The horse hoof – 3

This third and last part of the hoof-blog-posts will be about the horse shoes and how we care for the hooves, and why in a general sense. Don’t know if it will add anything to what you already know, since my intentions are to make you confused enough to start question old dogma.

Horse shoes

Domesticated horses were used by humans for thousands of years before the use of horse shoes. The first evidences for the use of nailed horse shoes are diffuse but the first archeological findings are from the 5th century AD. The general opinion is that nailed iron horse shoes have been commonly used in Europe since the 13th century AD. The iron horse shoe is an invention that solved an ancient problem. Horses’ hooves did not last for mainly two reasons:

  • Horses carried too heavy loads for too many hours a day so they got lame or simply wore out.
  • Horses were kept in stalls on damp bedding at high levels of urine acids making the sole and frog soft and infected, easily exposed for injury and excessive wear. (The Greek cavalry commander Xenophon wrote about this problem 2500 years ago.)

In the beginning when the use of iron shoes was a new merging “high tech industry” it was probably rare and expensive, available to a few. The Farrier was the knight’s sword maker, blacksmith, horseman and physician in one; he was the rocket scientist at the time, the craft to drive a nail through a horse foot without resistance from the horse must have been as stunningly impressive as the sound of iron shod horses against stone laid streets.

When the use of the iron horse shoe was fully implemented even horses with, less than average (not to use the word “bad”) hooves could be used almost unlimited. There was no longer a reason to hesitate to breed on a horse with poor hooves, if it was excellent otherwise. The thesis named “No Foot, No Horse” was published 1751 to emphasize the need for skilled farriers. The result is that today most horses are shod and to raise question about that medieval tradition is very controversial, surprisingly even more controversial than to question religious traditions from the same époque. Sadly the iron shoe puts restraints and limits on a physiological design it took nature 55 million years of natural selection to perfect. So how do you question an almost thousand year old profession with history, schools and certification systems? – Carefully?

Doubts about horse shoes

If a horse has sore feet from hard labor there must be different ways to solve the problem, right? In the best of worlds it is easy to do the right thing; don’t push or load the horse more than she can handle, take a rest or do as a working cowboy; alter between several horses. The medieval solution, which is still in use today, was to invent some kind of protection like an iron shoe, brilliant at the time, but would we solve the problem the same way if we faced the problem for the first time today?

Do we see things differently today than a thousand years ago? There was a controversy; to do what is best for the horse or to do what it takes to win the war, to put food on the table, get the wagon up the hill, and so on. Today the controversy still exists, but it is spelled; economy. Many horses work hard as professional athletes, tourist guides, riding teachers etcetera; so the iron horse shoe is still valid? Even in a horse culture there is a limit where human interest goes before horse interest. What we can do is to push that limit as far to the horses’ side as possible; that should be our quest.

How and why in the 21st century

A common reason for the use of horse shoes today is that hooves that work or compete under extreme conditions must be reinforced by a horse shoe to stand the additional pressure from the rider, the wagon, the unnatural surface and the long working hours. Also there are medical and corrective reasons to use horse shoes, by veterinarian justification. The business of horse shoes is an industry and there are the usual iron shoes in different sizes, shapes and thicknesses, aluminum shoes for gallop race horses, plastic shoes, and the handmade shoes forged by serious craftsmen.

The process of shoeing a horse is basically to:

  • Clear the channels at the frogs side and the center channels with the knife, because dirt sticks easily to shod hooves.
  • Clean the sole and cut of excessive growth, because shod hooves don’t wear properly.
  • Clear the seat-of-corns, because stones and dirt get stuck in shod hooves.
  • Trim the bars so they do not grow to close to the toe of the frog, because shod hooves don’t wear properly.
  • The walls are cut and leveled and irregularities removed, because shod hooves don’t wear properly.

Notice that up until now, what seems like important and necessary health care of the hooves actually is imposed by the use of horse shoes themselves, at a large extent.

