Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor
A Healthier Foot
Allowing a horse to go barefoot for even just part of the year can be beneficial and promote soundness. In the article “Barefoot Benefits” Gabrielle Pullen (2001) summarizes Robert Bowker’s examination of 125 barefoot horses (never shod) and 10 show horses (previously always shod) that had their shoes removed for the non-competition seasons. His findings demonstrated that when allowed to go barefoot, a horse’s feet will eventually regain characteristics associated with a “healthier” foot.
In the 10 show horses studied, conformation of the feet showed signs of change within three weeks of shoe removal, exhibiting a widening of the hooves, increased shallowness of the soles, callus formation on the toe of the soles, and a shortened breakover distance. After six to nine weeks foot width increased, the frogs became larger and had more contact with the ground, increasing the weight-bearing area of the sole and reducing stress on the hoof walls. Bowker found that “these horse’s adapted barefoot hoof characteristics [were] the same as those found in sound hooves with no internal problems” (Pullen, 2001).
In addition to the flexible properties of the hoof previously described, the hoof also has a significant role in the horse’s sense of proprioception. Proprioception is “the perception by an animal of stimuli relating to its own position, posture, equilibrium, or internal condition” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Robert Bowker’s research postulates that the hoof has receptors that are similar to those that stimulate skin sensations in other species, which might explain why horse’s feet respond differently to different surfaces. If the hoof is, in fact, a sensitive and responsive organ, then altering its surface by applying shoes will likely interfere with the horse’s innate sense of proprioception (Pullen, 2001).
According to the veterinarian Tomas Teskey (2005) and the farrier Ward Edwards (2012), horseshoes significantly impair a horse’s sense of proprioception. Similar to a gloved hand, the shod hoof has dulled sensitivity and is only able to get a general feel of the surface it is in contact with. When there is a lack of sensory feedback, the horse may inadvertently pay less attention to where its feet are landing and be less surefooted. Its ability to compensate and adjust weight on uneven or slippery footing will also be inhibited, making the horse more prone to injury.
To Shoe or Not to Shoe? That is the Question
In conclusion, I’d like to reiterate a few points from Part 1.
When deciding whether or not to shoe a horse, a number of factors must be carefully considered, including the genetics and breed of the horse, individual hoof conformation, the climate the horse lives in, and the type of footing on which it works or performs. Ultimately, hoof structure is the determining factor in deciding what is best for a particular horse (O’Grady, 2007).
If a horse is in good health, has good conformation, and its hooves are properly cared for, there’s no reason for shoes or other footwear under normal circumstances. However, the case can definitely be made to shoe a horse for therapeutic or work/performance purposes. Each horse must be considered individually. It is unreasonable to think that all horses must be shod, or conversely, that all horses should be barefoot.
Edwards, W. (2012). “Barefoot Benefits.” Farrier Service Plus: Whole Horse Farriery. Retrieved from http://www.farrierserviceplus.com/tag/proprioception/
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Proprioception.” Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/proprioception
O’Grady, S. (2007). “Barefoot vs. Shod? It depends…” Virginia Therapeutic Farriery. Originally published in American Farriers Journal Jan/Feb 2007. Retrieved from http://www.equipodiatry.com/article_barefoot_v_shod.htm
Pullen, G. (2001). “Barefoot Benefits.” The Horse Jul 1, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.thehorse.com/articles/10855/barefoot-benefits
Teskey, T. (2005). “The Unfettered Foot” A Paradigm Change for Equine Podiatry.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 25(2) (2005) 77-83