Once people discovered the utilitarian value of the horse, they simultaneously realized the necessity to protect the horse’s feet-that is, if they hoped to maximize his use. Although horses in the wild seem to do quite well without shoes over a wide variety of terrain, they move at a slow pace. Those infrequent times when they are forced to run for their lives, those hindered by sore feet are easy prey for predators.
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Of course horse owners, even in primitive times, weren’t interested in survival of the fittest. They needed to have their animals serviceable as much as possible, and so man began protecting their horses’ feet almost as soon as they started domesticating them.
A thousand years before any one thought to write about the process, horses had some sort of hoof protection. Horsemen throughout Asia equipped their horses with booties made from hides and woven from plants. Often used for therapeutic purposes, these primitive shoes provided protection for sore hooves and helped guard against future injury.
Sometime after the first century, shod hooves traversed the roadways set down by ancient Romans. To protect their valuable steeds, the riders outfitted their horses with coverings inspired by the sandals strapped to their own feet. These leather and metal “hipposandals” fitted over horses’ hooves and fastened with leather straps.
Traveling to colder climes up north, the soft, wet ground of northern Europe overly softened porous hooves. In these damp settings, horses used in farming and transportation became susceptible to soundness problems and had trouble gaining a toehold on the surface. Horsemen tried various remedies, and by the sixth and seventh centuries began nailing metal shoes onto their horses’ feet.
The horseshoe was such a popular invention that it inspired European folktales. In one story, an invisible farrier named Weland Smith replaced horses’ lost shoes when the owners’ backs were conveniently turned. In another tale, St. Eligius, a real-life goldsmith, remedied a horse’s ails after removing its leg, shoeing the hoof, and replacing the limb. He later became the patron saint of farriers.
While the inventors of the first nailed shoe may always remain a mystery, horseshoeing became a mainstream practice in Europe around 1000 AD. Cast from bronze, these early shoes were lightweight and had a scalloped outer rim with six nail holes.
As time passed, shoes gradually lost their scalloped appearance, held eight nails holes and were slightly heavier.
In England, both horseshoes and coins were cast from iron, but the shoes were sometimes more valuable. During the Crusades of the 12th century, horseshoes were accepted in lieu of money to pay taxes. The cache provided shoes for mounts ridden during these holy wars.
Around this time, horseshoes also became synonymous with good fortune. On festive occasions a “lucky” silver shoe was lightly hammered onto a horse’s hoof just before a parade, and the retriever won a prize. To ward off bad luck, shoes were often kept as talismans for fending off the devil, whose cloven hoof was injured by a wayward nail delivered by a chaste farrier.
Starting in the 13th and 14th centuries, shoes were forged in large quantities and could be bought ready-made. To accommodate the larger feet of the cold-blooded draft horses used in trade, travel and war, shoes became wider and longer.
The practice of hot-shoeing became popular in Great Britain and France in the 16th century. Around this time, the term “farrier” gradually came into use from Latin roots, while the verb “ferrier” in French came to mean the process of shoeing horses. A book entitled No Foot, No Horse was written in England in 1751, coining the popular phrase noting the importance of proper shoeing.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, horseshoe production reached new heights. In 1800, the first machine to cast shoes on a large scale was introduced. During America’s Civil War of the 1850s, the Northern forces had a horseshoe-forging machine that gave them a distinct advantage over the Southern armies.
Having the shoe was one thing, but a proper shoeing job was another. Shoeing academies, such as the one at Fort Riley, Kansas, held short courses in farriery. These classes supplemented the traditional apprenticeship and provided much-needed farriers to a nation teeming with horses. With the increased numbers of farriers, the Journeymen Horseshoers National Union was founded in 1874.
Surprisingly, many varieties of shoes made today were found already in use in the U.S. during the 19th century. Rubber pads and horsey galoshes were precursors to today’s hoof pads. Lighter aluminum shoes once used for racing have lightened the load for many horses in the arena. Another feature, the toe clip, remains a popular choice today for those equines prone to throwing shoes.
This article first appeared in the February 1996 issue of Dressage Today magazine.
Rachel Cohen worked as an intern for Dressage Today when she wrote this article.