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    To Shoe Or Not To Shoe | Summer 2010 Out Here Magazine

    Should your horse go barefoot? It all depends

    By Heather Smith Thomas
    Photography by iStock

    A growing number of horses today are staying barefoot as owners realize unshod feet can be healthier than having shoes on all the time.

    Not all horses can go barefoot, however. To know whether your horse is a good candidate for leaving shoes off, consider several important factors:

    Climate and Terrain

    Does your horse live on a soft pasture or on hard, rocky ground? Moist conditions make feet softer and a dry climate makes them harder.

    Barefoot life won't work for a horse who lives in a stall or small pen, soft grassy pasture, or wet conditions, if you then ride on gravel roads or rocky terrain. He'll quickly get tenderfooted or go lame from stone bruising.

    To be ridden without shoes, the horse's feet must toughen naturally by living in the same terrain you'd ride in. If he's in a dry climate in a big rocky pasture where soil is decomposed granite, he'll have feet like steel. If he's in a soft, wet pasture or a wet climate, his hooves will be soft and wear away quickly if you ride on rocky ground.

    Purpose

    Do you use your horse to work cattle? To show? For trail riding? For your children to enjoy? The horse's purpose should dictate whether he can go barefoot.

    A horse doing hard work every day in rocky terrain can't withstand these stresses without shoes unless he lives in this environment and his feet are very tough. Even then, if he's ridden daily in the rocks for long distances — for endurance riding or working cattle, for example — he'll wear his feet faster than they grow and eventually will need shoes.

    Recreational horses enjoyed by children or casual riders generally wouldn't need shoes.

    Foot Conformation

    Your horse's individual hoof conformation, or structure, is a factor in going barefoot. Some horses have better feet than others, regardless of their environment. Hoof capsule strength and integrity is partly due to genetics.

    Some horses always have shelly, thin hoof walls and soles and can't withstand the stresses of athletic work without shoes. Some horses with hoof problems need shoes even if they aren't ridden, to protect the unhealthy feet and help hold their shape and integrity.

    One option for owners who want to keep their horse's feet "natural" and barefoot is to use hoof boots.

    Hoof boots, which are shoes made of rubber, urethane, nylon, or other shock-absorption material, provide traction and cushioning for barefoot horses. Hoof boots can be put on and taken off again when you get home.

    After all, whether you choose for your horse to be shod or to go barefoot, the goal is to keep his feet from bruising or becoming painfully tender.

    Heather Smith Thomas is the author of several books on horses.