Shoeing horses that work for a living can be a challenge. A ranch horse is vital to the livelihood of a cowboy or rancher, so proper footcare and protection is very important. But ranch horses are used in regions of the country with vastly different climates and terrain. Here’s a sampling of comments, tips and observations about shoeing ranch horses, from farriers in different parts of the West.
Galen Neshem is a farrier and rancher in west central Arizona (west of Prescott and north of Wickenburg), who depends on good-footed horses to help take care of cattle in big pastures and harsh country. While most of the shoeing he does today is for the horses on his own ranch, he shod for many other ranches until about 1990.
“We have rocky terrain — everything from granite country to malapai (volcanic rock and old lava). Many of our canyons have slick river rocks. We also have some limestone, so we have many kinds of rocks. All our horses have to be shod,” he says.
“It’s important to us to have horses with good feet, because if you lose a shoe out there, you want to be able to ride the horse home without crippling him,” he says.
Neshem raises registered Quarter Horses, but says that most of his ranch horses are bred from Mustang stock with an eye toward breeding the tough feet ranch horses need. Neshem says his shoeing methods for ranch horses depend on the individual horse.
Nail And Shoe Choice
“Most of the time I only use 6 nails. If a horse gets a hoof caught, I want the shoe to come off, rather than cripple the horse,” he says. There are times, though, when he’ll use all the nail holes to help make sure the shoes stay on. There are also times — particularly with older horses with straight hoof walls, when he won’t use the heel nails. In those cases, he wants to encourage expansion.
“If they wear bigger than a size 1 shoe, I use # 6 nails. If their feet are smaller, I use a # 5 City head. Personally I like Diamond shoes for our country because they grip the river rocks best.”
Neshem says his son-in-law, a Montana farrier, used a wide-webbed shoe with the nail holes set a little closer to the outside edge for his ranch shoeing.
“The shoes cover a little more of the sole, and are also set back a little more from the toe so breakover is more natural, more like a barefoot horse.”
If he finds shoes are wearing out too quickly due to constant use on rocky terrain, he’ll sometimes weld a bead from a hard surfacing rod around the rim of the shoe from one toe nail to the other. He’ll also put a little on each heel.
“We probably leave a little more heel on our shoes than people who ride in softer country or an arena, just to protect the heels from the rocks,” he says. “On occasion, when I felt a horse needed it, I’ve turned the heel of the back shoes up, to protect the heel bulb.”
On front shoes he often curves the heel around so it covers part of the frog, especially on horses with an open foot. For the rugged lava rock of malapai country, he says he’d like to use a Phoenix shoe — but the brand is no longer being made.
“They were a wider shoe, that covered a little more sole,” he says. “If we anticipate having to do a lot of running across that kind of rock — if we are catching wild cattle — we’ll even put pads on the front feet.”
It’s easy to bruise a horse in that terrain. Neshem has had a few horses crippled over the years due to abscessed stone bruises.
His son-in-law, the Montana farrier, also helped him out with some thick, size 2 shoes with raised toes and heels.
“They wouldn’t work on a thin-walled horse, but for a horse that had a strong foot and thick walls they were fine,” he says. “I don’t like a raised heel or toe very much in this rocky country because they can catch in the rocks and put too much twist on the foot. So I took a grinder and ground those off and cut off the heel a
Neshem says the shoes were made by Diamond and were a type that might have been made for a light draft horse.
“He found them in a hardware store where they’d been sitting for a long time, and got two boxes of them for $40,” he says. “I don’t use these on a regular basis, but every once in a while I have a bruised horse they work well on.”
Tough Horses, Tough Feet
He’s found that most horses raised in rocky country have strong feet. He thinks part of it is that the horses toughen their feet in a lifetime of moving on rocks, but says genetics is also a factor.
“With the registered Quarter Horses we raise, if you lose a shoe you are afoot,” he says. “If we turn those horses out barefooted, we have to go pick them up again within a month because they are too tender-footed to get around.”
Individual horses have different qualities in feet. “When riding a horse that doesn’t have strong feet, we always put a few nails in our shirt pockets,” he says. “You can put nails in a shoe with just a fencing tool, if the horse starts to lose a shoe. Some cowboys around here do that all the time; they’ve always got a little sack with a few nails in it. If you’re carrying heavy fence pliers you can always use it as a hammer. If you get in a pinch you can jerk a shoe off, flatten it out and nail it back on,”
Neshem also says the size of a ranch horse is a factor.