  • Additionally the farriers work includes checking the angles and correcting if necessary, this is advanced and means that you must know the full physiology of that particular horse. To measure angles with the cast of an eye and then cause a misalignment of the joints is risky. (My own personal experience is that knowledge more often brings thoughtfulness than bold confidence, so any sign of self-esteem in high dosages should trigger the warning bells, in any matter you might encounter in life I may well add.)
  • Reshaping the outside of the hoof with a rasp seriously weakens the hoof, good farriers agree on that opinion.

Then comes the shoeing process; hot or cold.

  • Hot means that you can forge the shoe exactly to fit the horse and also forge clips. By holding the hot shoe against the hoof you get an imprint to check that it fits and the walls can then be leveled exactly. The hot imprint is said to make a water resistant surface.
  • Cold shoeing means you must cold forge the shoe, which usually is more inaccurate but faster.
  • The nails (or clinches) should be set to come out even, turned over, cut of and hammered into a seat and smothered with a rasp. Small nails are preferred, being easier to draw out.
  • The nails must be set right or the horse will be “quicked”, feels like a needle or stick under your nail, darn painful. It can happen even the best farrier at rare times.
  • Winter shoeing includes chaulks/corks/studs , pads to cover the bottom of the hoof and even silicon filling of the whole bottom hoof capsule.



The walls of the hoof capsule may be reinforced by a horse shoe, but the other parts of the hoof system still has to stand the overload, which eventually may lead to injury and lameness, sometimes without the obvious connection to the use of horse shoes.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not mistrust skilled farriers who truly are excellent professionals fully capable of their multitalented trade, it’s the ancient medieval values the profession is based upon that don’t convince me.

Of course there are cases when corrective and medical reasons justify the use of horse shoes, but for a healthy horse there is usually no need for horse shoes at all if what’s best for the horse is set before our own interests. If the horse hooves need reinforcement to stand the pressure we demand, then it’s time to dismount and reconsider where we are heading!

In sports there are always people willing to push the limits of their own health for the sake of competition, honor and success, or only to feel free and experience the thrill of life. People put horses in competitive sports for the same reasons and whether that is moral or not can be discussed. In one end there are the horses that seem to like the competition or at least they accept it, as they really are built to run and jump, in the other end are the horses that just stand useless in stalls or small confinements all day, all night. Life is dangerous by definition, eventually it will kill you. By the way yes, it is true that there are people living under worse conditions than some horses are, but does one bad thing justify another bad thing? What is morally acceptable in the use and care for horses and what is not? I have no answer to that and anyone who claims so is standing on a bogey trapped landmine. Instead of seeking the limit for what is acceptable, consider what is best for horses. Have the courage to come in second or third on a happy healthy horse, because that is what really matters by the end of the day.

Alternative to shoes

The text below applies on healthy horses with healthy hooves. Not all breeds can live outdoors all year and the available pastures may not always be large enough or of the right status. Bare that in mind as you continue to read.

Contrary to the use of horse shoes are the many variants of barefoot trims concentrating on angles and hoof health trying to emulate the wild horse hoof, which is said to touch the ground on four points leaving the hoof wall off the ground. A barefoot trim differ from the usual shoeing process as the walls are left about 6 mm off the sole, the farrier goes easy on the sole and does not take too much off, and then he/she makes a round edge at the bottom edge of the walls to allow for an easy break-over (when the hoof lifts and tips forward ) and to prevent chipping and flaring of the wall edge.

I’ve noticed in the short time we’ve had our Nokota horses that the edge of the wall is very strong and more often wears off, rather than breaks or chips off in large flakes. The edge stays relatively sharp and is not at all so rounded as the recommended barefoot trim. The wall sticks out a few millimeters under the sole evenly with the frog, so the wear and the growth of the hoof seems exactly balanced. Maybe the lower edge of the wall stays sharp for a reason; it is providing a better grip. When the hoof is used as a tool when scratching the ground and on ice crusts in winter, a sharper edge is better. If a well rounded edge of the wall was necessary for the break-over, then the edge would naturally wear off, but it does not. It may depend on the prevailing ground surface; harder ground may result in a larger radius? Or maybe the well rounded edge is just for cosmetic reasons, to show off that this horse has been trimmed by a pro?

