The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







This article is about horseshoe, as used on animals. For the game, see Horseshoes.
Modern horseshoes are most commonly made of and nailed onto the hoof.
Modern horseshoes are most commonly made of iron and nailed onto the hoof.

A horseshoe is a U-shaped piece of iron, rubber, plastic, rawhide or a laminate of these, nailed or glued to a horse's hoof and some other draught animals --like a shoe. They are used to protect the animal's hooves from wear and tear. Early horseshoes had "calkins" or protruding tabs at the ends of the shoe to provide additional traction. Kept as a talisman, horseshoes are said to bring luck. Horseshoes are also used for a popular game, horseshoes.

The horseshoe was introduced to Western culture by the Greeks in the 4th Century. Horseshoes are available in a wide variety of materials and styles, developed for different types of horses and the work they do. Common materials are steel, aluminum and plastic, and some specialized shoes are made from magnesium, titanium or copper.


Reasons for use in domestic environment

Since the early history of the domestication and use of horses, many factors have contributed to the need for the bottoms of domestic horses's feet (hooves) to have additional protection over and above their natural hardness.

Less healthy food
Live grasses, weeds and shrubs, which are eaten in the wild, are high in nutrients such as beta carotene. Cultivated feeds lose a high proportion of their carotene within hours of harvesting, and so do not provide this vital ingredient to the horse. The hoof is made of horn, much as the human fingernail, and grows hard, tough and flexible only with optimal nutrition.
Less varied terrain
Horse shoes are not needed in nature as the horse walks and grazes continuously over a wide variety of surfaces. The consequence of this nonstop travel on the horse's feet is to keep them worn to a small, smooth, even and hard state. The continual stimulation and irritation of the sole of the foot keeps it thick and hard, much like a callus. However, in domestication, the customary amount of ground covered by a horse on a daily basis is greatly reduced. Therefore, the hooves harden much less and are more vulnerable to injury.
Added weight
Horses's hooves can become quite worn out when subjected to the added weight/stress of a human, pack loads, cart or wagon traces.
Wetter climate
Horses have moved from the more arid steppes to the wetter climate of northern Europe. This wetter climate softened the hooves, making hoof protection necessary, and consequently it was in northern Europe that the first practical horseshoe arose.
Consequences of less healthy hooves
In captivity, absent the natural conditioning factors present in the wild, the feet of horses grow overly large, long, fragile and soft. Hence, protection from rocks, pebbles and hard, uneven surfaces is lacking. Cracks in overgrown and overly brittle hoof walls are a constant danger, as is bruising of the soft tissues within the foot because of inadequately thick and hard sole material.


Earliest horseshoes

Horse owners have sought to remedy the problems shown above with supplemental support and armor, beginning in the earliest days with rawhide boots which could be tied onto the hoof.

Metal horseshoes

Since then, metal (iron) horseshoes have been developed. These are nailed to the rim of the sole with nails which find a purchase in the hoof wall.

These horseshoes from about CE challenge assumptions about horseshoe history.
These Roman villa horseshoes from about 294 CE challenge assumptions about horseshoe history.

There has been some debate about when metal horseshoes were first invented - some historians believe that horseshoes were invented during the Middle Ages, but the image on the right shows two of several horseshoes that were part of a much larger loot from a Roman villa, found in a river near Neupotz , Germany. They are dated to the year 294. (From Kuenzl, Ernst, Die Alamannenbeute aus dem Rhein bei Neupotz: Plünderungsgut aus dem römischen Gallien. Mainz 1993.)

Modern times

In modern times, the nails are applied so as to enter the bottom of the keratinous shell of the hoof very near the edge, (without touching any live tissue) and at an angle which causes them to protrude through the hoof wall, where they are then bent over, cut off and "clinched" to hold in the hoof wall.

Advances in technology and materials have led to shoes which can be glued to the bottom of the hoof, and which are composed of tough but yielding materials. This cushions ground impact without adding rigidity or excessive weight to the foot and without requiring nail holes. Typically such applications respond to special needs or medical problems of a given animal, and are not routine. Iron is still favored as the most desired material for horseshoes, because the rigidity which it provides protects the hoof against certain types of injury (such as heel shear ) which other materials do not protect against.

Nowadays, most types of horseshoes can be bought ready-made and shaped and fitted to the horse's foot. However, a good horseshoer or farrier is competent to make most of these shoes himself using his hammer, anvil and forge.

Some of the common styles of shoes are:

  • aluminum racing plates for thoroughbred racehorses
  • steel swaged shoes for standardbred racehorses
  • steel or aluminum wide-web shoes for show horses
  • steel toe-weight shoes for walking horses and gaited horses
  • steel "keg shoes" for riding horses
  • steel draft shoes for draft horses
  • aluminum and plastic glue-on shoes for injured horse or horses with poor hooves

For Luck

Horseshoes are considered the most universal of all the good luck charms. A common tradition is that if a horseshoe is hung to a door with the two ends pointing up (as shown in the picture at the top of this page) then good luck will occur. However, if the two ends point downwards then bad luck will occur.

Any good or bad luck achieved, however, will only occur to the owner of the horseshoe, not the person who hangs it up. Therefore, if the horseshoe was stolen, borrowed or even just found then the owner, not the person who found or stole the horseshoe will get any good or bad luck.

More generally, it is related that Saint Dunstan, a blacksmith by trade, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in AD 959. He nailed a horseshoe to the Devil's hoof when he was asked to reshod the Devil's horse. The Devil was only allowed to go once he had promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe is over the door. This is claimed as the origin of the lucky horseshoe.

For centuries people have held the horseshoe in high esteem. At first, it was placed above a door frame with pointed ends up, "lest the luck would drain out". Later it was moved midway down the door, serving the dual function of a talisman and door knockers.

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04