The Long Riders' Guild

To Shoe or not to Shoe?


Basha O’Reilly FRGS


A traditional European Farrier

An Everlasting Dilemma

The tradition of guarding horses’ hooves did not simultaneously originate alongside riding. In fact hoof protectors didn’t become essential until paved trails and hard roads began causing frequent damage to the animals’ feet. Thus it was the advent of artificial terrain, such as cobblestones and gravel, which helped stimulate early man’s research into equine foot security and even these initial attempts at horseshoeing were not practised for many centuries until after the horse himself was in general use.

A Never-Ending Debate

Miles mean trouble. How do we travel far and wide on our horse, while protecting its feet, not just from harsh terrain but from equally dangerous and incompetent farriers? Whom do we believe when it comes to deciding if we should nail on shoes, put on boots or let the horse go barefoot? What sort of cultural traps await an unsuspecting Long Rider who seeks to have his horse shod in faraway countries?

Realizing that your journey will be halted if the hoof fails, let us examine this problem carefully, using reason and history to try and find an answer. But even before we attempt to solve that prehistoric riddle, we first have to investigate a debate which has raged for centuries. Do we send our horses out barefoot or shod?

Barefoot is Best

Let me begin by stating that history is on the side of barefoot horses. Genghis Khan led his cavalry to victory on barefoot horses. But times change and so did the perceptions of the horsemen alive in each age. When Napoleon invaded Russia in the summer of 1812, his Grande Armée was accompanied by an estimated 150,000 horses. These equine warriors departed from France after having been shod with 600,000 horseshoes, held in place by 4,800,000 horseshoe nails.

With such a conflicting equestrian history, it is no wonder that mankind became needlessly involved in a debate which continues to antagonize, wound and distract horsemen to this day.

By the late 19th century a dispute was raging in Europe and the United States. It pitted barefoot believers against horseshoe disciples. The barefoot brigade challenged the horseshoe advocates to explain how man, (i.e. farriers equipped with horseshoes), could improve on what God had invented; that natural wonder, the horse’s hoof? It was a good question, which went largely unanswered because with millions of horses working in cities, pulling and trotting across hard metalled roads, the majority of Victorian-era horse owners simply ignored the vocal minority who advocated a return to the past.

The argument largely disappeared until the late 20th century, by which time the majority of mechanized citizens in the United States and Western Europe had become increasingly out of touch with the day to day equestrian knowledge once possessed by their own mounted ancestors. This is one reason why many determined mustang fans took a militant stand against horseshoes. Yearning for what they perceived to be a more natural horse, these wild horse advocates routinely denounced the horseshoe as a token of impurity.

In justifying their beliefs, these activists silenced reason and ignored any genuine criticism of the barefoot philosophy. When so-called authorities make blanket statements such as these they neglect to recognize or respect the customs of other equestrian cultures. They fail to realize that none of us have all the answers. Our culture and time constrict our knowledge. What works in the limited confines of our known existence may be completely wrong somewhere else.

Why does this matter? Because the horse suffers in silence when humans attempt to vindicate their personal pride and narrow national beliefs.

When it comes to equestrian travel, this is no mere parlour argument, for what goes under your horse’s hoof will affect how far forward he moves. And no one can deny that some extraordinary journeys have been done on barefoot horses. For example, in 1970 Scottish Long Rider Gordon Naysmith rode two barefoot Basuto ponies 20,000 kilometres (14,000 miles) from Africa to Austria.

But who’s right? Do you set off barefoot or shod?

Ancient Hoof - Modern World

Barefoot advocates often rely on romance rather than science. They argue in favour of historical parentage, while tending to overlook modern facts. One typical commentator said, “How often did the Apaches shoe their Indian war ponies?” But 19th century Indian ponies weren’t required to travel where today’s road horse must go, were they?

The Australian Brumby and American Mustang, both of whom are free to roam on natural terrain, are often presented as examples of hard-footed horses that possess ideal hoof conformation. Freedom is not however an automatic guarantee of perfect hooves, as demonstrated by new research confirming that many wild horses have flawed feet.

