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 stay on the job. But why?
horse (Equus caballus) are domesticated for human use and selectively bred for performance wear shoes because their feet are sensitive and therefore require protection, it is said Dr Fernanda Camargo (opens in a new tab), a veterinarian and equine extension agent at the University of Kentucky. “Shoes provide protection to certain areas based on the horse,” Camargo told Live Science in an email.
The outside of the hoof, known as the wall, is made of a horn-like material that grows continuously and needs to be trimmed, just like human fingers, according to University of Missouri Extension (opens in a new tab). “Shoes also help the foot keep its proper shape,” Camargo said.
However, rough terrain, such as sand and rocks, can cause the outside to wear, exposing the delicate inner hoof. Then, the horse is in pain and may not be able to walk. Historically, such weakness would have prevented horses from being used on the battlefields or during the harvest, so shoes were added to strengthen the hoof wall, Camargo said.
It is thought that horses have been wearing some form of shoes since they were domesticated 6,000 years ago (opens in a new tab)Camargo said.
Related: Why are we still measuring things in horsepower?
Originally, horses were made of leather or plant material. Metal shoes nailed to horseshoes were first used around AD 500 and were common for the next 500 years, Camargo said. While aluminum and steel shoes nailed to the jar are still the most popular, she said, various other materials – such as rubber, resin and plastic – can also be nailed or glued to the jar as a shoe.
Although 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 ground or concrete are more likely to need shoes. Horses that are not even ridden may need shoes to protect them from the terrain or therapeutic shoes to help manage a foot condition. But “many horses that are ridden here and there, and kept on pasture/not hard, will do fine without shoes, with regular farrier visits,” Camargo said.
Meanwhile, wild mustangs don’t wear shoes and manage to travel over rough terrain because they have very strong legs, Camargo said. But the claws can throw them down and block them. If this happens it will cost the mustang its life, she said.
Some people wonder if nailing shoes on the horse’s nut harms them. There is no blood vessels or nerves in the wall of the hoof, according to the University of Missouri Extension, so if the shoe is nailed on correctly, it does not hurt. “But an inappropriate shoe can absolutely hurt,” said Camargo. If the shoes or nails are placed incorrectly, the shoes are the wrong shape or size, or if the farrier applies pressure in the wrong areas, they can injure the horse. And if the hooves are trimmed badly beforehand, it can lead to pain or lameness with or without shoes, she said.