The Evolution of Farriery


“If he has not good feet, there is no profit in him as a war horse” (Xenophon 430-354 BC).

A neglected pony foot. The wall has become long and flared due to a damp environment. The wall is cracked and breaking off in large pieces. This can result in abscesses and lameness. After trimming, the concave sole is restored. The flared and broken wall have been removed. Regular trimming is required to prevent this from recurring.

The outer, dense layer of wall and sole is called the hoof.  In its normal environment, it is sufficient to protect the sensitive inner foot from injury. Under totally natural conditions, the wear rate and growth rate would be equal. When man domesticated the horse, he expected it to carry or pull heavy loads over long distances, which caused the wear rate to exceed the growth rate of the wall and sole. Horses became foot sore, then lame. Man then began to develop the method of shoeing horses that we still use today. Prior to the Iron Age, the main traffic in horses was from Turkistan over the Caucasian Mountains to Asia. By 2000 BC horses were established in the Middle East. The Assyrians are credited with the first blacksmithing skills. By 1400 BC, iron was used by the Hittites, who, through war and trade with neighbors, spread this knowledge to Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean and along Bronze Age trade routes to Italy. It reached Europe only about 700 BC and Britain no earlier than 400 BC. In 500 BC forging any hard metal into a malleable material and then into a horseshoe, spear, or horse’s bit was considered an almost magical procedure, more related to religion or sorcery than blacksmithing. Shod horses made warfare on a large scale possible. A shod horse would have been like an all terrain vehicle. It was ready to go anywhere, over any surface, at any time. The army of Alexander the Great, (356-323 BC) during its march through Asia was impeded when the horses wore down their hooves and became lame and were often abandoned.  Many ancient Roman authors made mention of hoof conformation and methods to preserve it. They did not speak of shoeing as such, only ways of protecting the hoof, if necessary. Hipposandals have been found wherever the ancient Romans settled; they were strapped onto the horse’s hoof. While not very practical they are regarded as the forerunner of steel shoes. Farriery is an art, science and a profession, first written of as far back as 400 BC, when the ancient Gauls and Celts nailed a rim of iron to their horse’s hooves. In Japan until the 19th century, horseshoes were made from plaited rice straw, supplies of which were carried or purchased en route. These examples of shoeing horses or protecting the foot from wear can be compared to the use of modern horse boots e.g., “Old Mac’s â”, Easy Boots, glue on shoes and other nail-less ways of shoeing and protecting the foot and preventing the wear rate from exceeding the growth rate. The reasons why we shoe horses using any of these methods are exactly the same now as they were 2000 years ago. The first and most important reason is to protect the foot and minimise wear of the wall when a horse is moving over a variety of surfaces that may otherwise cause the horse pain and discomfort due to wearing the feet too short and sole pressure. Stones and rocks can cause significant injury and bruising. Shoeing lifts the foot above the ground and increases the concave space under the sole which minimises injuries and sole pressure. Steel shoes and nails are still the most economical, practical and effective way to protect the foot in most cases as all nail-on or nail-less methods have some complications and no one method suits all horses for all purposes. Shoeing is also used as therapy for a lame horse or as part of treatment of a foot condition.

Bruising and abscesses in a flat soled foot of a mare in Thailand where wet conditions and humidity result in many hoof problems. This foot needs a shoe and a dry stable as part of treatment.

Why do we shoe horses?

  • When the wear rate exceeds the growth rate of the hoof, resulting in short feet and lameness. In a natural environment, the wear rate of the hoof is equal to the growth rate.
  • To protect the sole from injury when moving over rough surfaces.
  • To maximise soundness in younger and older horses – to reduce the risks of  poor conformation leading to early breakdown.
  • As an aid to treatment of injury and disease.

Wild horses travel over large areas, up to 20 miles per day in search  of food and water. The hoof chips off in small pieces, or wears away, encouraging hoof function and normal shape. Horses with poor hoof or limb conformation are predisposed to foot problems and lamenesses as a secondary effect of the conformation fault. Trimming and shoeing can minimise conformation faults in younger horses and maximise the potential for soundness in older horses while improving hoof shape and function. When humans over-confine horses, supplying all their food and water requirements, the growth rate of the hoof exceeds the wear rate. Normal hoof  function and shape may be compromised and the hoof must be trimmed or shod. Trimming and maintenance of horse’s hooves at regular intervals is absolutely essential if horses are to live in the human environment.

