A lot of discussion and worry surround trimming and shoeing performance horses. But the truth of the matter is that the majority of farriers handle backyard and pleasure horses.

While they are common to the industry, that’s not to say maintaining their footcare comes easy. In particular, what about those that sit as pasture ornaments throughout most of the week but hit the trails on the weekends? There are a variety of ways farriers can help make these horses more comfortable on those trails.

Tips For Shoeing

Mike Bagley, whose clientele mostly are trail horses, says he has to watch the fit because he can’t fit them as full as he does on a show horse.

“I have to box the heels, which means I grind a slight chamfer on the foot surface of the shoes, to keep them from getting snagged on anything or to keep the horses from stepping on them,” says the farrier from Canton, Ohio.

“On trails, full-fitting shoes become a target for the opposing limb and bar shoes get material stuck in them and can snag on roots and rocks,” adds Bob Smith, owner of the Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School in Plymouth, Calif.

While no two horses are alike and you must shoe for the individual horse’s needs, Smith finds a set-up that works well for maintaining the sound trail riders of his region of trail horses, and offers this advice: parameter fit the shoe with quarter or side clips, avoid therapeutic devices, leave the sole thick and heavy and no paring of the frog — just a slight clean-up.

Farrier Dan Puckett from Cape Girardeau, Mo., likes to put some of his trail horses in a slightly thicker shoe.

“If they’re going to be riding on a bunch of rocky trails, I’ll use 3/8 or 3/4 concave,” he says. “It gives them a little more traction and a little bit more surefootedness on the trails. A 1/16 of an inch doesn’t sound like much, but it does get them up off the rocks that much more. And with 3/8 vs. 5/16, that’s an extra 20% thicker shoe.”

Larry Peterson, a farrier from Elkhorn, Wis., spends part of his time in Boulder, Utah. The difference he sees is that a lot of his clients in the Midwest do not want to put shoes on the hind feet. He stresses that while horses carry slightly more weight in the front, on the uneven trails and hills, there are times when the horses will be carrying more weight on their back ends.

“They need to shoe the back feet if the ground is rocky,” Peterson says. “They need shoes all around to get the best performance.”

Peterson says more owners would see a difference in the hind hooves if they rode their horses more. He finds that most horses he sees in the Midwest are overfed and underworked, and if they get worked a couple hours per week, it is a lot. If something is bothering it, the horse can hide it and put more weight on its front to get off the hind feet. The majority of riders won’t feel those slight nuances.

“I find that the front feet are more symmetrical and have larger quarters,” Peterson says. “They go lateral, medial or forward. Because of that, the quarters are more round and they have a greater chance of chipping and cracking. So farriers have more of a visual on a bare foot and they can see the trail taking the abuse to the front foot more than to the hind foot.”

Peterson uses a number of different shoes for different applications, but he prefers the St. Croix Eventer for all-around use because of its beveled edge all around, wide-web support and easy breakover.

Some farriers recommend Drill-Tek or Borium for traction on the trails and roads. Benecia, Calif., farrier Jeff Matthews uses Borium sometimes when owners ask for traction devices. Although Matthews has received some backlash for using Borium, he says he has never had a problem and has good luck with it for providing traction.

Bagley typically uses Drill-Tek or Borium, or even just Borium-tipped nails if the horses can get away with it, for rockier trails and roads.

“I don’t like to use pads on the trail horses unless they really have soft feet because they cross a lot of mud and sometimes they cross streams and that can contribute to shoes getting pulled off,” Bagley says.

Bagley also recommends using a little larger nail. “I like a #5 slim blade because it doesn’t damage the hoof, but it has a little bit bigger head on it so it holds the shoe tight.”

Barefoot Or Shod?

While there is a lot of debate among clients regarding shoeing pleasure trail horses or leaving them barefoot, the common consensus among farriers is to leave them barefoot only if it works. If they seem sore or have other needs, shoe them.

Farrier Klaus Selmayr, of Katonah, N.Y., who trail rides every day, says he prefers leaving them barefoot if possible, but he won’t hesitate nailing on shoes if necessary. Like all cases, he says, it is important to consider the individual horse.

