Emergency Hoof Care: Pulled Shoes

Have you ever noticed a group of serious "bikers" out on the highway on a weekend? Somewhere  behind them you'll see a support vehicle, usually a van, full of tools, food and drink, luggage, and with room to load on a motorcycle or two in the event of a breakdown. The man (or woman) behind the wheel is called the "road captain."


Pulled shoe

A horse missing a shoe stays home.

Now think of you and your friends out for an afternoon trail ride. Among the four of you, you don't have even a Swiss Army knife, let alone a flashlight or a Band-Aid. People worry more about bringing along sunblock than a roll of Vet Wrap. Did anyone think to grab a trail map, or leave word back at the trailers where you were headed?

Bikers obviously are superior to trail riders in the pre-planning department. What's also interesting is that someone who owns a motorcycle is more likely to understand its mechanics than someone who owns a horse is likely to understand a horse's mechanics. Just ask anyone who has lost a shoe on the trail.

Horses lose shoes for many reasons, and a lost shoe--or the cause of it--is the topic most likely to send a farrier's blood pressure into orbit.

Myth #1. Always blame the farrier. Few, if any, lost shoes are the fault of the farrier. A professional-level farrier would have to make a concerted, sabotage-like effort to shoe your horse so badly that the shoe falls off. Of course, it can happen, especially if the foot is not trimmed properly, or if the shoe is twisted or not level. But in those cases, a farrier usually will notice the error while nailing--the shoe just won't feel right under the hammer.

A farrier does not want to receive an angry phone call from you. He or she doesn't even want to receive a pleasant phone call from you between shoeings. "Gee, I don't know what happened but he threw a shoe," are the words that can ruin a farrier's day. It means rearranging a schedule, finding another farrier to help out, or at the least calling you back to schedule a barn call. And your farrier is probably late and overbooked even before receiving your call!

Farriers don't intentionally shoe horses to lose shoes. They shoe horses to stay shod. For many horses, this means weighing the options. Sometimes, a horse should be shod with extra support or heel length, but the farrier fears that, if shod for optimum benefit, the horse might pull a shoe. So, a compromise might be sought. Some farriers refuse to compromise and will explain to you, in no uncertain terms, that the horse could pull a shoe, but that the benefits of support outweigh the inconvenience of losing a shoe. Horses like that should not be out on the trail!

Avoiding lost shoes begins with communication between farrier and rider. Does your farrier understand what your horse's routine is? Does he or she realize that you ride a few miles a day through boggy trails? Does he or she understand that the horse is young, uncoordinated, and "klutzy" out in the paddock? Does he or she know the way the horse scrambles in the trailer, stall-weaves, or fence-walks? These are important factors for the farrier to know. Your farrier might see only the horse with leg wraps and a blanket on, standing quietly on the cross-ties. Some farriers never get a chance to appraise the conformation of a horse, so they can only guess that the horse has a short back. Remember that some farriers are unfamiliar with training in your sport, and might not understand about your gradual training toward collection, which means that the horse will be reaching under itself more.

Myth #2. It's not my horse's fault. Well, your horse doesn't intentionally pull shoes, but is his conformation making him more likely to lose shoes?

A desirable characteristic of dressage horses is "over-tracking." To illustrate a young horse's over-track, a trainer will walk a horse in a sand arena, inviting you to notice that the hind footprints (they're more pointed) reach forward and outside of the front footprints (the rounder ones).

Farriers will roll their eyes over this, since they know that once the over-tracking horse injures a stifle or gaskin, the forward-reaching hind leg will hit the bulbs of the heels of the front foot, causing a chronic cut, bruising, or at the least, an abnormal gait. The hind leg is looking for a new place to go.

Farriers, when faced with an overreaching horse which is prone to injury, will try to speed up the breakover in front or decrease the reach behind. Standardbred farriers are masters at this art. Simple techniques like facilitating breakover in the front feet by shortening the toe are common, as are squaring the hind foot's toe, or setting the hind shoe far back, so that no metal will strike the heel bulbs in front. Farriers learn this in Gait Correction 101.

What farriers don't learn and can't possibly anticipate when shoeing your horse is how fatigue will make your horse move less efficiently. They also can't anticipate that your horse will spend a week in a mud puddle, scrambling in the slippery slime, and putting his feet in places relative to each other that just aren't normal.

Myth #3. It's not the rider's fault. The rider doesn't want the horse to pull a shoe, but he or she might inadvertently alter the horse's way of going from what the farrier saw when evaluating the horse for shoeing. Some of the new draw reins and "balancing gear" designed to "put the horse in the correct frame" definitely can change gait timing, stride length, and head carriage, creating more opportunities for a misstep, earlier fatigue, or pain in the back, shoulders, neck, or haunches that will send a horse's foot out of its normal path or timing.

Heavy riders, imbalanced riders, riders who hang on the bit, and changes in tack will affect a horse's foot placement, timing, and patterns.

Many riders report that horses lose shoes while trail riding, rather than during arena work. Often, riders are more relaxed on the trail, and are paying less attention to their own balance. Some people might switch tack for trail riding, or even ride bareback. Sometimes it can mean a simple change, such as from a double bridle to a plain bridle.

None of these are intentional neglect or abuse by the rider, but they illustrate how the rider can make choices that can cause a horse to pull a shoe.

