Horseshoe Selection: How to pick the right shoe for the job

Horseshoe Selection

I love being able to have choices when selecting the shoe for the horse in front of me. I carry different versions of each size of shoe in order to truly customize the job depending on the horse’s individual needs. How does a farrier or horse owner chose the most appropriate footwear for a particular horse? To have this discussion let’s talk about the terms farriers use when describing a shoe.

Size: The most obvious, big hooves = big shoes and vice versa.  Using too small of shoe is a sure way to rob a horse of years of productivity, one that is too big is more likely to get pulled off, possibly  damaging the hoof, and inconvenience everyone involved.

Big horse, Little horse horseshoe selection matters
Big horse, Little horse, horseshoe selection matters

Usually the small horseshoes are labeled “0” or “00” and pronounced “ought” or “double ought” in reverence of the old fashioned word for zero . I have seen as small as “four ought”. Shoes larger than “0” will be labeled 1,2,3….

Just like any shoe shopping experience, there is no universal system for shoe sizing. Not only is there huge variation in comparing different brands take on what a size one is, but there are completely different systems especially if you are using European shoes, racing or polo shoes.

Material Most commonly cast or machined from mild steel or aluminum. Steel is more durable, easily worked in the forge and less expensive. Aluminum shoes are much lighter, able to be applied with glue and available in many styles for therapeutic applications.

The market for shoes made of even less traditional materials like plastic, rubber and fiberglass or the combination of seems to be growing. I’m sure as 3D printing becomes more accessible, choices will continue to increase.

Web size  describes the dimensions of the metal used to make the shoe. Narrow webbed shoes will sink into the earth easier and give a better grip. Wider ones will float the foot over soft footing, provide a more rigid support, more protection and allow for more slide. A wide webbed also offers more surface area to distribute the horses weight which better mimics the barefoot horse.

This is a racing shoe for a thoroughbred. It is narrow-webbed to sink into the surface and fullered shoe for added grip.
This is a racing shoe for a thoroughbred. It is narrow-webbed to sink into the surface and fullered  for added grip.


Weight of shoe: the heavier shoe the higher the arc of stride, the lighter the lower.

drive in studs give extra traction on paved roads
drive in studs give extra traction on paved roads

Traction devices: the shoe can have modifications to limit the sliding of the hoof. A harder metal (tungsten carbide, tool steel, borium) can be attached to the shoe by brazing or welding that allows the animal to be used on pavement. Calks can be built into the shoe or holes can be drilled and tapped to accommodate screw in studs that can be changed by the rider to suit the going.

Plain  shoes give less traction than the barefoot so it is very common for those shoes to have a grove (farriers would called this a “fullered” shoe as the tool used to make the crease is called a fuller). in the ground bearing surface to break up the surface area to prevent the horse from slipping under normal circumstances. The fullering also allows   nails to be removed one at a time.

the grove holds dirt to prevent skidding as well as allowing removal individual nails.
the grove holds dirt to prevent skidding as well as allowing removal individual nails.


Reining horses are often fit with plates that increase the slide phase of stride.

Kerrkart Sliding Plate
This is a sliding plate. Its wide web and lack off fullering keep the horse from sinking into the footing and maximizing the slide of the hoof.


It is imperative to understand the perils of over-using traction devices as it can negatively effect the shock absorbing mechanisms built into the horse’s limb, especially on young stock. The animals caretakers need to know which horses have special shoes as they can  injure themselves and others without proper precautions.

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Therapeutic shoes: Heart, egg, and straight bar shoes are available off the rack. Shoes with enhanced breakover built into the toe as well as ones with elevation built into the heel can help horses with some types of injury or disease.

plastic heartbar
plastic heartbar shoe for horse with laminitis.


Those are the most common ways to classify horse shoes. I am sure that I missed some,  especially now as it seems that there are new brands coming out all of the time. I believe in keeping things simple and mostly shoe with a steel clipped medium-wide webbed shoe until there is a reason to use something else. When an exception comes along it is great to have all of these options to chose from.



Structures of the Hoof


click image to enlarge



I hope this will help  make conversations about your horses  hooves more effective. Some books do not go into great detail of farrier terminology as much of this was news to me as a horseperson entering farrier school. These are terms I learned which seem to be commonly accepted.

Hoof Wall: This is the most obvious and largest external structure. It is produced at the coronary band and grows distally, meaning  towards the ground. The farrier mostly trims hoof wall hopefully and if shod, it is what the shoe is secured to.

The majority of the horses, shod or barefoot, weight is supported by the hoof wall. It is strong, durable yet surprisingly flexible in order to accommodate for the constant expansion and contraction involved in locomotion.

Heel: I consider the heel as an extension of the hoof wall. The wall actually bends inwards sharply next to each side of the frog. Those sharp “V”  corners form heels. You can be more specific if you are referring to one or the other by using the term medial, lateral or inside, outside. Left and right become too complicated when dealing with horse feet.

hoof capsule, notice how the wall folds inwards and forward to create the heel and bars.
hoof capsule, notice how the wall folds inwards and forward to create the heel and bars.

Bars: the bars are a continuation of the hoof wall that protrude from the heels towards, while becoming less prominent  as they near the tip of the frog.

