Barefoot or Shoes?

This seems to be an ongoing debate in the horse world and we often hear that there are no easy answers. We couldn’t disagree more. There is an easy answer.. it’s do whatever is best for your horse.

We operate from the keep it simple standard, because the simplest solution is the easiest one to implement and maintain. Let’s apply this concept to barefoot horses first. A sound barefoot horse is ideal because it is the easiest to implement (needs only to be trimmed and given basic hoof care) and the easiest to maintain (maintenance trim every 5-6 weeks). Many horses are perfectly sound barefoot and work hard, in fact, we trim quite a few barefoot school horses that teach multiple lessons a day and even take students to horse shows. There are barefoot dressage and event horses on our books as well as trail horses and young horses in training. Barefoot is often the preferred correction mode when dealing with hoof pathologies as it allows for more frequent trims which can restore a hoof to balance as quickly as possible. Contracted heels are a good example of a problem often best addressed barefoot.

Next would be plain front shoes on a balanced trim. This is a simple setup that is one step up from barefoot, and would be applied when horse has, for example, thin soles and we want to see if he responds positively to having shoes on. Having said that, thin soles are not fixed by shoeing and a plan to address growing a thicker sole would have to be in place. We might also add back shoes for traction under less than ideal riding conditions.

After this any shoeing package is therapeutic and it becomes very important to understand why we are shoeing the horse in order to do it correctly and successfully. We are always going to strive to keep any shoeing package as simple as possible as stated above. It is the mechanics of the trim and shoe placement that provide the majority of support for healing.

If your horse requires a therapeutic shoeing package we will be working towards simplifying that as your horse heals and becomes sound. For example, there are many specialty shoes out there, such as Natural Balance, that were designed to be used as a corrective for one or two cycles. After that you return to a simpler shoe.

It is important to note that a horse that is not sound without shoes is not a truly sound horse. Ideally we only apply shoes to a horse when he cannot do his job without them.. but we do a tremendous amount of corrective or therapeutic shoeing and feel it’s important to point out that this should be a temporary measure, while the hoof is changing and healing. Some horses will only be sound in a therapeutic set-up and if that’s the case, it’s important to understand why so that the situation can be monitored for further deterioration and/or maintenance. See our section on Managing Shod Horses for more information.



If you’ve been looking at photographs here, you’ve seen some casts on horses feet. Casts can serve many purposes in hoof rehabilitation, such as:

  • creating a false wall to nail into
  • limiting hoof mechanism when managing sheared heel syndrome
  • safely covering abscess holes, resections and surgery sites to keep them clean
  • protecting thin soles
  • offering a very sturdy way to hold in hoof packing of any type
  • protecting a foot when we’ve had to trim it particularly short
  • holding the hoof together to help limit the direction tubules are bending towards after a major distortion
  • a quick fix when a shoe has come off and the wall has torn into the soft tissue
  • laminitic horses after they are stabilized

They are also convenient for a primarily barefoot horse who may occasionally become a little tender but there’s no pathology and shoes are not warranted. We find that when used for the correct application, most horses are instantly sound after being cast. This gives them an advantage over many modalities including shoes, which cannot always be applied to a painful horse or a horse with little foot to work with.

The casts we use on horses are the exact same casting material used for human hard casts but cut into different sizes. Size choice is based on how large the hoof is and what we are trying to accomplish. For example, Mike is nailing into a cast, we trim together, determine shoe placement and then Gayle casts the horse according to the pathology we are dealing with. Mike then nails the shoe as if the cast were not there. The size of cast is based on how much fake wall we are trying to create and how much cast Mike can nail through.

A cast should never be applied over a hoof that is not prepped correctly, with the exception being a rim cast that is intended to fall off within a few days. Otherwise the procedure is as follows:

  • trim foot
  • do either a White Lightening or CleanTrax treatment
  • dry on clean shavings for at least two hours
  • freshen trim
  • lightly sand outside of foot
  • apply Equipack if using
  • glue outside of foot and sole if necessary
  • carefully apply cast
  • wet cast thoroughly
  • wrap in plastic wrap tightly
  • allow to cure for 15 minutes
  • if shoeing, shoe now
  • remove plastic and ideally horse stays in stall for a few hours or overnight

Proper tension is critical when casting, along with never going over the coronary band or heel bulbs. Too loose and the cast will not stay on, too tight and it will potentially cut circulation off. Casting is like a lot of things, the concept is simple but the actual application is tricky.

Because we trim and disinfect the foot before applying the cast, and then glue it, the hoof is now clean inside of it and mostly waterproof also. Most casts will stay on 3-4 weeks. Longer than that is not ideal, as the foot is not wearing at all inside of it while being stimulated to grow rapidly. Casting is usually the quickest way to grow foot as fast as possible.