Myth #4. Mud sucks shoes right off a horse's feet. Mud does not suck them off, but if you don't want to blame your horse or your own riding ability, blame the mud. One thing that mud does seem to suck off is a strap-on boot. If you're going out on the trail, make sure your boots are put on correctly and securely. Stop once in a while to check them, and ask your riding companions to check them as you ride.

Remember that wearing boots is helpful for sore-footed horses, but the boots might be just loose enough to change a horse's gait timing. Even if your horse only needs one boot, you might find the ride more successful if you use two boots, on both front feet or both hind feet.

The Lost Shoe: What To Do

Shoes often are lost on the trail, but your horse might lose one in a pasture or while trailering (if he is a scrambler). You might be dismayed to arrive at your trainer's arena for a lesson, only to find your horse has pulled a shoe.

All horses can lose a shoe, just as all cars can have a flat tire. Respond to the emergency by refusing to become frustrated. Lost shoes are a fact of horse life! As soon as you announce to horse friends that your horse has lost a shoe, they will all nod as they recall their own lost shoe stories.

Everyone has a favorite lost shoe story. Lost horse shoes are the epitome of Murphy's Law in action: horses are predestined to lose shoes at the worst possible times, in the worst possible places, and with the most dire consequences. Somehow, horse and rider survive the crisis, and life goes on, although it seems like the end of the world when it happens.

When you notice that a horse has lost a shoe, your first thought should be to evaluate the situation. Are you in a safe place for the horse? Are people around? If you can, tie the horse and quickly check his legs and the foot where the shoe was pulled. Remember that puncture wounds are not always obvious. Sometimes pulled shoes can bounce and hit another leg, causing nasty cuts from ragged nails. The horse also can step on the thrown shoe with another foot, causing injury.

If your horse checks out okay, search the immediate area to see if you can find the shoe. If you can find it, pull out the broken nails and put them in a safe place, like your shirt pocket, so they won't be stepped on. Clean up the shoe and put it in a safe place so that your farrier can either nail it back on or examine it for clues pointing to why the shoe came off.

Don't try to make a bad situation worse by riding a horse with a shoe missing. The horse might seem to travel fine, but he could be affected the next day with a stress-related lameness problem, bruised soles or frogs, or swollen pasterns. Also, injuries to tendons and ligaments caused by the pulling of the shoe might not be immediately obvious. Riding or lunging can aggravate the intensity of the injury.

A horse missing a shoe is best off at home, in a stall, until the farrier can reshoe the foot. A good precaution is to clean the horse up, hosing down the lower legs and feet. Apply salve to any cuts in the skin, and make notes of any abrasions to the coronet. Be sure to tell your farrier if there is any injury to the foot or pastern from the force of the pulling or injury from nails and shoe.

Call your farrier immediately. Leave a message conveying the important information: "This is (your name). I can be reached at (your phone number) at (time). Mango pulled his right front shoe today. He's not due to be reshod until next week. I found the shoe and have hung it on his stall door. He's not lame, but he has a little cut on his coronet. He's in his stall. Should we schedule a shoeing or just replace the shoe? Please call me."

That information saves your farrier from searching his or her records to find out when the horse is due to be redone. That way, the horse can be completely reshod, if the farrier can reschedule other clients. A farrier does not like to drive to a remote location to replace a shoe, only to find out that he or she has to return the next week to reshoe the horse all-around.

If your farrier is unable to travel to your horse to replace the shoe, you can suggest trailering the horse to a mutually agreed-upon location, such as a veterinary clinic or large stable where the farrier is working on a given day.

Sometimes, farriers will not be able to accommodate your lost shoe problem. They might send another farrier, and you can decide whether to have that person replace the shoe or pull the shoe's mate.

If you see evidence of a puncture wound, or think the sole might have been punctured, call your veterinarian.

Pulled shoes usually are not a medical emergency. However, certain conditions can merit strong concern. Usually, the clinches are low and the only damage to the hoof wall is the lower ground border, where the foot meets the shoe. Sometimes, there is no damage to the hoof wall at all.

However, long-footed horses like Morgans and padded horses like Saddlebreds are distinctly imbalanced if a pad package is pulled off, leaving one foot much longer than the other, or if a large portion of hoof wall is ripped off. If your horse has specialty shoeing for breed or performance reasons, discuss shoe loss consequences with your farrier and trainer well in advance. The farrier might give you explicit instructions about taping on support or advise you to put the horse in a deep-bedded stall.

Some horses have artificial hoof walls, wall patches, or special reconstruction that can be pulled off completely if the horse pulls a shoe. Make sure your farrier advises you about emergency care. Sometimes, the patch can fall off, without the shoe's being disturbed. If sensitive tissues in the hoof wall are exposed or contaminated, you might be instructed to wrap or soak the foot.


Invite a farrier to speak to your local horse group. Consider a joint meeting with your regional professional farrier association, and set up a "hands on" session on horse shoe emergencies. A local farrier supply store, where you could buy some simple tools, would be an excellent site for a meeting, or invite the supplier to your meeting.

Fancy Footwork,video by farrier Meredith Clarke


Understanding The Equine Foot, by Fran Jurga, from The Horse Health Library. www.exclusivelyequine.com

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at www.hoofcare.com. Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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