What about those horses that need conventional shoes??

© Anya Lavender.

I do believe there are reasons horses may be best in rim shoes, but it's very important to understand anatomy and function, to consider what *good* reasons may truly be, and what effects the shoe will have, to understand how to minimise / avoid damage commonly caused by them.

**I am specifically discussing conventional steel rim shoes here. I will not go into great discussion here of the pros & cons of different types of shoe or boot, as I have detailed analysis and reviews you can read on the Boots Shoes & Equipment page. Suffice to say here that different forms of shoe, hoof boots etc do have different qualities and effects.

First lets look at the reasons why a horse may be seen to need shoes, and whether or not it's appropriate, from the point of view of horse health & wellbeing.

"My horse has a hoof problem/disease that requires shoes" 

"My horse is lame without shoes"

There are certain issues, such as pedal bone fractures, major resections or such, for which a rigid steel shoe may well be a good option as part of treatment. Steel rims are also often an effective palliative measure - meaning they aren't actually helping the problem, but just making the horse more comfortable and in some cases this may be worth doing. In some cases, such as an old horse, past the point of rehab, it may also be the best we can do for them.

In cases of 'navicular syndrome' or too low or run forward heels, a shoe, regular rim or bar shoe, is commonly used with raised heels, or a 'wedge pad' in between hoof and shoe. We will go into 'navicular' more on the lameness page, but a fixed shoe/wedge is said to be necessary to correction of low/negative palmar/plantar angles. I have found no evidence however to suggest that permanent wedging or pressure on the walls is generally necessary, or even that helpful - it can lead to the unsupported caudal foot 'sinking' further within the capsule. Anecdotally, including a couple I have treated for 'negative plantar' angles, I have seen good results with hoof boots used part time, with a 'frog support wedge' under the *frog*, not under/raising the heel walls.

I do believe it is very rarely a good move to attach peripheral loading rims, esp metal, unyielding, to a sick foot. In most cases, it is the very last thing that foot needs!


To briefly summarise my reasons, much discussed elsewhere on the site, in most cases, it exacerbates problems, by overloading already compromised walls & laminar connections, by reducing support underneath the foot and by being fixed on for many weeks at a time, allowing the foot to overgrow and get out of shape between trims.

The palliative effects, to people who don't understand the full picture, can cause them to assume that shoes are Good and Right just because their horse is lame when barefoot but (apparently) sound, or at least improved, when shod.


Of course, it's not all necessarily bad, but if you don't understand how palliative effects may differ from or mask the problem, if you don't understand the other effects the shoe may be having on the foot, then you can easily jump to incorrect assumptions.

So, if your horse is lame when bare(not talking just a bit sensitive on rocky ground for eg), I would generally be avoiding applying fixed shoes, particularly rim shoes on his feet, at least until they are healthy and sound.

Fortunately these days there are many options for *protect and support* of a lame horse, until they can become healthy, from something like casting tape, to a variety of great hoof boots, to fixed, flexible options such as Easy Shoes or Epona Shoes, so there is rarely a good reason for rim shoes to be used for palliative care.

"My horse is 'ouchy' on gravel" ~ "I ride on rocky trails" ~

"His feet will wear too much with the riding I do"

Those are entirely valid reasons to provide artificial protection where necessary. But rim shoes only provide 'protection' to the underside of the walls to prevent them wearing. They provide no protection to the sole and frog, except by raising them slightly, so that they are out of the way of small stones on a hard, flat surface. Furthermore, in raising the foot on artificial walls, as seen in Mike Savioldi's research, this is a cause of 'sinking' and thin soles.


Again, there are many great options these days, such as hoof boots, which you can apply only as needed, or Easyshoes if you need a fixed option. But if other options just don't cut it for some reason, ensuring the underside of the horse's foot is protected and supported with flexible pads, along with the rim shoes is important.

*It is important to remember, when considering how much the shoe/boot may wear, that especially on hard surfaces, the negative effects of steel rims are greatly enhanced, and you might rather the added expense of boot or plastic shoe wear over the expense of vet bills from hoof and joint 'wear'!

"My horse needs rim shoes for grip"

X-Country jumping horses, horses that work in mud, on slippery grass, at speed events such as racing and rodeo, and horses on hard, flat surfaces like city streets often need extra grip. In many of those situations, hoof boots just don't cut it. In jumping and racing, boots may twist or come off under the strain, so be insecure or even dangerous, they may even cause slipping. In slippery mud or grass, they may clog up and provide LESS grip, more slip, than bare feet. And while I have found Easyshoes for eg to be superior to boots for grip in clay mud, they are still not as grippy as conventional rims in this situation.

On paved ground however, hoof boots or plastic shoes provide more grip than metal shoes.

So, in many cases, where extra grip is required, apart from paved roads, rim shoes may well be the best option.

"My horse needs shoes to compete."

In order to compete in dressage and some other competitions, hoof boots are against the rules. So if your horse is not up to competing barefoot, he will need to be shod. However there is no rule that says it must be shod with conventional steel rims. Again, there are alternatives.


Now lets consider again hoof form and function in relation to steel rim shoes...

Basically, while hooves are far stronger than most 'toenails', that is essentially what they are. No other animal, be it ungulate(hoofed animal) or even Equidae(horses, donkeys, zebra etc), even the feral horse, is built to support themselves primarily on their toenails!


I cannot find any evidence to suggest it is correct or helpful(from the perspective of the horse's well being & soundness) to suggest that domestic horses should walk on their toenails either. There is a lot of evidence however, that peripherally loading the hoof is harmful though, from 'sinking', 'rotation' and other distortions, to shock absorption - or lack of - and contraction, inability to develop the caudal foot.

