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.