Tips for Keeping Shoes on Horses’ Feet

Learn how to prevent shoe loss caused by farrier error, rider issues, management style, or horseplay.
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How to prevent shoe loss caused by farrier error, rider issues, management style, or horseplay

horse's hind feet, shod
Simple management or riding changes might be all you need to reduce the chances of your horse losing a shoe. | Getty images

The environmental conditions might be wet, dry, slick, or muddy. The horse might be working, playing, stomping, or standing. Under any circumstance, a loose or lost horseshoe can be an inconvenient nuisance. Steve Kraus, CJF, a professional farrier of 55 years and head of farrier services at Cornell University Equine and Farm Animal Hospital, in Ithaca, New York, says horseshoe loss typically has one of three causes:

  1. Farrier error.
  2. Rider or management issues.
  3. The horse.

A clear understanding of how or why a shoe came off is the key to keeping future shoes on your horses’ feet.

Farrier Error

When a horse loses a shoe, some owners might instinctively blame the farrier for subpar work, says Eric Wilt, a professional farrier of more than 30 years and the farrier science manager at Hocking College, in Southeast Ohio. In certain instances they’re right. Kraus and Wilt explain that a multitude of farrier errors can cause shoe loss, including:

  • Performing a poor trim job prior to nailing on the shoe.
  • Also in that vein, fitting the shoe to the wings (the flares on the horse’s feet that should be removed before placing the shoe), causing the hoof to work unevenly and, thus, loosening the nails.
  • Placing a shoe that is too large for the foot such that the horse can easily step on it and rip it off.
  • Driving nails too low into the hoof wall to hold the shoe on securely.
  • Fitting the shoe too tightly, resulting in the hoof wall spreading over the shoe and the nails shearing.

Any shod horse’s shoe will loosen over time. Horses move, and hooves grow, expand, and contract. These factors come into play in determining a shoe’s life span on the hoof. Wilt says when he is getting ready to shoe a horse, he considers hoof health and conformation as well as the horse’s way of going.

Tips to Reduce Farrier Error

Aside from skill, experience, and a good eye for balance, being able to shoe horses properly with little to no error requires a few basic elements to help the farrier work more efficiently, says Wilt:

  • A competent handler or a horse that ties well.
  • Good lighting so the farrier can see the entire hoof.
  • Level ground to work on so the farrier can properly evaluate horse stance and hoof placement.
  • Clean hooves to ensure proper hoof balance and shoe placement.

Rider or Management Issues

A horse’s job, where he spends most of his time, and what he does daily play huge roles in potential shoe loss. When evaluating rider issues causing shoe loss, Kraus points out three issues he sees:

  1. Riders that work horses excessively on the forehand, causing them to become unbalanced. The horse’s front feet cannot get out of the way of the hind, and he steps on a front shoe with the hind foot.
  2. Riders that move the horse forward, then check the horse abruptly, resulting in the same.
  3. Riders that turn the horse at a canter on the wrong lead, so he steps on the outside heel of the front shoe with a hind foot.

Kraus estimates 80-90% of shoe loss due to rider error consists of front shoes being stepped on by hind feet.

Even drivers can cause shoe loss in harness racing, says Wilt. On the racetrack, the driver might have to keep the horse “doubled up” (maintaining a strong pull on the lines to keep the horse from pacing or trotting too fast). Because racing Standardbreds must move at an extended gait, this restraint will not allow the horse to extend his forelimb stride. So, a hind foot might grab a shoe off the diagonal front foot. This can also occur when going slow or jogging on the track, because the horse might switch from a trot to a pace and the hind foot might grab a shoe off the opposite front foot.

Kraus and Wilt say working a horse in any discipline when he is sore or not properly conditioned for the job can result in fatigue, sloppy movement, and interference resulting in a pulled shoe.

Management issues that can cause horseshoe loss are vast. Frederick Wright, a graduate of Cornell University’s Farrier School, has been a practicing professional farrier in the Hartford, Connecticut, area for about five years. He says there is definitely a season for lost shoes, with wet, muddy ground being the worst. Exposure to excessive wet and muddy conditions allows the hoof to become soft and, therefore, the nails no longer hold tightly. Wright says when horses walk in deep mud, the front feet are not moving out of the way fast enough before a hind foot catches a front shoe. And when hooves are saturated with water, shoeing them is like driving a hot nail through butter and expecting it to stay put, says Wilt.

Kraus notes other issues, including:

  • Hooves becoming dry and cracking in dry and arid conditions.
  • Stomping at flies, leading to the foot around the nail breaking down and the shoe loosening.
  • Inadvertently raking the clinches down in the opposite foot while stomping flies.
  • Catching a shoe on wire fencing.
  • Poor nutrition leading to improper hoof growth and quality.

Tips to Reduce Rider or ­Management Issues

Overreach boots can help with front shoe loss, says Kraus. When fitted correctly, overreach boots contour to the heel bulbs and can be adjusted for a tight fit with the Velcro closure. Kraus says most bell boots do not fit securely enough and, in deep mud, snow, and sand, tend to rise upward, leaving the heels of the shoes exposed.

