How Bad Are Horse Shoes?

by Linda Chamberlain

My horses have been barefoot for so many years that I sometimes forget that other people are still fond of horse shoes. Let’s face it the majority of horses wear metal and few riders question the practice that has been the norm for hundreds of years. It’s often when things go wrong that we look for an alternative. A horse whose feet are crumbling, who is lame or can’t keep a shoe on for more than a few days is given a chance to be barefoot. But that animal is going to have a difficult time of it – see my earlier post about Carrie’s ongoing battle to walk on her own feet – and, unless the owner and the professionals giving support have some experience of transitioning a horse to barefoot, the odds seem almost insurmountable.

Horse shoes? Are they dangerous?

Horse shoes? Are they dangerous?

It would be wonderful if owners looked at their horse’s feet, saw that they were strong and concave and sound, and got rid of metal shoes because they were no longer needed. The horse with good feet has such an easier time. A few years ago, I needed a companion for my cob and took on an old pony who needed a semi retirement home. The farrier pulled Shanti’s shoes and he was ridden the same day without a stumble. He never looked back, never had an abscess or a moment’s discomfort whether he walked on roads or over stony tracks. There must be so many animals out there like Shanti who simply don’t need the things. But not many Shantis get the chance to show the horse world what they are capable of.

The barefoot movement has made enormous inroads. I no longer get puzzled or disapproving looks from vets who visit the yard. They are used to barefoot horses because there are enough of them around but one day I hope vets will be supportive rather than tolerant.

But how bad are these shoes?

Plenty of horses reach old age wearing them and so riders can be forgiven for thinking they do no harm. Perhaps it’s similar to the old argument about the dangers of smoking. So many people didn’t believe smoking killed and would cite the case of an elderly aunt who puffed a hundred a day and got away with it. Surely no one today doubts that smoking is harmful but the issue of metal shoeing for horses is still up for discussion.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to convince a non-horsey person of the dangers. I’ve tried it so many times and it goes something like this.

Why don’t you like horse shoes, Linda?

Well, the hoof is a flexible, moving part of the horse. It acts as a shock absorber and helps pump blood around the animal.

If I have one of my horses handy and willing, I’ll pick up a hoof at this point and give it an illustrative squeeze making it possible to see what I’m talking about. Imagine the harm caused by nailing a metal band onto that foot. It can no longer flex on landing. It can no longer work.

From here, it’s easy to explain how many diseases of the foot are caused by shoeing. A friend, who is an osteopath, was quick to pick up the implications. How the shoe would add to the impact of landing and how it would put strain on ligaments and muscles. The German vet, Hiltrud Strasser, cites the statistics from insurance studies which show that lameness is the most common cause of horse death and euthanasia. Alarmingly, only 11% of horses manage to live past the age of 14. It seems that humans are seriously bad for a horse’s health. In the wild they can expect to live to 30 or 40 but few manage such a feat in their domesticated lives. We are killing them. Nice and slowly. In her book A Lifetime of Soundness Strasser says, ‘Shoeing is still an accepted practice and countless horses still needlessly suffer and die due to preventable and curable lameness.’

My own horse’s feet looked like this when her shoes first came off –

Carrie's feet - before

Carrie’s feet – before

After years of living naturally without shoes they now look like this –

Carrie's hooves - after

Carrie’s hooves – after

One more vet from the barefoot camp is Bracy Clark, an English vet who exposed the harm caused by shoeing more than 200 years ago, and is the inspiration behind my debut novel due to be published later this year. He said:

‘The present system of shoeing, and its consequences, ruin such multitudes of horses, that surely the discovery of its cause cannot but be of the highest importance in the affairs of mankind; for not one in thirty of all that are raised live to see half of their natural life expended!’

‘It is also a truth that cannot be denied, that by shoeing the tender feet of the young and growing horse, which are then enlarging to their form with the other parts of the body, not only the evils arise that would occur to a full-grown foot if shod, but there is a partial arrestation of the growth attends it, with frequent disfiguration.