Trimming theories

The four point trim, the wild horse trim and the natural horse trim are names given to trimming methods developed from research studies and theories about what is the best way to trim a horse based on feral horses hooves. From this farriery practices have been developed which are often controversial and in some cases poorly applied. In the main the feet of American feral horses, these are domesticated horses that are allowed to live free for many generations were studied. It has been shown that some are genetically related to the original American mustang. This is fitting as this is the continent on which the horse evolved. It has long been known that in natural conditions; which I would describe as unlimited space, some hills, some rough ground, seasonal climate with a dry summer and moderate feed for grazing; horses develop feet that are worn at the toe, with wall that is shorter at the quarters, the feet have minimal flare and the hooves are usually in a state of balance neither too long or too short. This is consistent with horses which cover a large area in dry conditions to obtain feed and water in summer. In the most severe cases the toe becomes so worn that the theory of the four point trim was born. In this case only the heels and the wall either side of the toe is fully weight bearing. A comment by a leading researcher at a farriery seminar summed up the facts. These are horses which are under conditions of natural selection and pushed to the limit of their survival because their feet are almost worn to the point of being too short to be comfortable. A lame horse is the wild is a dead horse soon after!! When a horses feet are so short and sore that it cannot forage for food and walk back to water it is doomed if there is a predator big enough to attack and kill it.

Rescued from a paddock in Perth W.A. this pony was subjected to very wet winters followed by 10 months of dry weather in a sandy paddock. These feet cannot break off now because they are so hard I could not trim this hind foot with conventional tools. Showing the long toe formed of the laminitic wedge running parallel with the ground.
I needed to borrow a wood saw to trim the toe. Because of the dry summers in W.A. the weather can be used to the farrier’s benefit, this foot was trimmed every 5 – 6 weeks and the pony was sound throughout. Wet weather would have made this job much more complicated. After sawing the toe off the normal hoof-pastern angle can be seen.
After 12 months of regular trimming the toe has completely regrown. I have just trimmed the wall. The sole view shows concavity and a normal hoof wall and a much improved white line.

A point that is rarely mentioned about these theories is that each horse’s genetic potential is a large part of why that particular horse develops a foot problem. If a horse has the genes for good conformation and for good functional feet it has a much better chance of survival under wild conditions as well as domesticated conditions. The horses studied were not randomly selected from the domestic pool of horses which are currently shod in Australia, England, Europe or even America and then put into these conditions. The horses studied are under true conditions of genetic selection for survival over many generations. Therefore, how do these horses feet compare to the pool of horses which we are faced with as farriers, vets and horse owners in any particular country or breed of horses? For those horses with flat feet, low hoof pastern angles, club feet and toe-in or toe-out conformation, nothing done to the external hoof capsule including wearing it all away and making the horse sore will ever change its genetic potential to pass on bad feet to its offspring. Contrary to what some people think, feet don’t toughen up, they are affected by the forces of nature in the environment in which they are kept, a good environment e.g., large area, dry with some gravel and plenty of feed and water can help to improve feet and a bad environment e.g., small, wet in winter, wetter in summer, muddy paddock with no feed or shade will make them worse. When the severely flat footed horses “go naked” in a bad environment all that happens is that they hobble about in misery developing flared feet, hoof wall cracks, abscesses, sole pressure and bruising. Incorrect over trimming adds to the problems and no matter how long you keep the foot naked it will never develop a deep concave sole, or change the angle of the distal phalanx within it. The naked and natural theories have also been partially developed in relation to horses which are over confined, have a tendency to contracted hoof shapes and upright pasterns e.g., feet such as occur on Warmbloods kept in Europe. This is a combination of genetic potential and environment. In a harsh winter climate it is necessary to have horses stabled. This a far cry from many Australian horses which are Thoroughbred, Standardbred or Thoroughbreds crossed with an Arab, Warmblood, Stock horse or Quarter horse. Some crosses improve the feet, but a few horses inherit the worst features of both the dam and the sire. The majority of these horses would get some free exercise every day.

Mustad Glue-on shoes are one way of protecting the horse’s feet without nails.

