A Footwear Primer

A Footwear Primer

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Some horse owners have little more than a passing acquaintance with those things  that are nailed onto the bottoms of their animals’ feet. The shoes are there (they hope) when they pick up the hooves to clean them, and once every six weeks or so they write a check to the farrier. Such owners might not be remiss in their horses’ care and management, but if they would take the time to learn about the various types of equine footwear, they would be better able to make informed decisions as to which shoes suit their horses best, and which farrier should put them on.

Why Do Horses Wear Shoes?

Not much about horseshoes and horseshoeing has changed over time. Most horseshoes are still those horseshoe-shaped pieces of metal with holes to accommodate the thin nails that secure them to the hoof. But why do horses need shoes in the first place, and how did the traditional shoe shape and attachment method evolve?

Horses wear shoes mainly for the same reason you do--for protection. says Dave Werkiser, an American Farriers Association certified journeyman farrier (the AFA’s highest level of certification). Werkiser is from West Chester, Pa., and he’s been shoeing horses--mostly jumpers and dressage horses--for 20 years.

The hoof, already an amazingly resilient and adaptive structure, needs a little help in coping with the demands imposed by the stresses of carrying a rider’s weight and engaging in strenuous equestrian sports. A horseshoe also affords the hoof extra traction, says Werkiser, especially when the shoe is outfitted with one or more grip-enhancing devices, such as studs or toe grabs. Shoes also offer the feet and legs extra support, and even can be shaped to help compensate for conformational irregularities or to promote pain relief from and healing of certain hoof problems, such as quarter cracks or laminitis (founder).

Some shoes encourage a horse to perform in a desired manner. For example, Thoroughbred racehorses are shod with "racing plates," which are very thin aluminum shoes that protect the hooves, yet add very little weight. Many show hunters also wear aluminum shoes, which are much thicker than those worn by racehorses, but still are light in weight so as not to discourage the low-striding "daisy cutter" movement that wins ribbons. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the show-ring park horse, whose naturally extravagant high-stepping action can be exaggerated through the growth of extra-long hooves and the application of weighted shoes and pads.

Anatomy Of A Horseshoe

Although some modern horseshoes are glued on, most are attached the old-fashioned way--with nails. The nails must be driven through the white line, the layer of insensitive, elastic material that lies inside the hoof wall. The web (width) of a horseshoe spans the wall and the white line, and the crease (the groove containing the nail holes) lies parallel to the white line. If your farrier were to drive nails outside the white line, he’d possibly crack the hoof wall; plus, the nails likely wouldn’t hold because the wall lacks the white line’s elasticity and "grippiness." If he drove the nails inside the white line, he’d penetrate the sensitive, blood-rich laminae (the live tissues inside the hoof), and your horse would be in as much pain as you would if you pierced the "quick" beneath your fingernail or toenail.

Most horseshoes are open at the heels to allow the natural hoof flexion and expansion that occurs each time your horse takes a step. Most shoes leave the frog and sole uncovered, which allows visual inspection and easy access for cleaning, facilitates shock absorption, and boosts blood circulation.

Covering the entire bottom of the hoof lessens traction. The sole’s slightly cupped shape enables the hoof to dig into the ground or arena surface, and that can’t happen if the underside of the hoof is smooth.

The parts of a horseshoe serve different functions. While the shoe should match the basic width and curve of your horse’s hoof, the shape of the toe can affect how he "breaks over" (how quickly and straight his hoof goes from flat to lifting off the ground as he begins a new stride). A blunted or "squared" toe encourages the hoof to break over evenly and smoothly for maximum ease and efficiency of movement. If the toe is more pointed, the hoof might break over laterally--that is, to the inside or to the outside of the toe. Your farrier will consider the shape of your horse’s foot, as well as his discipline, in deciding what shape toe is best for him.

The branches (sides) of the shoe support the hoof wall and offer medial and lateral support. A wide-webbed shoe offers more support than a narrow one. The creases begin just behind the toe and run through the branches and into the heel area. The indentations give the nailheads a place to set without sticking out below the shoe surface to act as cleats; they also pack with dirt or footing, giving a bit of extra traction.

Most pre-made or "keg" shoes contain four nail holes per side, although your farrier might not drive eight nails in each hoof. Most horses--even large warmbloods--need no more than three nails per side, and some farriers use even fewer--three and two, or two and two.

