Answers to Foot Care Questions Frequently Asked by Horse Owners

©2009 by Doug Butler, PhD, CJF, FWCF
Butler Professional Farrier School, Crawford, Nebraska 69339

1. Which do you recommend: metal shoes, strap-on boots, or barefoot?

Before recommending a specific plan for hoof care, I need to know something about the condition of the horse's feet, the rider's experience, and the intended use of the horse. Of course, it would be ideal if all horses could be ridden barefoot, as it would be the most inexpensive and simple solution. However, most of today's domesticated horses do not have feet that are strong enough to take repeated abrasion and concussion from a mountain trail or gravel road. Some horses not only require shoes but also pads to protect a thin sole. Traction may be needed for both the rider's as well as the horse's safety. Inexperienced riders may stress a horse more than an experienced rider and horseman. Horses that have strong feet and are ridden for only a few hours a few times a month or less may get by with regularly trimmed feet and snug-fitting removable boots of some kind. All forms of hoof care have up-sides and down-sides. The important thing is to provide the most humane and practical solution for your horse and your individual situation. In order to give you a pleasurable experience, your horse has to be as sound at the end of your ride as it is at the beginning.

2. Is there a type of horse or situation where one particular style of foot care would not be the right choice?

Typically, shoeing would not be a practical choice for a horse with sound feet - where its hooves are steep angled with strong walls, thick soles, and large frogs. However, even horses like this have limits. At our farrier school, we have a number of mustangs in training, and they usually have strong feet. Yet if we ride them excessively over gravel roads or mountain trails of crushed granite or lava rock, even they require shoes to protect their feet from soreness. In the wild, a horse can rest and limit its own mobility, and it doesn't carry a rider. The humane thing to do is to protect the horse's feet with shoes if it is to be ridden and enjoyed by its rider. We have also found that even mustangs need to be trimmed regularly to prevent hoof distortion and to keep their limbs in balance. For boots to work well, they must fit snug on a well-trimmed foot. Additionally, barefoot maintained by trimming alone is not a practical choice for horses with underrun heels and other inherited foot conditions.

3. What is the most common lameness issue you have seen in horses and how could it be prevented?

Lameness in horses is caused by 1) lack of attention to foot care (neglect); 2) unbalanced and/or too short trimming of the foot; 3) shoes poorly applied by inexperienced and untrained farriers or by unknowledgeable horse owners; 4) genetically produced conformation defects; and 5) asking a horse to do more than it is has been conditioned for. Horses with all sorts of lameness issues can be handled by a well-trained and experienced farrier. Even horses with navicular disease can often be made comfortable with accurate therapeutic shoeing by a knowledgeable farrier. What we do with domesticated horses is not "natural," and therefore natural solutions aren't necessarily practical.

4. What are the main problems horses have with their feet and how do you solve them?

The most common problems with horses that are ridden relate to conformation issues that cause a predisposition to lameness. Conformation is highly heritable. Horses with comparatively straight legs, in addition to being rougher to ride, will develop concussion-related conditions with use such as ringbone, sidebone, pedal osteitis, and the concussion type of navicular disease. Horses with extremely sloping (soft) pasterns are smoother to ride but may develop tendon or ligament sprain with use as well as a compression type of navicular disease. Selection of a sound horse that is as close to an ideal conformation as possible will provide the best chance of remaining sound for any use. Horses are designed for movement. Inactivity, over feeding, and poor conditioning has ruined many horses by laminitis and founder. Therapeutic shoes of various types that mechanically support and facilitate movement are designed, forged, and applied to each individual circumstance. The most experienced and qualified farrier will be the least expensive in the long run.

5. What specific information should a horse owner know and/or record that can help a farrier better care for their horse's feet?

A regularly scheduled visit by the farrier is the most important way to care for a horse's feet. A current, up-to-date record of ideal trimming or shoeing intervals for each horse, ideal individual hoof angles and toe lengths, and ideal shoe configurations that help each horse be the most comfortable and give its optimum performance will help your hoof care provider do the best job possible for you and your horse. These numbers are arrived at by experience and are different for each horse. Generally, the least amount of stress on the leg is present when the pastern bones are in alignment with the dressed hoof.

6. What are the top 4 questions a horse owner should ask a hoof care professional in order to choose the right farrier for them and their horses(s)?

Selecting a hoof care provider is one of the most important decisions a horse owner will make affecting the performance of their horse and the pleasure they get from riding. In my book Horse Foot Care: A Horse Owners Guide to Humane Foot Care (pg 44), I recommend the following questions with a follow-up discussion of each:
a. How long have you been trimming and/or shoeing horses?
     b. Where and from whom did you receive your training?
     c. Do you have three references I can contact?
     d. Are you certified and by whom?

You may be interested in becoming a farrier yourself or just understanding the work of a farrier. Download my free e-book, "So You Want to Be a Farrier?" at You can order Horse Foot Care on our web site for only $19.95 each plus shipping and handling, or call 1-800-728-3826 (press 1).

Attention Farriers -
If you are a practicing farrier and want to boost your proficiency, master a new skill, or learn how to grow a more profitable business, we can customize a training program just for you. Call today to discuss your particular needs and plan to attend our upcoming Practicing Farrier Workshop on December 7-11, 2009 at our training facility near Chardon, Neb raska. For more information call Jake at 800-728-3826 (press 3).

Doug Butler, PhD, CJF, FWC, is the author of The Principles of Horseshoeing (P3), the most widely used farrier training book in the world. His doctorate is from Cornell University, where he did research on factors affecting growth of the horse's foot. He is a Certified Journeyman Farrier by the American Farriers Association and a Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers of England established in 1356 A.D. P3 is an encyclopedic work that covers all aspects of hoof care and is used as a standard reference by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Dr. Butler's most recent book, Horse Foot Care is designed for horse owners and will help them provide the most humane hoof care for their horses. He and his sons Jake and Pete run a horseshoeing school located near Chadron, Nebraska.

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