The natural, optimal functioning hoof is one who's hoof walls are worn short, at or just a tad 'proud' of the outer rim of the sole. Walls provide protection from bashes, extra grip where needed, and the inner wall provides some support, but the entire base of the foot - sole & frog are the primary support under the animal.


The frog/caudal foot, and to a fair degree, the walls and sole are flexible and can adjust to ground/movement conditions. The heels spread on weight bearing and the frog is wide and flat. The caudal foot above the frog - the digital cushion and lateral cartilages are strong and dense, to provide effective shock absorption.

When a steel rim shoe is used(or for that matter, long walls are left on bare feet), the peripheral loading when on hard ground is the worst effect. It forces those toenails into primary or often complete weight bearing of the entire horse.


The walls, under this pressure - and hence laminae - are strained and become distorted. At the top of the hoof capsule, upward pressure of the wall can compromise the blood flow of the coronary artery, and at the distal edge of P3 the circumflex artery is also compromised. In fact, Professor Bowker's research found that in the feral mustang he studied, the circumflex artery was always just outside the border of P3, while in anatomy books and in shod horses he has studied, the circumflex artery is under the edge of P3, compressed between it and the sole at every step!

Peripherally loading the foot means that everything within is essentially 'hanging' from the walls. As there is no/little support underneath, the horse can 'sink' within the walls. This leads to thin, flat soles. It is also often a big factor when hoof capsules 'rotate' out of plumb with the bony column, either positively(toe pointing down) or negatively - heels become too low. Aside from 'sinking' causing thin soles, there is also the 'if you don't use it, you lose it' factor. If soles and frogs get little use, they will not develop thick 'skin' and callouses to allow them to function more strongly. This is especially important for the back of the foot, and the digital cushion & lateral cartilages cannot grow strong - so be able to function effectively. Many older, conventionally managed horses have the undeveloped, fatty tissue digital cushions of a yearling!

As well as peripheral loading, the effects of a rigid steel shoe fixed to the base of the foot prevents or compromises the ability of the foot to flex. Heels which are little used, so often contracted anyway are fixed into that position, unable to spread. Inflexible shoes mean that instead of the hoof naturally distorting on rough ground, the joints are torqued more instead.

In the natural foot, the heel bulbs/caudal foot are the primary 'landing gear. Shock/vibration is absorbed through the thick fibro-cartilage of the well developed digital cushion and blood is forced through the multitudes of very tiny blood vessels which run through the lateral cartilages, slowing it down and dissipating the shock. See Bowker's 'Hemodynamic Flow Hypothesis' in the member's section for more info.

In a shod foot, not only does steel hitting a hard surface cause a lot more high frequency vibration which is damaging to all tissue(look at long term jackhammer operators for eg), there is no natural structure in/above the walls to absorb shock, so each thudding step is more wear and tear on the joints above.

So, the question is, how do we minimise the 'side effects' when we feel the need for conventional rims?


Minimising Damage from Horseshoes

© Anya Lavender.

While I don't recommend steel rims, for very many reasons at all, for reasons summarised above and discussed in the site, in my opinion *well shod* with consideration to good hoof function and balance is not necessarily impossible. Especially with alternatives such as Easyshoes, which do reduce/remove most of the 'cons' associated with shoes. If after you have digested and considered all the available information and alternatives, you still choose to shoe your horse conventionally, you need to know how to avoid or at least minimise the damage.

  • As peripheral loading is 'the biggie', ensuring whole foot loading/support and protection & minimising overloading of the walls is huge. So...


  • Where possible, working shod horses on hard, esp flat surfaces should be avoided or minimised. Depending on the surface the horse is working on, this may necessitate the use of pour-in pads or such.

  • A horse may need to be trimmed slightly differently for shoes, but it is still vital to employ someone who can knowledgeably do this with little compromise to the shape and function of the natural hoof. Wedges, bars and high heels should be avoided. Short 'breakover' - preferably with a rolled toe shoe, and low heels are vitally important.


  • As the rear of the hoof needs to expand upon weightbearing to function effectively, clips and bars should be avoided, especially at the quarters or heels, and nails only placed as far back as is absolutely necessary to secure the shoe. *I believe the same goes for glue on rigid shoes.

  • The shoes should be removed, the foot trimmed and shoes reset frequently, no longer than about 4-5 weeks - definitely not left in place until they come loose or wear through. As the shoe is attached to the wall, as it grows, peripheral loading and the distortion it causes becomes stronger, so aim to reset frequently enough to *keep* the feet in functional order, not allow them to overgrow before 'correcting'.


  • A horse with already distorted or weak feet is more likely to suffer further issues from conventional shoes. Although it is very frequently an effective *palliative*, as discussed above.  For horses generally however, the evidence stacks up that conventional shoes are not good for sick feet. Get them healthy first, with boots, diet & management changes as necessary.



  • In the case of a shod horse presenting lame or sore footed, or of infection or distortion, shoes should be removed and more attention given to management, diet & hoofcare in the case of any sign of hoof problem or lameness.

  • The horse should generally be given as much time unshod as possible ~ back-to-back-to-back shoeing should be avoided. They should at least be given regular breaks from shoes - with good regular hoofcare though - of at least months, not just weeks.


  • Working shod horses on hard, especially flat surfaces much or fast should be avoided. Steel rim shod horses, having no ability to dissipate the high frequency vibrations that go up the leg and no sole protection or support, should never be trotted or cantered on hard ground or pavement. The peripheral loading with metal rims is enhanced on flat, unyielding surfaces.


  • Young horses that haven’t reached full maturity ~ age 6+ ~ should not be shod, to allow the digital cushion and lateral cartilages a chance to develop properly. Even in ideal circumstances, the digital cushion doesn't *begin* to develop much strength until around 4 years old, according to Dr Bowker!