“The bigger, heavy horses as a rule have more trouble,” he says. “We like a horse that weighs 1,050 to 1,100 pounds and not much over that. The horse I bruised so badly weighs more than 1,200. We have horses that weigh 950, up to about 1,100 pounds. Most of them take a size 1 shoe; they have adequate feet for their body weight.”
Neshem used to use a heavy piece of leather when a horse needed pads. He’ll still use leather at times, such as when a horse is just a little tender after shoeing. He also uses plastic pads and pads he cuts from sheets of neoprene that can be purchased through shoe repair shops. Neoprene, he says, will outlast just about anything else he’d tried, at times lasting through several shoeings.
“You can get neoprene that’s quite thin or heavier,” he says. “I’ve taken those pads and cut them out for the frog when I just need some protection for
This keeps the frog outside the pad and it’s less prone to develop thrush. The pad doesn’t have to bend up over the frog on a flat-footed horse (which creates a space at the heel where dirt or small rocks could work in under the pad); it’s flat against the sole.
“If we have a horse that’s had an abscess, we clean the feet out really well and then pack underneath the pads with oakum,” he says. “On a horse that’s bruised himself, this tends to keep some of the mud and dirt from getting in under
Bruising becomes an even bigger problem for horses that are used in lava rock country. Neshem says some of these horses bruise their coronary bands. He shoes them accordingly.
“Sometimes, if the horse isn’t prone to overreaching, I leave the shoe sticking out all the way around, just a tiny bit — even on the toe,” he says. “You have to know the horse. Sometimes you can do that on the outside of the hoof, and not have him step on himself. I had a little bay horse that could get through the rocks really well, but if you had to do a run after cattle in lava country, he’d skin up his coronary bands, just back from the toes a little way.
“I’m not sure how he did this; he may have been hitting it with the heel of his hind foot. Some horses overreach when running through boulders and rocks — because this kind of footing changes their stride. What helps on some horses is to tuck the inside branch of the heel in a little on the hind foot, so it’s not sticking out at the back at all, and maybe just a little bit on the inside of the wall all the way around.”
For a horse that’s just skinning the coronary bands, Neshem finds extending the front shoes about 1/16 inch around the toe and outside branch can help.
“I think that when they’re running fast through rocks, these horses are breaking over to the outside,” he says. “So this gives the foot a little more base of support on the outside of the foot and slows the horse down a little on breaking over to the outside.
“Some horses I have to square off the toes on the back, to keep them from hitting the fronts. I set the shoe back behind the toe of the hoof and square the toe, then they won’t hit the front shoe with the hind and jerk it off.”
The key to ranch horse shoeing is shoeing the individual for his way of traveling, and for the ground conditions he’ll be working on, says Neshem.
Bob and Kelly Sue Bachen shoe horses in the northeast corner of New Mexco and have a farrier supply store, Wagon Mound Ranch Supply, in Solano. This area is rolling grassland with rocky canyons running through high plains next to the Kiowa National Grasslands. The area has some large historic ranches as well as many small, family operations.
A lot of farriers may belittle “cowboy” shoeing, but Bob Bachen says most cowboys have a good understanding
of their horses’ feet. They’re good horsemen, he says, who use their horses a lot and know how they move.
Ranchers Know Shoeing
“A lot of people who come out of shoeing school — myself included — have never been around horses that much,” he says. “The cowboy, by contrast, has been working with horses a long time and knows what a horse needs.”
He says they also know shoeing.
“A rancher will recognize a good quality job or a poor one,” he says. “If the shoes come off too soon, he may call you back or he may not. He may still be very friendly, but won’t ask you back again to shoe his horses.”
Kelly says ranch people are often more knowledgeable about horses than many trainers or
“When you are shoeing ranch horses and get a rank horse and bring out the lip chain, the owner is not going to scream about it,” she says. “You don’t have any problem with the owner if you have to reprimand a horse that’s not behaving.”
Nailing on shoes so they’ll stay put, is vital, Bob says. That was something he quickly discovered when he first started shoeing ranch horses, about 3 years after he started his career.
“A client would tell me my shoeing job was the prettiest he’d ever seen, but a week later he’d call me to say the shoes had come off. I soon learned, and had to adapt my methods of shoeing,” he recalls. “That was part of my education. You learn to shoe for what the horse needs. These horses need to be fit tight and short, with not a lot of heel sticking out.”
