Horseshoe types

Horseshoes differ in terms of:

  • Material. Horseshoes were traditionally made from iron but most modern horseshoes are made from steel. One can also get them in aluminum, rubber, plastic or combination materials (e.g. steel top layer with rubber bottom layer).
  • Accessories. Horseshoes can be fitted with accessories, the most common of which are studs.
  • Function. The most common reasons for shoeing are horse are to protect the hooves from breakage and to reduce wear. However, shoes can also be used to address a number of medical issues.
  • Shape and Size. The size and shape of hooves vary greatly (just like human feet) from one horse to another. Consequently, horseshoes are available in a variety of sizes and shape.
  • Width and Thickness. Wide and thick shoes are used for strength, thinner and narrower shoes are used to reduce weight and costs.
  • Flat, Concave, Grooved. The metal out of which the shoe is made can be flat on the bottom, or concave or with a grove.

Choosing the correct horseshoe for a given horse, at a given time, means selecting among these factors. Following is a more detailed discussion of how to determine what type of horseshoe is best for your horse.

Steel versus Other Materials

Steel is the most common material for horseshoes, giving it a number of advantages over other materials:

  • Stock. Farriers carry a large selection of steel horseshoes, in various sizes and shapes. However, for other materials (e.g. aluminum, rubber), they may not have horseshoes in stock and consequently may have to special order them. This requires the farrier to come to measure the hoofs for size, then a delay while the required shoes are ordered and then a second visit to fit them to the horse. 
  • Farrier Knowledge and Acceptance. All farriers are familiar with steel and accept it as the standard. However, many of them lack training and experience of working with horseshoes made of other materials and consequently are either unable or reluctant to use non-steel shoes.
  • Horse Owner Acceptance. Most horse owners accept steel as the standard and will seldom object to its use. However, a farrier or veterinarian proposing an alternative type of shoe will often meet resistance and need to carefully explain why a different material is more appropriate for a given horse or given circumstances.
  • Cost. Steel shoes tend to be the cheapest to buy and for farriers to fit. This is partly due to the fact that shoes made from other materials are considered specialty items, so have a higher markup (by manufacturers, retailers and farriers). In some cases non-steel shoes are also more expensive to produce, especially in the case of combination shoes (e.g. rubber and steel).

As a result, steel is the standard for horse shoes, with other materials being used only when their is a specific requirement.

Aluminum shoes are mainly used for racing horses and long distance endurance horses, due to the advantage provided by its light weight. It is also sometimes used in western show competitions, as it allows a better 'sliding stop'. However, it has less strength and wear resistance than steel.

Plastic shoes have the advantage that they can be glued on, avoiding the need to nail. This can be important if the hoof walls are too short (e.g. due to excessive hear or trimming), badly damaged or inflamed (e.g. due to laminitis). In such cases a shoe may still be required (e.g. to raise the hoof wall so that the horse is not walking on its inner sole) but nails are inappropriate, so gluing on a plastic shoe meets the requirements until the hoof can regrow and repair. However, due to the limited strength and wear resistance of plastic, they are not widely used outside of these special circumstances.

Rubber is much more shock absorbent than metal, which is of benefit if a horse has to travel long distances over hard surfaces or is sensitive to impacts. Absorption of shock can significantly reduce the risk of lameness, navicular, impact related laminitis, and hoof wall damages. A hard rubber shoe can last until the regular re-shoeing time (typically 6-8 weeks), under moderate use. It can also be nailed on, like a standard steel shoe.

One can also buy shoes that combine materials, such as a steel top layer and a bottom rubber layer, so that one gets the advantages of both materials. In this example, one has the strength and support of metal, combined with the shock absorption of rubber.

Other materials are used relatively rarely. Titanium horseshoes provide high strength, combined with low weight (about half that of steel), but are expensive and many owners find that aluminum is a lest costly solution for low weight applications. In the past, brass shoes and brass  nails were used in coal mines, to prevent sparks which could ignite coal gases. 

Accessories

The most common accessory for horseshoes are studs, which are used to provide the horseshoe (and consequently the horse) with better grip. In  soft ground (e.g. muddy earth), the improved grip provided by studs allows the horse to travel faster and with less effort. In the case of slippery hard surfaces (e.g. smooth concrete), studs can reduce the risk of the horse falling and associated injury (to horse and/or rider).

Studs come in various sizes and shapes, the selection of which depends largely on how the horse is used and on the type of ground. Expert and experienced advice should be obtained before using studs, as inappropriate use can result in injuries.

Studs can be fitted to a shoe in a number of ways, including:

  • Part of the horseshoe itself (a specialty horseshoe).
  • Fitted into an existing nail hole of the shoe
  • Fitted into an additional hole which is drilled into the shoe
  • Screwed into the shoe. Unlike the above three approaches, this option allows studs to be added, removed or changed. The horseshoe must have threaded holes, which can be done at the time of manufacturer or afterwards by some farriers. Care must be taken that the 'thread' is not damaged, as this can make it difficult for studs to be screwed in or out. 

Thickness and Width

A light shoe means less weight on the hoof, allowing a horse to run faster and with less effort. A lighter shoe also has less material and consequently tends to be less expensive, with the exception of super-light shoes which may be charged higher due to being a specialty item. Consequently, one tends to choose the minimum required weight, which means the minimum size in terms of thickness and width.

The minimum required thickness and width will depend on the horse and how it is used:

  • Surface. Traveling over hard surfaces (e.g. roads) will wear a shoe much faster than over soft surfaces (e.g. grassland). Traveling over uneven surfaces (e.g. rocky paths) will wear and stress shoes faster than even surfaces.
  • Work frequency and duration. A horse with is ridden for a long period each day will wear down its shoes faster than a horse which is ridden infrequently or for short periods. 
  • Intensity. The shoes of a running horse will impact the ground harder than that of a walking horse, with a corresponding increase in wear rates and potential damage to the shoe.
  • Weight and Hoof Size. The shoes of a heavy horse will impact the ground harder than that of a light horse, so a heavy horse will need stronger shoes. A horse which has small hooves will be carrying its weight on a smaller surface, so needs shoes which are correspondingly thicker or wider to compensate.

An experienced farrier can choose a shoe of the appropriate strength and weight, depending on the horse and how it is used. When it is time to re-shoe the horse, he can also examine the old shoes for wear, to determine if a lighter or heavier shoe is appropriate.

If the way in which you use the horse is about to change dramatically, one should discuss with the farrier if a change to shoe is required. For example, if one normally travels over soft surfaces but over the subsequent weeks intend to do a lot of work on hard and uneven surfaces, a different shoe may be required. When changing shoe weight significantly, the horse will need a few days to get used to running with the new shoe weight before it is at optimum performance.

In the case of race horses and long distance horses, light weight shoes may be used even if they wear out before the normal shoeing frequency (about 6-8 weeks). In this case, the horse will be shod more frequently (despite the extra cost and inconvenience), in order to allow the horse to run faster or further or with less effort.

Aside from the above considerations, other factors to consider are:

  • A wide shoe provides greater support
  • A narrow shoe provides better grip
  • Increasing thickness is more effective than increasing width in terms of wear resistance
  • Increasing thickness and increasing width are approximately equally effective in terms of strength (resistance to damage)
  • The dimensions of thickness and width need to be kept in proportion (any commercially available shoe from a reputable manufacturer should meet this requirement)

Flat, Concave, Grove

The bottom of the shoe can be flat, or concave, or have a grove (known as 'fullered'). A flat shoe has greater wear resistance and strength, while the other two types provide a better grip.

References

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