We often assume a horse needs shoes without really thinking about why or how that affects a horse’s overall health. Yet standard veterinary texts, such as books by James Rooney, DVM, and O.R. Adams, DVM, on equine lameness, refer to shoeing as a “necessary evil.” What makes shoeing necessary in some instances is the need for additional traction caused by the weight of the rider, which in turn causes excessive wear to the hoof wall, especially on hard surfaces. What makes shoeing a potential evil is that it restricts the hoof in ways that might not be optimal for its long-term health. The compromise between the requirements of the working horse and the health of the same horse’s feet might be to leave him unshod for a few weeks out of the year.

Barefoot Research

A recent study by Robert M. Bowker, VMD, PhD, Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, and Lori A. Bidwell, DVM, of the Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington, Ky., helps clarify how allowing a horse to go barefoot for at least a small portion of the year could, in fact, help promote soundness. Bowker’s training is in veterinary medicine and neurobiology. He also teaches first-year veterinary anatomy, morphology (the study of anatomical form), and how to do a neurologic exam on various animals. This familiarity with the anatomy of a variety of species gives him a unique perspective from which to study the equine hoof.

Bowker examined a sample of 125 barefooted horses (which had never been shod). These horses were mainly Quarter Horses (the study was funded by the American Quarter Horse Association), Thoroughbreds, Arabians, warmbloods, and their crosses that had been turned out on relatively rough gravel and compacted sand terrain, most of which were ridden a few to several times per week. In addition, 10 show horses, used to being shod and workin