Why Do Horses Need Shoes? (A Complete Guide)

Horses need horseshoes for the same purposes humans need shoes. Horseshoes protect horse’s hooves the same way shoes protect our feet.

While some people may argue horses don’t need shoes, the same can be said about humans. Anthropological research shows we lived barefoot up to around 40,000 years ago. Also, horses didn’t need shoes up until they became domesticated. The need to protect horses domesticated in inhospitable climate popularized horseshoes.

Horses living in normal conditions don’t need horseshoes. However, those belonging to breeds known to have weak hoofs need to wear shoes. Horse hoofs are like human nails. The main difference is thickness.

If a horse has weak hooves, horseshoes are nailed into the thick part of their hooves. A horse’s hoof is comprised of a thick unfeeling outer part and a sensitive center. Horseshoes are nailed into the thick unfeeling part or glued.

When Do Horses Need Shoes?

Poor hoof health: The health of your horse’s hooves should determine if they need to wear shoes or not. Strong, healthy hooves don’t need shoes.

Poor diet and terrain: What you feed your horse and the surrounding terrain also play a critical role in determining if they need shoes or not. Domesticated horses don’t need to look for food. Since they don’t forage, their hooves tend to grow faster, introducing the need for trimming. Foraging horses harden and trim their hooves naturally as they transverse different terrain. Domesticated horses tend to be overfed, resulting in problems like founder or laminitis.

Landscape: Hard ground causes concussive damage to a horse’s hooves, increasing disease risks like navicular disease, among other lameness issues. Mud also weakens a horse’s hooves introducing the need for horseshoes.

Protection from effects of racing and jumping: Activities like racing and jumping may cause cracks to develop on a horse’s hooves. Horseshoes can stop this from happening by strengthening the landing as well as increasing traction and protection.

Prevention of infection from urine-soaked hay: Ammonia infection that results when horses step on urine-soaked hay can be prevented by horseshoes. Domesticated horses spend most of their time in stables. If the hay is cleaned out once a day or fewer times, ammonia can build up within the stable. Horseshoes lift hooves off the ground creating a barrier between the substrate in the stable and a horse’s hooves.

To change gait: Horseshoes can also be fitted for the sole purpose of changing a horse’s gait. Horseshoes are also recommended sometimes if a horse’s gait exerts undue stress on a horse’s body.

Enhance performance: A horse may need shoes depending on what they do. Horseshoes can enhance a horse’s performance in snowy and icy conditions. Horseshoes can enhance traction. Some applications can expose horses to increased foot concussion. High-level jumpers, as well as eventers, need horseshoes for added support.

While horses that perform on groomed arenas many not need special footing given the chances of encountering stones among other ground inconsistencies, high-level jumpers need shoes to reduce soreness and optimize performance on multiple surfaces.

In a nutshell, the answer to “why do horses need shoes” revolves around protection. While there are other valid reasons why horses should wear shoes i.e., to improve their gait, most reasons revolve around protecting the hooves.

Are Horseshoes Risky?

Despite the horseshoe benefits described above, some people still think horseshoes are unnecessary. Many barefoot proponents argue that trimming and maintaining a horse’s hooves correctly is enough. Some even view shoeing as inhumane.

Are There Risks Associated With Horse Shoes?

Poor horseshoeing risks

While horseshoeing is important for many reasons, it can introduce many problems when done poorly. For instance, horseshoes installed using nails can damage hooves. This is common with horses that already have brittle hooves or already damaged hooves.

Horseshoe nails inserted incorrectly can cause horses to experience excruciating pain coupled with soft tissue damages in the hooves. Poor horseshoeing can also damage a horse’s walking style. Like human shoes, horseshoes should fit precisely. If they don’t, they’ll cause other problems.

A poorly fitted horseshoe can be very uncomfortable to your horse as you ride, resulting in soreness. Horses can also lose poorly fitted shoes, especially when they ride in muddy conditions. In a nutshell, horseshoeing can introduce serious risks when done badly. The installation and maintenance need to be perfect for your horse to enjoy all the benefits that come with horseshoes.

Do Horseshoes Hurt The Horse?

No. If they are installed properly, horseshoes protect a horse’s hooves. If installed badly i.e., the wrong size is installed, or nails are inserted incorrectly, horseshoes will do more harm than good.

Are Horseshoes Cruel?

No. Horseshoes were invented to help rather than cause harm. However, the risks associated with improper installation can’t be overlooked.

Why Do Wild Horses Not Need Shoes?

Unlike domesticated horses, wild horses move around different terrain foraging. In the process, their hooves are hardened naturally. Domesticated horses don’t have this luxury. Their hooves tend to soften and overgrow, creating the need for regular maintenance and horseshoes.

Why Don’t Donkeys Need Shoes?

In case you are wondering why donkeys don’t need shoes, studies show that donkeys have stronger hooves than horses because of their genetics. Donkeys originated from arid and mountainous regions. Donkeys also do more walking/exercise than horses today, which benefits their hooves. However, like all hoofed animals, their hooves are still susceptible to problems that may be solved by shoes.


While horseshoeing is important for reasons discussed above, debates on the necessity are warranted. The benefits of a horseshoe can only be enjoyed if the need is there and the shoes are installed properly. Since horses stopped living in the wild, the need for extra hoof protection can’t be overlooked.

Wild horses cover long distances on a daily basis, which hardens their hooves naturally. Regular movement also keeps the hooves in good shape and size. Domesticated horses suffer from intermittent exercise. They develop soft hooves. What’s more, they are exposed to damper grounds and poor diets, which bring disease risks. Horseshoes protect weak hooves from injury, among other problems like exposure to dampness. Hoof boots can be used instead of horseshoes to offer added hoof protection and support.

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