Some doubt can be raised about the term “barefoot trim” since it gives the impression that if you do not use horse shoes, you necessarily must “trim” or cut and alter the horse hoof. Switching from one business interest to another can’t be the only way to go.

One possible alternative way would be to provide the right circumstances and environment in which the horse hoof can self-trim as in the wild, i.e. the right combination of ground surface, amount of activity and type of activity.

A large low productive grass pasture is better than a small high productive pasture, if one has a choice. An area of sand with natural gravel pebbles like the one we have in front of our stable/shelter, as well as the concrete area on its front porch provides a good wear for the hooves. A piece of rough terrain with rocks, hills, streams, trees and logs is wanted for many reasons. Combine horseback riding with turn out time to fit the present status of the hooves.

The single most important of all is to let horses live out in the open 24-7 all year around, free to move around in a herd. The natural wear of the hooves as the horses moves around makes a perfect hoof trim we’ll never be able to emulate artificially with a hoof knife or a rasp.

To regularly check on the hooves is our responsibility. It’s not for the cleaning itself because the hooves will be dirty again after just a few strides, but lift and clean the hooves to look for changes, bruises and injuries, check the frog, clean the channels. If the walls are too long the horse needs more activity on harder grounds, eventually consider to rasp the bottom of the walls, in small steps every now and then, rather than all at once. If the rim of the wall is flaked consider to trim and rasp it, but not more than necessary, use common sense.

Some breeds of horses, like the Nokota, are well fitted for an outdoor life all year even in extremely cold climate. Our human tropical origin tricks us to believe that rainy and cold weather is terribly uncomfortable even for a horse; don’t trust your instincts in that issue. Provide an open wind/rain shelter with dry clean soft bedding and you have given the horses an option, though they will not always go inside when you expect it, it will at least still your own tropical conscience.


To secure the survival of the horse we must find ways for the horse to be useful and to earn its living, but it is also important to let the horse be a horse, provide means for the horse to live a natural horse life with good unaltered hooves. We should not change the horse to fit our needs, instead we must adapt to the horse. Horses should be bred for their own needs, not ours. When we have learned to live in coexistence with wild natural horses the way they are, we can apply the same knowledge to the rest of the world around us.



15 thoughts on “The horse hoof – 3

  1. You claim to be an amateur. You did what most professionals couldn’t do. Challenge the status quo and win. I am convinced you are correct, good job my friend! Now a question. Can a horse breed for a long duration, say a quarter horse, be returned back to being shoeless? Can a more natural breed such as an Appaloosa be returned or do we need to start with a breed such as yours?
    I think you are square on your thinking. I like it. It’s kind of like saying,”Today, we fit the horse to our needs over their own.” I like the idea of a horse being a partner vs a slave. I want to download and save your entire writing on this subject. By the way, you have a beautiful place. Well kept up and a great lay out to what I see in your photos. Your daughter looks so fearless handling the Nokota’s! Good for her. I’m passing your blog on to folks I know.


    • A distant relative Darrell Painter in Utah, son of a Sheriff, has been breeding “semi-wild” Quarter horses all his life up in a canyon a short drive outside of town from where he and his wife lives, he’s well over 80 and we got an e-mail from him recently, he had a fine palomino colt for sale. His best advice for our youngest daughter, that pretty much summed up a long life with horses was; “be careful among horses”, and he told her about an incident long ago when he lost the tip of his thumb, helping a horse all tangled up in a rope.
      Our daughter has been falling of horses since she was five, but she is careful when it comes to ropes and bucking horses. (Her sister and my wife must take credit too but I think they avoid the front end of the camera)

      One advantage with the Nokota’s is that they have some Percheron in their genes so their legs and hooves are a little oversized compared to other Spanish Colonial type of horses, making them maybe the best there is.

