by Laura Crum
Apparently these are fighting words. Since I began blogging it has (slowly) dawned on me that horse people seem to take this subject very, uhmm, “seriously”—it appears to belong in the same category as religion and politics when it comes to discussion. Why, I have no idea. For me this topic is not fraught with emotional baggage of any kind, so I’m just going to wade in with my observations—based on forty years of non-stop horsekeeping. Feel free to fire away at me. I like a good argument—oops, I mean discussion.
First off, I was raised (in the horse biz) by a bunch of team ropers, and using horses were (mostly) shod. We used to be pretty proud of those relatively rare individuals who didn’t need shoes, but most horses got shoes as a matter of course if they were to be roped on. Same went for the cowhorse people and cutters I later rode with. No one I knew made much effort to see if a horse could go barefoot and still do his job comfortably. I owned one horse in my youth (an Appy named Nylon who had white feet) that never ever wore shoes. He was a rope horse and was also ridden on plenty of rocky trail rides—no problem. But we considered him the exception that proved the rule.
My first “fancy” horse was Gunner, a well bred QH gelding that I took to the Snaffle Bit Futurity and to various cutting events. Gunner was a tender footed horse and I kept him shod. Eventually I had to keep him in shoes and pads in front or he would get sore in deep ground (such as many of the arenas I rode in). I ran him in shoes and pads for oh, maybe eight years, before I retired him at fifteen years of age, due to various arthritic complaints. He never got thrush and his frogs stayed fine—I kept an eye on that. After he was retired to pasture I left him barefoot, and he did OK. I don’t believe he ever was using horse sound as a barefoot horse—if I led/lead him across hard ground (gravel road…etc) he walks very gingerly. But in the pasture he trots sound. So, I consider this a success story. Shoes and pads kept this tender footed horse sound throughout his competitive life and did not damage his chances for a happy barefoot retirement. Gunner is sound, if a bit rickety, today—at 31, almost 32 years. That’s over fifteen years of happy barefoot retirement.
Next we have Plumber. I bought Plumber as an unbroken three year old. He had never worn shoes and had been turned out in pasture all his life. When I bought him he was lame due to sore feet—his crappy, flarey, brittle little feet were all broken up. I shod him. He got sound. And Plumber was shod non-stop until he was twenty—at which point we retired him. He never wore pads. He ALWAYS wore shoes. And he stayed sound. He remained a tender foot. Freshly shod, he would limp on rocky ground. But he was a working rope horse who never missed a day due to lameness. We retired him at twenty (still sound) because he didn’t want to run any more, and we wanted to honor his choice. He had paid his dues. I pulled his shoes.
Plumber has been retired and barefoot for two years now and is pasture sound, like Gunner. Like Gunner, I don’t think he is using horse sound—he walks very carefully on the gravel driveway. But he trots sound in his corral. Another success story. Shoes kept this little tenderfooted gelding using horse sound for many years, and did not damage his chances for a happy, sound, barefoot retirement.
At this point you are probably thinking I am a big advocate for shoeing, but that is not the case. Between one thing and another (my own instincts and conversations with Mrs Mom being a couple of the things), I have begun to think that many/most horses would be better off without shoes. Four years ago I bought Henry and Sunny for myself and my son to trail ride. Both horses had been shod non-stop by their previous owners. When I asked if these horses could go barefoot, the people shrugged. “Never tried it.”
Since neither I nor my farrier could see any obvious reasons the horses could not go barefoot, I had their shoes pulled. And both horses went perfectly sound and barefoot for three years—including plenty of graveled roads and some rock on the trail. No problem.
If you are wondering why I shod Gunner and Plumber and not Sunny and Henry, the answer is twofold. My views about shoes versus barefoot have evolved over the years to where I actively think horses are better off if they can go barefoot. But, and its an important but, Gunner and Plumber needed shoes to stay sound as using horses. Henry and Sunny didn’t. At this point in my life I would always rather have barefoot horses, if possible— not only do I think its better for their feet, but guess what? It saves a bunch of money. Why in the world not have your horses be barefoot if they can go barefoot comfortably and do their job?
But….why in the world have your horse be limping around, too sore footed to ride (and unhappy to boot), when shoes, or shoes and pads, might make him comfortable and useful. This dedicated approach to “barefooting” reminds me of the folks who let their child die because they don’t believe in western medicine, or some other religious reason. Doesn’t work for me.
