To Shoe or Not to Shoe?

They are questions most horse owners have pondered at one time or another. Does my horse really need shoes? Do they help or hinder him?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Consideration must be given to several factors, including a horse's job, how much he's used, what type of foot he has, and the climate and terrain to which he's exposed. And of course, when you ask for advice on whether or not your horse can go barefoot, the answer will vary depending on the person you query. It's important to look at the overall picture before making a decision.

Doug Butler, PhD, Certified Journeyman Farrier and Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers, whose book The Principles of Horseshoeing first appeared and became an industry standard in 1974, has spent almost 50 years as a farrier. He has taught farrier science in a number of settings, including university courses and clinics, for 40 years. And he's a man who spent many years "cowboying," and still swings a leg over a horse and rides almost daily through the rough country of northern Colorado. The terrain is laced with crushed granite, and Butler often rides long and hard.

"If you're in this kind of environment, you can't leave a horse barefoot for very long," he states.

Still, he says, if a horse is used under circumstances that permit it, going barefoot certainly has its advantages. "It allows the hoof to have its natural movement and traction, which is limited to some extent with a shoe."

Christian Rammerstorfer, PhD, PAS, equine exercise physiologist and nutritionist in the department of animal sciences at Oregon State University, agrees. As the leader of the university's colt training program, and a breeder, trainer, and exhibitor of reining horses in levels including the National Reining Horse Association Futurity, he is a believer in barefoot benefits. In some cases, he has seen an improvement in hoof condition on horses with problem feet after pulling the shoes.

One case in point is a black Quarter Horse gelding that developed an under-run heel on his left front foot after an injury restricted the movement of his poll. When the horse grazed, he compensated by moving his left front leg far out in front of him to balance. That changed the growth pattern of that hoof.

Rammerstorfer kept this horse shod for the first four years of his riding life. "I never trimmed away any heel, because there wasn't any to take off. So, all I trimmed was the front one-third of the toe," he says. "Whenever this gelding's foot would grow, by the fourth week after shoeing, the entire quarter area would start growing out over the shoe."

That happened, Rammerstorfer says, "because the horn tubules were stretched, or bent forward, and to the side. So they were weaker than those that are straighter and tighter." This made the hoof susceptible to breaking off. But after four months of going without shoes, Rammerstorfer says the gelding had adapted and built a foot more like a feral horse. A chip did develop before the foot had grown out enough to rid itself of the wall-weakening nail holes (see photo below), but the foot became stronger as it grew.

"He's pretty sound now," Rammerstorfer remarks. "The only trouble he has is when I do trim him, he's a little touchy across the gravel for about seven to 10 days." Still, this horse is being used as a reiner, and he's quite comfortable in his job.

The under-run heel this gelding has isn't hereditary like those on many of today's horses. Butler feels that when it is a hereditary feature, weaker walls and thinner soles often accompany it--all part of the price breeders have paid for producing a "modern horse." This can be an issue when asking a horse to live and work without shoes.

And even though Rammerstorfer has had success keeping horses barefoot, he agrees that over time, people have "bred a lot of horses with small, weak feet that we have to keep shoes on." Rammerstorfer is very hoof-conscious. "When I look at a prospect I might want to buy or use in my breeding program, that's one of the big factors I look at--what type of foot he has and what type of bone. Generally, you won't find a good-boned horse that is small-footed. Another thing I look at is how thick the hoof wall is--how thick and tough the foot looks."

Each year, Rammerstorfer gets in a load of 2-year-old Quarter Horses for his colt training program. They come from eastern Oregon and are raised on 80,000 acres of high desert pasture. "It's a very tough upbringing," he says, "and obviously they don't have shoes on because they're basically like feral horses."

When he got a load of these colts in January, he listened as they were led down a concrete floored hallway on their way to the stock pens. "When they walked, it sounded like they were shod. That's how hard their feet are. When you trim horses like this, you'd better have a brand new pair of nippers as sharp as a razor. I would almost guarantee that horses like this would stay just as sound out on the rocks as any shod horse."

This is the type of horse Butler would also appreciate; they are like the horses of yesteryear. "If you look at pictures of early Cavalry horses, or horses that were bred at the turn of the last century and through the 1920s and 1930s, they had really solid bone and good legs," he says. Along with those traits came good feet. They were definite candidates for barefoot riding.

While Butler doesn't feel many of today's horses are capable of working hard without shoes, he does feel it's often a good idea to leave shoes off of young horses as long as possible. Case in point: Two-year-olds in training. While they are learning to use their bodies, they're likely to whack themselves in the leg with an opposite hoof. And, he says, "Until a horse is trained to have his feet handled, and to be gentle around a farrier, it's not a very good idea to challenge that. A colt needs to learn to handle himself, so I think it's a real good idea to leave them barefoot as long as possible."

Both Butler and Rammerstorfer have a formula for trimming a horse to offer it a better chance to be comfortable and functional while barefoot.

"It's better not to take any sole," Butler explains. The wall should be long enough that it touches the ground before the sole, and the wall is rounded on the edge to prevent chipping.