What am I using to base my statements upon? Seeing horses which have never been shod which have inherited such poor hoof conformation from their dam and sire that by the time they are 12 months old they require front shoes just to be paddock sound. These horses were well bred, well fed, on good surfaces and received professional farriery care so that neglect was never a factor. Viewing up to 4 generations of the same sire line has convinced me that the feet were true to their genetic potential. Kept shod they would race or perform to their best, left unshod they would be footsore and lame. What is the answer? Don’t breed from them! This is why it is more important to buy good conformation below the shoulder than above. Farriery was developed over 2000 years ago because the Greek Army horses wore out their horse’s feet and they became lame. The wear rate exceeded the growth rate. This is still the main reason that we shoe horses today, to protect their feet from becoming too short and then the horse becoming lame. The researchers of these theories have concluded that we should try and return horse’s feet to this natural form under natural conditions in a bid to cure horses of many forms of unsoundness which are due to the unnatural conditions in which we force horses to live. Their recommendations include, unlimited exercise, removing the flare from the feet, creating a bevelled edge on the wall, removing weak, folded and excess heels or bars and creating a bevelled toe that allows ease of break over and trimming the horse every 3 – 4 weeks at the maximum. This is exactly what most farriers would have you do with an unshod horse under perfect conditions. This is not new information, but it is more expensive and that is where most of the resistance from clients comes from. It is often very difficult to convince people (even when they ask for your recommendations) that more frequent shoeing or trimming are the answer to their horse’s problem (little and often) because everything comes back to what people can afford. However, when a regular routine is established and the horse is well fed and able to exercise freely it will have feet which are never out of balance and always look and feel great! One problem facing professional farriers and the horse-owning public is a wide base of unqualified and unprofessional people who charge money for trimming and shoeing but do not deliver a good standard of service. This low standard of work at lower prices is what many people compare to as normal when discussing the benefits of the barefoot and natural over conventional farriery. My feeling is that many people in Australia have not yet had the benefit of a high level of professional service and that the bad experiences they have had have steered them towards the naked hoof message. A good farrier produces a trim which fulfills all the requirements of natural and balanced and would never suggest shoeing a horse that will be able to do whatever the rider requires and remain sound and happy unshod. Shoes are for those horses that need them. My message is, there is nothing new in farriery. When you apply a fancy name to something and promise to change a horse’s feet over 12 months with this new method people are impressed, it is often the first time the principles have been discussed by the horse-owner in this way. There is no harm in marketing your product. I only become concerned when the principles which are all part of normal good farriery practice are abused. Horses have had their feet so severely trimmed in the name of naked, barefoot and natural that the horse becomes very sore and the client is told that this is all part of the process and the horse needs to go through this phase to bet better in the longer term. This pain represents previous damage to the foot. What this pain really represents is what is happening right now!! No one has the right to trim a horse’s feet so short that it is sore. This is injuring the horse, it is cruel and will not speed the process. The golden rule of veterinary medicine, farriery and trimming your own horse’s feet is “first do no harm”, if your horse has bad feet, trim it “little and often”. I am confident that poor hooves can be dramatically improved by one years worth of good, regular farriery care; but, if that good farriery stops the hooves will revert to what ever problems they had previously if the hoof is predisposed to it by poor limb and foot conformation or environmental factors such as wet ground and poor diet. Naked and natural work best when a hoof is normal conformation or is slightly contracted. When a hoof is abnormal e.g., flat soled that must be dealt with first. A horse limping around with thin, prolapsed soles due to poor conformation, flat feet or neglected chronic laminitis and sole pressure is miserable and requires “professional” quality farriery to relieve the discomfort. In the short term shoes e.g., glue-on, nail-on, slip-on etc., or reconstruction techniques may be essential to give that animal comfort. Providing non painful answers to our farriery problems is our obligation as horse-owners, farriers and veterinarians. So the answer to this issue is yes, there is a lot of good in the core of trimming theories and natural horse ideals. But, beware of those who have got hold of some of the information and some of the principles and then try to baffle you with “bull-dust” and leave you with a horse that has been over-trimmed and is foot sore. Farriery is all about leaving the horse sounder than you found it.

If common sense was common, it would not be a highly prized commodity.

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