      I wish there was a strong global will to preserve the herds of wild horses that still exists in America and let them expand freely in vast open range reserves, so that they can serve as our source of good horses in the future, because there is no breeder like nature itself, thru natural selection. Once we take a horse and call it our own it’s domesticated and we are responsible for its health and for all foals to come, we cannot be as heartless and cruel as only nature itself can be. Even the Nokota horses risk degeneration in the future if we leave all breeding decisions to humans, so organizations like The Nokota Horse Conservancy and other alike need massive financial support from all horse nations to be able to establish good wild horse reserves before it’s too late.

      Quarter horses vary from one individual to another like all breeds do, some small breeders keep their horses close to the ways of a wild horse and often barefooted. Small serious breeders that breed horses for a hobby or cattle work, instead of a specific sport usually care more about healthy horses, than champion bloodlines and coat colors.

      The Nez Perce’ Appaloosa is a very fine but rare breed, often any horse with the typical coat color is taken for an Appaloosa here in Europe, which is false. In Europe we have the Icelandic horse and the Camargue in France, but otherwise there are a majority of pretty poor horse hooves here in Europe. I think you have many fine horses and breeds in your country that can be kept barefooted if you choose the right individuals and the right mindset of the owners. Some high classes of sports like reining, show jumping, Gallop races and endurance may be too tough on any horse, shod or barefooted, because of the many hours of hard training it takes. I know there are some breeders here in Sweden that keeps horses out on pasture 24-7 all year and their hooves are improving rapidly so; good individuals, open range, right mindset, patience and the hooves will be fine.
      Thanks again friend and keep up the good writing, we abide.


  2. Very well done, thank you 🙂 The only thing i think i can add is more emphasis on nature’s ability to fix itself, even to a degree in spite of bad genetics due to human selection. The increased stimulation and circulation from a barefoot life (versus the imobility and deterioration imposed by a shoe) is very potent indeed, and i wager that combined with proper nutrition (and that means free choice over vast pastures similar to those on which horses evolved, not “science diets” imposed by humans) proper excercise can, given enough time and encouragement, overcome the vast majority of problems. From what i have seen in North Dakota and elsewhere, the work of Pete Ramey really seems to ring true, and he shares a lot freely online:

    Per the percheron blood, i definitely think it is present in many of the Nokota bloodlines and a part of the equation for most, but i also see even the most extremely “traditional” type Nokotas, who are very much light little Indian ponies, consistently exhibiting “oversized” hooves (and also feathering) compared to other breeds, and i think that in their case this is again more due to natural selection on the snowy and soggy high prairies. They definitely are “high flotation” over soft pastures, and easier on the range for it… whereas the donkeys i have seen have proportionately small hooves and typically come from very dry and hard regions… still a lot for me to observe and ponder on 🙂 So thank you for the assistance in that quest!


  3. I’ve really enjoyed reading your study of hooves, I had a hardy Welsh mare straight off the mountain for hacking and general enjoyment rather than anything heavy and competitive; I never questioned having her shod but reading your blog has definitely made me question whether she needed it at all. The next time I’m settled enough to have a horse again (the biggest downside to being a bit nomadic) I will definitely think a lot more about it before I have it shod. Thank-you for making me think! 🙂


  4. Great information here, though I am not familiar with the Nakota either. We have a Rocky Mountain Gaited horse, paints, appaloosa, and a quarter horse. The climate we live in is very rocky, so we do put shoes on the ones we intend to trail ride, but to protect them from getting sores. Then we let them go without in the winter or when they will be in nice grasslands. It’s a compromise that seems to offer the best of both. I like the history here and the thoughtfulness that has gone into your post.


  5. You have many nice horses! Our oldest daughter was crazy about the Rocky Mountain horse when she was really small, she still think they are very beautiful. The Nokota comes from the Theodore Roosevelt NP in the Little Missouri Badlands and that is very rocky indeed. I think it’s a good compromise only to use horse shoes when it’s for a good reason and take them off when they are not needed. 🙂


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