"The sole exfoliates, or flakes away naturally, so there's no need to cut on that," says Butler.

Compare this to your fingernails. If they're clipped down "to the quick," the tips of your fingers are sore and can't withstand pressure. But if your nails aren't too short, your fingers are comfortable and functional.

In the case of the horse's hoof, how about the frog? Butler prefers to leave as much as possible.

Rammerstorfer agrees. "I take a minimal amount off the frog. How much depends on the conformation of the horse's foot. When I pick up the foot and look down at the plane, I want to make sure the frog does not protrude and won't be the first thing that touches the ground."

He also considers the horse's frog depth, and if the cleft and sulcus are deep enough to trap dirt and debris, or encourage thrush. He trims just enough to prevent that.

Weaning Off Shoes

When a horse arrives at Oregon State University and Rammerstorfer wants to prepare it for being ridden barefoot, he doesn't pull the shoes until the horse has about six weeks of growth. "I take the shoes off, and trim the feet, but not as short as I would if I was going to put the shoe back on. I leave the foot a little long, right off the bat. I leave the sole and frog alone as much as possible. And I just rasp around the edges, so it doesn't crack."

Rammerstorfer keeps in mind that the foot will be a little weaker until the nail holes have grown out. "Let's say you have three nail holes on each side. You can figure that the foot will be 10-15% weaker than it will be once those nail holes are gone," he says.

Horses in Rammerstorfer's care are given plenty of time to adjust. Good thing, he says, because, "It takes about two or three months for them to grow out. I'm watchful for any flinching when they walk across the gravel. It totally depends on the horse. I have some that I can take the shoes off, trim them a little, and they're fine from day one. But I had a Paint gelding that was really tender-footed for three months. I just let him tough it out on pasture."

This was a school horse that could be given the time off. But Rammerstorfer feels that if an owner has a horse "with a job that's quite important," and can't offer that time to adjust, shoeing becomes necessary.

Watch For Excess Wear

Butler emphasizes that owners or trainers should "watch for the foot wearing down faster than it grows. It's really not rocket science. If the foot does wear away faster than it grows, it needs to be protected with a shoe. If it doesn't, then all you have to do is trim it once in a while, or if it wears at exactly the same rate, then you've got a real deal there. You almost never have to trim or worry about it."

Rammerstorfer agrees. And for the horses that don't wear too fast, he adds, "I've seen plenty of horses adapt (to being barefoot) over time. If you increase the stress of their feet without shoes on, they will adapt."

With his barefoot horses, regular rasping to round off the edges of the foot helps prevent chipping and can be easily done without having to perform an entire trim.

Barefoot School and Show String

Rammerstorfer keeps all 18 of the university's school horse string barefoot; the exceptions are the few horses that are being used for reining. They stay barefoot in front, but are shod with sliding plates on the rear feet--necessary for getting those smooth, deep, sought-after stops.

About 80% of the school horses are Quarter Horses. There are two Morgans, a couple of Thoroughbreds, and a couple of Paints, Rammerstorfer says. They don't all have the same types of feet, yet they are successfully ridden barefoot on a regular basis. The arenas are sand-floored, but rock driveways and pathways are part of the facility.

Rammerstorfer says the reason OSU's school string remains shoeless is, "First, we don't have the expense of putting shoes on. Second, we're in Western Oregon, and it's muddy a lot. Second, the horses still get turned out in the wet pastures and don't lose any shoes because they have none. Third, the reiners can't step off the front shoes in their stops, because there aren't any front shoes to step off. Anyone who has trained reining horses knows that when you run a horse down hard, and it stops hard, if it jerks a front shoe off, it's going to be sore after that from the trauma. The foot can be torn up pretty bad."

Rammerstorfer's Reiners

When Rammerstorfer first began leaving his reiners barefoot in front, he was concerned that he'd have to shoe them if he took them to horse shows where facilities had lots of gravel and rocks in barn areas and driveways. "For example, we go to a big reining competition in northern Washington twice a year. It's a nice place, but everything there is gravel. Nevertheless, none of my horses have had any problems there being barefoot in front."

Rammerstorfer says, "I totally agree with Doug Butler, that a lot of performance horses today are not selected for hoof size or toughness, so they will always have shoes on." But he still feels that the success of his own horses being barefoot has come about because he gave them time to get used to not having shoes. "They're not born with shoes on, so they can withstand a lot more than you would think."

Make an Informed Decision

As you try and decide whether your horse is a candidate for a shoeless life, let Butler's words echo in your mind. The decision, he emphasizes, "has to be good sense on the part of the horse's owner or trainer." Poll: Is your horse barefoot or shod?
Barefoot 64.2% (648)
Wears four shoes 21.4% (216)
Wears two shoes 13.7% (138)
Wears hoof boots regularly for protection 0.69% (7)

About the Author

Lynda Bloom Layne

Lynda Bloom Layne is a full-time free-lance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has written for horse magazines for 38 years, and over the last decade she has been a newspaper reporter/photographer in Kansas, California, and Oregon.

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