When New Zealand’s Kaimanawa wild horses were lately examined, it was discovered that hoof abnormalities were surprisingly common. In contrast to popular myth, these feral equines had no consistent foot type. Moreover, problems such as hoof wall defects, frog abnormalities, contracted heels and medio-lateral imbalance were very much in evidence.

The hooves of wild horses were shaped and trimmed by the constant wandering needed to find grazing and water. Little changed when our ancestors first domesticated and rode the horse as mankind continued to reside alongside their horses in a grassland environment. Though many centuries had passed, when Gordon Naysmith and his Basuto horses set off they became perfect examples of those long-ago wanderers and their original tough-footed mounts.

Yet what happens when you take an animal designed to live on the clean dry plains and then confine him in a dung-filled stable? What adverse effects occur when you restrict his movements and pump him full of high energy food? Unfortunately, his hooves suffer. Whereas it is true that some wild horses are born with extremely hard hooves, if you remove that wild horse from his natural environment then force him to travel on the hard surface of an artificial road for months on end, even his formerly tough feet will begin to splinter.

Thus, as military and Long Rider history demonstrates, under certain circumstances a horse can work and travel without having worn shoes; but those circumstances are few and far between in this modern world.

So what is the deciding factor:  personal philosophy or geographic necessity?

Let the Terrain Decide

As Long Riders, we’re trying to protect our horses, not advocate a cultural belief. When the Australian Long Rider Tim Cope set off to ride 6,000 miles from Mongolia to Hungary, his horses started without shoes. But after travelling thousands of kilometres Tim had to have his horses shod when he encountered rocks and roads.

South African Long Rider Billy Brenchley was a professional farrier and a strong advocate of letting horses go barefoot when the terrain allowed. His goal was to ride across the African continent on barefoot horses. Yet after travelling 4,300 kilometres (2,600 miles) across the harsh terrain of Northern Africa, he too decided he had to put shoes on his horses.

And who else used shoes?

Gordon Naysmith!

Though his Basuto horses made the vast majority of their 20,000 kilometre (14,000 mile) journey barefoot, Gordon didn’t maintain an obstinate prejudice against hoof protection when the ground became aggressive. When Gordon encountered harsh, stony country in northern Africa, he realized that there was some terrain which would destroy his horse’s hooves if he chose to ride across it without protection. That is why he put shoes on his horses for part of the journey.

Tim, Billy and Gordon can be used as a measure for other Long Riders because their final decision, like yours, should always depend upon the terrain.

Remember, you are not riding a wild horse or asking a feral horse to carry your pack saddle. Free roaming horses such as these don’t spend their days carrying hundreds of pounds on their backs or walking on hot modern roads.

In order to keep your horse’s hooves healthy, you have to take a variety of factors into consideration. As a Long Rider, your first duty is to always err on the side of caution. If the way becomes rocky and rough, you shoe your horse or arrange to protect his hooves with boots or some other option.

But if we are in trouble by leaving our horses barefoot, are we home free if we ask a stranger to hammer a metal plate on their feet? In fact, if you decide to shoe, your troubles may have just begun.

Whom Do You Trust?

There is perhaps no question relative to the general well-being of the horse that has created more controversy than that of shoeing. Masters and men disagree; fellow-smiths in the same forge disagree. Horseshoes are like religion. Everyone has an opinion on the subject – and many of them are mistaken. Every smith thinks he can shoe a horse better than any other smith, and knows more than anyone else how it ought to be done. Yet horses are lamed and crippled daily by the bad shoeing of careless and ignorant smiths.

So how do you protect your horse?

Recipes for Disaster

If we agree to have an open mind, and to use shoes as and when needed, what are the dangers to our valuable horses? There are three classic recipes for such a Long Rider disaster.

First, you ride into a country and are unable to locate horse shoes at any price because they do not exist in that culture. Not being able to find a horseshoe is nothing compared to the second problem, that of locating a competent farrier. Unlike the lack of horseshoes, this dilemma is not restricted to out of the way nations. There is a final common problem. You ride into a country that is equipped with horse shoes and has farriers, only to discover there is no one ready and willing to assist you.

