Horseshoe-Purpose

Horseshoes can be used for a number of reasons, including:

  • Preventing excessive hoof wear. Most of the horse's weight is carried on the hard outside of the hoof, which is constantly growing to compensate for natural wear. However, hard surfaces (such as paved roads) or abrasive surfaces (such as sand) can quickly wear down the hoof excessively, resulting in pain to the horse and possible damage to the hoof (such as laminitis). Horseshoes prevent this by preventing contact between the hoof and the hard or abrasive surfaces, so that the horseshoe is worn down instead of the hooves. 
  • Preventing hoof splits or breakages. Hooves can split or pieces break off, which is inconvenient at best and in severe cases result in permanent damage to the hoof. This is most likely to occur as a result of contact with hard surfaces (e.g. paved roads, concrete areas), especially if the surfaces are uneven (e.g. rocky paths). Horseshoes help prevent this by distributing the impact of the hoof on the hard surface over the entire hoof area rather than a single point. Some horseshoes (e.g. rubber horseshoes) are specially designed to absorb the force of impact, further reducing the risk of injury.
  • Improved traction (grip). Horseshoes can be fitted with studs or other devices to improve traction and reduce slipping on soft or smooth surfaces. This is used for race horses (especially under muddy conditions) to improve speed, performance horses (such as show jumpers and polo ponies) to improve precision and long distance horses to reduce fatigue associated with running on unstable surfaces. In addition to improving the horse's performance, it reduces the risk of injury associated with falling down.
  • Medical. Horseshoes are an important part of various medical procedures. For example, holding together split hooves until the split grows out, taking pressure off of sensitive or damaged parts of a hoof (e.g. due to an abscess, excessive wear or laminitis), correcting hoof shape or size or angles, and correcting bone or musculature issues in the legs. While such techniques can be very successful, many of them require specialist knowledge and often involve the farrier working under the guidance of an equine veterinarian. 
  • Gait Manipulation. Special horseshoes can be used to modify the gait of a horse. In some cases this is for medical reasons (where the horse has an incorrect gait, possibly associated with injury) and in other cases for show reasons (e.g. to develop and accentuate high-stepping movements, which is desired for showing gaited horses such as Tennessee Walking Horses).

Aside from the above, there is a strong tradition of shoeing horses, resulting in many horse owners having their horses fitted with horse shoes, without considering the alternatives. This is unfortunate, as there are a number of significant disadvantages to horseshoes and many horses (and owners) would be better off without them. This has resulted in the development of a number of groups promoting the advantages of not shoeing, an approach which is labeled 'barefoot riding' or 'natural hoof' and is associated with the larger 'natural horse' movement.

References

For related articles, click on Horseshoe Information, or on any of the following: