In an ideal world, a horse wouldn’t need to wear shoes—wild horses have coped perfectly well without shoes for millennia. Unfortunately, most modern horses have feet with different needs from their wild forebears. These days, any animal that is either regularly hacked out, doing prolonged work on hard ground or roadwork, or has sensitive feet will need to be shod for protective reasons.
But does your horse need four shoes? Some owners choose to shoe only their horse’s front feet on the grounds that they’re more sensitive, but there are other things to consider: ‘Horses actually wear our their hind feet more quickly than in the front, so, although the front feet are more sensitive, there are very good reasons to be shod with a complete set, not least for balance reasons,’ explains Nottinghamshire farrier Dave Ward.
Horses may also need shoes if their feet are growing unevenly, or to help to treat an illness like laminitis or navicular, and in this case your vet will advise you on the best course of action. Similarly, corrective shoeing can help with your horse’s conformation and going.
If you are planning to get your horse shod, you need to find a registered, qualified farrier and a good place to start is the online registry. You can also ask your vet, or trusted people at your yard for good local recommendations.
The job of a farrier is actually threefold: first, he keeps a watchful eye on the condition of your horse’s feet by looking out for any signs of ill health or disease; secondly, he keeps them trimmed to the optimum shape and length, cleans them thoroughly and cuts out excess hoof walls, dead sole and dead frog; thirdly he replaces worn-out shoes with new shoes. This is all with the ultimate aim of allowing the weight of the animal to be equally distributed, and to support the horse to move easily and comfortably during both work and play.
A horse will typically not need his first set of shoes until he is around four years old—until then his feet are still developing (apart from racehorses, which are shod early for obvious reasons). After this, he’ll need to be seen every 6-8 weeks, for a trim and to be re-shod: any longer than that and gaps and cracks will appear in his hooves, and he will start to get uncomfortable.
Before your farrier arrives, you should make sure that your horse is tied up, that he is standing on a dry, flat surface in a quiet place, and that he has clean, picked-out feet. In total, the visit should take about an hour, as the farrier takes off the old shoes, trims the feet and selects and fits the new shoes. Feel free to ask him any questions you might have while he’s working away.
In between visits from your farrier, you should keep an eye on your horse’s shoes and feet as part of the routine of picking his feet out—it’s not unknown for a shoe to come loose. In these cases, it may be helpful for you to pull the shoe off yourself for your horse’s safety. You can ask your farrier to explain the best ways to do this: it’s quite straightforward and a great skill to have, as you can save your equine friend a good deal of discomfort.