In those portions of the modern horse world where horseshoeing once thrived, i.e. Australia, Western Europe and North America, finding a farrier to re-shoe your horse may not be a problem, although Europeans should bear in mind that anyone in the United States can call himself a farrier, without necessarily having undergone any training.

And therein lays an extreme danger to a Long Rider’s road horse. One of the major challenges encountered by today’s equestrian travellers is the time, and luck, involved in finding a qualified professional farrier.

Even if you locate a farrier, you should never be misled into thinking that the hard-won miles under your saddle will protect your horse’s hoof from a knife-wielding knave. One equestrian traveller had ridden five thousand miles across the United States, when a so-called farrier cut his horses’ feet so savagely the journey teetered on the edge of disaster. Even though there are thousands of extremely competent farriers in that country, in theory America would let an unlicensed monkey hammer a shoe on a horse, as there are no legal requirements prohibiting an ape from calling himself a horse-shoer.

This lack of official care stands in sharp contrast to Great Britain’s Farriers Registration Act, which states that shoeing may only be undertaken by registered farriers who have completed an extensive course of training and then passed rigorous examinations.

Likewise, France also insists that farriers and their apprentices are tested, licensed and insured.

The horse’s hoof is a complex piece of natural machinery. Though perfectly adapted by nature to its original task, the toe may grow too long, even during a journey involving hard work. In such a case the foot needs to be trimmed and shod with extreme care.

The horse world is populated by lying horse sellers, patent medicine peddlers and toxic trainers, but they quail in comparison to that trickster, the bad farrier.

Therefore, when your horse requires to be shod, suffer no fools to touch him.

Following Your Orders

An age-old problem has been when the farrier attempts to make the foot fit the shoe. After finding a shoe of the right approximate shape, a lazy blacksmith will whittle and rasp the hoof so as to accommodate the horseshoe. Having cut away everything he can without drawing blood, he heats the shoe until it is red hot and then applies it to the bottom of the hoof in a boiling state. Nails are produced and the affected foot is now hammered to the iron plate.

A critic once wrote, “As to farriers, it is useless talking to them, as some people can read nothing but print. He works on the assumption that he knows better what the horse’s foot should be than the Creator of the animal does, for they are never satisfied until they have altered the natural foot into a form of their own, which they think the right one.”

While protecting the hoof is a noble aim, altering it to suit the farrier’s fancy is counterproductive. Bad farriers are encased in selfishness, ignorance and prejudice which is averse to assault or discussion.

The health of the horse and the safety of the journey depend on you never allowing yourself to be bullied into silence by a farrier. If you are dealing with a licensed professional then you may assume there is a degree of scientific knowledge in evidence. However, if you are forced by circumstances to employ a backwoods blacksmith, you must never presume that though the farrier can observe the outside of the foot, he has any knowledge of its interior anatomy.

Regardless of how educated he may be, when you take your horses to any farrier, in any land, make him follow your directions to the letter. If you suspect, for any reason, that your animal is being injured, order the operation to be halted at once. Better one poorly shod foot than four lame hooves.

Cultural Problems

It could be worse. In certain parts of the world the treatment afforded to horses in need of shoes involves a shocking degree of ruthless efficiency. Kazakhs, for example, routinely throw a horse to the ground, tie all four feet tightly together and then roll the animal onto its back. While several men keep the animal from struggling, the hooves are quickly cut and shoes nailed into place as fast as possible.

Further east, the Chinese developed a method which is still in use. It involves placing the horse inside a strong wooden frame which has been driven deep into the ground. Once the horse has been pinned inside this chute, he is lashed securely in place. With the horse effectively restrained inside this wooden straightjacket, a farrier then sets to work.

Do It Yourself

Of course there is an alternative to tying your road horse between Chinese posts or letting an unlicensed hack hurt your horse. You can learn how to shoe your own horse. Because of the time, study and money involved, this isn’t an option which many Long Riders pursue. But there have been some resounding success stories. Like any type of specialized equestrian knowledge, learning how to care for your horse’s hooves is more complex than you might first believe.

