To shoe or not to shoe – putting equine welfare first

Published: 19th April 2023
To shoe or not shoe?

I groaned outwardly when I read the attention-grabbing title of John Whitaker’s opinion article in Horse & Hound last week – “I’m giving barefoot a go – that it’s cheaper appeals as a Yorkshireman”.  John’s accomplishments in show jumping are incredible and he is a role model for so many riders (his poster with Milton certainly featured on my bedroom wall when I was younger). But his words carry weight and influence far beyond click-bait titles. On balance, the article did look a little deeper than the removal of shoes for cost advantages but in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, when many owners and riders are looking at ways in which the cost of equine care may be reduced, is going without shoes the answer?

In the interest of being transparent I ought to say at this stage I am married to a farrier. I am also in the privileged position of being friends with some of the UK’s best farriers. They are an awesome bunch, doing a job they can passionately about. I have also worked on a freelance basis within the farrier industry for the past 17 years in addition to owning horses – both with and without shoes – for the last 30 plus years (!)

The barefoot ‘debate’ is not a new one. However, with a number of elite performance horses now competing at the very highest levels without shoes the subject has once more come to the fore. Any horse owner using social media is likely to have come across some lively debates on the various horsey pages, but those ‘in the know’ also understand that there is always far more to the attention-grabbing headline stories. It is too easy for those on either side of the debate to share examples of poor work – we could all do that within any profession at any time – and, at times, the opposing views are polarised. The argument to shoe or not to shoe is rarely black and white and, at times when it is, is unethical. Equine welfare should always come first.

In February the BHS, in conjunction with the British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association (I was acting on their behalf), ran a series of ‘Foot Focus’ webinars examining the growing interest in barefoot care. These webinars covered, in depth, the individual decision-making processes involved in equine hoof care, farriery regulation, alternatives to nailed on steel shoes, the rules of competing without shoes, the options that can be explored when and if a horse needs further intervention, the physical demands placed on the elite horses and the impact different riding surfaces may have. Norwegian farrier, Aksel Vibe, farrier to Olympic team gold and individual silver medallist, Peder Fedricson, gave insight into the work that he has been doing with Peder’s horses. (Peder’s horses hit the headlines for successfully competing unshod at the Tokyo Olympics). Aksel described a four-week trimming regime with additional hoof care support throughout the trimming period from the grooms and taking regular x-rays to monitor the internal structures within the hoof. Hoof boots are also used to protect the horses’ feet walking from the stables to warm up arenas (no matter how smooth the tarmac!) For Peder’s horses, being unshod is not cheaper and the management is greater. Team GB farrier, Ben Benson, highlighted the importance of correct conformation explaining how limbs that require a redistribution of weight, enhanced breakover or additional support will be limited by trimming hooves alone.

The farriery trim has always been at the forefront of the farriery apprenticeship, whether it be for the subsequent application of a shoe or not. It is, quite literally, the absolute foundation of hoof care. If a shoe is applied, it is there to protect the trim and provide additional grip and support – to the limb not just the foot – if required. The Worshipful Company of Farriers Diploma – the pre-requisite to becoming a legally registered farrier in the UK – follows an apprenticeship of nearly 4 years practical and theoretical robust training. For farriers who compete at shows across the UK, individual awards for the ‘Best Dressed (trimmed) Foot’ are highly regarded and fiercely sought after. The precision of the trim (and balance of the foot) is an art in itself – and the reason why your farrier is not so keen when your horse paws during hoof care appointments!

Like any other sector, farriers have recently incurred huge increases in the costs of fuel, shoes, nails and steel. Depending on individual pricing structures, for some, it is more profitable (with less wear and tear on the human body) to trim a horse than it is to shoe it. I do not know one farrier who will apply shoes to a horse for the sake of it.

As an addition, it is without question true that nutrition plays a key role in the development and growth of healthy hooves. It is a further irk of mine that we consistently see nutritional advice being given by those who are not qualified to do so. There are only a relatively small number of Registered Nutritionists specialising in equine in the UK (check for RNutr or ANutr post-nominal letters). There is no point in adding supplements (and a complete waste of money) if the rest of the diet is unbalanced or inadequate.

The bottom line is what is right for your horse and you. Your horse’s welfare should be your primary consideration; inappropriate hoof care will cost you – and your horse – far more in the long run. Everyone manages their horses differently, has different facilities and different expectations. Whether your horse or pony is shod or not, the bottomline is that whoever is undertaking that care should be appropriately qualified and is a registered, regulated professional. Talk to them and listen to their opinion; they do their job because they care about your horse.

Post script – marrying a farrier has indeed reduced my hoof care costs, but beware – you are generally last on the list!

The BHS Foot Focus webinars are available to listen on YouTube –

  1. From Shod To Barefoot With David Greenwood, Sarah Logie & Mark Trussler
  2. Keeping Feet in Great Shape with Sarah Brown & Mark Johnson
  3. Surfaces and Competing with Ben Benson & Aksel Vibe