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|Written by Kelsa Staffa|
|Wednesday, 19 October 2011 00:00|
Superstitious sailors believe that nailing a horseshoe to the mast will help their vessel avoid storms. If you hang a horseshoe with the tips pointing up, it's said to catch good luck. For horses doing hard work or heavy training, the invention and refinement of horseshoes really is lucky.
It's a bit unnerving, though, watching a horse get shod for the first time. (Your first time, not his. He's probably pretty OK with the whole process.) First, some gruff man (the farrier, or, in Great Britain, the blacksmith) brings out a steel horseshoe. This, of course, is after he has already used pincers to rip off the horseshoe already on your horse's hoof. Then, he heats the new shoe up over a heat source, and brings it over to place on your horse's hoof. Smoke billows, and the stench is not very pleasant. He notes how the shape might be better adjusted to your horse's foot (the burn marks aid in this), removes the shoe, heats it once more, and uses tools to make slight shape adjustments. The shoe is brought over once again and placed on your horse's hoof, as before, and then the man deftly whips out some nails and hammers them into the bottom of your horse's hooves. Once he's finished, he sets the hoof down, where you can see the nail tips sticking out of the hoof. He files them down, and viola, your horse is shod.
And what is your horse doing while all this burning and hammering is going on? He's standing at the end of a lead rope, half asleep. A horse's hoof has an outer wall, a structure devoted to dissipating the energy of concussion, and to provide grip on different terrain. This wall has no nerve endings. The interior of the hoof is living, and contains soft tissue and bone. When a horseshoe is applied, the hot part of the shoe touches only the outer wall, and the nails are driven through the outer wall to the outside of the hoof (where you can see them poking out), completely bypassing any nerve endings. Your horse can feel the light shockwaves up his leg from the farrier tapping on his foot with the hammer and filing away with the rasp, but no pain arises from the actions of a (good) farrier.
There is a common saying in the horse world: "no hoof, no horse." A single hoof must sometimes bear a horse's full weight, such as when landing after a jump or on the last beat of a canter. Since domestication, horses have been used for much more work than would be normal for a wild horse. This leads to the hoof being worn down at a faster rate than in the wild; even in ancient Asia, horses' hooves were wrapped in rawhide, leather, or other materials for both therapeutic purposes and to provide protection from wear. However, there is very little evidence of nailed-on shoes prior to AD 500 or 600, though there is speculation that the Gauls were the first to nail on metal horseshoes. The nailed iron horseshoe first appeared in the archaeological record in Europe in about the 5th century A.D., when a horseshoe, complete with nails, was found in the tomb of a Frankish king at Tournai, Belgium.
Why do some people shoe their horses, when the mustangs are perfectly happy running around barefoot? Overall, domestic horses' hooves harden much less and are more vulnerable to injury. In the wild, a horse routinely traveled up to 50 miles per day to obtain adequate forage; however, while the distances traveled were great, it was generally done at a slow, steady speed. Wild horses also tended to live in drier climates. Therefore, wild horses' hooves were naturally worn to a small, smooth, even and hard state. Domesticated horses, on the other hand, are subject to inconsistent movement between stabling and work, they must carry or pull additional weight, and in modern times they are often kept and worked on very soft footing, such as irrigated land, arena footing, or stall bedding.
That said, not all domesticated horses need shoes. Generally, horses performing at the upper levels of competition benefit greatly from having the shoes wear down, as opposed to the hoof wall. The same is true of horses doing work on stone or asphalt. Specialized shoes are available for some horse breeds and disciplines, such as "sliders" for reining (wide, flat shoes angled up at the toe to allow for sliding along the ground), racing horseshoes (made of aluminum for lighter weight and, therefore, faster speeds), and "stacks" or "pads" for Tennessee Walking Horses (layers of wood, leather, plastic, and/or rubber attached to the bottom of the front hooves to enhance the breed's natural movement). And some horses have hoof defects or medical conditions affecting the hooves, where careful shoeing or special shoes may drastically improve or effectively maintain a horse's soundness. However, if a horse is used for pleasure riding or light showing, and no medical or conformational issues affect the integrity of the hoof, there is generally no need to have shoes applied. A standard trim by a qualified farrier (much like a manicure) at regular intervals will keep the hooves in good shape.