses. This purported research is hard to justify as the type of foot encountered is based on the heredity and genetics of the feral horse and is driven by exercise, environment, and the terrain on which the animal walks. If taken out of this environment/terrain, the horse will immediately assume a different foot conformation.

I would be the first to state that having the horse barefoot is the best possible state in which to maintain a horse's feet if the individual situation is conducive to this method.

Being a farrier, this moderator also feels that horses can be shod in a physiological manner such that the health of the foot is not compromised. This might be dependent on the skill and competency of the hoof care provider.

In order for horses to be comfortable, protection is the main issue. When wear exceeds growth, some form of protection becomes necessary, whether it is in the form of the horse's own hoof mass, shoes, boots, etc. Two other arguments for shoes are the question of traction and the therapeutic application of shoes to alleviate lameness and hoof disease.

There is a strong movement by the barefoot proponents that all horses presently shod should have their shoes removed and allowed to go barefoot. Many things must be taken into consideration, such as the animal's genetic makeup. Many Thoroughbred horses have no mass to their feet or have the feet damaged during race training, making it very hard for them to do any type of athletic work without shoes. The amount of time a horse has worn shoes and the type of farrier care it has received often dictate the horse's ability to go without shoes. Also, there has to be a transition period to allow the feet to adjust and strengthen the necessary structures to remain barefoot--this process might take months. Finally, the farrier must change the style of hoof care from trimming the foot to shaping the foot. This allows the horse to retain the necessary hoof mass on the bottom of the foot for protection.

It was noted during the table topic that all the benefits claimed by the barefoot proponents have never been substantiated and remain anecdotal at best. The benefits of barefoot trimming could easily be shown to exist or proven as one foot or half the horse could be used as a control, yet the various groups have been unwilling to subject their method to this type of scrutiny. The other interesting fact that came out was that the barefoot trim has never been defined. Many in the audience were asked, "How do you perform this trim?" No one could give a reasonable answer. Furthermore, the various barefoot groups all appear to have a different type of trim.

Facilitators of this Table Topic were Steve O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS, of Northern Virginia Equine, and Andy Parks, MA, Vet MB, MRCVS, department head and professor of Large Animal Surgery at the University of Georgia.

About the Author

Stephen E. O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS

Stephen E. O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS, was a professional farrier for 10 years prior to obtaining his degree in veterinary medicine. He learned farriery through a formal apprenticeship under Hall of Fame farrier Joseph M. Pierce of West Chester, Penn. After graduating from veterinary school, O'Grady did an internship in Capetown, South Africa. Then he joined Dan Flynn, VMD, at Georgetown Equine Hospital in Charlottesville, Va., as an associate for five years. Since that time, he has operated a private practice in Virginia and South Africa, with a large portion of the practice devoted to equine podiatry. He has published numerous articles and lectured extensively on equine foot problems. His web site is

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