Horseshoes, once a practical invention to protect the hooves of horses, have come to occupy a much more prominent position in world culture. Hanging a horseshoe above or near a doorway is said to bring good luck, and the symbol of a horseshoe is thought to be a luck charm when used in jewelry. A popular folk game, appropriately called “Horseshoes”, is played by attempting to throw horseshoes at a pole in the ground, with points given for accuracy of the throw. However, horseshoes are still used for their original purpose, and the history behind their invention is more interesting than one might initially suppose.
The first official patent for a horseshoe didn’t appear until 1835, when Henry Burden created the first horseshoe manufacturing plant. Horseshoes, in the sense of metal shoes attached to the hooves with nails, actually appeared as early as the 6th century in Europe. Prior to that, horsemen used animal skins and plants to create “booties” for their horses’ hooves. Romans even created a “hipposandal”, which was a fitted plate of metal that attached to the hoof with straps. Bronze was the predominant metal for horseshoes until the 13th century, when the production and manipulation of iron began. Modern horseshoes are now normally made of steel or aluminum, but can be made out of almost any material including plastic. Steel shoes are preferred for hard sports like polo, where a strong, long-lasting shoe will work best for the horse. Lighter aluminum shoes are used for horse racing, so as not to inhibit the speed of the horse. While some horseshoes are still produced by hand, most are now created by machine.
Horseshoes are made by forging, which is one of the oldest ways of shaping metal. Prior to the Industrial Age and the introduction of mechanized production lines, horseshoes were created exclusively by smith forging. Smith forging consists of hitting heated metal into a desired shape with a hammer. Hammer forging, the next generation of smith forging, follows roughly the same process, with the exception of a machine replacing some of the duties of a blacksmith. Shoes are created in a variety of shapes, from “half-moon” designs with open ends at the heel to full circles, and can be specially ordered to serve the needs of an individual animal. For example, some horseshoes have caulkins, which are protrusions at the heel and/or toe of the shoe to provide a better grip on turf. Others may be specially weighted to correct an unusual gait, or to enhance a certain walk for display in horse shows.
The reason that horseshoes are used is a simple one: to protect the hoof of an animal. Wild horses regularly beat their hooves against the ground, and develop a naturally smooth, hard hoof. Domestic horse hooves do not develop the same protection, and, as opposed to their wild cousins who live in dry climates, domestic horses occupy wetter areas, which soften hooves and put them at higher risk for splitting.
Since a horse’s hooves are made of the same material as human fingernails (a hard protein known as keratin), the process of affixing a horseshoe, called shoeing, is no more painful to the animal than fingernail trimming is to humans. Horseshoes are applied by a farrier, who is specially trained in the care and maintenance of horse hooves and in blacksmithing, usually in a horse barn, stable, or other building. Since a horseshoe protects the hoof from being naturally worn down on pebbles and rocks, the first step in shoeing a horse is to remove the old shoe with pincers and to trim the growth of the hoof wall with hoof cutters. Once the hoof is trimmed and clean, a horseshoe is bent into the correct shape for the specific hoof. A horseshoe may be affixed cold, but those with more time and a desire for precision will treat the shoe with a process known as hot shoeing.
Hot shoeing provides a more secure fit for the animal, and allows the farrier to make modifications as necessary. In hot shoeing, the shoe is heated in a forge before being bent into the desired shape. While forges used to be a permanent fixture in a blacksmith’s workshop, there are new portable forges that allow farriers to bring their “workshop” with them. The shoe, once heated, is cooled in water. The horseshoe is then secured to the hoof with special nails designed to avoid the inner hoof, and the points of the nails are trimmed and bent flat against the hoof wall. The final step is to file away any sharp edges.
Shoes do need to be changed every six weeks in order to ensure that the horse’s hoof doesn’t misshape or create damage to the horse’s legs while walking, and to provide the required trimming for hooves. Even if a horse doesn’t regularly wear shoes, the hooves must still be maintained if the horse does not wear them down through natural use.
For more information on horseshoes, hoof health, and horseshoes in popular culture, look no further than the following webpages.
- Superstition Bash: Horseshoes – Horseshoes are considered lucky by many, but why? For a complete understanding of the superstition behind horseshoes, check out this article by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
- Hoof Anatomy, Care and Management in Livestock (PDF) – Ever wondered what a hoof is made of, or what the difference is between hooves on different animals? Horse hooves are different from their farmyard neighbors’, and this article from Purdue University explains how and why.
- Parameters of Hoof Balance – If a horse’s hoof isn’t trimmed, it can greatly misalign a horse’s sense of balance. The Western Dressage Association of America has an article that can help identify hooves in need of maintenance.
- Functional Anatomy of the Horse Foot – A hoof isn’t flat on the underside; it has many different parts that need to be considered when shoeing. The University of Missouri has a wonderfully illustrated article that explains what a hoof is made of and how it works to support weight.
- Foal Hoof Care Fact Sheet (PDF) – When horses are young, their hooves require different care than when they are fully grown. Utah State University offers this fact sheet to explain proper care of a foal’s hooves.