Questions involving the ifs and whens to shoe horses have been debated for years. There are those who will argue that a horse’s foot should not have metal attached via nails under any circumstances, while others will opt for shoeing certain horses at a very early age. As is often the case, the proper approach is somewhere in between. There are horses that need to be shod no matter what their age, and there are those that never need shoes. The key is to know the difference.

An expert to whom we turn for this discussion is Olin Balch, DVM, MS, PhD, who is in private practice in Washington state. Balch has written various treatises on matters concerning the equine foot and also has been featured on American Association of Equine Practitioners educational programs.

The key issue, Balch maintains, revolves around normal wear of the hoof capsule as compared to its growth rate. In many horses, he says, the wear does not exceed growth and, when this is the case, shoeing might not be necessary. However, if the wear rate exceeds the growth rate, then shoeing might be needed to maintain the foot in a healthy, balanced state.

Doug Butler, PhD, a Colorado author and widely known consultant on shoeing and overall hoof care, says that in general, the average hoof growth rate for all horses is about three-eighths of an inch (one centimeter) per month. However, he also notes that some variables can affect this. For example, the rate of growth is faster in summer months than in winter. Horses receiving proper nutrition will have faster-growing hooves than horses eating inappropriate diets. Exercised horses have more rapid hoof growth than do horses that are idle. Hooves grow faster in young horses than in mature animals. In general, the back hooves grow faster than the front.

In addition, Balch says, wear rates depend on the surface over which the horse is worked, exercised, or allowed to roam. If the surface is hard and abrasive, the rate