I've been looking at horses for sale. Some horses have hard feet, and the owners say they can ride on easy trails without shoes. Some need padded shoes on their hind legs, and some just need regular ones in the front. I was wondering what the advantages (and disadvantages!) are to placing shoes on different hooves. For example; If a horse had strong hooves, and was ridden daily, would he need just shoes on his hind legs? Front? All four?
Yes, some horses have harder
feet than others. There's an old myth that black hooves are stronger
than white hooves, but research shows this isn't true.
The advantage of shoeing a trail horse is that the horse shoe provides protection to the hoof wall and elevates the hoof so that the sole from the ground. This can eliminate chips in the hoof and keep the hoof from flaring out or splitting. Shoes may be necessary for horses that have soft hooves or that have soles that bruise easily. Even horses with very tough hooves can experience chipping and peeling of the hoof wall. Most horse owners do shoe their riding horses, although most horses can be left barefoot and only trimmed when not being ridden. Shoing can be expensive as horses need to get new shoes ever 6-8 weeks, which can cost around $50-90 a visit.
Hoof pads are generally thick pads that go between the hoof and the shoe and help protect the sensitive sole of the hoof. Most horses do not need hoof pads, although I have seen horses with soft soles that are ridden with hoof pads. Generally, a healthy horse ridden on normal ground should not need hoof pads. Your farrier can help explain the differences and see if this choice is right for you. One thing to keep in mind is that some hoof pads can allow dirt or stones to get trapped beneath the pad, and thus take more work to keep clean. They can also trap moisture. For this reason, I wouldn't use pads on a trail horse.
The reason you may see horses shod differently on the front and back is that horses carry most of their weight on their front end. For this reason, the front hooves are most likely to develop lameness problems. Some people may have a horse barefoot and ride with boots just on the front, or have a horse with regular shoes on the back and special shoes or hoofpads on the front.
There's a new trend in the horse world toward barefoot of "natural" hoof care, and some believe shoeing causes most of the lameness problems we see in horses. I think in many cases problems caused by shoeing are due to the farrier more than the shoe-- I have seen many horses with hoof problems because shoes were improperly fitted. But the majority of healthy riding horses wear shoes without a problem.
In my experience, I've had horses that have done well barefoot, and horses that were miserable and lame without shoes. I am not convinced on the idea that barefoot is always better, but it may be a good choice for some horses. You would have to discuss options with your farrier and see what your individual horse's hooves like best.
As a biologist I like to
think of things from an evolutionary perspective; The original hoof
designd by nature worked well for animals that lived in a natural
environment. Horses have been shaped by human breeding and unfortunately
we have selected animals that do well when shod, allowing horses with
soft feet to reproduce and pass those traits on to their offspring.
Some breeds (Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses) reflect this more so than
others (Mustangs, Arabians tend to have stronger hooves).
You should also take into account your horse's environment. I live in a very wet area where hooves tend to pick up a lot of moisture that softens the hoof, so shoes are pretty much needed for most horses (but hoofpads can become waterlogged and trap moisture). Horses evolved to live in a dryer climate and many hooves to not hold up well to excess moisture. If you live in a very dry climate, you may have horses with harder hooves that may be more prone to chipping or cracking.
You really have to pay attention to the horse as an individual to find what works best. Not every hoof is the same.
As far as shopping for a trail riding horse, you should definately have the horse checked by a vet before purchase. You could even ask the owners what farrier they use, and give their farrier a call to discuss that horse's hooves (often farriers can be a great source for information).
If the owners say the horse needs hoofpads or special shoes, it is a good idea to find out why. Even if the horse seems healthy, you should ask if the horse has had any past lameness issues or needs any special hoof care. If you end up purchasing a horse, it is good to know what sort of care the horse is accostomed to (including feed and hoof care) so you can provide the same or transition the horse gradually into a new care regime.
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