The tapered bars become increasingly more weight bearing  as the foot is loaded. As the foot expands the bars are pushed towards the ground to aid in shock absorption.

Sole: this is the horn that covers the majority of the ground bearing surface of the foot. It is constantly  produced and  within the hoof capsule and self exfoliating. The ideal sole is concave and thick enough to protect the coffin bone, blood supply and other sensitive structures just millimeters above.

The sole is not considered load bearing, although in horses that are kept barefoot the sole with thicken to the extent that there may be ground contact.

horse at 6 weeks since last trim
horse at 6 weeks since last trim. Good management has resulted in a strong foot with a thick sole, strong straight hoof wall and a massive frog.

White Line: a bit of a misnomer, the white line is a yellowish , insensitive substance that is sandwiched between the hoof wall; including heels and bars, and the sole. It may be difficult to see the white line unless the foot is clean and recently trimmed.

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fresh hoof!


The white line is produced internally peripheral edge of the coffin bone and lies beneath the laminae and fills the void that would be left between the sole and hoof wall. You could think of it as  a border and bond between the sole and wall.

Nails are driven into the white line ideally and exit via the hoof wall.

The white line is a load bearing structure except for the area called…

Seat of Corn: sometimes called the seat of heel. This is an area not a structure. This is the point of the foot where the hoof wall folds back on itself. That juncture is especially prone to irritation  in some modern horses and a lameness caused by this is called a corn.

heel abscess or “corn” in the seat of corn region on this neglected foot. The frog has become non weight bearing because the wall had become excessively long causing it to atrophy and shrink as well.

Frog: this is the triangle pad of moist and pliable horn situated between the heels. The frog aids in traction,  shock absorption and circulation.

The frog, like the other structures are continually produced by a corresponding sensitive structure .

The frog is a weight bearing structure.

Commisures or Medial and Lateral Frog Sulci: these are the two groves formed by the joining of the frog and the bar. This is the “V” shaped area that is cleaned with a hoof pick.

Frog cleft or Central Sulci of the Frog: This is the grove that is made between the left and the right side of the frog, Some horses are prone to getting a deep thrush here that can go undetected.

I hope this helps you say what you mean, hopefully I will be adding to this in the very near future.




to shoe or not to shoe?


There are a few factors that you should take into account when determining the hoof care needs of and individual.  Ask yourself:

What are you going to do with this horse? 

A lot of times the answer is not much. If the horse is going to be used lightly on easy footing like sand or grass, the horse may be fine shoeless. On the other hand, if your plans include extensive trail riding or the footing you have is abrasive, I would recommend having some hoof protection.

Competition horses benefit from horseshoes because of the increased traction can give an edge to the horse. In horse racing, shoeing choices are made known so the bettors will have more information to base their wagering decisions on.

People who show or ride their horses away from home may need shoes as the venues may have unpredictable footing.

shoes can give horses extra traction
adding studs shoes can give horses extra traction
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high performance shoes can make the difference in speed events


lightweight race shoe
lightweight “queens plate” with no toe grab for flat racing , notice how the frog takes up a third of the area. A big healthy frog indicates good circulation and fuction of the foot


What is the quality of the horn?

The hoof wall is made of horn. The horn can be thought of as lots of tiny “straws” starting at the top of the hoof and growing towards the ground. Horses with horn that grows pretty much straight, without flaring (“platter foot”) or bending at the heels (“crushed heels”) are candidates for barefoot.

This is not a static state either, once hoof imbalances are addressed and a new growth pattern is established by a few cycles of timely shoeing  the barefoot option may be asked again. A goal of mine when shoeing any horse is bringing the foot to equilibrium with or without shoes.

Horses of all breeds can be successfully kept barefoot but ponies, gaited horses, drafts, appaloosas, paint and mixed breed horses usually have inherently good hoof quality.

plz pass the biotin, I need some shoes!
plz pass the biotin says this “well bred” QH broodmare, I need some shoes!
rock crushing appy feet
rock crushing appy feet , the stripping in this foot shoe that the horn tubules are growing  uniformly

Is growth exceeding wear?

If the horse grows two nipper round of hoof in four weeks, it may not get them nailed back on. The hoof is excellent and gives excellent traction on a variety of surfaces. A horse like this may be able to perform at high levels without shoes.

hmm, wear exceeding growth...not today!
hmm, wear exceeding growth…not today!


Does the horse have a condition that the shoes help alleviate? 

Therapeutic horseshoes can be of great value to the unsound animal. Veterinarians will recommend shoeing protocols designed to help the limb function more normally. Wedge heels can decrease pull from certain tendons, leather pads can protect a thin-soled foot and modifications to a basic shoe will help ease breakover (the phase of stride where the foot rolls off the ground). Good horseshoeing can enhance performance.

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injured sole will love a shoe and pad to protect it


pad to protect sole
pad to protect sole

Some horses will transition without missing a beat when taken out of shoes, some will require a little time to get used to it especially while the old nail holes grow down. Most performance horses need shoes because of the demands upon them.

I recommend evaluating your current situation and discussing the options with your farrier or hoofcare provider.

strong and straight horn growth  and a concave sole are an effect of good genetics and regular hoof care.
strong and straight horn growth and a concave sole are an effect of good genetics and regular hoof care.