Quarter boots for pacing racehorses will prevent the hind foot from interfering and grabbing the diagonal front foot. Quarter boots are firm rubber boots designed to stretch around the hoof to protect the coronary band to the bulb of the heel, Wilt explains. They come in lefts and rights, with the tall side of the boot also protecting the medial (inner) side of the hoof. He cautions that these boots are designed to be worn only during training and racing.

Grab boots are another type of hoof protection for racing harness horses. They fit similarly to the quarter boots, except they are thicker and lower to the ground. They function like a bumper around your horseshoes, says Wilt. These are also only to be worn during workouts and racing.

Duct tape can be the trick for short-term turnout. Wilt says duct tape works well when you are just letting your horse relax and blow off a little energy between racing or training sessions. His formula for tape placement is as follows: Pull some tape out of the roll and position it so both heels are in the middle of the tape. Then wrap the tape around the front of the hoof (staying out of the hairline) and back down to line up with the tape you started the process with. Repeat this about three times around the hoof and cut the tape.

Pulling shoes during the off-season. If the horse has some down time, it can be better for him to go without shoes for that period, says Wright. Wilt agrees, noting that pulling the shoes and giving the horse a pasture trim can save you the time and costs of replacing lost shoes and repairing damaged hooves until the horse gets shod again.

Mud pads or high-traffic pads can be constructed as a pasture management measure to help keep mud to a minimum where horses congregate. A properly constructed pad can provide a sturdy surface for the horses to stand on and will reduce the formation of mud in that area. You can use a variety of techniques and materials when constructing a mud pad. Several university cooperative extension services provide literature and step-by-step instructions on constructing a mud pad area within your paddock or pasture (i.e., bit.ly/40B720W).

Fly leggings or bands might help reduce stomping due to flies. Leggings typically fit loosely and provide a screen or mesh barrier between your horse and the flies. Leg bands contain citronella to repel flies and attach loosely (a two- to three-finger fit) around the horse’s leg just above the fetlock. As with any product, you’ll need to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for fit, use, and maintenance to see positive results.

Hoof supplements might be beneficial if you determine the horse’s diet is not optimal for hoof health, says Kraus. Equine nutritionist Amy Parker, MS, from McCauley’s Feeds, in Versailles, Kentucky, says hooves rely on an adequate supply of essential nutrients. The most common mistake is feeding less than the minimum required amount of a feed as directed by the manufacturer, which can lead to deficiencies, particularly in trace minerals and vitamins, she says. If all nutrient requirements are being met, then a hoof supplement containing biotin (minimum of 15-20 milligrams per day), the essential amino acid methionine (minimum of 2,500 milligrams per day), and zinc (minimum of 175 milligrams per day, but make sure you don’t feed more than 500 grams in the horse’s total diet) might help. Because you are affecting new hoof growth and not the hoof that is already on the ground, notes Parker, hoof supplements must be fed for many months before expecting results.

Horse-Caused Shoe Losses

Horses will be horses and can have too much fun running, bucking, and kicking, accidentally stepping on their own feet and pulling shoes, says Wright. Kraus says other potential horse-related shoe losses include:

  • Nervous horses that aren’t paying attention to hoof placement might step on themselves and their shoes.
  • Horses with behavior issues such as stall wall kicking, weaving, or pawing might loosen shoes.
  • If a horse gets cast in a stall, he might pull a shoe while scrambling to get up.
  • A horse that sticks his foot through a fence could pull the shoe off as he brings it back in.

Horse conformation can play a role in shoe loss. For example, long legs and a short back might allow the horse to overstep onto the heels of the front feet, while base-narrow hooves stand closer together, so the horse might step on the inside branch of the shoe. A base-wide, toed-out horse in front might also step on the inside heel of the shoe. Upright hoof conformation can also increase a horse’s likelihood of shoe loss.

Tips to Reduce Horse-Related Shoe Loss

A different turnout or pasture group can sometimes mitigate rambunctious running. Finding a group for your horse that elicits lower energy might limit shoe loss due to excessive play.

Wilt says the real headache with shoe loss is not being able to replace the shoe if a foot has been shredded due to heavy clinches. Cutting the clinches off allows the shoe to come off easily and without hoof damage if the horse does grab it. Even without heavy clinches the shoe stays tight.

Wilt explains that the art of trimming horses involves knowing the difference between how much foot can come off and what must stay.

Take-Home Message

Simple management or riding changes might be all you need to reduce the chances of your horse losing a shoe. Farriers must take all conditions into consideration, says Wright, including the horse’s disposition, routine, and environment and the barn’s management style when determining the best plan for limiting shoe loss.

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Written by:

Debra Powell, PhD, PAS, is the owner of Powell Equine Canine Therapy Services LLC which offers nutritional consultations, pasture evaluations, feed formulations and complementary therapies for horses and dogs; author of equine digestive anatomy and physiology book as well as author of a chapter on equine facilities. Dr. Powell has published several scientific journal articles related to her field of research in equine exercise, obesity and insulin resistance in horses. She resides in Charleston SC where she spends time with her two retired Thoroughbreds.

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