The horseshoe is one of the most recognized shapes in the world. Equestrians and non-riders alike don’t need more than a few seconds to identify one from a distance. They are a symbol of good luck, a lawn game, and of course footwear for horses. The history of horseshoes dates back to the earliest interactions between horses and humans.
What are horseshoes for?
Protecting the horse’s feet has been a priority among horsemen for thousands of years. As early as 400 B.C. Asian horsemen made booties to protect sore hooves and prevent future injury. Made from hides, grasses and reeds, the footwear added a layer of cushion between the hoof and the hard terrain underfoot.
Horseshoes made of metal didn’t emerge until around the first century B.C. when the Roman poet Catullus mentioned a mule’s lost shoe in a poem. The Romans replaced the natural fibers with steel creating what is called the “hipposandal.” The flat piece of solid steel was more like a sneaker than a modern horseshoe because it covered the entire hoof and tied on with straps. This design has inspired the modern hoof boots.
How are horseshoes made?
Until the Industrial Revolution all horseshoes were handmade. Blacksmiths stared with flat pieces of steel called bar stock. The stock was placed in a coal furnace and pulled out when it turned red hot. Using an anvil, blacksmiths methodically transformed the hot metal into a “U” shape to match the horse’s hoof. Essentially, every pair was custom fit to the horse wearing them.
Manufacturing dramatically changed the process of making shoes. Engineer and businessman Henry Burden envisioned the creation of a machine that could mass produce horseshoes. At the start of the Civil War he introduced his invention, eventually increasing to nine machines. Each machine produced 60 horseshoes a minute compared to the 60 to 70 minutes needed to hand forge a set of shoes. Burden’s company manufactured nearly all of the Union Army’s horseshoes.
“It’s been said that the outcome of the war was due to the fact that the Union had a well shod army,” said Doug Butler, farrier and hoofcare expert. “The South did not have manufacturing facilities to make horseshoes and they would raid Union horseshoes supplies.”
In the late 1880s the Phoenix Horseshoe Company was formed in Poughkeepsie, New York. Up until the end of World War II these were the only two makers of horseshoes. Phoenix shoes were made in a long heeled and short heeled or “cowboy pattern.”
“We had a choice of two companies and now have hundreds of types of shoes,” Butler said. “A survey from 30 or 40 years ago identified 800 different types of horseshoes. I imagine today that’s well over 1,000.”
Many farriers today rely on manufactured shoes to run their business. Shoes already formed into a “U” saves time even though some shaping is still needed before a shoe can be nailed on. Some farriers prefer having full control over the shoe shape and opt to hand forge their own.
What other materials are used?
Steel continues to be the most popular material used to make horseshoes today. Racehorses are an exception to the rule as they tend to wear lighter weight aluminum.
There are two basic styles of steel horseshoes—the flat plate and the rim shoe called the concave fullered shoe in England.
- The flat plate is smooth. Nail holes are the only change in the shoe’s texture.
- The rim shoe has an indentation, also called a crease, that runs throughout the shoe. When the groove fills with dirt it provides increased traction, which is important to many riders.
Technology and research advancements have found their way into horseshoe designs. Synthetic materials like plastic and polyurethane are readily available. Butler remembers the first plastic shoes he encountered. It was in the 1960s and he was a student at California Polytechnic College. The manufacturer asked his students if they wanted to try them out.
“The teacher had us try to nail them onto the feet of this reining horse and then we had him ride away from shop,” Butler said. “When he came back the shoes were gone. Right where the horse turned around the nails pulled right through the shoes. They have a much better design today and many have clips too to hold them on.”
High tech horseshoes
Horseshoes have even gone high-tech—researchers in the Netherlands are using a 3D printer to develop custom therapeutic horseshoes to help encourage healing. Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization offered a tantalizing glimpse into the future of 3D printing technology by making titanium horseshoes for a racehorse in 2013.
“A lot of what we know about horseshoeing is being rediscovered,” Butler said. “Books written at the turn of the century have a lot of good information about proper hoof care; they just didn’t have the technology to make it happen.”
Does my horse need shoes?
Maybe, maybe not. Whether or not a horse needs shoes is based on its age, conformation, and type/level of work. Horseshoes can enhance a horse’s performance, protect their feet from rough terrain and provide relief from soreness.
Like human fingernails the hoof is made of keratin. Hooves are naturally sturdy and designed to withstand the horse’s natural movement but every time their hoof hits the ground it wears away at the hoof’s surface. It’s similar to filing your nails. The horseshoe slows the wear process down giving the hoof time to grow in between farrier visits.
Horseshoes might also enhance a horse’s performance in a certain discipline. For example, reining horses wear slide plates to perform their signature sliding stops and Eventing riders rely on horseshoes to provide traction.
Not all horses need shoes with some horses comfortably going barefoot. The best place to start is by having a conversation with your farrier and veterinarian to decide what’s best for your horse.