Shoeing Horses

It seems a bit barbaric, really – nailing a lump of iron onto a horse’s foot. But man first started applying iron shoes to horses’ feet in pre-Roman times, to reduce wear to the animals’ feet on long marches over mountainous or rocky country.

 It’s a specialist craft – the nails must be carefully positioned in the horn so they don’t put pressure on or, worse, puncture, the sensitive structures beneath. Pretty soon the blacksmith, or farrier (who also acted much as a veterinary surgeon would do today) was an essential part of any community – horses powered just about everything. And perhaps surprisingly, horseshoe design has remained virtually unchanged for five hundred years.

 Everyone recognises the usual horseshoe shape. The most basic shoe was hammered from iron bar of a thickness suitable for the size of horse (a pony would have thinner shoes than a shire horse) and stamped with nail holes. (Plain stamped shoe). This type is still in common use today, most usually on draught and driving horses.

 When riding became more widespread and with the increasing use of horses for sport, a lighter weight shoe was developed. This was achieved by grooving the iron, reducing weight while also allowing nail heads to sit flush with the bottom of the shoe to reduce wear. The groove also improved the shoe’s grip on smooth surfaces, which was handy when roads were surfaced. The bearing area of this shoe on the ground was made narrower than the bearing surface on the foot, meaning the shoe was less likely to be pulled off in deep mud. This fullered, concave shoe is the most commonly used type of shoe on modern hunters and riding horses.

 Toe clips stop shoes slipping back (usually one on each front shoe and two on each hind). Calkins on draught horse hind shoes help grip when ascending and descending gradients. Even the old specialist remedial shoes refuse to die.  Feather-edged, where the inside branch of a shoe is narrowed and set slightly behind the edge of the hoof wall to help prevent a horse accidentally striking the opposite leg, egg-bar where the shoe is a complete squashed circle designed to stabilise a damaged foot. Three-quarter and seated-out shoes keep pressure away from damaged sections of hoof. Protective hoof pads, seemingly an invention of the plastic age, were made from thick leather and used in Roman times. And there are many more.

 More modern materials have been tried and found wanting. Lightweight aluminium shoes are used on race and show horses, but the metal is too soft to give prolonged wear on hard surfaces. Plastics, which can be glued onto the horse’s foot, have so far not been the success-story everyone hoped. And while most shoes are now made by machine rather than by hand, and new designs have been developed over the last twenty years, these are still nailed on, using the same hammer, buffer and pincers that’s been used for hundreds of years.

 And if you want my opinion, in two hundred years time, they’ll…still be nailing lumps of iron onto horses’ feet.


~ by cavalrytales on July 11, 2010.

11 Responses to “Shoeing Horses”

  1. Shoeing Horses…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…


  2. Amazing info. I didn’t think they had shoes in Roman times. I’ve worried about horses’ feet on those stone roads. Who invented the first show?


  3. Hi Judy
    Well – there’s been a dispute going on about it for years. I based my assertion mainly on the fact that a pair of nail-on shoes was discovered at a Roman villa excavated in Germany in the early ’80s which were dated to c.294AD (or CE if you prefer). There have been others, found at Colchester in the UK for example, but the provenance of these has never been confirmed, with a number of scholars insisting they must be later; even Medieval.
    Of course the Romans were using strap-on shoes (hipposandals!) in leather and iron before this. The anti’s argument goes that no Roman mural shows a horse with shoes on so they wouldn’t have used them. I’d argue that such a new technology as nailing-on shoes would have been rare, initially, so unfamiliar to the average sculptor or stonemason as a consequence.
    But then what do I know?!


  4. Ah no wonder. I work in the first century and the shoes could have come about during that time. I wondered also about the Celts who were great ironmongers whou would have been able to create shoes with no problem. I think it was the nailing issue that stumped them. The Hipposandles I bet were medicinal to help heal hoof cracks/splits…and I bet there were a few of those after riding over the stone roads. But hey, what do I know either…and I don’t think you are off track at all. j


  5. I did not have any real knowledge surrounding the calvary , horses and illness. But having read you blog i now do and the way you write, makes the gaining of knowledge enjoyable.

    I will continues to visit you blog to learn more

    All the best


    • Glad you liked it.
      We’ve lost a lot of horse-knowledge, even though only a hundred years ago they were still the main form of transport. The more everyone re-discovers, the less we’ll lose as time goes on.

      Best wishes,


  6. I ran across a quote from a letter written by a soldier on the Peninsula in 1808, regarding the shoeing of horses. I thought you might find it of interest.

    Sergeant Thomas, of the 7th Hussars, wrote on 15 November 1808:

    … most of the horses are in want of shoes before we begin the march — as there is no time to shoe the whole the first attention is p[aid] to the forefeet.

    It would appear that when a march was imminent and the horses wanted shoeing, only their front feet were re-shod, thus cutting shoeing time in half. One assumes the majority of the wear would be on the front feet, which may be why this was done.

    The full citation is: Uffindell, Andrew, The National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies: Britain’s Campaigns in the Peninsula and at Waterloo 1808 – 1815. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2003, page 39.


    • Hi Kathryn – thanks for the info. In November 1808 the 7th were marching across north-western Spain to meet up with Sir John Moore, and they were in a bit of a hurry. You’re right about the forefeet taking most wear – horses’ weight is biased to the front and they also have to take the main twisting and braking efforts. We quite often shoe ours in front but not behind if they’re only doing light work.Judging by what happened later in that campaign they were lucky to be shod at all. You don’t want to know.
      It’s always useful to find odd small facts – they help bring fiction to life as well as being interesting for their own sakes. Thanks again.



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  8. […] Shoeing Horses […]


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