Barefoot versus Shod Discussed

Steve O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS, of Northern Virginia Equine in Marshall, and Dan Marks, VMD, of Santa Fe, N.M., led a table topic discussion at the 2006 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention in San Antonio, Texas, held Dec. 2-6, on the merits and disadvantages of leaving a horse barefoot or shod. O'Grady recognized that shoes change the structure of the hoof capsule to some degree, and he is an advocate of leaving shoes off if this works in an individual situation. However, the choice made to shoe or not depends on several variables.

When wear exceeds growth, the hoof needs protection. Not all horses can withstand being barefoot--this is dependent on breed, genetics, degree of exercise, and degree to which the feet have developed. Just because a horse is not limping is insufficient evidence that he is completely comfortable. You should also take into consideration the type of footing and the type and amount of work. For example, the requirements of hoof protection are vastly different between light trail riding on soft ground as compared to endurance competition on abrasive, uneven ground.

The horse's need for traction on variable ground conditions also dictates the choice of barefoot versus shod; traction affects safety of both horse and rider. O'Grady said shoes themselves act as traction devices as well as providing more "cup" in the foot. Marks commented that some horses are more agile and stable than others, and with normal shoes or barefoot, they can gallop and turn on surfaces that would cause other horses without traction devices to slip or fall.

Both discussed that the presence of lameness or underlying disease dictates whether a horse can or cannot go barefoot. A horse with chronic laminitis likely needs shoes to improve mechanical forces on the coffin bone and sensitive laminae. Conformational abnormalities or foals with flexural or angular limb deformities might benefit from shoes that alter forces up the limb to effect change.

A farrier in the audience remarked that he had the impression that sometimes an owner's reluctance to shoe a horse is based on a financial decision rather than about what's optimal for a horse's hooves. When removing shoes, it is important to critically evaluate the structures of a horse's feet for substance and durability. In addition, how long a horse has worn shoes has bearing on how long it might take for him to develop sole protection once the shoes are off. The hooves of a barefoot horse are better off "shaped" rather than trimmed--flares should be knocked off and the feet leveled and balanced without use of the nippers.

Marks commented that many barefoot proponents have taken an extremist view that shoes and nails start the feet on a destructive road, purporting this belief without looking at the overall historic, scientific, and physiological picture. O'Grady commented that on a deformable surface, a horse with shoes will load-share on all structures of the foot. Marks suggests that it is not always easy for every horse to go barefoot, just as many people in this world tend to wear shoes, given a choice.

One important issue that merited much discussion among the participants focused on how allowing a horse's feet to develop properly in his growing and young, athletic years affects his future soundness, with or without shoes. Hoof development, particularly for at least the first three years, is dependent on regular exercise and turnout to stimulate the foot before it is subjected to shoes and farrier tendencies. A horse raised in a controlled environment, such as in a stall or in a small paddock, has limited chance of adaptation to develop a mature and substantial foot.

Both table topic leaders and other practitioners and farriers in the room noted that regardless of the breed, there is a great difference between the feet of horses raised outside and able to self-exercise, especially on rugged terrain, compared to those contained in "controlled," non-stimulating environments. If hoof structures are poorly developed, then they will be less capable of going barefoot and, even when shod, not as ready for withstanding continuous training. To avoid sore feet, the quality of the trimming and shoeing and interval between shoeings is more critical to these horses.

The mass and strength of a horse's feet determine how well the horse can accommodate being barefoot. In addition, the surface on which a horse is housed and turned out has everything to do with how appropriately the hooves toughen. If the horse spends the majority of its time on soft footing, then it is difficult to adequately stress the hoof to acclimate and build thicker and tougher soles and a thicker bridge between collateral cartilages of the hoof wall. Alternating wet and dry spells make it more difficult for hooves to accommodate for consistently hard footing.

It might take three months of limited work on soft going to determine if an individual can remain barefoot. O'Grady noted that if a horse grows a rim of sole at the sole-wall junction, then don't yet give up on the barefoot idea, but if at 30 days the horse is still sensitive to thumb pressure in this area, he probably is not a good candidate to stay barefoot. O'Grady emphasized that the caudal (rear) structures of the hoof are typically weight-bearing structures. If a horse is uncomfortable while barefoot or if there is excess pressure on any hoof structures, then blood supply is reduced and hoof growth is limited, leading to an unrelenting cycle of discomfort and difficult-to-manage feet.

Marks noted that with sore or weak feet, it might be better to encourage the feet to remodel while in shoes. This is accomplished with trimming that encourages sole and heel growth; then attempts can be made to transition the horse to being barefoot. Sometimes it is necessary to give sufficient time--as much as a year--to allow sore feet to grow out and develop substance and strength. Some horses might never be able to deal with hard going if unshod, but they might be comfortable on more forgiving footing.

O'Grady expressed hope that more hi-tech shoes would become available in the near future, particularly shoes no thicker than a hacksaw blade yet made of material strong enough to insert a traction device as needed. The objective with such "shoes" would be to leave the frog available for contact with the ground to develop a better foot, while eliminating the weight and disadvantages of standard shoes.


Get research and health news from the American Association of Equine Practitioners 2006 Convention in The Horse's AAEP 2006 Wrap-Up sponsored by OCD Equine. Files are available as free PDF downloads.

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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