Why are some trail horses shod and others are barefoot

Whilst traveling the world on horseback, you’ll see lots and lots of different ways of keeping and riding horses. This has to do with all the different breeds, environments and cultures. Some of the trail horses you’ll ride during your horse riding holidays will be shod on all four hooves, others will be completely barefoot. In this blog post I’ll explain why this is the case in all these different environments. 

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Horse hoof getting trimmed
Photo by Jonathan Bean on Unsplash

English horse riders and competitions

As some of you may know, I used to ride lots of dressage competitions. While doing so, I always had my horses shod. This is because it’s super important for your horse to have lots of grip while competing on grass, not just for dressage, but especially for showjumping and cross country riding too. Even though horse shoes are slippery on grass, if you put studs in your horse’s shoes, they’ll have fantastic grip, similar to football shoes. It’s all about safety, and if you’re turning tiny circles on slippery grass in a canter, these shoes with studs prevent your horse from slipping and sliding all over the place. 

Competition horse with shoes on
Photo by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash

Trail riding in mountainous areas

When you’re riding horses through stunning mountainous areas such as the Drakensberg mountains or Lesotho, you’ll never see a trail horse with shoes on. This is partly because of the breed, and partly because of the environment. The hardy horses of South Africa live in a large herd on the mountains, roaming free in a massive area. They barely ever get done by a farrier, and their hooves are only looked at in case they are cracked. This almost never happens though. The horses have lots of grassland to walk and gallop over freely, with rocky parts every now and then. This ensures that the hooves are naturally trimmed, and the soles of the hooves aren’t damaged by small rocks or gravel as there are only large rocks here. The other reason these horses are always barefoot is because of the added grip it provides on the rocks. Like I said before, shoes are slippery, and obviously studs don’t work while you’re climbing rocks. 

Blue roan horse South Africa
This is Pigeon in South Africa, can you believe his hooves have never been done in his entire life?!

Trail riding in hills, on road and on hard ground

If you go on a trail riding holiday in Tuscany or Switzerland for example, you’ll notice the roads are usually gravel and or hard dirt roads. That’s also the main reason that these horses are shod. The trail horses are turned out in large fields and paddocks where they cannot manage their own hoof growth by walking over rocks, so this is where the farrier comes in to trim the hooves. If they wouldn’t have shoes on, the horses would get hurt or uncomfortable on the trails. With shoes on, they are able to walk comfortably and even trot or canter for a short while on the softer gravel roads with ease. 

Horse riding in Switzerland
The horse riding trails in Switzerland

All in all, this is just one of the many examples of the different ways trail horses are kept around the world. Every country and area adjusts their caretaking to ensure the horse and rider's safety and comfort. On horse riding holidays, you’ll often run into certain things that are done differently here than you would do at home. If in doubt, always make sure to ask the guides or host why the horses are kept or ridden in a certain way, they are always happy to explain!

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