The heels of the shoes support the heel of the hoof and are the shoe’s primary support system. As a rule, says Werkiser, the longer the heels, the more support, especially if the hoof tends to be long in the toe and low (underrun) in the heels, a conformation fault that leaves the hoof prone to heel bruising. Some veterinary experts believe it might be linked to an increased likelihood of a horse’s developing navicular syndrome and other lamenesses. Of course, too-long heels are more likely to be stepped on, and no horse owner likes to have to call the farrier out to replace a lost shoe. If your farrier thinks extra heel support will help your horse, he or she will endeavor to find the shortest possible length that will do the job.

Shoe Materials

Years ago, horseshoes were made of iron, a malleable metal that’s fairly sturdy, but that’s prone to rust and wear. Today, most horseshoes are steel, which is readily available and more durable, often lasting through one shoeing and one reset. Another popular material is aluminum, which has a shorter life than steel, but which is strong and lightweight. Other modern materials have come on the shoeing scene as well. There are rubber shoes, which offer extra shock absorption, but tend to wear out quickly; and titanium shoes (the aerospace industry pioneered the use of this hard, lightweight, corrosion-resistant element to toughen steel), which last a long time, but cost many times more than conventional steel or aluminum models.

Some horses are fitted with special glue-on shoes; the lack of nails makes this type ideal for horses with poor-quality feet. There are several "shoe substitutes," such as the Easyboot, a durable, adjustable "bootie" that covers the sole and most of the hoof itself.

The metal horseshoe is far from obsolete, and it protects the hooves of most of today’s equines.

Fancy Footwear

A great many variations on the standard horseshoe exist, most developed for therapeutic purposes. Let’s look at some of the most common models of optional equipment.

Bar shoes--Bar shoes, which come in several variations, are by far the most common "specialty" shoe, according to Werkiser. The prevalent variety is the egg-bar shoe, so named for its oval shape. The rounded, enclosed rear portion of the shoe offers extra support to low heels. Some people think egg-bar shoes offer additional support to extra-large horses with extra-large feet, and that’s why you’ll see them on a number of dressage horses--typically big warmbloods. Some horses engage in activities that make them prone to catching a front heel with a hind foot, and so they have a problem keeping their egg-bars intact during regular work. Horses turned out with egg-bar shoes also should be equipped with bell boots, Werkiser cautions. He also warns that mud can cause premature loss of egg-bar shoes.

Extremely active horses which would benefit from extra heel support frequently sport straight-bar shoes, which have a straight heel portion instead of a curved one to minimize the risk of a pulled shoe.

"There’s less shoe sticking out be-hind to catch on," Werkiser explains. A heart-bar shoe (sometimes called a full-support shoe, depending on how it’s fitted) is an egg-bar or a straight-bar to which an extra piece of metal is added to cover the frog area. The covering can serve various purposes, says Werkiser. It can act as protection from injury to the frog. It can serve to support or take pressure off the frog area, and it can be used in treating cases of acute or chronic laminitis. The heart-bar also can transfer pressure to the area from elsewhere in the hoof. Werkiser says such a shoe can help "unweight" a quarter crack, for example, and thereby promote pain relief and healing.

The most specialized type of bar shoe is the hospital plate, which is an egg-bar fitted with a removable metal plate that covers the entire underside of the hoof. The plate prevents dirt and debris from entering an injury, yet can be removed for treatment.

Clips--Common add-ons to all types of horseshoes, these thin, semicircular metal pieces hug the hoof wall and help stabilize the shoe on the foot, says Werkiser, especially if the nails work loose between shoeings. Clips are named for the point on the shoe where they’re attached. A toe clip is a single clip on the front of the shoe and is a popular option in Europe; it’s less common on the shoes of American horses. Quarter clips and side clips come in pairs, one on each side of the shoe.

Traction devices--If your horse jumps, plays polo, races, or just walks outside in icy or snowy weather, he could slip or fall without the addition of some sort of traction device to his shoes. Whatever his needs, there’s a gizmo that will help keep his feet firmly planted. We’ll discuss some of the most common.

Event horses and show jumpers are prime examples of horses which need extra traction--but only some of the time and in varying amounts, depending on the footing conditions. That’s why most event and jump riders have their mounts shod with footwear that accommodates studs--removable screw-in "cleats" that come in various lengths, shapes, and degrees of bluntness to give just the right amount of grip without causing excess jarring to joints and soft tissues.

