Horses have been central to human transportation and agriculture for centuries. These symbols of power and speed require hoof care and new shoes every four to six weeks to keep working. But why?
Horses (equus caballus) that are domesticated for human use and selectively bred to wear athletic shoes because their feet are delicate and therefore need protection, he said. Dr. Fernanda Camargo (opens in a new tab), veterinarian and equine extension agent at the University of Kentucky. “Shoes provide protection to some areas of the foot of the horse“They keep the helmets from getting too much wear and tear and therefore becoming sensitive,” Camargo told LiveScienceKick.com in an email.
The exterior of the helmet, known as the wall, is made of a horn-like material that grows continuously and has to be trimmed, just like a person’s fingernails, according to University of Missouri Extension (opens in a new tab). “Shoes also help the foot maintain its proper shape,” Camargo said.
However, rough terrain such as sand and rocks can cause the exterior to wear away, exposing the helmet’s sensitive interior. So the horse experiences pain and he may not be able to walk. Historically, such restraints would have prevented horses from being used on battlefields or during harvest, so horseshoes were added to reinforce the hoof wall, Camargo said.
It is estimated that horses have been wearing shoes of some kind since they were domesticated around 6,000 years ago (opens in a new tab)Camargo said.
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Originally, horseshoes were made of leather or plant material. Metal shoes nailed to the legs of horses were first used around AD 500 and became commonplace for the next 500 years, Camargo said. While aluminum and steel shoes nailed to the hull remain the most common, he said, a variety of other materials, including rubber, resin and plastic, can also be nailed or glued to the hull like a shoe.
While 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 therapeutic shoes to help manage a foot condition. But “many horses that are simply ridden here and there, and kept on grassy or not hard ground, will do just fine without shoes, with regular visits from farriers,” Camargo said.
Wild mustangs, meanwhile, don’t wear shoes and manage to travel over rough terrain because they have very strong legs, Camargo said. But their hooves can still wear down and cause lameness. If this happens, it will cost a mustang its life, he said.
Some people wonder if nailing the shoes to the horse’s hoof hurts them. They do not exist blood vessels or nerves in the hoof wall, according to the University of Missouri Extension, so if the shoe is nailed down well, it doesn’t hurt. “But the wrong shoe 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 to the wrong areas, they can injure the horse. And if the hooves are poorly trimmed beforehand, it can lead to pain or lameness with or without shoes, he said.