Can Shoeing Improve How Show Horses Move?

Do you want to improve your dressage horse’s gait score or emphasize your hunter’s “daisy-cutter” trot? A veterinarian offers insight into how good farriery and strategic shoeing can affect movement.

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When shoeing horses we need to consider the horse’s job and conformation. We should strive to shoe the horse according to his hoof and leg conformation while considering what he does for a living. | Photo: iStock

Q. Can how a horse is shod improve how he moves in the show ring?

A. Shoeing can improve how a horse moves in the show ring in many ways. When we can consider horseshoes’ impact on movement, we must consider three factors: conformation, hoof trim, and type of horseshoe. We should examine them separately so we can understand how each factor contributes to the whole.


Once a horse reaches maturity, there is very little shoeing can do to safely alter a gait related to limb conformation. Trying to alter a less-than-ideal gait can add extra stress on joints, bones, and hooves, so any benefit will be short-lived and ultimately not appropriate for the horse’s health. The same can apply to hoof conformation to a certain degree. In these cases, we need to assess the hoof to discover if a hoof abnormality is due to excess hoof length or inappropriate trimming, which are very fixable, or if a permanent conformation problem exists. An example of the latter is a club foot. These horses tend to have one foot at a lower-than-ideal angle and a club foot with a very upright conformation. The difference in angle between the feet makes it impossible for the two legs to move similarly. Trying to alter the angles can lead to similar pressures on limbs, joints, and hooves as we see when we try to alter gait in a poorly conformed horse. We can try to make them closer to ideal, but usually the change is negligible. Many horses do very well with mismatched feet, but the difference in stride length may have negative effects on hunter or dressage scores.


The key to any shoeing job is how well the hoof is trimmed. The goal is to trim the foot to match the conformation of the leg and offer maximum weight-bearing support under the limbs. Some farriers, usually under the instructions of a trainer, will try to alter the trim (e.g., raising or lowering the heels) to make a stride more appropriate for a discipline. This can give a short-term fix, but when we alter where the hoof should be, we are adding pressure and stress to focal parts of the hoof. This excess force can lead to such problems as quarter or toe cracks, sheared heels, and flared walls. No matter how hard we try, we can’t use trim to overcome the forces of conformation.

Shoe type

That leaves us with the horseshoe type and placement, which is where we can make a safe difference. For example, aluminum shoes are much lighter than steel shoes and can have a significant impact on stride. A heavier shoe causes the horse to raise his knees higher to position to limb to land appropriately. If you desire your horse to have a long, flowing stride, a lighter shoe can reduce knee action. We always have to consider what a horse does for a living, however. Having a jumper land on aluminum shoes might not provide the support he needs, whereas a hunter jumping lower fences might move better with lighter shoes and might not require the hoof and limb support that steel offers.

We can also influence stride by where we position the breakover of the shoe in the toe region. The breakover is the moment the hoof rolls over and the toe is just about to leave the ground. A shoe placed just back of the hoof might break over a bit quicker than one that is flush with the toe of the hoof or slightly ahead of it. A few years back, we used to set hind shoes back on jumpers so they wouldn’t overreach and pull off front shoes. We have since learned that the quick breakover behind can put strain on the stifle, and we have returned to fitting hind shoes to the natural, more pointed toe, which allows the horse to dig in to propel itself forward.

When shoeing horses we need to consider the horse’s job and conformation. We should strive to shoe the horse according to his hoof and leg conformation while considering what he does for a living. Like riding, the more we can get out of the way, the better we can let the horse’s natural abilities shine.

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Written by:

Dr. Mike Pownall is co-owner of McKee-Pownall Equine Services in Toronto as well as a business consultant for fellow veterinarians through his company, Oculus.

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