Grass tips, for example, are relatively long and have pointed ends to penetrate dry, hard ground. Squat, blunt road studs give a little extra grip in good going. The longer, wider, rounded bullets help give traction in deep, soft, or muddy footing.

If you want your horse to wear studs, your farrier will drill threaded holes into the animal’s shoes. The holes must be specially packed to prevent dirt and debris from entering and damaging the threads. Caring for shoes with stud holes takes extra effort, but there’s no substitute for the security of studs if your horse needs them.

Some people think that calks are synonymous with studs, but calks are different--square, blunt metal tips permanently attached to the heels of the shoes. Horses which need extra support and traction day in and day out, such as working draft horses, might wear calks to help them "dig in" as they haul heavy loads. Many racehorses wear toe grabs--metal ridges that project down from the front of the shoes--to give them extra purchase for maximum acceleration and speed. Horses used in other disciplines in which quick acceleration is a must, such as polo, also might wear toe grabs.

In snow and ice, those smooth metal horseshoes can become your horse’s own set of skis--with disastrous results. If Old Man Winter visits your climate, consider asking your farrier to add borium or another non-slip substance to the bottoms of your horse’s shoes. Even if you have access to an indoor arena, borium might be a good idea if your horse gets turned out in the winter or if getting to the arena involves negotiating snowy or icy paths.

Pads--Secured between hoof and shoe, pads serve a variety of therapeutic purposes. At their simplest, pads protect soles and frogs against impact and bruising. Wedge or degree pads raise low or underrun heels. Several types of pads, from plastic "popper" pads with a round center "bubble" to a rubber rim pad with a flexible tube that lies inside the shoe, are designed to expel snow and ice and thus eliminate the potentially hazardous "snowballing" effect caused by a horse’s teetering on several inches of packed snow on the undersides of his feet.

Pads can be made of leather, rubber, plastic, or other synthetic materials. Farriers usually pack the space between the pad and the hoof to prevent debris from entering. Like your athletic shoes, pads compress over time and therefore lose some of their shock-absorbing effectiveness.

Glue-ons--If a horse’s feet are in such poor condition that they won’t hold nails, your farrier might opt to use glue-on shoes. The shoes themselves are fairly standard in appearance and materials--usually aluminum or rubber--but they’re attached to the hoof wall by means of flexible "fingers" that wrap around the outside of the hoof and attach with sturdy glue.

Rubber shoes--If protecting the surface on which a horse works is of concern, says Werkiser, the horse might sport rubber shoes instead of the standard steel or aluminum models. Circus horses, for instance, might wear rubber shoes to protect the flooring of sports arenas and other multi-purpose venues. If you’re most comfortable in sneakers and other cushy-soled shoes, you might have wondered why more horses aren’t shod with rubber shoes. According to Werkiser, it’s because the rubber wears out more quickly, and because it doesn’t hold nails as well as metal.

Pre-made Or Handmade?

Many people assume that "custom" is better than mass-produced, such as haute couture vs. off-the-rack garments, or custom-built homes vs. tract housing. So are custom-forged shoes a higher grade of footwear than the premade or "keg" variety? Not anymore, says Werkiser.

In years past, handmade shoes were superior because keg shoes tended to be of inferior quality--available only in limited sizes and types, and with poorly shaped and placed nail holes. But that’s no longer true. Today’s farriers have access to high-quality pre-made shoes in an impressive array of patterns and sizes. Premade shoes come in fronts and hinds, lefts and rights, steel and aluminum, standard or bar, and sizes to fit everything from the tiniest ponies to the biggest draft horses. Even if your farrier starts with pre-made shoes, he or she might give your horse a custom fit by heating the shoe in a forge and pounding it into the desired shape, or by adding clips, borium, or other extras.

While the majority of modern horses wear pre-fab shoes, the art of hand-forging is far from dead. Werkiser custom-forges shoes for those equine clients whose feet would require extensive modifications of standard models, or which need a lighter or heavier shoe than is commercially available. He’ll also forge custom shoes for horses with certain lamenesses or hoof conditions, enabling him to meet the horse’s needs exactly.

Most farriers are happy to answer your questions about your horse’s footwear and hoof care. If you don’t know why your horse wears the shoes he does, or if you’re wondering whether another type of shoe would be a better choice, ask. Be sure to let your farrier know what you use your horse for, and keep him informed of any lamenesses or other conditions that could affect his hoof-care needs.

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.

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