“You always need to cover the heels well, but with no extra.” Kelly Sue points out.“When shoeing show horses, you have some with bad feet; they don’t have to work in the rocks. You have to baby their feet and may have to hang iron out all over the place. You shoe ranch horses without the extra.”
When a horse is scrambling around in the rocks, he may step on one of his own feet, or get caught in the rocks if there’s any shoe sticking out.
“If he’s running hell-bent-for-leather down a narrow canyon or through the volcanic rock on top of a mesa, you don’t want him to lose a shoe,” says Bob.
“We always safe the shoes so they never catch the side of the shoe with another foot,” says Kelly Sue. “These horses dodge back and forth when chasing cows, and if they are turned out in pastures with a bunch of other horses you never know who’s stepping
on whose shoes — so you always box
Bob says that also means its tough to use therapeutic shoes, egg bars or long-heeled shoes on ranch horses. It also leads to shoeing in a way that some would say is less than ideal.
“Some people will tell you it’s not good to shoe a foot short and with no room for expansion, but is it better to have the perfect shoeing job and lose the shoe in the rocks and end up with a crippled horse or to have a shoe that stays on and protects the foot?” Bob says. “In this country you need to shoe ranch horses short and tight. People may worry about contracted heels, but these horses aren’t used all year long and the shoes are pulled off for winter.”
On the whole, the Bachens agree, ranch horses have very healthy feet. They are not kept in stalls or small pens and rarely have thrush. They are moving around in big pastures or used regularly, and their feet stay cleaner and healthier, especially if shod with a good, self-cleaning shoe. Most of the horses they shoe rarely need pads.
“If a horse is born and raised here, he generally doesn’t have much problem with bruising. But when you buy a horse from outside and expect him to adapt, he may or may not,” Bob says. “Pads are not always the best idea, because that doesn’t help him adapt and toughen his feet. A horse that can’t do the job usually doesn’t stick around as a ranch horse; if his feet won’t hold up the cowboy usually gets a different horse.”
The Bachens say regular weight rim shoes or shoes like the St. Croix Eventer will usually last long enough for ranch horses. They may wear out if a client tries to go longer than 8 weeks between shoeing.
“I also like a rim shoe because when that rim fills up with dirt it gives a lot more traction. Dirt on rock gives you much more traction than steel on rock,” he says. “Some people don’t like a rim shoe on the hind feet, saying it gives them too much torque, making the horse hesitant to perform at his best. But ranch horses out in big pastures or on rocks need as much traction as you can give them. If you’re going down a steep side of a canyon, the horse needs to be able to get underneath himself and have some traction,” he says.
Kelly Sue likes St. Croix Eventers (front and hind pattern). She prefers clipped shoes with side clips on all four shoes. She says this adds an extra guarantee that the shoes will stay on,
especially for ranchers who live far from a farrier and don’t want an unexpected lost shoe.
“These horses are often climbing up out of canyons and cliff walls, banging around in the rocks, chasing after cows going one direction and then another. I don’t want a horse to pull off a shoe,” she says. “I hot shoe everything, so the clips are burned in well and fit smooth. Because of the diversified terrain these horses work in, you need a shoe that grabs well. The horses do very well with St. Croix Eventers, partly because they are a wide-webbed shoe and give the sole a lot of protection. I also like them because they are rolled and give the foot easy breakover in any direction.”
Bob doesn’t use toe or heel shoes — keg shoes with a little buildup in the toe and heel areas — very often, although he says they are popular with shoers in Montana because they give a little extra traction as well as some longer wear. He prefers rim shoes, which he says can last quite a while, particularly if a little Borium is placed on the rim.
“Rim shoes are nice because the concavity of the inside web helps it self-clean better than a regular keg shoe. It also has that nice roller motion all round,” he says. “A horse doesn’t necessarily breakover the center of the toe.”
Kelly uses just the back six nail holes in a shoe, especially on small or average size horses.
“Most horses’ feet tend to grow forward, so you need to set the shoe back — and the toe nails become useless once you set the shoe back to where it ought to be,” she says. She will sometimes use all eight nail holes on a horse with larger feet, such as those wearing size 2 or 3 shoes.
Ray Humbolt shoes a lot of ranch and feedlot horses in southwestern Kansas where most of the country is flat and sandy. The sandy ground is abrasive and can be hard on feet or shoes.
