Horse Hoofwear Innovations

Today’s hoof protection options include a variety of glue-on shoes, hoof boots, and even orthotics

Far more shoeing and hoof care materials and products are available today than 20 or 30 years ago, and horses are the beneficiaries. No longer are farriers limited to just steel shoes and nails.

“At the first farrier conference I attended, in 1988, one topic of discussion was whether glue-on shoes would ever be possible,” says Pat Reilly, chief of farrier services at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center School of Veterinary Medicine, in Kennett Square. “Now glue-on shoes are commonplace; it’s amazing that we’ve made that much progress in my professional lifetime.”

He admits, however, that farriers are still in need of better materials, more ways to support a foot, and more evidence-based ideas regarding when to apply one shoe versus another. He cites Nike as a prime example of what ever-­improving footwear can achieve: “They came out this past year with a carbon-fiber insole. This new shoe has a different amount of flex that increases energy return. Even though it may only be a small amount, when you are running a marathon every little bit helps. Every major marathon record has fallen this year, and these new shoes are part of the reason.

“I’m not sure we can make horses run faster with different shoes—the equine foot doesn’t flex and have the same energy return as a human foot,” Reilly continues. “But there are innovative ways we can address the interface between the foot and the shoe and get ahead of the injury curve.”

Even if someone were to invent the perfect hoof support, horses’ feet grow and change. “Humans have an advantage in that their feet remain static in size,” says Reilly. “We’re not a size 9 on the day we walk out of the store with a new pair of shoes and a size 11 six weeks later.”

In this article we’ll look at what shoe types and hoof care materials our farriers do have to work with, as well as their pros and cons.

Glue-On Shoes

Travis Burns, CJF, TE, EE, FWCF, associate professor of practice and chief of farrier services at Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia, says the biggest hoof care innovation in the past 20 years has been the glue-ons. “The ability to apply shoes without nails has changed the face of farriery,” he says. “Glue-on shoes have been proven to work, so now many companies have been getting into the game and changing their shoes.”

“Glue-on shoes are one of very few truly new things in use today,” says Reilly. “Acrylic adhesives that most of the world uses to glue on shoes were originally used in other industries (bonding aircraft wings) and adapted for equine use by Rob Sigafoos—my predecessor here. He also came up with glue-on shoes and two-part silicone impression material.”

Yet in some regions and countries farriers don’t have experience with these products. “Many people who teach farrier schools and a lot of the farrier curriculums still don’t have glue-on components, so this may still be new to many farriers,” says Reilly.

Within the glue-on shoe category are several types and materials, ranging from traditional steel and aluminum to nonmetallic options such as urethane. 

Today there’s also a push from several manufacturers and innovators to provide shoes that are not only glue-on but also flexible—that can bend or move with the horse’s hoof capsule, says Burns.

Indeed, one of the downsides of horseshoes has always been the concern that they restrict overall hoof movement and interfere with normal hoof mechanics. Many of the flexible glue-ons on the ­market—made from polyurethane, composite polymers, and other materials—­allow each heel of the foot to move up and down and in and out independently, he says.

Some of the urethane shoes and various types of adhesives “do an amazing job,” Burns adds. “These allow us to even shoe young foals and aid in helping their development, correcting or helping treat rotational or angular limb deformity—and even some of the flexural limb deformities, as well—without fear of harming them with nails in their feet.”

“The shoe itself is made of urethane so there’s a certain amount of give (and decrease in concussion to the bottom of the foot), and it conforms more to the hoof,” says Reilly. “It expands and contracts with the foot, whereas aluminum shoes restrict expansion and contraction.”

Further, they come in all styles, from heart bar and open-heel to sport style and extra wide, the latter of which is designed for sole protection.

“These have become extremely popular in the endurance world, but now I’m starting to see them in several other disciplines, as well,” Burns says.

“We have a lot of choices now, in direct glue-on shoes (gluing to the solar surface of the foot) or indirect glue-ons that use some sort of intermediary surface like a urethane, plastic, or fabric cuff (as in the photo on page 54) to glue to the outside of the hoof wall,” says Reilly. “One type may work better than another for a certain horse and be better suited for problems with that particular foot.”

Horse Hoofwear Innovations

Orthotics

Orthotics are another new technology in hoof care. FormaHoof molds, for instance, create a mold around the outside and bottom of the properly trimmed and balanced foot. The farrier injects a urethane product that adheres to the foot and creates a thin layer around it, providing comfort and support to the hoof without need for nails or glue. It is designed to allow a damaged foot to heal and regrow within a protective layer of flexible material.

“It’s an interesting concept, but I haven’t used it personally,” says Reilly. “It essentially becomes a prosthetic/addition to the foot—around the outside and bottom surface. One of the downsides is that you need different molds for different types and styles of shoes and different-size feet. They are all expensive, so this entails a big investment (for the farrier) up front.”

Hoof Boots

Today’s hoof boots provide protection for the foot when you don’t want a shoe on it. They allow owners to keep some horses barefoot, using boots on an as-needed basis, such as when riding. The boots can also help owners treat certain hoof problems.

“The Soft-Ride hoof boots and the Easyboot Cloud, for instance, can be very beneficial when treating laminitis or horses with thin soles,” says Burns. “They can also aid in managing a horse with a hoof abscess.”

These types of boots are designed to be secured around the pastern and flexible until they get down to the bottom of the foot. “For instance, the Soft-Ride boot is not designed to fit snugly at any time during the shoeing interval,” Reilly says, and so hoof growth shouldn’t impact the fit.

The challenge with hoof boots meant for performance/riding, however, is getting and maintaining the correct fit around a hoof that’s growing and changing shape.

“We spend a lot of time and attention fitting a shoe in two dimensions and attaching it to the bottom of the foot, and those problems and challenges are compounded with a hoof boot because it must fit in three dimensions,” says Reilly. “The hard part is to maintain that fit over time. The more detailed your fit at the beginning of the shoeing interval, the more susceptible it is to the changes and shape of the feet at the end.”

This can lead to rubs or sores above the hairline because the boots are not designed to accommodate those shape changes. To stay ahead of this issue, reassess boot fit regularly and keep up to date on hoof trims.

Hoof Pads

Pad materials for sole support or protection during healing have also come a long way in the past two decades. “Frog and sole support materials have evolved from traditional oakum and pine tar, leather pads, and neoprene,” says Burns. “Today we have many different silicones and pour-in pads that are easy to apply and very effective. I still use some neoprene or closed-cell foam pads in some laminitis cases, but having all the variety of densities to match the horse perfectly is a huge improvement.

“We can have the pad as dense as the horse will allow, for adequate frog and sole support, yet soft enough to be comfortable, and horses don’t resent it,” he continues. “Having the variety to do this is a plus.”

Take-Home Message

With a good farrier and many options in shoeing and padding materials and boots, our sources say most horses with hoof issues can become sound or continue working in spite of their problems. Thanks to high-tech hoof care advancements, farriers can now help horses in ways that 20 years ago they didn’t dream possible.