This spring Sunny came up lame in the right front and was diagnosed with a tiny chip on the edge of his navicular bone. I gave him a month off and shoes and pads in front (as the vet recommended), and he was sound. I shod him one more time with pads, just to protect his foot while I rode him—he stayed sound for lots of autumn trail rides. Last week I pulled his shoes and he’s barefoot again. So far, he’s still sound…and I hope he’ll stay that way. But if he doesn’t, I’ll put those shoes and pads back on.
I’m not afraid of shoes—Plumber was shod without a break for seventeen years and he’s a happy pasture sound, barefoot twenty two year old pet. I’m not afraid of pads-- Gunner wore shoes and pads non-stop for eight years and he’s a happy, sound, barefoot thirty-one year old pasture pet. If Sunny needs shoes and pads to go sound, he’s gonna get them. But if a horse can go barefoot and stay sound, as Henry is doing, he’s definitely going to stay barefoot. I think being barefoot is a better choice for most/many horses. Its obviously more natural. I, myself, go “barefoot”—in the sense that I wear only sandals and unstructured Ugg boots. When I gave up formal, structured shoes (and riding boots), all the aches and pains in my feet gradually went away. I get it that barefoot/natural feels better. But if I found that for some reason I needed shoes in order not to limp, I would wear shoes.
I absolutely cannot see any reason to be morbidly attached to either shoes or barefoot. Surely we need to do what works for the horse, and for ourselves, and limping around sore footed is no fun for the horse. Not being able to use a riding horse is no fun for the person. Given my own experiences, I am going to make the decision to shoe that sore horse every time, with pads if needed, if there is a chance that this will make the horse sound. I have frequently shod horses who got sore footed for one reason or another and then been able to take the shoes off after six weeks and not put them back on. They aren’t a life sentence. But they can be a life saver.
Anyway, I am deeply puzzled by the scores of folks who think riding horses MUST be shod (this would include most of my team roping friends), and equally puzzled by the barefoot zealots—who I have mostly run across on the internet—who think shoes are EVIL and should never be used. Both positions look equally silly to me.
I do know it is quite possible for a horse’s feet to be seriously screwed up by bad shoeing practices—though this has never happened to me. I’m pretty particular when it comes to this stuff—and no farrier ever shod my horses more than once if I didn’t like the way the shoes looked. I think that some horses with messed up feet due to poor shoeing can be helped by pulling the shoes, good trimming, and turnout. However, on the other side, I have definitely had the experience of a sound, barefoot horse being overzealously trimmed and coming up sore. The horse was miserable, and, of course, we couldn’t use him. Sure, I could have let him hobble around in the corral until he toughened up, but that wasn’t the choice I made. I put shoes on him…and you never saw such a happy horse. He ran and bucked and played, his demeanor proclaiming to all and sundry, “Look, look, my feet don’t hurt any more!” This horse wore front shoes for one six week period (and we were able to use him) and went back to being barefoot (and stayed sound). No harm done. Thank you shoes.
The main thing I have against the advice to leave a sorefooted horse barefoot until he gets sound (with proper trimming included) is that this can take a LONG time, depending on the horse. Sometimes the horse never gets using horse sound as a barefoot horse. Some horses have good feet, some horses don’t. But more than that, life is uncertain, and I think we all know that a lot can change very quickly. The horse can colic and die, the person can get cancer and be unable to ride…stuff happens. I would not choose to leave a horse lame if I wanted to ride him if shoes (or shoes and pads) would make him sound today. I would not shoe a horse if I thought shoes would do him any real harm, but based on the examples I have given, I think you can see that it has not been my experience that shoeing, even prolonged shoeing, will necessarily do any harm.
And yes, it does depend on the farrier. My own horses have had one farrier for the last twenty years, and I do credit him with the fact that I have had so few soundness problems. He’s not a fancy shoer—he’s a gruff old cowboy—but the horses’ feet look natural, and, as you can see from my previous stories, they have mostly stayed sound.
So, in the end, I would definitely prefer my horses to be barefoot, and all my horses are barefoot today. But if they need shoes (or shoes and pads) to keep them using horse sound, they are darn sure going to get them. And I really see no problem with that (based on my own experience), other than the expense.
OK—I am happy to hear other points of view. What’s your position in the great barefoot versus shod debate?