Emergency Shoe Removal for Horses

Having the right tools and knowing how to use them can help you remove a shoe safely when a farrier isn’t available.

Donald Brockman, DVM, can't count the number of times he's been flagged down by fellow trail riders whose horses' shoes have been partially separated from their hooves. A nearly lost shoe should stop a rider cold because it can expose horses to foot injuries ranging from nail punctures to sole bruising. Therefore, it is critical to remove a nearly lost shoe completely as soon as possible.

"It's one thing if you know there's a farrier on the trail somewhere, but that's not always the case," says Brockman, who made his living as a farrier before earning his veterinary degree. "People should know how to pull a shoe in an emergency situation."

Situations that require emergency shoe removal can occur on and off the trail at any time, says Brockman. Mud, deep snow, or a tiny pebble can all loosen and partially remove a shoe anywhere a horse travels. Horses that spend the majority of their time in the pasture or that have been improperly shod are most susceptible to partially lost shoes, according to Brockman.

"For example, some horses are shod with front feet long in the toe and low in the heel," he says. Over time, that horse's movement will put enough pressure on the (toe of the) shoe to push it from the front backward toward the heel. When that happens the horse is likely to overstep--that is, the back foot will step on the sliding shoe. Consistent overstepping will loosen a shoe, causing it to spin out of position.

This can also occur in horses that overreach when they perform their gaits.

Steve Sullivan, a farrier based out of Monticello, Ky., notes, "Tennessee Walking Horses are especially vulnerable because their gaits are such that their hind feet actually step into their front footprints. So their chances of stepping on the back of that front shoe are increased." Many other breeds are just as susceptible.

Brockman says other types of improper shoeing also can increase a horse's risk of partially losing a shoe.

"Hooves that are not filed flat and are lower on the inside than on the outside will cause misalignment of the legs and bring the horse's front or back feet too close together," he says. "That will also cause a horse to step on and eventually loosen a shoe."

Beyond the possibility of hoof wall damage, a shoe that completely separates from a horse's hoof poses little threat to foot health. That's because hoof material lost along with the shoe will regenerate over time. However, horses' feet are at risk for more serious damage when a shoe is partially lost and shifted out of its correct position. "The true emergency is when a horse had a spun or partially removed shoe and the nails are out of position," Brockman says.

"Horses can suffer bruised soles and run the risk of puncture wounds from nails still attached to a partially lost shoe," Sullivan adds. Puncture wounds expose horses to bacterial infections. And abscesses that develop as a result of such infections require immediate veterinary care.

Shoe Removal Steps

It's impossible to ensure a horse will never partially lose a shoe, so it's critical an owner knows how to remove the loose shoe safely. Here's how to do it:

Gather the Tools Both Sullivan and Brockman recommend an owner use a farrier's rasp and a pair of shoe pull-offs or long-handled nippers to remove the shoe. Both the nippers and shoe pull-offs can also be used to trim damaged hoof material.

"The shoe pullers are not as sharp as the nippers, but they can be used to trim hoof materials if hooves are cracked as a result of the loose shoe, or if a piece of hoof material is sticking up from the hoof wall," says Brockman.

Place the assembled tools on the ground within easy reach.

Position the Horse If a shoe is partially lost during a trail ride, Brockman recommends the rider dismount and walk the horse back to the trailer before trying to remove the shoe.

"The horse will be out of balance, so you want to get off the horse and walk back. At a slow walk, you have better control of the horse and the path the horse is traveling," he says.

If the situation occurs at home, Sullivan recommends you bring the horse into a stall or wherever he will comfortably stand for shoe removal.

"You want the horse to feel comfortable while you remove the shoe," he says. "A horse may be more comfortable in a stall where there are fewer distractions. Removing the shoe in a stall will also give you better control of the horse's movements. The horse is less likely to get away from you."

Position Yourself Owners who regularly clean their horses' feet understand that their position relative to the hind feet is key to avoid injury if a horse kicks. So, to remove a shoe on a hind limb, begin the process by standing beside your horse's hip so you and your horse are both facing the same direction and your back is to the horse's rump. Pick up the horse's foot and place it on your inside thigh.