Heavy Shoes

Regardless of who nails them on, you or the farrier, there is a major drawback to horseshoes, weight, which may influence your trip in two different ways.

The obvious issue is that an average horse shoe weighs from 1 ¾ to 2 ¼ pounds (0.8 to 1 kilo). So the idea of carrying the dead weight represented by extra horse shoes, nails and the tools required putting them on flies in the face of travelling light. This is especially true when you recall that it’s not the kilometres which injure your horse, it’s the kilograms.

But, though they provide protection, the shoes also deplete the horse’s strength in a surprising second way.

Though today it is seldom remembered, medieval Islamic texts warned that one pound on the foot of the horse was akin to placing eight pounds on his back. The modern French Long Rider, Jean Francois Ballereau, revised this formula in the 1990s, warning that a one kilo horseshoe drained as much energy from the road horse as seven kilos of dead weight.

Because they carry the majority of the weight, the front feet suffer the most abuse from rocky ground, so one alternative is to only shoe the front hooves when trouble arises. Many equestrian cultures, and Long Riders, have used this method with good results. In stark contrast, no culture only shoes the back feet.

Another point to be aware of is that some cultures prefer horse shoes which incorporate a large metal clip which is fitted deep into the front of the hoof. In theory this clip acts as a giant horse shoe nail, clamping the shoe firmly to the foot. Yet the hoof has to be cut back in order to fit the clip. This severely weakens the hoof wall. Furthermore, the clip adds weight to an already heavy shoe. Clips may be favoured by farriers but are seldom needed by Long Riders.

No Hoof – No Journey

In a world which is all too often obsessed with a horse’s pretty appearance, the humble hoof is often overlooked. Yet hard hooves made history and you need them too if your journey is to succeed. The horse’s hoof is akin to your fingernail, in that it grows continuously. This growth in turn demands that we provide adequate care for the horse’s feet. But what does a good hoof look like? So when you do you shoe?

When to Shoe

Settled people determine when to shoe their horses by the calendar. The usual custom is to have the horse re-shod every four to eight weeks, depending on the growth of the hooves and the wear on the shoe. A horse leading a quiet domestic life may not require a new set of shoes, in which case the old shoes should be removed, the hoof trimmed and the shoe carefully reset with new nails. When this is done extra care must be taken to ensure that enlarged nail holes do not damage the fragile hoof wall.

But during the same eight-week time span that the pasture pet is grazing quietly, a Long Rider’s road horse will encounter a host of challenges. This is why Long Riders learn to anticipate when their horses will need shoes and where to find them. Journeys such as these provide a would-be Long Rider with a model whereby you can learn to estimate the approximate mileage you will get out of each set of horseshoes. Once you learn to estimate where and when you will need shoes, you can arrange for a farrier to be awaiting your arrival.

What you must never do is delay an appointment with the farrier. Don’t procrastinate on this vital point of horse health or expect to find help miraculously awaiting you up the road.

The next question then must be; what are the rules of safe shoeing?

Long Rider Horse Shoeing

It is critically important that before your departure your horse’s hooves have been properly trimmed and the shoes fitted precisely. This is not a job that can be delayed, as a newly shod horse may have tender feet. This is especially true if one of the nails has pricked him. Riding a sore-footed horse is irresponsible. Setting off on a journey with one is even worse. Consequently, to ensure that his feet are in good condition, have your horse shod several days before you set off.

Regardless of how many horses you have, your morning begins with a careful examination of each and every hoof. Using a hoof pick and brush, look for stones, remove any mud, make sure the frog is clean and check for any signs of thrush. When the hoof is clean, confirm that the nails are tight and the shoe is snug.

