Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses? Is it Cruel or Essential?

Do horseshoes hurt horses?

If you’re just learning, it certainly looks like it is painful.

However, the key to putting shoes on a horse is skill and training.

Let’s take a look at the process and when it does or doesn’t cause the horse pain.

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Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses?

lots of used horseshoes

When a fully qualified farrier puts shoes on a horse it doesn’t hurt them. To understand this, you need to have an understanding of farrier and hoof terminology and how shoes are put on. 

So to start, I think it’s important to take a look at this first.

Farrier Terminology

The farrier is the person that takes care of your horse’s feet. A good farrier will have the correct qualifications and a passion for managing horse hooves. There is a famous old equestrian saying ‘no foot, no horse.’

Horseshoe

Let’s start with the most basic. A standard horseshoe is made from steel or aluminum and is a ‘U’ shape. It has holes for nails and sometimes has metal clips that wrap around the side of the hoof.

Rasp

A rasp is like a large nail file or cheese grater. The farrier uses it to balance out the hoof and fine tune the trim.

Pincers

Also called nippers are used to do the main rough trim of the hoof. They are also used to pull off shoes.

Knife

Farriers use a specially shaped knife to cut away hoof on the sole of the foot around the frog.

Nails

The nails used to attach horseshoes are a special shape with flat sides and a square top. They come in different lengths.

To learn more about the specialized tools a farrier needs, I found this great video that shows you all the different tools.

Hoof Anatomy

If you know about the anatomy of a horse’s hooves, you will understand why you can put shoes on without it causing pain.

The part of the hoof that you can see is the wall. When you lift up the hoof, you will the frog, which is the triangle shape the runs from the heel to the middle of the sole.

Inside the hoof wall, there are various essential structures including bones and soft tissues. But when it comes to horseshoes and pain, we need to look specifically at the hoof wall.

The hoof wall is made from keratin, which is similar to fingernails, but on a horse, it is stronger. And like, a fingernail, it grows continuously. The University of Missouri says that “the hoof wall does not contain blood vessels or nerves.” [1]

You can probably see where this is going? I bet you are right! Let’s find out.

When you lift up a hoof, you can see a white line around the rim. Part of the farrier’s skills includes driving a nail through a very small space on the hoof wall side of this line.

By putting the nail here, it is going through the area that has no blood or nerves. The horse can’t feel it and it doesn’t hurt. If the nail goes on the other side of this line, it hits sensitive structures and can cause an immense amount of pain.

This also goes for a poor trimming job. It is possible to trim too much hoof and hit the sensitive painful areas. That is why, even if you just trim your horse and don’t use shoes, that you need to always use a skilled farrier.

I found an amazing video that shows you the inside of a horse’s hoof and talks about the anatomy. Now, they do use a real hoof, but not on a live horse, don’t worry!

But if you have a weak stomach, consider yourself warned. However, I promise it’s not very gory.

Horseshoeing Process

Horses need their feet trimmed and if wearing shoes every four to eight weeks. When will depend on how fast their hooves grow, shoe wear, and any special shoes that might be needed.

The shoeing process will start with the farrier removing the old shoes and cleaning the sole of the hoof. Next, the hoof is trimmed and balanced. The farrier will shape and fit the new horseshoes before nailing them on.

If you watch the farrier at work, you will notice that the nails come out the outside of the hoof wall. When the shoe is attached, the excess nail is cut off and blunted. This is called clinching.

None of this, causes the horse pain, even if hot shoeing is used. I love the smell of hot shoeing, though many not involved with horses might not. Growing up around it, it is a smell you associate with being around horses.

To see the shoeing process, take a look at this cool video from a renowned American farrier. It takes you through his whole process with one horse. You’ll love it!

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Are Horseshoes Cruel?

Vet Doing Corrective Shoeing For Navicular Treatment

That is a fair question! I mean if you didn’t know, and you were looking at a person hammering nails into a horse’s foot, you’d think, gosh that must really hurt! But then why is the horse standing there?

As you just learned, when done correctly by an experienced farrier horseshoes don’t hurt horses. 

Do Horseshoes Hurt Horses Longterm?

Once the shoes are on the horse, it wears them for the next four to eight weeks before the farrier comes and does the whole process again. While not horses need shoes, they provide many benefits instead of causing pain.

Benefits of horseshoes include:

  • Protection from rough surfaces, hard or rocky ground [2]
  • Provides support to horses at high levels of sport, such as reiners, showjumpers, and eventers
  • Assisting with relief for confirmation and health issues by using corrective shoeing

Do Horses Need to Wear Shoes?

man putting horseshoe on his horse

Horseshoes are not always necessary and many horses can happily live barefoot. There is actually an increase of top showjumping horses going barefoot. However, don’t jump in without understanding the reasons behind it.

2021, Olympic Gold Medal winner, Peder Fredricson is always learning and changing for the benefit of his horses. He won Gold in 2021 on a horse with no shoes. The shoes or barefoot debate gets intense.

But Peder has this to say about his shoeing decisions – “I don’t think it is black or white, I think it is more about what the individual horse is most comfortable with.” [3]

When a lucky equestrian got the chance to interview Peder’s farrier, they found out a little more information. One reason that allows Peder’s horses to jump barefoot is the surfaces they compete on.

Peter, Peder’s farrier says this: “Since modern arena materials are very firm, with a nailed-on steel or aluminium shoe, we also take away the hoof’s ability to flex medio/laterally. This is a problem because I think we therefore put excessive stress on the hoof, especially on the coffin joint, since the fiber-sand surfaces don’t allow one side to sink while turning.”[4]

There is a lot of thought and experience put into the above comment and decision. But as you can see there is no definite answer to having barefoot horses or not.