‘While their limbs and body are everywhere increasing in bulk and weight, their feet, placed in bonds of iron, are diminishing in size and fitness to support and move them.’

‘The first day of shoeing is a grievous day for the horse, the commencement indeed of a black catalogue of troubles to him, so we would desire to put it off as late as possible, as the iron and knife will then make less ravages on the foot, and his limbs will better withstand the violence that often attend his first lessons.’

His evidence is damning and yet the majority of horses still wear shoes and vets are hardly at the forefront of getting them removed for good.

Only this week I heard the distressing story of an ex-racehorse whose owner tried him barefoot for a couple of years but was persuaded to return to shoes to prevent the horse slipping in the sand school. At first, she found it was wonderful not to worry about hoof boots or hard ground because the horse was never tender. The slipping was not improved by the shoes, however, but then something awful happened. One shoe came loose and moved to the side. The horse was lame. The farrier came and removed the shoe and suggested a poultice just in case. The next day the animal was in too much pain to move. The vet was called and found a nail had gone through the sole and had punctured the coffin bone. Emergency surgery was needed.

The horse lived but I couldn’t help seeing an irony in the situation. Horse keepers take such care to keep fields safe from sharp objects. No one in their right mind would leave nails or broken glass where a horse might walk and yet thousands of nails are driven into hooves every day.

It’s common practice but one day it might be regarded as cruelty. What do you think?

Carrie and the Cow

by Linda Chamberlain

I had a horse once that escaped a lot and visited the neighbours. They tolerated me, most of the time, but I’ve had to repair quite a few gardens and offer free bags of well rotted manure as recompense.

Lately, it’s been happening the other way around. The neighbours, or rather their animals, have been visiting me and the results haven’t always been good.

First it was two pigs. Their visit was a flying one and the only damage was the ploughing they attempted with their snouts once I finally shut them in another field away from the horses. The sight of them coming merrily up our track toward the herd set off alarm bells and I was lucky enough to observe it as I was dutifully poo picking.

The herd teamed up to defend itself. I was impressed because I had never seen this before even when a dog was worrying one of them. There were six horses in the field – one gelding; the rest were mares. The pigs seemed to have no aggressive thoughts only the desire to share a bit of grass. Barnaby, the gelding, was the first to approach them. This was done with an arched neck; he was going to do this job looking like a stallion no matter what the vet had done to him years ago. He went into trot and as he got closer to the pigs he sent them squealing and running by kicking out with his front feet.

Carrie, the lead mare, joined him and chased them out of the field. The whole operation was successfully completed within minutes. Two other mares surprised me by bringing down the electric fence and running away as far as they could rather than staying with the herd.

I imagine something similar happened when the neighbour’s cows broke down a fence and joined my horses in their field. Here’s one of them. Behind bars where I prefer them. With the most almighty look of guilt on her face.


What a guilty look

What a guilty look


And here’s why.

There wasn’t a cow in sight when I fed the horses breakfast one morning but Carrie had the most enormous gash on her rear end. It wasn’t immediately noticeable because she wasn’t lame and ate happily…but she was slowly dripping blood. At first I had no idea what had caused it. It must have been six inches across and had a deep hole in the centre. For some reason, shock possibly, I tried applying wound powder and wondered how I might fix a bandage. I woke up and phoned the vet.

He came in a little white van but he was like the cavalry to me. As we walked to the yard in the field he told me he was a locum for the practice (Lingfield Equine Vets) and often worked in Paris with racehorses. Oh, no, I thought. This is going to be awful. I had seen a few vets wince at the sight of my set up and raise their eyebrows at the strange lack of metal horse shoes. On one occasion, a vet reluctantly agreed that our pony with colic might be better off recovering with her friends rather than being shut in a stable but he was visibly exasperated that I didn’t want to comply with his advice. Couldn’t I use a neighbour’s stable? I told him the poor animal would die from the distress.