“Horses must be regularly shod or they wear out shoes,” he says. “Some ranchers don’t use their horses so much in winter, but others do — especially in the early spring while they’re calving. Some years there’s mud to contend with, but other years it’s very dry,”
Humbolt also has to adjust his shoeing for clients who use their horses for rodeo, team roping or barrel racing, as well as ranch work.
“Some want a little more traction for these activities while others prefer regular shoes,” he says. “The horses that are used regularly have the healthiest feet. Even if they have to contend with mud and manure they don’t have a problem with thrush because they are used steady. I keep reading articles about having horses go barefoot, but these cowboy horses couldn’t do that. The feet wouldn’t hold up; they need some protection.”
Jim Neshem ranches and shoes horses near Minot, N.D., where lots of ranch horses are shod in early spring because of icy conditions when they are being used during calving season.
“I shoe a lot of them that time of year with calks or use Borium, for better traction,” he says. “Later in the summer we generally use flat shoes — some type of plate — in the rougher areas. Many horses in the northern part of the state are just trimmed and not shod, where it’s mainly grassy terrain.”
Terrain in North Dakota ranges from grassy to rocky.
“Down in the Badlands it’s rougher — a little sandy, a little rockier and there are some clay buttes,” he says. “Here where I live, there are more farms and it’s grassy. In the southern or southwestern part, it’s sandier, which can wear the feet or shoes faster, but they don’t have the snow and ice like we have. The horses down there I just shoe with plates.”
Sometimes he uses rim shoes in front and plates in the back.
“The rims probably give a little more traction on the front, but not very many guys want rim shoes on the back feet. When the horse is turning and doing fast work, the rims make those feet stick a little too much,” he says. “If they are working in steeper country or slippery side hills, then they want a little more traction, with calks or Borium. Everyone has a different idea about what they want — what they are used to or feel works best for their horses — so I shoe them the way they want their horses shod.”
He also shoes a lot of rodeo and arena horses that are kept shod most of the year.
“By contrast, a lot of the ranches keep one or two horses shod through winter with Borium or calks and leave the rest of the horses barefoot or shod with plates,” Neshem says. “There aren’t many ranches around here that are so big they need more than one or two horses shod for ice.”
On ranch horses he generally doesn’t leave much expansion on the heel or a shoe might get pulled off when a horse is scrambling around or chasing cattle.
“Once in awhile I find a horse with thin walls that won’t hold a shoe well, and I use a few clips. I don’t do much of that, however, since most of these horses have good feet.
Most of the ranchers keep their horses shod on a regular schedule and feet don’t get too long and stay in good shape.
“Usually the people who are using their horses a lot take good care of them and want you there pretty regular to keep them shod or trimmed,” he says.
Some horses are kept barefoot much of the year. Most of the horses run on big pastures, on the same type of terrain where they are used for cattle work, and their feet stay healthy and sound — much more healthy than horses kept in stalls or pens.
“Here on our ranch when we’re calving we have two horses we keep shod when it’s muddy or icy; the rest are on vacation until summer. My son does college rodeo and we shod his horses this spring, but otherwise it’s just the two we’re using for calving. On one of them I use calks. The other has rim shoes in front and plates in back. We don’t use him quite as much, but he’s shod if we need to grab him and go do something,” says Neshem.
“Some ranchers just want their horses shod in front. They want calks in front and leave the hinds bare. I don’t know what their thinking is on that. They probably don’t need the calks in front because they’re just riding on grass and aren’t getting much wear on the shoes or bare feet. You can come back and reset those front shoes because they aren’t worn much. I can usually reset the shoes at least once on most ranch horses here.” he says.
Like Humbolt, Neshem often has to shoe horses who are used for ranch work as well as various Western riding competitions.
“I run into guys with rodeo horses that wear out a set of shoes by the time they need reshoeing. They are roping on those horses all the time,” he says. “Some ranch horses are used for roping on weekends and those guys want their horses shod all the time. The guys that rodeo keep them shod, because of all the different arena conditions. Some arenas are quite rocky and some don’t have very good footing. Using the horses that much, they’d get tender without shoes.”
When he trims feet on horses that don’t need shoes, he tries to get rid of the long toes and keep the horse in better balance, with more natural breakover.
“That’s the biggest problem around here with bare feet — that long toe and low heel — so I’m always trying to keep them pulled back,” he says. “With the way horses are kept in some places, they don’t have room
to run around and wear their feet off normally. The confined horses need a lot more footcare.”