Writing this post may create some controversy about horses and whether they need to be shod or simply go barefoot. In my opinion I think both options are acceptable however in the right situation. If we think about our own finger nails. Sometimes they are brittle and weak while other times they are hard and strong. How about our feet? Do you know someone with flat feet? What about high arches? I'm guessing that you have a different sized foot and shape to the person sitting next to you. With this in mind I would like to tell you that horses are exactly the same. They too have all different sized feet and hoof strengths. This is why it is important to have a farrier that will cater to your individual horse's needs. I like to think of horses in training as athletes therefore they need the appropriate care to make sure that they can perform at their best. As the saying goes 'without feet you don't have a horse,' so working out the type of work that they are doing and the surface they may be working on determines if shoes may be necessary.
Horse's have been shod for decades to protect the hoof, reduce injury, improve performance, assist in rehabilitation and help with gait conditioning. It is known that horse's that are shod can have a more animated gait, an increase of pressure exerted by the deep digital flexor tendon on the front navicular bone, rapid rotation of the coffin joint and fetlock joint in the forelimb at landing and have the ability to manipulate the heel angle.
Heel angle is important because it determines the load on the foot as well as the stress being put on the fetlock and knee joints. The deep digital flexor tendon, suspensory ligament, common extensors and superficial flexor tendons are all located around the hoof to allow movement, flexion and extension. If the horse's heel angle is too low or too high the horse can start to put strain on these areas and potentially create an injury. Raising heels if necessary can increase fetlock extension in the forelimb and also reduce hind fetlock extension.
The image below is a great visulisation of the important anatomical elements of the leg surrounding the hoof.
Majority of performance horses are shod. Racehorses in particular have aluminum shoes for the light weight and access to create orthopedic shoes out of the aluminum.
An interesting study conducted on horse's being shod discovered that shoeing in front increases the fore fetlock extension however does not affect the hind leg motion. Further more, hind bare feet increased fore fetlock extension which could be a potential lead to suspensory ligament desmitis (strain placed on the suspensory branches around the fetlock). This is research was conducted on young thoroughbred racehorses, however something worth considering for all horses.
Horse's like humans can have 'flat feet.' The angle of the foot is lower with the deep digital flexor tendon, collateral ligaments and navicular bone all being affected. Horses with a higher angle have been recorded to have fewer musculoskeletal injuries. Thoroughbreds have been recorded to have the highest rate of 'flat feet.' Another thing that you may not know is that racehorses have two different shaped feet depending on the direction that the run for their races. Horses that are trained counter clockwise place a greater strain on the left limb which creates a bias in loading to the right as it offloads to the left. Therefore, the left foot is under the largest load and tends to be larger and flatter.
With so many things to consider in relation to having shoes on I believe they are beneficial in catering to individual horses needs to make sure that they are supported appropriately to minimise injuries to the tendons, ligaments and muscles. However, if your horse is only used for pleasure and has shown to have hard strong feet that don't break away from being brittle then there is no harm in leaving them barefoot. Horse's can be barefoot in the off season when spelling or in minimal work with no issues, however I recommend that when competing on a variety of different surfaces and if your horse has feet problems shoes would be a more supportive option.
If any of the topics I have talked about raise concern or interest please don't hesitate to talk to you farrier the next time he is out with your horse. The farrier is there to keep your horse happy, comfortable and balanced in the feet. If trimmed or shod correctly you will find you have a more complying horse that is balanced and sound.