Would this new vet be any different? He might faint when he met Mrs Muddy and her friends. I was getting my apology ready for the lack of stabling and my quirky approach.

No, he said, when he saw them all. He liked horses like this, too. Sure, I thought. Even hairy ones that don’t wax and pluck.

He gave Carrie sedation so that he could stitch and staple her leg back together. I couldn’t watch and stayed near her head like a nervous father at a birth. It was going to be fine, he said, confidently. I was left with antibiotics and I asked him whether I should confine her to the yard or shut her in the field shelter. For some reason I was feeling obedient. Surely, he wouldn’t advise turning her out with the herd. I mean, they nearly always recommend box rest in my experience.

‘Oh, yes,’ he said enthusiastically. ‘Look at this beautiful field. She will get better more quickly in all this nature. The air is fresher than on the yard; fewer germs. And the movement will help.’

I was shocked. I had never heard a vet say anything so sweet in my life.

So, I turned them loose once the sedative had worked off. The winter field hadn’t been grazed all summer so they took to it eagerly. Carrie thought to follow at the same pace but changed her mind and caught up in her own time.



Two weeks later the vet came to take out her staples. They had come out by themselves, however, and his only job was to inspect and admire the healing wound…oh, and to advise me to start riding her gently again.

By this time, I knew how she got her injury because the cows revisited the summer field again. At last, I had an explanation for that deep hole. And that’s why I prefer cows who wear horns to be behind bars.

This all happened more than a year ago but I’m sharing it because I learnt a lot from it. Firstly, the speed a horse can heal given natural conditions and secondly that some vets thankfully are fully aware of it.


Surviving tough winters

by Linda Chamberlain

This winter was probably one of the wettest and the last few were some of the coldest. We’ve had some difficult winters – enough to make you want to give up horses and move to Capri.

I should have got a Shetland because I’ll never get my horse into a suitcase…so I probably won’t go anyway.


Cloud enjoying some winter sun

Cloud enjoying some winter sun

But this year a friend confessed that she felt for me amid all that rain and not a stable in sight. Well, yeah, it’s a bit tough feeding animals twice a day but I think she felt sorry for my horses who had to stay out in it longer than I did. Did they suffer? Her comment made me question my set up through fresh eyes and here’s what I think.

No, they were fine.

What would they have preferred? Big field shelter, large fields with trees and hedges that supply them with food whenever they want. A herd that offers a chat and some comfort when there’s nothing on TV. A large yard they can access at all times to dry their feet off. Rugs off on sunny, winter days as in the above picture. Oh…and a personal slave to rub oil into legs at risk from mud fever.

Or, a stable? No physical contact with other herd members. Doors shut at 4pm in winter – reopening at 7am (maybe). Hay often finished by, what? Midnight? Not a lot else to do for an animal who only sleeps for 20 minutes snatches at a time. Boredom? Stiff joints?

Years ago, I used to stable my horses and remember the feeling of ease I experienced putting them away at night knowing they were warm and comfortable so I understand why people favour them.  The sound of horses munching hay contentedly meant I could go home satisfied that I’d done my best for them. I hadn’t of course. They weren’t moving and they were alone – a frightening situation for an animal whose ancestor’s were prey. And their feet suffered from standing mainly still in what became a non-flushing toilet by the morning.

My horse used to rush from that box every morning and, frankly, we were probably both smelly by the time I’d mucked out. One night I decided to leave the stable door open and see where my cob, Barnaby, spent the night. I was lucky in that I had a little patch of grass (paddock would be an exaggeration) and a yard in front of the stables. I put his hay in the stable and left him and a stabled friend to their own devices.

By morning, I could see he hadn’t spent much time indoors. The hay had been eaten but the droppings were outside and his bed hadn’t been slept in. This behaviour didn’t change whatever the weather did.

I never stabled him again.