The horseshoe is a device that has been used for centuries to protect horses’ hooves from wear and tear caused by rough terrain.
The invention of the horseshoe stems from working horses being exposed to harsh conditions on a daily basis that led to excessive wear and damage to their hooves.
By providing protection from sharp objects on the ground or the constant stress of travelling hundreds of miles, the horses became useable for longer periods of time.
Horses have always been expensive to buy and keep, and the longer you could use a horse, the better of an investment it was.
Another thing that made the practise of wrapping the hooves in protective materials pivotal, was the fact that horses with foot gear run faster compared to horses in the wild.
Just like human runners gain improved performance with the right gear, so do horses.
The earliest form of horseshoes can be found as early as 400 BCE.
In Asia, horses’ hooves were wrapped in rawhide or other materials, both for protection and for therapeutic purposes.
Initially, the materials used to create protective layers for hooves were made out of plants, rawhide, and leather straps.
Both ancient Greeks and Romans recognised the necessity of protecting their horses’ hooves when riding over rough terrain. Xenophon wrote about this in his treatise on horsemanship*.
The hipposandal was a predecessor of the modern horse shoe.
The hipposandal — a leather boot, reinforced by an iron plate — appeared in the Celtic-Roman area north of the Alps around 150 CE.
The hipposandal included an oval-shaped cup of thick metal that that enclosed the hoof. It was fixed to the hoof with leather laces and metallic clasps.
The bottom of each hipposandal was grooved to further improve traction.
Gradually, the various hoof protectors evolved as the cold, wet climate of Northern Europe made it challenging for horses toehold on the terrain.
This climate gave birth to the craft of nailing metal shoes around 600-700 CE.
The horseshoe became more widespread during the Middle Ages (circa 500-1400 CE), when iron was the common material for making horse shoes.
Specialised shoes were designed for horses used in different situations such as trade, transportation, or war.
The history of horseshoes is hard to nail down and historians find it difficult to agree when horseshoeing first started.
Cast iron horseshoes are particularly difficult to date, especially when such materials were often repurposed to create weapons or other form of metal craft.
This has made archaeological findings so scarce that the beginning of the shoeing practise is hard to prove.
The ongoing consensus is that horses were first domesticated around 4000 BCE.
Around 2000 BCE, war horses were typically strapped to chariots, and their hooves would be equipped with some form of protective foot gear made out of leather.
The practise of horseshoe-making became widespread during 1000 CE, mostly in Europe.
The craft of forging and attaching horseshoes became an important craft in the Middle Ages. It played a role in the development of metallurgy.
Blacksmiths (iron was called ‘black metal’) made most of the iron objects used in everyday life.
The word farrier comes from Old French ferrier, which comes from Latin ferrarius, derived from ferrum ‘iron, horseshoe’.
A farrier is a specialist in equine hoof care, including the trimming and balancing of horses’ hooves and the placing of shoes on their hooves.
A farrier’s equipment consists of a furnace or forge, an anvil (a heavy block of steel or iron), tongs, and hammers.
First, the sole and rim of the horse’s hoof is cleaned and shaped with rasps and knives. The horseshoe is heated in a forge until it is soft enough to shape with the hammer to fit the hoof, cooled by quenching it in water, and attached to the hoof with nails.
The shoes were made with light bronze alloys characterised by a scalloped shape and six nail holes.
It was the Industrial Revolution that saw the emergence of machines capable of mass-producing horseshoes and production reached its peak.
In 1835 a horseshoe manufacturing machine was patented for the first time in the US, and it was capable of producing 60 shoes per hour.
Modern horseshoes are made out of a variety of materials, but mainly out of steel and aluminium.
Horseshoes made out of steel have been found to be more durable and cheaper compared to aluminium shoes.
With the emergence of equestrian sports and horse racing came the need for horseshoes that were lighter.
These allowed horses to move faster while still providing enough protection.
Horse shoes can also be corrective and used to fix issues with gait and as one tool in healing hoof imbalances.
In addition to their practical use, horseshoes have also been the subject of superstition and folklore.
Many people believe that finding a horseshoe brings good luck, and hanging a horseshoe over the doorway of a house is believed to ward off evil spirits.