To prepare to remove a front shoe, stand beside the horse's shoulder so you and the animal are facing the same direction and your back is to the horse's rump. Pick up the horse's foot and place it on your inside thigh. This position optimizes access to the outer hoof wall for the next step.

File to "Thin" the Clinches Once the foot is in position, use the farrier's rasp to file down or "thin" the clinches (pieces of horseshoe nails left after farriers clinch and clip the nails when setting shoes).

"Use the smoother (finer-gauge) side of the rasp," Sullivan says. "The side that is rough will catch on the clinches, not file them down."

Use firm, light strokes to file the clinches smooth, either one-by-one or by applying the rasp from one side of the hoof to the other in a single motion. Be patient, and apply only light, consistent pressure. Too much pressure can remove hoof material--literally file a hole in the hoof--and damage the hoof wall.

Clinches can also be removed using nippers. Place the nippers between the bent clinch and the hoof. Close the tool's handles to cut the clinch from the hoof.

Occasionally clinches will break off when a shoe is partially removed, leaving a portion of the clinch in the hoof wall.

"It's usually not a problem because the clincher head is at the front of the hoof, and that's where the hoof wall grows fastest," Sullivan says. "The farrier is sure to see it when he comes to reset the horse (reset his shoe), and he's going to cut that portion off when he trims the hoof."

Remove the Shoe To remove a shoe from a front foot after the clinches are out, reposition yourself with your back to the horse's head, lift the foot, and brace it between your knees. To remove a back shoe, stand with your back to the horse's head, lift the foot, and place it on your inner thigh.

Use either the shoe pull-offs or the nippers to grasp the outer edge of one side of the shoe at the heel. Leverage the tool's long handles downward on a diagonal toward the toe to pry the shoe loose. Be sure to apply firm, steady pressure.

Further loosen the shoe by repeating the procedure on the opposite side of the foot. Use the tool to grasp the shoe at the outer edge at the heel and draw down on the opposite diagonal to the corresponding point near the toe.

Tap loosened portions of the shoe back into place. This exposes nails so they can be removed one by one.

Continue this procedure until you've completely loosened the shoe and removed all the nails.

Firm, steady pressure and patience are necessary to avoid bruising the sole of the foot or damaging the hoof wall. Nippers can be used to trim torn hoof material, but inexperienced owners are advised to leave this job to their farriers.

An owner who suspects a nail has penetrated the sole of the horse's foot should remove the nail if the nailhead is visible. Seek veterinary care immediately.

Clean and Protect the Foot Once you've completely removed the shoe and accounted for all of the nails, use a hoof pick to remove debris from the foot. If the horse's foot is particularly sensitive or if you suspect a bruise or a nail prick, protect the foot from infection and the hoof wall from further injury by applying a manufactured emergency boot or by creating a boot from standing wrap and gauze or another protective material.

Cut several pieces of gauze into squares the size of the horse's hoof. Gauze squares should be large enough also to cover the hoof wall. Then secure the "boot" with flexible self-adherent bandaging tape.

"You can even use cotton and duct tape to cover the foot," Brockman says. "But if the farrier does not arrive immediately, remember that you're going to have to change the wrapping as the horse walks on the hoof."

The horse should remain in his stall until a farrier or veterinarian, if necessary, can examine it.

When the farrier arrives, Brockman advises owners to ask him or her to demonstrate shoe removal technique. If possible, perform the procedure yourself with his or her guidance.

"The people who know how to do it make it look easy," Brockman says, "but every owner should know how to do this before they are in a situation where they have to do it. After all, you don't wait until you have a flat tire to learn how to change a tire on your car."

Take-Home Message

All shod horses are likely at some point to partially lose a shoe. Having the right tools and knowing how to use them to remove a shoe in an emergency situation can reduce the likelihood of subsequent hoof damage and infection.

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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