Shoeing for the Job (Book Excerpt)

There are many kinds of horseshoes; try to select shoes well suited to your horse's work. While a horse with a problem may need a farrier to create a special shoe, many horses get along fine with factory-made shoes.

Shoes should always be as light as is practical, taking into consideration the wear demanded of them, so that they interfere as little as possible with the normal flight of the horse's foot. Weight, no matter how it's added to the foot, tends to reduce speed and agility. Added weight can also make a minor deviation in foot flight more noticeable.


The normal flight of the foot is a relatively straightforward line. No horse's foot moves perfectly straight, but good leg conformation creates the most straightforward motion with the least wasted effort and movement. Any significant deviation from normal foot flight takes the form of an arc--either to the outside or inside of this relatively straight line. Adding weight to the foot in the form of a shoe will increase the arc because of the additional swing it makes. Ordinary shoeing thus accentuates a horse's foot flight and any gait defect.

Most horses never hit themselves when running barefoot (with short, properly worn hooves) but some will forge or interfere when shod due to the added weight of the shoe. A horse that tends to interfere (strike one front limb against the other, or one hind limb against the other hind) or forge (strike a front heel or sole with the hind toe) does so even worse when shod. The weight makes the horse's strides slightly longer and the arcs of foot flight even more pronounced. Thus, he must be carefully (correctively) shod to prevent these problems.

A horse that toes in usually breaks over to the outside and swings his foot outward (paddling) whereas a horse that toes out tends to break over the inside and swing the foot inward (winging). Therefore, the toed-out horse is more apt to interfere while a toed-in horse almost never does. A horse's conformation may also play a part in forging. A short-backed horse with long legs is more apt to forge than a horse with legs proportionate to his body length. These are generalizations, however; some individuals don't fit the pattern, due to other aspects of their conformation.

If you have a horse that hits himself and the problem is not corrected enough by squaring the toe to help him break over straight, he may need special shoeing. You may need a lighter shoe or help from a professional farrier. Before you attempt to shoe the horse yourself, seek advice from your farrier on how to shoe the horse to minimize the problem, or just let the professional do it. Always keep in mind that too much "correction" can cause lameness.

Steel Shoes

Steel shoes are commonly used for ordinary shoeing. Compared to most other material, steel is relatively inexpensive, easy to work with, and very durable. Unless a horse is used very hard, a steel shoe will generally last until the next reshoeing. The disadvantages of steel are its heaviness and poor ability to dissipate concussion. In some disciplines, such as racing, lighter shoes are preferable.

Aluminum Shoes

Aluminum shoes are lighter than steel ones but cost more and wear out more quickly. Cast aluminum is about one-third the weight of steel, but not as durable--and harder to weld and work with. Extruded aluminum is less brittle and can be shaped hot or cold. Being lighter, aluminum shoes are also more flexible, a factor that can contribute to hoof wall stress in some instances. Aluminum's flexibility, however, can vary greatly, depending on how it's combined with other metals. Some aluminum shoes are stiffer than some types of steel shoes. Aluminum shoes can be made wider and thinner than steel shoes, giving the horse more base of support if needed, with less weight.

Titanium Shoes

Titanium shoes are as light as aluminum shoes but more durable and more expensive.

Glue-On Shoes

Plastic, rubber, and other types of glue-on shoes have come into use in recent years but are most commonly used for foals or horses with hoof disease or hoof injuries--situations in which it's better not to put nails into the hoof wall. One disadvantage of using most types of glue-on shoes is there's no give in the heel area. A shoe glued all around the hoof wall inhibits expansion of the heels. Also, plastic and glue-on shoes generally do not hold up well enough for horses doing hard athletic work.

In recent years many innovations and improvements have been made in glue-on shoes. There are new types of glue-on shoes with a cuff that goes over the hoof wall; the shoe is glued to the bottom of the foot and also to the wall, staying on better. Another type of glue-on shoe incorporates a layer that reduces impact concussion. Some farriers have developed ways to glue aluminum racing plates to the foot, enabling horses with poor feet (that won't hold nails) to continue racing.


A horse's ability to work with optimum agility and balance depends a lot upon his shoes. The foot needs a certain amount of traction to grip the ground and keep from sliding around too much, yet it must be able to slide a little--or the abrupt stop and jar could cause serious injury. The horse needs the right amount of traction and "give" each time the foot comes to the ground and pushes off again.


