Horses have been central to human transportation and agriculture for centuries. These symbols of power and speed require hoof care and new footwear every four to six weeks to keep them working. But why?
Horses (Equus caballus) that are domesticated for human use and bred for performance wear shoes because their feet are delicate and therefore need protection, said Dr Fernanda Camargo (opens in a new tab), veterinarian and equine extension officer at the University of Kentucky. “Shoes protect certain areas of the foot from horse“, Camargo told Live Science in an email. “They keep the hooves from wearing down too much and thus becoming sensitive.”
The outside of the hoof, known as the wall, is made of a horn-like material that continually grows and needs to be trimmed, much like a person’s fingernails, according to University of Missouri Extension (opens in a new tab). “Shoes also help the foot retain its shape,” Camargo said.
However, rough terrain, such as sand and rocks, can cause the exterior to wear down, exposing the sensitive interior of the hoof. Then the horse feels pain and may be unable to walk. Historically, such deficiencies would have prevented horses from being used on battlefields or during harvesting, so shoes were added to reinforce the hoof wall, Camargo said.
It is believed that horses have worn shoes of some sort since they were domesticated around 6000 years ago (opens in a new tab)Camargo said.
Related: Why do we still measure things in horsepower?
Originally, horseshoes were made of leather or plant material. Metal shoes nailed to the feet of horses were first used around AD 500 and became commonplace over the next 500 years, Camargo said. Although aluminum and steel hoof-nailed shoes are still the most common, she said, a variety of other materials — such as rubber, resin and plastic — can also be hoof-nailed or glued. hoof like a shoe.
Although many horses need shoes, not all do. it depends on the type of riding, the terrain and how often the horse is ridden. Those who ride on rocky or concrete terrain are more likely to need shoes. Even horses that are not ridden may need shoes to protect them from the terrain or therapy shoes to help manage a foot condition. But “a lot of horses that are just ridden here and there, and kept on grassy/non-hard ground will do just fine without shoes, with regular farrier visits,” Camargo said.
Meanwhile, wild mustangs don’t wear shoes and manage to navigate rough terrain because they have very strong feet, Camargo said. But their hooves can still wear down and cause lameness. If that happens, it will cost a mustang its life, she said.
Some people wonder if nailing shoes to the horse’s hoof hurts them. There’s no blood vessels or nerves in the hoof wall, according to University of Missouri Extension, so if the shoe is nailed down correctly, it’s not painful. “But improper shoeing can absolutely hurt,” Camargo said. If the shoes or nails are misplaced, the shoes are the wrong shape or size, or if the farrier applies pressure in the wrong places, they can injure the horse. And if the hooves are improperly trimmed beforehand, it can lead to pain or lameness with or without shoes, she says.