“No foot, no horse,” says one of the oldest clichés in the equestrian world.

It’s cliché because it’s true. No one doubts that soundness starts from the ground up, but the approach to perfect hoof health has become contentious, at times even a combative discussion between shoeing the horse or keeping it barefoot.

The barefoot approach

Horse & Hound spoke to Nick Hill and Ralitsa Grancharova, a natural hoof care practitioner and veterinarian, respectively, based in Bulgaria. As well-regarded experts in barefoot trimming and holistic horse care, they travel regularly to the UK.

Nick says: “The main reason [that I do barefoot] was that I saw the amount of damage done to the horses by the application of nailed on metal shoes, both by myself and other farriers, after observing the effects on movement, sensitivity, break up and weakening of the hoof capsule.”

Nick and Ralitsa contend that shoes alter the natural movement of the horse, inhibiting the blood circulation in the hoof.

Ralitsa explains: “Because they impede the natural gait of the equine and the physiology and function of the hoof, shoes can lead to an imbalanced hoof that cannot respond adequately to the terrain and can therefore be a predisposing factor for lameness.”

When asked if shoes provide protection and support, Nick and Ralitsa point out that hoof boots are useful for transitioning horses. Then Ralitsa poses the question, “If a horse can cope with the weight of the rider only if it carries shoes, should that horse be ridden at all?”

The traditional approach

Graham McBurney, a farrier in Ayrshire, has a diametrically opposed view.

“In recent years there has been a number of studies and scientific research proving that certain types and styles of shoeing can help conformation issues,” he says. He calls the claim that shoes change how the foot hits the ground “totally false”.

He explains: “A good farrier will assess the horse in walk and trot and will aim to achieve level footfall. We can trim the foot a certain way and we can position a shoe to achieve this. In my opinion level footfall is the the most important part of shoeing a horse.”

Shoes and boots prevent excessive wear on the hoof, and he adds that corrective shoeing can treat an array of problems, “like acute and chronic laminitis, sidebone, ringbone, navicular syndrome, pedal fractures, hoof wall resections, spavin and the list goes on”. He also contends that correctly fitted shoes do not damage the foot.

The research

Both sides have valid arguments, and there is science that seems to support both sides.

Two studies from the University of Queensland of feral horses in New Zealand and Australia showed foot pathology in more than half the animals surveyed, including navicular and chronic laminitis, suggesting modelling hoof care of domestic horses on feral populations isn’t a panacea for everything.

Another study by Dr. Hilary Clayton at Michigan State University showed improvement in hoof health and morphology when seven barefoot school horses were trimmed “with a technique that levelled the hoof to the live sole, lowered the heels, levelled the toe, and rounded the peripheral wall”. But horses, unlike mice and university students, are difficult to work with in a lab setting so all the studies have been of small populations.

No studies have established direct causation between foot morphology — with or without shoes — and injury, so horse owners have to sift through anecdote, opinion, and of course, whatever keeps their horse sound. Wondering how they are making those decisions, H&H spoke to the the owners of upper level equine athletes in dressage and endurance.

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What the riders say

Lucy Straker is an international grand prix dressage rider in Wiltshire. Like most top level dressage riders, she shoes her horses. “I like my horses to be shod with a lot of length of shoe behind to help maintain stability, especially in the hind limbs and this definitely helps prevent wear and tear further up the leg as they work harder and have to take more weight behind,” she explains.

Her horses are shod every five weeks, “to keep ahead of angle changes that come with growth over time and can lead to problems especially when we are asking our horses to work as hard as they do up at the higher levels”.

The sport of endurance places different demands on the horse leading to an alternative approach from competitors. Nicola Freud has ten 160k FEI contenders and says she runs all her horses barefoot. “Finding a farrier willing to fall in with our incredibly high demands is nigh on impossible,” she says.

In an endurance race, the horses will be vet checked at least every 20 miles, and a race of 100 miles will have nine vet checks. Her horses need to be trimmed every four weeks for optimum balance and if shod, it must be done within 10 days of a major competition, which happen every weekend from November to March.

That means a farrier would need to turn up every other day to do just one horse, which is impractical.

Nicola reflects: “We cannot compromise and have found that being able to trim constantly and glue on boots when needed has produced very good results.”

Rachael Claridge, who has represented Team GB in World Championships and is a UKCC Level 3 accredited coach, competed her Crabbet Arabian stallion barefoot until he moved up from novice to open level endurance.

Because the tracks were rougher, longer, and the speed faster, she had to put wider metal shoes and pads on him. Her two-star horse also wears pads. “My farrier Joel Roberts builds them with resin which has been the making of this horse going all the way to 120km two-star,” Rachael says.

With so many differing opinions and good reasons for doing both, the best thing a horse owner can do, with the input of vets, farriers, or expert trimmers, is figure out what keeps their horses soundest and happiest, which will depend on discipline, conformation, and how the horse is kept.

It remains very much an individual decision.