If a shoe becomes loose during the day’s journey, you will have to stop and remove it with care. Even if one or two nails have fallen out, simply pulling the shoe off with the remaining nails still in place may cause the nails to tear holes in the hoof wall as they are withdrawn. These large holes in the hoof wall will thereafter not hold a new nail very securely. When you have to remove a loose shoe, you must first loosen the ends of the nails and then carefully remove the nails so as not to damage the wall of the hoof. When drawing out the nails, check them separately to make sure there is no sign of blood or moisture on them.

Because the hoof is always growing, when the time comes to trim the horse’s hooves, remember that many farriers blunder greatly by wielding their knives with happy abandon. You must ensure that the shoe fits the hoof. Never allow the farrier to cut the hoof to fit the shoe.

A horse’s hoof is akin to a thick bamboo, in that its chief strength lies in the tough outer covering which protects the sensitive parts inside. Allowing a farrier to severely rasp off the outer wall of the hoof is as wise as removing the lids from the eyes. Likewise damage occurs if the bottom of the hoof is cut too severely. The ill-advised farrier who subtracts this part of the hoof is like a carpenter who cuts off the bottom of a post, which in turn weakens the pillar in the most essential way at the place where the greatest strength is required.

Thus, keep trimming and rasping to the hoof wall a minimum.

Likewise, don’t allow the farrier to trim the frog severely. When horses walk, they do so from the heel to the toe, not from the toe to the heel. As they are walking the triangular-shaped frog comes into contact with the ground. This critically important portion of the hoof is designed to prevent slipping and concussion.  Plus, unlike the insensitive hoof wall, the frog has nerves and can cause pain.   Therefore the frog should not be touched if it is sound and firm. If it is ragged, then allow the edges to be lightly trimmed, otherwise the drawing knife should not be used.

Neither should the sole of the foot be interfered with except to remove the horn that has grown since the last shoeing. This should be done with a rasp, never with a drawing knife.

There are two types of shoeing, hot shoeing and cold shoeing. The latter involves nailing a shoe of the approximate size and shape onto the horse’s hoof. Hot shoeing involves heating the shoe in a forge, then hammering it to fit the horse’s hoof as closely as possible. Both require a degree of skill, with hot shoeing being practised in the Occident far more than in the Orient,

The construction of the horseshoes is also of importance. If the horse’s hooves need trimming, but the shoes are still road worthy, then have them nailed back into place. Steel shoes are best, if they are obtainable.

Making Shoes Last

Don’t think that just because you’ve managed to get your horse shod your worries are over. Harsh surfaces, hot roads, jagged gravel and ruthless rocks are all waiting to destroy your horse’s hooves. This is a problem which has no geographic restrictions.

Luckily some Long Riders discovered a way to save their horse’s hooves.

They had a farrier place borium on the bottom of the horseshoes. Borium is a generic name for tungsten carbide crystals which, when embedded in a carrier material, provides a protective hard wearing shield to steel horseshoes. There are two reasons for putting borium on shoes, to make them last longer and to help stop slipping on the pavement.

This material is so strong that after Jean Claude Cazade placed it under his stallion’s shoes, the horse travelled 6,000 kilometres with only three changes of shoes. Another Long Rider, Robert Seney, rode his horse 3,000 miles across the United States using only one set of borium equipped horse shoes.

No Loose Shoes

Horseback travellers should avoid loose shoes at all costs. A loose shoe is dangerous. It is easily snagged off the hoof and very often takes part of the hoof with it. Unfortunately, loose shoes are all too common, especially for horses travelling on a daily basis on pavement. The tremendous repetitive impact will work the shoe loose in no time.

Long Rider Tracy Paine had some good advice:  "The trick to avoiding loose shoes is finishing the nails properly. Most farriers will drive a nail into the hoof wall and then wring off the nail by using the hammer claws to twist off the sharp end of the nail close to the hoof wall. Do not do this. Instead, bend the nail over against the hoof wall and cut it off with nail cutters. Leave 1/8” of the nail projecting from the hoof wall. When all the nails are done in this fashion, they are then seated using a ‘clinching block’ or any other piece of flat metal. Carefully file away any burrs under the nail stubs, do not create a groove in the hoof wall or file away any of the nail, as this will cause weakening. The nail stubs are then softly hammered flat against the hoof wall, and the job is done (see diagrams below). Turning the clinches in this fashion (as opposed to cutting the nail stubs short and then using alligator clinchers) will not cause tearing in the hoof wall, and they will last much longer. There is no need to smooth the clinches with a file because this will occur naturally in a couple days. A shoe nailed in this manner will stay tight for a very long time. I had shoes stay tight on my horse for six months straight while travelling.”

