The Paradox of Modern Hoofcare

“It’s an inconvenient hoof”

Are horseshoes a necessary transgression?

Horses are prairie animals designed and destined to move; both fast and far. They are literally born to run and the hard school of evolution gave them long legs with single toes, encased in armour plated skin that allowed them to slam their hooves into the ground with great force to generate speed and escape predation.

The only downside to this grand plan of nature is that every time a hoof hits the ground with force, an impact is generated and enters the hoof in the form of a high frequency shockwave. This is exacerbated by the pure physics of a large body mass descending through relatively small hooves, thus concentrating pressure. It is fortunate indeed that the equine design evolved to cater for this and hooves became shock absorbers functioning to dampen the damaging vibration.

Horses are engineered to stay sound, because in the “wild”, lameness means death by predation.

It stands to reason then, if a horse’s hooves remain functional, they have a good chance to remain sound until the end of days.

But then we go and sit ourselves (and our saddles) in the middle of their backs and ask them to perform arduous tasks. Repetitively.

The physics are tough enough for an unmounted horse, because the force generated at hoof level by the slinging action of a long boney leg and a hoof that is way small relative to the body mass above are inversely proportional. Pressure endured by the hoof increases exponentially with speed and with body mass. Every ounce in the saddle becomes a pound on the hoof. Nature engineered the hoof to withstand sustained force, but the blueprint was unmounted.

The reality is that hooves are often not up to the tasks we demand of them, especially when the rider is pursuing blue ribbon glory against other competitive riders; blue ribbons first, horse second. The hooves are worn more than they can grow or the soles are not thick enough for fully comfortable movement or they can’t generate sufficient grip. So we put metal shoes on to ‘support’ the inadequate hooves and our horses are ready for whatever work we want them to do. Problem solved. Or is it?

Yes, enter the humble horse shoe, born purely out of necessity and surely one of mankind’s greatest ever inventions. With metal shoes, horses could perform better for longer at war, on the farm, and transporting heavy things vast distances.

That was then, but, this is now. Horses don’t go to war anymore.

Tractors plough the paddocks, trucks rule the highways and kids get driven to school. Nowadays horses are play things and companions. We want to do the best by them and we have luxury of the first world; we’re able to stand back and consider the big picture and the long picture.

And we have the absolute luxury to question status quo and change our ways. If there’s a better way.

Truth is, many horses are retired prematurely, either unwilling or unable to achieve athletic results or broken with chronic lameness. Industry consensus suggests that much of this arises from hoof problems.

It is only fair to ask how much early retirement could be avoided by changing hoof management parameters?

The short term usefulness of horseshoes comes with a long term price. It’s just that long term didn’t matter back then when life was short and the world was a hard and very wide place.

Horseshoes have long been referred to as a ‘necessary evil’ (long before this term was hijacked by barefoot or bust purists). Long has it been understood that shoes negate hoof function. Long have blacksmiths been aware of the creeping deformity that accompanies continuous shoeing. Long were horeshoes only used when necessary.

In this modern age we have technology that lets us see right into the very cellular structure of hooves and we can see the hidden, insidious changes that are underway, long before they become irreversible damage. We can see, in minute detail, how rigid horse shoes transgress physiological functioning. We can confer with the blacksmiths of old.

It’s also fair to say that not all horses are going to break down mid-career because they are wearing shoes.

But the thing is, can anyone tell in advance – years in advance – which ones will breakdown? No.

The solution seems obvious. We know that barefoot horses tend to stay sound ‘forever’, so let’s take the shoes off our performance horses and compete barefoot. Problem solved. Again.

The trouble is we’ve been there before and we know they need something on their hooves to compete effectively and safely.

Is it even possible to overcome this modern paradox and achieve athletic performance and maintain lifelong soundness? Is this the price that horses will always pay when serving as mankind’s beasts of burden?

What if we can change hoof trimming parameters to better accommodate a life out of shoes? What if we can grow better hooves by optimising equine lifestyle parameters? What if there are new ways, better ways, to protect horses’ hooves so they can remain competitive without sacrificing hoof function?

How we choose to manage our horses’ hooves has enormous implications for their long term soundness, but to manage them effectively, we must first understand how they live and breathe.