Yes, Your Horse Really Can Be Barefoot
By Christina Manian
Horse shoes...a common association with horses, especially those that are ridden. But is it actually appropriate for horses to be wearing metal shoes? What about keeping them barefoot? Which is better? As a horse lover and owner, I’ve been exposed to both sides of the argument and have learned a lot through not only my own experience but reading and speaking with experts. I’ll share what I’ve found here...but spoiler alert: your horse can very likely live more soundly and happily without shoes.
If you followed the Olympic equestrian competitions this summer, you may have noticed that two of the three team jumping horses from Sweden were barefoot. This team not only won the gold medal in jumping finals, but one of the horse and rider pairs also won the individual jumping silver medal. Similarly, Shannon Peters, wife of 2021 dressage Olympian Steffen Peters, has been experimenting with keeping horses barefoot who are performing high levels of dressage -- with much success. She started on the journey as a way to help keep her horses sound and has since taken over 15 horses from training level to Grand Prix, the highest level of dressage training, all barefoot. She found, "the legs tighten up, they're freer in their shoulders, they're better in their movements and they're straighter."
These examples are groundbreaking for the competitive and natural horse communities alike as they show that horses can perform at the absolute highest level of their sport without shoes. A common argument against keeping horses barefoot is that they are carrying extra weight, working too hard, and working too often to go without hoof “protection.” However, this couldn’t be further from the truth based on what science and evolution tell us. Horses have evolved to walk dozens of miles per day barefoot, including pregnant mares and horses carrying a hundred or more pounds in the summer than they were in the winter, more than accounting for the weight of a rider. With the domesticity of horses, many are not getting this movement despite some being in peak athletic shape, especially on the hard terrain that yields healthy hooves. One study done in Australia compared horses that had to travel 40 miles from their food source to their water source with horses living on lush cattle pastures. The horses in the first group had incredibly healthy hooves without disease while 70% of the horses living on pasture had laminitis.
Philip Himanka, a well-known barefoot farrier in Colorado further explains, “[Once horses] started being in confined environments, they started exercising less and living on softer terrain, this led to their hooves becoming weaker and caused the need to start supporting hooves with rigid structures [like metal horse shoes]. This led to the internal structures of the hooves and related body systems to stop working properly.”
When looking at the roles the hooves play in a horse's body, one of the most important is circulation. When a horse’s bare hoof lands on the ground, the hoof capsule around the heel expands, allowing blood from the body to rush in; as the hoof lifts back off the ground, the capsule contracts and the blood gets circulated back up into the body. Robert Bowker, VMD, PhD, Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University has studied this mechanism and conducted blood-flow studies that have shown a horse who is barefoot has twice as much bodily circulation compared to when wearing a metal shoe. In fact, shod horses, on average, have a 10% higher heart rate than barefoot horses to compensate for the reduced blood flow contribution of the hooves, which could have cardiovascular and nervous system impacts over long periods of time.
This diffusion of blood also acts as a shock absorber, in fact horses with shoes have 60-80% less shock absorption than barefoot horses. This results in increased risk for negative impacts to the joints, tendons, and ligaments running all the way up the leg in shod horses.
Shoeing, particularly if done improperly, can contribute to other significant health concerns including navicular syndrome, laminitis, contracted heels, side bone, and ringbone. This is due to working against the hoof’s natural shape and function with a rigid structure and/or improper trimming. These conditions are then a result of unhealthy internal shifting of the hoof structures and the growth of compensatory structures like excess bone.
Finally, metal shoes also result in decreased traction and proprioception. When considering traction, a shod foot will pick up dirt, stones, mud, and snow. In comparison, a barefoot hoof’s natural expansion and contraction provides a self-cleaning mechanism, providing optimal traction. In fact, some reining riders actually put shoes on the back feet of their horses to help reduce traction, as they found barefoot back feet were stopping too quickly in competition.
Proprioception is the ability to sense movement and position of one’s body and helps the nervous system know where the body is in space. As prey animals, horses’ have survived throughout history due largely in part to their proprioceptive abilities. The same nerve receptors that stimulate skin sensation are present in the hoof and are extremely sensitive. Information from these receptors help inform muscle contraction and gait on varying surfaces, helping to prevent injury. This sensory feedback is essentially eliminated when a horse is shod.
So what should you do with your shod horse now knowing all this information? Starting with an alternative to a metal shoe is immediately available. These less rigid options would include rubber or composite shoes and they allow for more natural expansion and contraction of the hoof.
However, If you’re ready to take the plunge and transition to barefoot, there are many options to make the change incredibly smooth, including temporary boots and, for horses needing more long-term support, glue-on boots. These options act as a bridge to living fully barefoot while continuing work and riding.
Fully transitioning to barefoot can take time, patience, and support. The biggest component to successfully keeping a horse barefoot is movement. If a horse is barefoot but in a stall all day, the regulatory mechanisms of the hoof will not be able to work properly as they are activated through movement. Also, the hoof will only be as hard as the surfaces it’s exposed to. For example, if a horse lives and works on very soft footing, he will experience soreness on rocks and gravel, so it’s best to put boots on for trail rides or times of exposure to much harder ground.
Of course, it is always recommended that you consult with your veterinarian and a farrier who is knowledgeable about barefoot trimming and management before making changes. However, I hope that with this information, you will consider taking the metal shoes off of your horse and switching to something more natural, less invasive, and complimentary of the amazing natural mechanisms of the hoof.