IS SHOEING A NECESSARY EVIL?
By: Neel W. Glass, Ph.D.
Horses have been shod by nailing on iron shoes for over a thousand years. However, shoeing can cause a variety of hoof problems, and the cliche Shoeing is a necessary evil is nearly as old as horseshoeing itself.
Since the introduction of Easyboot early in 1972, we have received many reactions and questions and heard many different attitudes expressed on hoof care, treatment, shoeing, and related subjects. These attitudes have ranged all the way from positive statements that horses should always be shod; to equally flat statements that all shoeing is harmful, the horse should always be barefoot - nature intended it that way!
Since there seem to be so many opinions and questions on these subjects, it may be of interest to recount some facts and to describe problems that exist which led to the development of Easyboot.
The first use of the horse by man is lost in antiquity but it is clear that the first tribes to use the horse in battle had a tremendous advantage. However, the eventual limitation of the horse in long hard campaigns and forced marches was the wear of their feet. At the time of Alexander the Great, horses were not shod except occasionally with a rawhide wrap and there were instances where campaigns were slowed down, stopped, and even lost because the hooves became worn out and broken to the point where the horses could not continue on.
During this period (300-400 B.C.), the condition of the cavalry horses? hooves was of great concern. Even before the time of Alexander, the Greek General Xenophon wrote in his cavalry manual: Beware of the horse with the frog off the ground.
Nailed-on iron shoes seem to be first used later during the time of the Roman Empire. An iron shoe nearly identical to those used today "nail holes and all" was found in the tomb of a Frankish king who died in 481 A.D.. Maybe put there for good luck in the hereafter!
History certainly shows that horses can be used barefoot ? they were used for several thousand years before shoeing was invented! But there are obvious limits if the animal is used very much on hard or rocky surfaces: as history also shows. However, there are certainly other advantages ? and disadvantages ? of shoeing.
Besides hoof protection, shoeing can improve traction and be a means for the treatment and correction of hoof injuries and conformation defects. But there are definite disadvantages and harmful effects of shoeing. It has been estimated that 80% of lameness in horses today is caused or aggravated by shoeing. Nails weaken the hoof walls; iron shoes increase concussion; they hold the frog off the ground thus reducing blood circulation through the hoof. Shoeing can cause contracted heels, corns, contribute to navicular disease, sidebones, ringbones, and on and on. A good many of these problems arise simply because nailing on an iron shoe locks in problems that a barefoot hoof would automatically adjust by natural wear and freedom.
Concussion causes many hoof and leg problems including road founder, osselets, bucked shins, and navicular disease. Running a barefoot horse on pavement or hard packed ground is bad enough. Running an iron shod horse under these conditions is much worse. At least the frog and bars of a healthy barefoot hoof will help distribute the shock. The frog of an iron shod hoof never has a chance to touch a hard surface. The hoof wall takes all the load.
To make these facts a little clearer, let us consider the structure of the hoof in Figure 1. The hoof wall and the bars are meant to be primary load bearing surfaces with good firm contact of the frog on the ground which acts as a shock absorber and pump for circulation of the blood through the hoof and back up the leg. With a normally iron shod hoof, the hoof wall by itself is the only part of the hoof bearing any weight or taking shock on a hard surface. When one considers the forces pushing the coffin bone (third phalanx) into the sole which is only suspended by the hoof wall with no support from the bars and frog, one can immediately see how road founder develops. The coffin bone is almost literally torn away from the hoof wall and eventually dropped through the sole.
On soft ground, turf, or sand the situation is different and the load is distributed over the bars, frog, and entire sole and this problem does not exist even for a shod hoof. However, it follows that if this is the only type of terrain a horse is worked on, then the shoeing was unnecessary for hoof protection in the first place.
Nature's design of the hoof is indeed a masterpiece. Look how all the features fit together and function together, one part complementing the others and all serving a necessary purpose. Consider an example: The quarters are the thinnest part of the wall. In a barefoot horse, the quarters are frequently worn down more than the rest of the wall and may even be broken out. This is not harmful, or an indication that shoeing is necessary. In fact, it is beautiful. This is nature?s way of: (1) providing the very best in heel calks and increased traction: (2) exposing the frog to increased pressure and blood pumping action: and (3) allowing even greater expansion at the quarters. (2) and (3) lead to greater cushioning and shock absorption. The increased pumping action promotes faster healthy hoof growth. All these factors work together in a self correcting manner. A nailed on shoe locks out these self-corrections.