Because shoeing a barefoot horse can change or eliminate traction, choose or adapt shoes to suit a particular horse's traction needs. The best ground-side surface of a shoe, for most horses, is plain, without heel and toe reinforcements. A plain plate shoe interferes least with his way of going, partly because it's lighter than a shoe with a toe grab or heel calks. A shoe with creases for the nails gives a little better traction than plate shoes, in which the nail holes are merely punched. In some instances, however, a horse used for athletic purposes needs better traction than a plate shoe. In the mountains a horse may need some buildup at the toe and heel for better traction on rocks and slippery hillsides. Even a grassy side hill can be too slippery for a horse wearing plates, and he may fall down.

Horses that work at speed on various types of surfaces need appropriate traction to perform without risk of falling. In these cases, the activity should dictate the proper type of traction. A horse needs enough traction to travel safely and work at peak performance but not so much that the hoof grabs the ground and stops abruptly. Too much traction hinders the hoof's ability to slide. The abrupt grab not only increases shock and concussion but also can cause injuries due to the jerk and strain on joints, ligaments, and tendons. The horse needs enough traction to prevent slipping and falling, straining joints, or pulling muscles while scrambling--yet not so much that unnatural stress is put on legs. Many types of traction devices increase concussion because less surface area hits the ground.

Other kinds of traction devices can be injurious as well. Borium, calks, studs, etc., should be used with care because too much traction can tear ligaments and break legs. These special devices are best used only for specific situations, such as slow work on ice, jumping on wet grass, or racing on certain types of precarious track surfaces or some other type of slippery footing. In these instances, removable calks are handy.

Shoe design can increase or decrease traction. A flat, wide-webbed shoe with a beveled edge that doesn't cut into the ground much will give the least traction, while a shoe with a sharp edge or a rim shoe will cut into the ground more and give better traction. Polo plates are rim shoes with a higher inside rim to give traction while still enabling the foot to have a flexible and rapid breakover.


If a horse wears out shoes faster than his feet grow (as some endurance horses and other hard-working horses will), you can add material to the wearing surfaces to make them last longer. Borium (tungsten carbide, used on bits for drilling through solid rock) is often used for this purpose and can be spot-welded to the shoe. Contained in small-diameter steel rods, these crystals of tungsten carbide are very sharp and hard as diamonds. When the rods are welded to a steel shoe, the outer material melts and bonds with the shoe, while the crystals retain their sharp edges. The resulting rough surface is harder than steel and will not wear away. It also gives good traction on rocks, concrete, ice, and other slippery surfaces.

Borium should be added to the wear points--a spot on each heel and a spot on each side of the toe--the four basic points of natural hoof contact. Putting the borium on each side of the toe (rather than the front of the toe) can help the foot to break over center, correcting a horse with a mild crookedness of foot flight--making the foot start its flight straight. This is often the simplest solution for a horse that tends to swing his foot inward and interfere due to improper breakover.


A shoe with spots of borium added to the wear points may last up to 10 times as long as an ordinary shoe. It may have to be reset periodically as the hoof grows, but it will not wear out before the horse needs to be reshod. If the shoe is reset many times, however, the nail holes tend to get bigger (from nail wear) and must be "necked" down or reduced to avoid movement.

Winter Traction

Calks or studs are often used for winter riding but are not good for all surfaces. On rocks or pavement, calks may slip and can actually create poor traction; there isn't enough shoe surface contacting the hard ground. Borium gives better traction on frozen ground than calks or studs. When choosing a specific type of traction for winter shoes, you don't want too much grip or the horse's feet and legs may suffer strain. The horse needs a little bit of give and slide (as he naturally has on dirt or grass) to avoid excessive strain or concussion. If the foot comes to a complete halt the instant it touches the ground, ice, or pavement, it may produce too much trauma--resulting in strains and sprains or even broken bones.

In winter, snow may pack in the foot of a shod horse and become a ball of ice, creating very hazardous footing. Snow tends to pack in a shod hoof more than it does in a bare foot; the shoe holds snow, hindering the self-cleaning action of the foot. Under these conditions it helps to grease the bottom of the feet with butter, margarine, petroleum jelly, or some other non-stick material such as Pam (which doesn't spray on very well in cold weather) or ski wax (which stays on the foot longer than anything else) to help keep snow from sticking to the sole.

Snow pads can also be used to keep the snow from building up in the foot. There are two types of snow pads. One is flat across the foot with a protruding bubble that pops the snow out of the foot. The other is basically a rim pad that leaves frog and sole exposed, but the pad encircles the shoe with a lip that keeps the snow from sticking to the shoe. You still have the traction effect of the frog, with less ice buildup in the foot.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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