Should Your Horse Wear Shoes or Go Barefoot?

White horse hooves with shoes on soil

The Spruce / Elizabeth Head

Horseshoes are designed to protect horses' hooves, the same way shoes protect our feet. As horses became domesticated, horseshoes were popularized as a way to protect the horse's hooves in inhospitable environments. Many breeds of horses were not bred with hoof strength in mind, leading to weaker hooves in some breeds. However, under normal conditions, horses may not need horseshoes and can go without, which is referred to as going barefoot.

Horse hooves are similar to human nails, only much thicker. Farriers will usually nail the horseshoe into the thick unfeeling part of the animal's hoof. While the center of the horse's hoof is very sensitive, the outside feels no pain. Sometimes the farrier will opt to glue the shoe on instead. Be warned that your horse can lose its shoes, especially when riding in muddy conditions.

Horseshoeing Controversy

Some people think horses should never wear shoes and that if trimmed and maintained correctly, a horse can participate in any discipline and remain sound without them. Many barefoot proponents believe that even serious hoof problems that are traditionally treated with specialized shoeing by a farrier can be solved with natural trims, changing the footing the horse stands on, and changing its diet. Some people even maintain that shoeing is inhumane.

Should You Shoe Your Horse?

For most pleasure horses, shoes probably aren’t necessary, and sensible maintenance, including regular trimming, may be all that is needed. You need to pay attention to the wear of the hoof and the comfort of your horse as you ride over all sorts of footing. If your horse is getting sore feet, you may have several options. Your horse may need protection like hoof boots, which should be worn only when you ride. If worn extensively for longer periods, they can potentially encase the feet in a moist, dirty environment. Or, you may opt for traditional nailed-on shoes. There are also glued-on shoes, which some view as more humane. The best resource for information about which hoof protection your horse may need is your farrier.

While going barefoot may be considered by some as ideal for horses, there are times when shoes are necessary. Horses that pull abnormal or excessive loads require shoes to prevent their hooves from wearing down unevenly or abnormally. Shoes are often used to protect and support the hooves of racing and other performance horses. Farriers may also apply horseshoes for therapeutic purposes. Furthermore, shoes may be used to give horses extra traction in snow and ice.

Horses in snow
Mike Grandmaison / Getty Images

The Dangers of Horseshoeing

Barefoot enthusiasts point to shoeing as the cause of many problems, and, indeed, poor shoeing can do more harm than good. But shoeing also has many benefits. Whether or not barefoot is best is up to you and your horse. Most farriers are very good at their jobs, but mistakes do happen. If the horse's hoof is brittle or damaged, the nails used in horseshoeing can do further damage. Sometimes, the nails are inserted incorrectly, causing the animal pain and damaging the soft tissue in the hoof. An improperly placed or fitted shoe can cause damage when the animal walks, similar to the issues that arise when humans wear shoes that are too small or uncomfortable.

  • Why do horses need shoes?

    Horseshoes protect your horse's hooves from damage, and they improve traction.

  • Why don't wild horses need shoes?

    Wild horses' hooves get much more exercise on their hoofs than domesticated horses, as this movement has given them better hoof structure.

  • Do horse shoes hurt horses?

    Since a horse's hoof cannot feel any pain, horse shoes cannot give them discomfort.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.