Bend nail over

Cut nail leaving 1/8th inch and seat

Gently, bend over nail stub





There is a third option. You can use horse boots.

As history proves, man has been strapping, tying, lashing and gluing various types of shoes, sandals, socks and boots on the bottom of hooves for countless centuries.  The image on the right shows a Japanese pack horse wearing bamboo boots in the 19th century.

This concept has always had its proponents and critics, with Long Riders once again having played a historically significant role in this field of equestrian hoof care.

One of the most spectacular equestrian journeys did rely on rubber boots. During their historic 30,500 kilometres (19000 miles) ride from the tip of Patagonia to the top of Alaska, Russian Long Rider Vladimir Fissenko and his companion, North American Long Rider Louis Bruhnke, used Easyboots with great success.

If you do decide to use boots while travelling, you must confirm that the boots are a proper size and fit for your horse’s hooves. Once they have arrived, begin by having your horse’s hooves properly trimmed, as a long hoof may affect the boot’s fit. When his hooves have been prepared, tie your horse up safely and put the boots on carefully. If he has never worn boots before, walk the horse slowly, giving him time to adjust to the large objects on his feet. Once he has walked in a straight line, circle him slowly, being careful to watch for any sign that the boots may be slipping. Trot him and while you’re running alongside, listen to ensure that his footfalls sound even. While you’re testing him, keep a careful eye for any signs of imbalance or distress.

Once you’re happy with the fit, take a short training ride close to home. Stay on level ground, all the while paying strict attention for any signs of rubbing where the top of the boot comes into contact with the horse’s sensitive skin. When one traveller detected signs of galling along the horse’s hoof, he screwed a piece of soft rubber hose along the top edge of the boot to provide extra padding. When you return to the barn, check the horse’s hooves and legs carefully. If everything appears to be well, then mark the inside of each boot with which foot it fits. Before you depart, be sure you practise putting the boots on, and removing them. Better to make adjustments at home, than on the side of a strange road.

One drawback about boots is that they are known to slip in muddy terrain. There have been cases where two horses, proceeding side by side up a muddy track, have had completely different experiences, with the steel shod horse climbing with no problem, while his plastic boot clad companion was unable to proceed because he was slipping in the mud.


If you are travelling with more than one horse, try to use horses with the same size feet as this will allow you use the same shoes.

Regardless of who does it, you or the shoer, when the time comes to put on new horseshoes, expect to lose at least one full day of travelling. And there have been several cases where Long Riders had to wait many days before the arrival of a farrier.

If your journey is extreme and you feel you should carry one spare shoe, then it is recommended that you carry a hind shoe. Not only will it normally fit either hind foot, it may be adjusted relatively easily to fit a front hoof as well, whereas it is more work to fit a front shoe to a hind hoof.

Because of their weight, many Long Riders won’t carry a spare horse shoe. However a handful of extra tough horseshoe nails weighs very little and can help when you’re in trouble.

Whether you’re carrying spare nails or not, if you detect any hint of lameness in your horse, stop and examine him immediately. There may be a stone stuck between the wall of the hoof and the side of the frog.

Should you notice nails sticking out from the bottom of the shoe, then you can pull them out, being careful not to damage the hoof wall. If this leaves the shoe loose, then remove it.

If you lose a hind shoe you can still ride at a gentle walk, keeping off the hard road as much as possible. But the rule is that if your horse loses a front shoe, dismount and lead him, even if it means a ten-mile walk to the nearest farrier. The equine foreleg is vulnerable to strain, so don’t tempt Providence.

Note: This is an extract from the Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration, by CuChullaine O'Reilly.

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