This belief may stem from the fact that horseshoes were originally made of iron, a material that was believed to have protective properties.
Today, horseshoes are still an essential tool for horses, and they are used in a wide range of equestrian sports, from show jumping to horse racing.
They are also used in the sport of horseshoe pitching, which involves throwing horseshoes at a stake in the ground.
Horses can be shod or unshod.
Shoes help to protect the hooves in conditions that can cause breakage or excessive wear, such as extra load on the horse (riders, tack, carts, loads etc.) and hard surfaces.
There are also shoes that increase traction (for instance when walking on ice) and alter the gait of the horse for aesthetic or corrective purposes.
Shoes can be made of different materials varying from steel to rubber with farriers usually preferring materials that are hard wearing.
Depending on the size of the hoof and the work of the horse, the shoes also vary in shape and thickness.
Horses that are unshod can develop a hard hoof that is almost as strong as a hoof with a shoe if given the right conditions.
Unshod horses are able to traverse just about any surface as shod horses are, provided that their hooves have been maintained properly.
If unshod hooves need extra protection they can be fitted with hoof boots that are temporary protection and don’t need a farrier to be put on.
Barefoot hooves also need to be trimmed regularly as most domestic horses rarely travel far enough on varying surfaces to wear the hooves down as wild horses do.
Horses with shoes on can also have their shoes pulled and transition to bare hooves.
This however requires time, resources and knowledge as the hoof needs special conditions and enough time to recover and re-grow after being shod.
There is much debate today about whether shoes are really necessary.
Domestic horse breeds bred for specific traits such as speed or strength (hoof soundness not being one of them) and raised and kept in conditions that do not respond to the natural state of wild or feral horses, make domestic horses more dependant on shoes.
Modern horse management typically results in horses’ hooves hardening less and being more vulnerable to injury than their wild counterparts.
In the wild, a horse may travel up to 80 km (50 miles) per day to obtain adequate forage.
And while horses in the wild cover large areas of terrain, they usually do so at relatively slow speeds (unless being chased by a predator) meaning that the stress on the hoof is constant throughout the day.
They also tend to live in arid steppe climates.
Some trimmers base what they do on wild horse feet, but they’re not saying any old wild horse foot is good because that’s clearly not the case.
Feral ponies like New Forest and Dartmoor that live in much wetter climates and have limited areas to range, can and do often suffer from poor feet.
The model for sound barefoot trimming is typically based on mustangs who live in an arid rocky desert and as a result get all the wear they need and grow incredibly tough feet to suit, along with an ideal diet.
By mimicking the wear patterns in the trimming, the diet and the lifestyle as much as possible within the constraints of domestication the idea is that the foot is ‘tricked’ into responding and toughening up.
The consequence of slow but non-stop travel in a dry climate is that horses’ feet are naturally worn to a small, smooth, even, and hard state.
The continual stimulation of the sole over varying surfaces keeps it thick and hard.
Domesticated horses are brought to colder and wetter areas than their ancestral habitat, and subjected to less continuous use.
They’re typically also turned out on grass.
These softer and heavier soils soften the hooves and make them prone to splitting, making hoof protection necessary.
Depending on the type of work, carry load and surfaces the horse travels on, it needs differing protection for the hooves.
Many domestic horses do not necessarily need shoes at all and a barefoot hoof, even if only for part of the year, is usually a healthy option for any horse when the owner is knowledgeable enough.
There is much debate over when, how and why horses need to be shod as the barefoot movement has questioned traditional use of horse shoes.
Barefoot horse care advocates correct care, trimming, and a lifestyle more reminiscent of that in the wild for horses to maintain leg and hoof health as well as mental balance and happiness.
If transitioning to barefoot is something you’re interested in, educate yourself on how the hoof works and is tied to your horse’s overall health, and consult your farrier and/or vet before making any drastic changes to your horse’s routine or diet.
The horseshoe is a device that has played a significant role in the history of horses and equestrian sports.
As with other technical advancements in horse tack (such as the stirrup) the horseshoe has played a part in the geopolitical arena, giving the cavalry with the better technology an edge.
Whether used for practical or decorative purposes, the horseshoe remains an iconic symbol of the equestrian world.