Horses don’t necessarily need to wear shoes, though some do benefit from them. The main point to understand here is that the horse itself, the environment, and activities all play are role in whether the horse needs shoes.

This is why it is so important to have a knowledgeable, qualified, professional farrier. In some cases keeping a horse barefoot is best for that individual. I have a horse just like this.

Due to the shape of his feet, his hooves stay in much better condition without shoes. But that decision was made with the advice of a top farrier.

When Did Horseshoeing Start?

Putting shoes on horses isn’t a new concept, which shows we learned quite early on how to put shoes on horses without causing pain and the benefits of them.

According to Britannica horseshoes were invented by the Romans, with reference to shoes in the 1st century BC. [5] 

Prior to metal shoes, ancient peoples protected their horse’s hooves with early versions of hoof boots that were made from plants woven together or hides. 6]

The metal horseshoe became popular in Europe when it was found that the ground was too wet for natural protection and horses needed a better grip on the surface. At this time shod horses became more and more common.

If you want to learn more about the history of horseshoeing and hoof care, then I recommend taking a few minutes to watch this video.

I found it really informative, and always recommend it to equestrians who ask me these questions.

Why Don’t Wild Horses Need Shoes?

A very good question! If modern, domestic horses need shoes in many circumstances, then why don’t wild horses need them or even regular trims?

3 wild horses roaming around the mountain: they are perfect for songs about wild horses!

Wild horses travel across vast amounts of areas each day. Much more than a domestic horse can move in its paddock or during its daily exercise.

This movement across a variety of terrain and many miles naturally wore down hoof growth. It also meant that these horses evolved to develop good, strong feet. If they didn’t have good feet then they would not survive.

Also, this large amount of movement helped to develop tough, thicker soles that would not break down so easily. It is impossible for domesticated horses to move enough to keep their hooves strong and trimmed enough.

FAQs

I hope I’ve helped you understand the reason why horseshoes don’t hurt horses. I’ve also included some relevant information and history for you to give you more in-depth knowledge.

But of course, you probably still have some questions! That’s OK, and just shows how much you want to be a good horseperson. So here are a few questions I’ve had myself or heard from other equestrians over the years.

What happens if you don’t put horseshoes on a horse?

When you don’t put horseshoes on a horse it is possible that it can cause excessive hoof wear of the soles, which can make them tender.
However, over a long period of time, the sole will toughen up and hopefully improve hoof condition. But it isn’t always the case for all horses.

Do horses enjoy being shoed?

man brushing his horse's shoes but do horses need shoes?

Most horses don’t care one way or another about being shod. It doesn’t hurt so they tolerate it. Some horses don’t like the sound of the hammer hitting the shoe. I wouldn’t say a horse enjoys shoeing but they don’t hate it either.

How do horseshoes stay on?

Horse shoes stay on with strategically placed nails and sometimes clips that extend from the front or sides of the shoe.

Does cleaning a horse’s hoof hurt?

a vet checking the brown horse's hooves

No, cleaning a horse’s hoof doesn’t hurt. The only time it might hurt is if there is something wrong, such as a bruise or abscess. In those cases, you need to treat accordingly. But it causes no pain to a healthy hoof.

Do horses need shoes for trail riding?

So, do horses need shoes for trail riding? Horses need shoes for trail riding as you cover uneven, rough, and possibly stoney ground.
An alternative is to use hoof boots. Regardless of your choice, a horse always needs some kind of hoof protection for trail riding.

Is it cruel to put horseshoes on horses?

When done correctly and with the individual horse’s needs in mind, it is not cruel to put horseshoes on horses.


Conclusion

As you can see, I hope, from my guide that horseshoes don’t hurt horses. A skilled farrier can trim and show a horse without causing any pain.

In some cases, corrective shoeing can actually manage pain from certain conditions, making the horse more comfortable.

Whatever way you decide to care for your horse’s feet, hoof health is essential. With this, I come back around to my earlier quote.

If your horse has poor feet, you have no horse. Good feet are essential to soundness and your horse’s overall well-being.

References

  • 1. The Horse’s Hoof [Internet]. Kentucky Equine Research. 2011. Available from: https://ker.com/equinews/the-horses-hoof/#:~:text=The%20hoof%20wall%20is%20made
  • 2. Threlkeld L. To Shoe or Not to Shoe? [Internet]. Expert how-to for English Riders. Available from: https://practicalhorsemanmag.com/health-archive/to-shoe-or-not-to-shoe
  • 3. Showjumping World of. Peder Fredricson on horsemanship: “The horse is your responsibility, so you need to get involved and be engaged” [Internet]. www.worldofshowjumping.com. [cited 2022 Jan 12]. Available from: https://www.worldofshowjumping.com/WoSJ-Exclusive-interviews/Peder-Fredricson-on-horsemanship-The-horse-is-your-responsibility-so-you-need-to-get-involved-and-be-engaged.html
  • 4. The Olympic Hoof Explained: Swedish farrier outlines barefoot management of gold medal team [Internet]. Fran Jurga`s Hoofcare + Lameness. 2021 [cited 2022 Jan 12]. Available from: https://hoofcare.blogspot.com/2021/08/olympic-hoof-explained-swedish-barefoot.html_0275753620.html
  • 5. Horseshoe [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/horseshoe
  • 6. Cohen R. The History of Horseshoes [Internet]. Dressage Today. Available from: https://dressagetoday.com/horse-health-/history-of-horseshoes
closeup shot of a horseshoe

Do horseshoes hurt horses? Let us know your opinion in the comment section!

Siun L
Siun L

Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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