Not all horses need shoes, but many do. A horse’s environment, his type of work and his natural hoof quality are all factors to consider when deciding whether your horse can go barefoot.

Tia Nelson, DVM, a farrier and veterinarian near Helena, Montana, who has been shoeing horses since 1980 and who studied wild horse feet during the late 1980s, says a horse’s hooves do best when there is consistency in their environment. “Typically, most horses do best if kept in the same type of environment where they will be ridden. If you’ll be riding them in a soft, swampy area, they can be barefoot in a soft, swampy area. But if they are living on soft, swampy ground and you decide to ride them on a gravel road, you’ll have problems,” she points out. These soft feet will quickly go tender or lame from bruising.

“Conversely, if a horse lives in a big, rocky pasture where the soil is decomposed granite, he will have feet like steel,” she says. In fact, the feet become so hard that it’s difficult to drive a nail into them when trying to put shoes on.

Weather plays a big role in how hard and tough the feet become. “In 1988 when Yellowstone Park burned, and again in 2000 when we had serious drought and fires here in the West, I had client horses whose feet were so dry and hard I could not drive nails into them,” says Nelson. “When it’s dry, their feet are a lot tougher than when weather is wet.

Lifestyle is another important factor. “In stables, barefoot doesn’t work very well because the horses are so confined, and have soft footing/bedding. In addition, horses in stalls are not getting much exercise, so blood circulation to the feet isn’t great, making it harder for their feet to stay healthy when ridden without shoes,” she adds.

Finally, says Nelson, some horses simply have better feet than others. “I have one client gelding that could never do well barefoot,” Nelson says. “He’s a big horse with thin hoof walls. He’s a Quarter Horse that probably weighs 1,500 pounds and is 16.5 hands tall and not fat—just a big frame. When he walks, there is a lot of pressure on those feet. His thin hoof walls tend to crumble and he’s not easy to keep comfortable even with shoes on,” says Nelson.

Nonetheless, some shod horses would be better off without shoes, she adds. Some clients don’t ride very often, “and the horses have very good feet. Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean they have to be shod,” she says.

Making the transition

It takes time for a horse to adapt to barefoot life. “Horses that have their shoes pulled in late fall and then go out on winter pasture are not difficult to transition into staying barefoot in the spring, since they’ve had all winter to toughen up. They may just need a little trimming,” says Nelson. It must be judicious trimming, however—less than you would do for putting a shoe on. You need to leave a little for protection, and smooth the edges nicely so they won’t be so apt to chip and split when the horse is ridden on hard or rocky ground.

  • Make changes gradually. If your horse is currently shod, make changes gradually. “If the horse was shod with pads, do one shoeing without pads, to enable the sole to start toughening up, and the frog to start ‘breathing’ again. Then do one more shoeing in which just the fronts are shod and the hinds are left off. The third step would be barefoot in front,” says Nelson.
  • Stick to shorter, slower rides initially. When it comes to riding during the transition, go slowly, especially if the horse is not pastured. Stick to short rides at first and gradually adapt the horse to rough terrain and greater distance. If you have to do a longer ride in the rocks, use hoof boots to protect his feet.
  • Pay particular attention to hoof trims. The hoof must be in balance or it won’t be able to handle abnormal stresses on certain parts. “If a horse is shod, his feet are not as likely to split and crack under pressure if his feet are out of balance. He has the protection of the shoe. So, if you want a horse to go barefoot, it is very important that whoever is doing the hoof care has good knowledge about the toe callus, where the breakover should be in the natural barefoot horse, where the heels need to be on that foot for a good base of support, and how to remove any flare,” Nelson says.

“If a horse has a lot of flare, you may have to shoe him a couple of times to protect the foot while the flare grows out and the foot can be brought into balance,” she says. You must have a good, balanced foot to start with before you can expect the horse to go barefoot and keep a healthy, sound foot.

“Horses kept in soft pastures have feet that are softer and more likely to be shelly or splitting than a horse living on hilly, decomposed granite soils that suck moisture out of the feet and toughen them up. You can take a horse from a boggy environment and put him up on the decomposed granite hillside and in about six weeks he’ll have fantastic feet again. Conversely, if you take him from the rocks and put him down in the bogs this will reverse the process.”

  • Consider applying an agent that toughens the sole. Aside from good trimming and gradual farrier work, there are a few other tricks to help the transition. “There are substances you can paint on the bottoms of their feet to help toughen them while the horse is transitioning to barefoot,” says Nelson. “I mix a concoction I call sole paint. It is one part tincture of iodine (seven percent), one part turpentine, and one part formalin or formaldehyde. This mixture should only be used on the bottom of the foot. If any runs up the foot and gets on the hairline it will scald the skin—it’s very harsh. Don’t use a sponge to apply it, because it will eat the sponge. I use a regular bristle paint brush. Some people put it in a squirt bottle, then shake it and carefully squirt it onto the bottom of the foot—just the frog and the sole. A small syringe can also work for putting the mixture exactly where you want it,” she says.

This concoction kills thrush as well as toughens the sole. “It works well to make the feet less tender and I use it once a day for about five days. I’ve used it on shod horses that have thin soles, and horses that were going to become barefoot,” she says.

“Another thing that’s been used for toughening the sole is naphthalene, the stinky ingredient in mothballs. When I was shoeing racehorses I often used this, since they had tender feet from being shod so often and they don’t have much foot to begin with. I’d put half a dozen mothballs in a small can, put it on my forge and melt the moth balls, then paint this liquid onto the bottom of the foot. It hardens up like acrylic, drying very swiftly. I’ve seen horses so tender they couldn’t walk, then after this is painted onto their soles, they are able to travel just fine,” she says.

While going without shoes is gaining in popularity, it is not for every horse. Nelson recommends going along with a professional’s opinion. “It’s important to have a farrier who knows what he/she is doing and is willing to work with you on this. If you have a shoer who says you can’t make the horse go barefoot, you can’t.”