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.