Who can shoe Horses?
There is a misconception that blacksmiths shoe horses – they don’t. Blacksmiths work with iron, but may never come into contact with horses. Blacksmiths can shoe horses if they have also had training to become a farrier. The profession of farriers is a very old one, established in 1356, during the reign of Edward III. The formal description of a farrier’s work is ‘any work in connection with the preparation or treatment of the foot of a horse for the immediate reception of a shoe thereon, the fitting by nailing or otherwise of a shoe to the foot, or the finishing off of such work to the foot’. The blacksmith might make the shoe, the farrier will fit it. It’s a bit more complicated though, as the farrier also needs to have training as a blacksmith to make or modify the shoes correctly.
To put a horse shoe on a horse you need to be properly trained – it is not enough simply to have a horse shoe of the right size, you need to understand the horse’s hoof and his conformation and how his feet are affecting the way he moves. Domesticated horses need regular attendance from the farrier.
The farrier’s tools and apron have remained virtually the same since the 14th century, the only difference nowadays is that horses don’t normally go to the forge to be shod. The ‘forge’ is more usually a portable gas oven which means the farrier can travel to the horse.
Shoeing a horse takes expertise and knowledge. To become a farrier you must serve an apprenticeship of just over four years.
Shoeing a Horse
The first step is to straighten the clenches – these are the pieces of nail bent over the side of the hoof wall. They are straightened with a buffer and hammer. The shoe can then be levered off using pincers.
Next the surface of the hoof is levelled off using a rasp. Horses hooves grow like our fingernails, so the excess growth has to be trimmed off with hoof cutters. A drawing knife is finally used to tidy up the ragged pieces of the sole and frog. This does not hurt the horse at all – it’s just like having our nails trimmed. The hoof is now prepared for the shoe.
Shoeing can either be hot or cold. Precise measurements need to be taken and the shoe normally shaped off site with cold shoeing. As only very slight adjustments can be made to a cold shoe, hot shoeing is more common and more versatile. The farrier either carries a range of horse shoes in various sizes, or straight pieces that can be shaped to the foot. With hot shoeing the shoe can be very precisely shaped to the foot.
Firstly the shoe will be placed in the forge until the metal glows red hot. Using a pritchel the hot shoe is held against the surface of the hoof. When you watch this for the first time it is quite dramatic, as hot smoke and steam rises from the shoe and the air is full of the smell of burning. But the horse can feel nothing. The slight burning marks left on the foot will show where alterations need to be made, and the farrier will remove the shoe and shape it over an anvil. The process will be repeated until the farrier is happy with the fit. Once the farrier is happy the horse shoe will be quenched (immersed) in a bucket of cold water.
Now the shoe is ready to be nailed onto the horse’s foot. Normally seven nails are used, but the condition of the hoof will dictate how many are needed. The nail is driven in so that it slants towards the outside leaving part of the nail sticking outside the wall of the hoof. The excess nail is cut of, and the sharp point smoothed down with a rasp. The nail is then bent over to make a clench.
The whole process is repeated for each of the four hooves. Assuming the horse hasn’t lost a shoe in the meantime, the farrier will revisit in about six weeks to replace the set of shoes.
Why do Horses wear Shoes?
So why do we shoe horses? In the wild horses move on continuously to find fresh pasture and go over a variety of terrains and surfaces in his hunt for food. This naturally keeps the horses hooves down to a smooth, hard and even state. Our domesticated horses walk around less, and their feet do not have the same opportunity to harden. Nutrients such as carotene are essential to healthy hooves, and carotene is found in far higher amounts in live vegetation, rather than in processed or dried food. Our horses also are asked to do more – they are ridden or driven – which means their legs and feet are more weight bearing then they would be in the wild!
When were Horses First Shod?
As horses hooves are delicate, and people depended on them people as far back as Ancient Asia wrapped hooves in rawhide and leather.
The Romans were the first people who used a combination of leather and metal to shoe their horses so they would be able to travel further on the roman roads. Metal shoes as we know them appeared in Europe in around the 6th or 7th century. Hot shoeing became common in the 15th Century.
Looking after your Horse’s Feet Today
A horse in regular work also needs to have his feet checked regularly otherwise the hoof will grow large, long and fragile, and cracks may appear. If his hoof gets misshapen his legs may become damaged if he walks abnormally – not only will this be uncomfortable for him, he won’t be able to be ridden.
Even horses which are turned out without being worked need to have their hooves checked and trimmed regularly.
Normally horses need shoeing every six weeks, and arrangements should be made for a farrier to attend at this interval. Sometimes shoes which have not been worn down too far can be re-used and replaced after the hooves are trimmed. Some hooves grow at different rates depending on the time of year – fresh spring grass can cause a growth spurt.