Horses usually handle the casting process well. Once the foot has been glued and the cast is being applied there are only a few moments to finish up and get it wrapped before the cast begins to set, so the horse must allow that work to be done without pulling their foot away. The plastic wrap makes a predictably creepy sound so we make sure they are ok with that first. The water hitting the foot sometimes startles them. If there is any concern at all about a horses ability to handle this it is best to mildly sedate them so we don’t waste a lot of casts trying to get one on. After the first one or two most horses pay no attention to it at all.

Like a good shoeing job, a cast should look natural on a foot and not be bulky or uneven. They can be rasped after being cured but that may affect the integrity and strength of the cast so we try to not do that unless absolutely necessary.

Case Studies


This horse has been a long term project. She presented with thin soles, contracted heels, no appreciable walls and her feet were packed solid with overlaid bar and lumpy sole material. She also had a negative palmer angle behind of 5 and 6 degrees. Her foot problems were mostly blamed on her being a Thoroughbred, but she is growing in a high quality new foot with thick walls and good sole depth.

We started by pulling her shoes and trimming out as much of the impacted bar as possible. She was on stall rest in a deeply bedded stall during this part of the process and rapidly grew sounder while we revisited her trim every week. Each week her feet changed dramatically as they decontracted. We did not get pictures of this stage unfortunately. When they stopped changing dramatically we cast her with Equipack, one front foot at at time, to see how she would handle frog support. She did well and we were able to do her second foot a few weeks later. Then she was able to start getting hand walked.

Fast forwarding to this trim and shoeing cycle, she is back to work and sound but her rehabilitation is far from over. Now that her foot has grown about half way down it’s time to start looking at how her upper body and joints were affected by being out of balance for so long. We will update this case study as it proceeds.

Very grateful to good clients, barn management and training for doing their part in getting this nice horse sound again for her young rider.

Not perfect but so much closer!
We check for balance from all angles. At this point, we are very happy to see this foot much better balanced laterally and the heels beginning to decontract.
Mike wasn’t thrilled with this clip set up but Gayle snapped the photo anyway so she could get out of his way.. to show off that this horses dorsal (toe) wall is finally straight. You can see the line about half way down where her new foot is growing in at an entirely different angle from the old and that her heel is pushing out and relaxing. We get asked a lot why the toe is over the shoe.. it’s because the shoe is set back to the correct position to support the bony column. This puts her breakover at a better place and stimulates the correct part of her foot. She is in steel with a leather pad and pink (soft) Equipack under, carefully poured from the point of frog to the back of the foot.
Case Studies

correct trimming matters

This foot shows what happens when bars are allowed to overlay sole.. the black spots are where bruising has created abscessing. The lateral flare has been caused by the bar material that was pushing the wall outward. You can see that the bar is curved out more than it should be and will require a few trim cycles to no longer cause issues. This horse was sound as soon as the bar material was removed from the sole.

Case Studies

shoes to barefoot to shoes again

This mare was perimeter shod and her feet were pushing out in front of her bony column. She was so uncomfortable she did not want to stand still. we pulled her shoes off, gave her a good trim, let her feet settle for a cycle and then reshod her. A good example of what people often call “thoroughbred feet”. Her foot is actually not a problem at all, but she does require her heels to be brought back under her body in order to align her bones correctly. A great example of why heel placement comes first, and then toes can come back.

Perimeter fit shoes pulled. Quarters are jammed up and entire foot is pushed forward. Heel is too long and under run.
Barefoot for a cycle, note LF trimmed, RF not in this photo. Lateral cartilages are jammed up on the RF but have already relaxed on the trimmed LF.
Back into shoes. Note placement of heel now and relief of pressure in the quarters.
Case Studies

hoof resection

This horse presented with an inch wide crack at the top of his coronary band and green pus oozing out of it. It was determined that he had somehow injured the very top of the coronary band and the tissue below it had necrotized. It created a pocked of infection that required resection and debridement. It was recommended that a metal band be screwed across the wound to hold the foot together. We decided a cast would be more appropriate and couldn’t be happier with the results. A wound and subsequent destabilization of the entire foot can be catastrophic. This horse is sound and back to work now, only six months later.

Hoof presented with an injury to the coronary band. Veterinarian resected from the top the bottom as shown.
Hoof was properly disinfected and cast, keeping the material off the wound. Horse was immediately sound.
The resection began to grow down quickly.
Gluing and casting over the hole made the wound instantly waterproof. Now the horse could be turned out.. very important as movement creates blood flow which enhances healing and hoof growth.
Hoof in between castings, redebrided and trimmed.
At this point the toe wall had crumpled enough that the fetlock was beginning to push forward and we decided we could create toe support by using a shoe. Initially we used steel for extra support.
The final product.. just a tiny surface crack left. We moved this hoof into aluminum and copper nails to allow a bit of give and less weight for the walls to carry. Total rehabilitation time was less than six months and the horse was sound after the first cast.