Not all horses need horseshoes and not all horses can go barefoot. Ongoing wear of the hoof often dictates a need for protection with either horseshoes or hoof boots. The ability of a horse to withstand being barefoot depends on its breed, genetics, level of exercise, type of footing and terrain over which exercised, and the extent of hoof substance and strength.
Some horses need traction over variable ground conditions that affect the safety of both horse and rider. In some situations, horseshoes provide traction; in others, horseshoes cause slip. The “cup” that is formed by lifting the hoof off the ground slightly with a shoe protects a bit against sole impact.
Terrain and climate conditions further influence the ability of a horse to go barefoot. What is the ground surface on which a horse is stabled and turned out?
A horse that spends the majority of its time on soft footing won’t develop thick and tough soles with a thicker bridge between collateral cartilages. Weather that alternates between wet and dry also challenges barefoot hooves to accommodate hard footing. Riding in rocky or uneven terrain tends to dictate the need for horseshoes, or at least hoof boots.
While a barefoot horse might not show evident lameness, it is possible that being barefoot causes some discomfort. A horse with an underlying disease process such as navicular syndrome, chronic sole bruising or laminitis, for example, is likely to need to wear horseshoes to minimize soreness.
As a general rule to determine if a horse is a candidate to go barefoot, consider this: After pulling horseshoes, it is important to see growth of a rim of sole at the sole-wall junction. However, if the horse remains sensitive to thumb pressure over the sole a month later, then barefoot is not likely to be a useful strategy for that individual. It might take as long as a year for some horses with sore feet to grow out hoof with sufficient substance and strength to withstand being barefoot.
One important feature of barefoot hoof care is to protect the amount of hoof and sole with every farrier appointment. In many cases, the hoof should be shaped with a file rather than trimmed with nippers. A common mistake is that regularly scheduled trims of a barefoot horse result in continual removal of too much hoof—thin soles make the horse sore-footed. And, excess weight-bearing pressure on hoof structures reduces blood supply and limits hoof growth, with the result that the horse remains uncomfortable due to limited sole protection to underlying structures when barefoot.