Scott E. Morrison, DVM, is a podiatrist at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky.
We have greatly altered the lifestyle of our domesticated horses. These changes have had some negative impacts on the horse, one example of which is the health and quality of the hoof capsule. The majority of the equine population is overweight, underworked, and genetically selected for traits other than hoof capsule quality. This combination leaves us with a weak, poorly adapted hoof capsule. The manner in which we deal with this problem (shoes/no shoes) depends on the individual case.
I really enjoy rehabilitating feet and setting them barefoot. Whenever possible I try to keep horses barefoot. For example, last year I tried getting all of my polo ponies barefoot, even though they were all sound and their feet looked great. However, I found they were not able to be as competitive as the other horses on the field when they were barefoot. They were slipping and not able to turn as fast. In fact, when playing faster polo, I felt it was actually dangerous and decided to shoe them again for the safety of myself and the horse.
Dr. Scott Morrison works on a patient with thin soles at Rood & Riddle.
Shoes can be overused and misused. Feet can be shod poorly and nailed too shallow so that the walls break up. Feet can also be trimmed out of balance. The wrong shoe type or traction devices can be used, causing strain on other structures of the limb/foot. Does that mean that all shoes are detrimental to the horse's feet? Of course not. On one hand there is nothing better than a healthy barefooted horse. I think we all agree on that; however, many horses need shoes to stay competitive at high levels in various disciplines, to stay sound, and as a therapeutic device to relieve discomfort and rehabilitate various disease processes.
The horse's foot has four basic functions: traction, support, shock absorption, and proprioception (sensing the relative position of neighboring parts of the body). It can be argued that shoes can either enhance or be detrimental to each of these basic functions, depending upon how the foot is trimmed and shod. Basic farrier skill takes into account the health and function of the feet and preserves the foot's ability to provide these functions. There are many pathologic foot conditions that can be alleviated and even corrected to some degree with shoeing, such as chronic laminitis, P3 (coffin bone) fractures, toe cracks, various forms of navicular disease, and club foot, just to name a few. These can all be rehabilitated a lot faster and effectively with the aid of different types of shoes.
However, there are some hoof capsule distortions that, in my opinion, can be treated more effectively and faster by going barefoot, such as quarter cracks and low heels. Depending on the horse's use and environment, shoes can be used to rehabilitate the foot to a point where it can then go barefoot. In this situation shoes can be considered a means to an end. An example of this is the foot that is thin-soled, brittle, and breaks up. I usually glue shoes on for one to two shoeings at six-week intervals to increase foot mass, then I remove the shoes and implement a good trimming barefoot program. As with Strasser's barefoot regime, proper management, diet, exercise, etc., are important for a shoeing program to be successful as well.