“I have four horses,” Selmayr says. “One of my horses has never needed shoes. He goes over the worst trails, rocks and never has any problems. I have another horse who can’t be out in the pasture without shoes.”

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Trail riding horses likely will encounter a variety of surfaces in a weekend, leading farriers to make decisions regarding shoes and traction.

Peterson says the horses that are ridden more often naturally have tougher, more calloused hooves because they are acclimated to the trails.

“The problem with most trail horses, they’re sitting in the barns and out in the pastures, or they’re in the barns at night,” he says. “Some aren’t ridden 4 to 5 months of the year … and then the riders get back up on them in the spring. Then, of course, it’s during the soft part of the year where the foot is more pliable and susceptible to stone bruising.”

Bagley usually asks the customers where they plan on riding.

“If they want to try riding the horse barefoot, I let them try,” he says. “I tell them that the horse is going to tell you if they like it or not. If they get out there and don’t like walking on the gravel or don’t like walking on the road, they’re going to let you know.

“I have people with a barefoot horse that’s scooting over to grass. They don’t like being out on that hard surface. That’s where they need the shoes. I’ve seen them worn down to a point where they’re not going to go. They need some protection on them.”

Smith points out that it is a serious misconception among owners that horseshoes are only used to protect the bottom of horses’ feet in abrasive environments.

“Shoes, when applied correctly, will also alter the weight bearing so that the forces placed upon the foot are dissipated more evenly and prevent longterm lameness,” he says. “Of course, shoes also are used for traction on the trail.”

Several other farriers mentioned that alternatives to shoes also are becoming more popular. In addition to many trail riders carrying a boot with them, some of the more serious trail and endurance riders choose to put high-tech boots on their horses. Peterson says several top endurance horses that have finished in the top 10 of some major competitions wear boots, and he sees that preference among some recreational trail riders.

Matthews says boots can be helpful for horses used as trail rentals. Because these horses are constantly ripping shoes off, a boot can help them heal and regrow the foot.

The downside of boots is that in order for them to fit properly, horse’s hooves likely need to be trimmed more often, Peterson says. He has some clients who will do a basic rasping of the toe to help the boot fit in between trims. Some of the newer rubber shoes that can be glued or nailed are becoming more popular because they allow the horse’s foot to expand and contract, Peterson adds, keeping the blood pumping through the foot, and thus, keeping it healthy.

Dealing With Equine And Human Clients

Another challenge that comes with shoeing trail horses is dealing with the owners. Smith says the most difficult problem that farriers have to deal with when working on trail horses is assessing the riding skills of the owner.

“By definition, the trail horse will be working on uneven ground,” Smith says. “Most trail rides are recreational, so riders are much more casual, unsteady in the saddle and fail to keep the horse in a proper frame. This leads to gait abnormalities, like stumbling and interfering, both of which the owner will blame on the farrier. This also leads to lost shoes and again the blame goes to the farrier.”

Another problem that arises often with trail customers is the last minute call the morning before a ride to put a shoe back on. Most farriers will make their best effort to make it out for the customer so that they can go on their trail ride.

“I try to help these people because I know they pay a lot of money, and I know how terrible a lost shoe is for them,” Selmayr says. “So it makes me really happy to go out at any time in the morning and make sure these people can ride. Sometimes there’s not enough time. I just quickly find a shoe that fits. It may not look perfect, but then they can ride without hurting the foot.”

Bagley is part of a large trail-riding club and lives just 8 miles from a major trail area, so he is sometimes on call if there is going to be a big ride. He says there are days when he will just pull the rig down to the trails and wait because he knows someone will need his help.

Peterson said in a rare case he traveled several hours just to put a shoe back on a horse so they could do their ride. He also makes an effort to reschedule other clients if he has trail clients who have an emergency and really need to make their ride. Peterson comments, though, that if the client was already behind on their horse’s trimming schedule, he may make them squirm a bit.

If a horse has been missing a shoe for a week, Smith says the client needs to be advised to give more timely notice to the farrier.

In addition to dealing with the rider, Peterson says the trail horse can also pose some difficulty if they are not ridden or handled often. This requires horsemanship both on your part and that of the client.

 “If the horses aren’t working on a regular basis, their mental condition may not be the best,” he says. “They can lose their respect for the rider.”