Of course, as was pointed out earlier, full use of the horse on rough, hard, and abrasive terrain does require hoof protection, since nature?s self-corrections may not be immediately sufficient to prevent foot-soreness and temporary lameness. But again, the beauty of nature: For the healthy horse and hoof, any damage is self-limiting and temporary. Proper rest and time is all that is required. For the shod horse, however, any damage is apt to be not immediately obvious, more insidious, long term, and very often not fully recoverable.
Metal shoes on pavement and many hard surfaces, wet or dry, are slippery and dangerous. Borium coatings on the metal shoes will make them less slippery, but increase concussion, because then there is no give at all, and the hoof wall really takes a beating. Many city mounted police horses have a problem this way. Additional modern hazards to the horse are glass bottles and tin cans. A normally shod hoof stepping on a bottle will break it ? a sole or heel cut is almost inevitable.
What then, is a better way? We have seen that barefoot is best if there are no hoof protection, traction, or treatment needs. Often there are these needs, but usually not continuously. After all, even a well used horse spends most of its time in the stall, corral, or pasture where hoof protection and traction aren?t required. People don?t usually go to bed with their shoes on. Why should a horse be forced to?
All of these foregoing facts and problems were far from my mind, when after considerable hesitation (or stalling), I found myself digging post holes and building a shed to house Whitey. Whitey was a gray gelding of uncertain age and lineage whom a local horse trader very persuasively sold as the perfect beginner?s horse for my two daughters. As a boy on a farm in Oregon, I had handled and ridden our team of mules. I had even trimmed their toenails, but there was a 30 year gap since any contact with the equine species. My professional life as a nuclear physicist was kind of far removed from horses.
After a couple of weeks, we noticed whitey limped occasionally. A trip to the vet and x-rays followed. Whitey had navicular disease. A farrier shod him with built up heels ? then it snowed. Poor Whitey was walking on snowballs six inches high. I looked around for some type of overshoe that would help, but nobody knew of any such thing. That started it ? there must be a better way!
Easyboot was invented to provide an answer to these, and other, modern and historic problems. Easyboots are made of a tough, elastic material polyurethane about like a medium hard rubber, but much tougher. The sole of the Easyboot then absorbs much shock. In addition, the inside sold surface is covered with small protuberances, or bumps. With weight on, the bumps squash down, giving even more of a cushioning effect. Also, these bumps allow air to circulate under the hoof. The frog of the hoof rests on the inside sole. With the raised bumps and the natural flexibility of the polyurethane sole, the frog receives a healthy natural pressure on any type of outside surface.
Their use is a natural way to provide complete hoof protection, traction, treatment, cushioning, and correction when needed and yet the horse is easily allowed to go barefoot at all other times. They are easy to put on and take off. All that is necessary is to be able to raise the horse?s hoof. They fit snugly to the hoof; are lighter than standard iron plates, and wear many times longer. Properly fitted, they stay on as well as nailed on shoes with an additional advantage ? if an Easyboot is pulled off, the rider can put it right back on.
In conventional shoeing, a competent horseshoer will frequently do a certain amount of ?corrective? shoeing. If a horse toes out, the good farrier will trim down the outside wall of the hoof slightly. If the horse toes in, he will lower the inside wall. In cases of over-reaching, or forging, the farrier will shorten the toes or leave the heels high in the fore feet; and leave the toes long or trim the heels on the hind feet. Generally speaking, the less extreme forms of ?corrective? shoeing are really corrective trimming. These forms of corrective trimming are equally valid whether a horse is shod with iron shoes, is barefoot, or is used with Easyboots.
Two fairly common conditions requiring more drastic corrective treatment are navicular disease and founder, or laminitis. In addition to providing complete sole protection necessary for reduction f pain to the animal, wedge pads can be easily inserted into the Easyboot to provide additional relief. For navicular disease, a heel raising insert pad relieves strain on the flexor tendon and the resulting pain caused by this strain as the tendon slides on the navicular bone. For founder, a toe raising wedge pad is often used to bring a rotated coffin bone back to a more normal and more comfortable position.
In the treatment area, James Mundy, D.V.M., of Santa Fe, New Mexico has been using Easyboots in his large animal clinic since the first prototype models were being tested. Dr. Mundy pointed out that the use of Easyboot reduces the incidence of abscesses. Nail quicks, punctures, stone bruises, and cuts simply are avoided. If these problems occur, however, Dr. Mundy finds Easyboots are the best means for protecting the wound and administering medication.
These are only examples of the wide range of treatment and correction possibilities which are immediately and readily available through the use of Easyboot.
After five years of testing, developing, marketing, and extensive use, we believe that Easyboots are indeed a better answer for all theses shoeing needs: protection, traction, correction, and treatment. Truly, we feel, shoeing no longer need be a necessary evil!
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