Iron or Plastic – Is that really the Question?
People have been using iron horseshoes on horses for centuries. This was originally conceived as a form of protection against hoof abrasion for horses doing hard work each and every day. Nowadays, irons have become a perfectly normal thing, although they are actually quite inappropriate to the way horses are usually employed. In the age of horseback riding for pleasure, horses spend the better part of their days dosing, mostly standing in hay-filled boxes, on paddocks lined with rubber or filled with chipped wood, or feeding away on lush green meadows. Plus they enjoy a couple of afternoons per week going out for rides that only last a few hours. At the most they are prepared for competitions on weekends that take place in halls and riding court sands. Still, most horse owners today think that iron horseshoes are necessary. Why should that be so?
The age-old tradition according to which horses‘ hooves are commonly trimmed and shod has led to an actual situation where many horses are unable to walk without the aid of iron horseshoes. But isn't it insane to treat the hoof by depriving it of its natural protection - namely the bearing wall - and then nail on an artificial one? And isn't it just as insane to trim any hoof that doesn't fit this scheme into an "ideal" form - with all of the negative consequences for tendons, ligaments and joints? Wouldn't it be better to treat the hoof in such a way that it doesn't lose its optimum shape? In that way, with an arched sole, proper bearing walls and an evenly distributed load, it will be fit for walking without those all too common "crutches"!
Although many still believe that horseshoes are absolutely necessary, more and more people in the last decades have recognised the fact that the iron horseshoe produces a vast range of negative consequences that could rightfully be addressed as a syndrome. Today, horse owners no longer believe that iron horseshoes are necessary, but rather cinsider them a necessary evil. With a growing awareness of the detrimental effects of iron horseshoes, people have begun to search for other materials in order to avoid these effects. That is how plastic horseshoes were invented. Plastic has many advatages over iron, mainly because the elastic material eliminates the radical restriction of hoof mechanics that comes with the use of iron. Hoof mechanics in our understanding does not mean a "widening" of the horn capsule and a "lowering" of the sole, as has been described as "hoof mechanism" up to now (which is, in our opinion, neither sufficient nor comprehensive). In our understanding the term should circumscribe the diverse possibilities of twisting and forming of the horn capsule in motion (the precise and detailed description of which would be too lengthy here).
The benefits of the new plastic horseshoes in relation to the old iron ones can be described as follows:
(1) In contrast to shoeing with iron, shoeing with plastic does not deprive the horn capsule of its elasticity. This means that the hoof with a plastic horseshoe can "embrace" the ground just just the way a bare hoof does. This embrace grants the joints of the horse's leg the best possible protection from wear and tear and injury. Iron is rigid, meaning that the horn capsule cannot adapt its shape to the base. Therefore, the joints are exposed to the uneven ground without protection. Without the elastic agility of the bare hoof, every time the horse puts its hoof on the ground unevenly the impact is immediately transmitted to the hinged joints, which can be the direct cause of injuries. Moreover, many malfunctions and disorders of tendons, ligaments and joints can be traced back to the detrimental effects of iron horseshoes.
(2) Another benefit of the elasticity of plastic in comparison to the iron horseshoe is the fact that the hoof's blood circulation is not restricted. The fact that the natural horn capsule can continually and freely change shape ensures excellent circulation. It goes without saying that this circulation also supplies the hoof's "inner organs".
(3) The elastic horseshoe also allows the horse to maintain a natural capability of self-protection, namely the sense of touch that every unshod hoof posesses. Plastic gives the horse this same ability to feel the ground under its feet. For this reason, a horse with plastic horseshoes is much more careful with its legs than a horse with iron horseshoes. It adapts its gait to the ground and searches for a path that goes easy on its extremities, all of which serves to maintain itself intact and functioning. The iron horseshoe deprives the horse of its sense of touch; the iron switches off the horse's feeling, and the hooves are desensitised. This encourages the horse to be reckless with its legs. Of course, not everyone believes the horse should have this sensitivity, and some even think that it is a drawback of the plastic horseshoe. Many riders feel that an intact sense of touch disturbs their riding pleasure or casts doubts on their equestrian capabilities; many others, however, prefer a horse that feels its way over rough and stony ground.In that way they need not worry about the horse ruining its legs in the short or long run - which would inevitably be the case if they let it march unhesitatingly over any type of terrain.
(4) Furthermore, the plastic horseshoe is better than the iron one since it does excellently what it is actually supposed to do, namely protect the hoof horn. In contrast to iron, there is no horn abrasion with plastic horseshoes. They also eliminate the negative consequences of the iron horseshoe due to the disproportional horn abrasion on the bearing surface. Uneven horn abrasion with iron frequently produces a flat position and therefore a broken hoof-pastern axis. This increases the load on the navicular bone and therefore also the proneness to navicular disease.
(5) Finally, let us not forget a key benefit of plastic in relation to iron, namely that horses with plastic horseshoes are not a danger for members of their own species. Since mutual injuries among horses are no more serious with plastics than with bare hooves, horses with plastic horseshoes are not condemned to solitary confinement as horses with iron horseshoes often are.
As could be shown, plastic horseshoes have important benefits over the traditional iron horseshoes if the comparison is made with the horse‘s health in mind. However, one drawback of plastic horseshoes should not be omitted -due to the complete lack of horn abrasion under this type of shoe, it has to be renewed more often. This means that it has to be nailed on more frequently and therefore the hoof horn is subject to greater damage by being perforated with nails. However, this is usually not the reason why people often reject plastic horseshoes. Most important here is surely the fact that horses with plastic horseshoes do not walk as they do with iron horseshoes. As described above, plastic shod horses feel the ground, which many riders perceive as unpleasant and disturbing. Another reason why many people reject plastic is the fact that they are unfamiliar with this entirely new material.
But then it should be remembered why horseshoes were used in the first place. The actual reason was preventing horn abrasion, which is also the only intelligent (and intelligible!) reason for this or any other form of hoof protection. Also, as we have seen at the beginning of this article, today‘s leisure-time and athletic horses can come to terms very well with their hoof horn considering their usage and the often abrasion-friendly bases they move on. This means that all forms of permanent hoof horn protection are obsolete. Of course, during times where horses are subject to intensive use such as hikes and long rides, or the training phases necessary for those ends, this can be compensated with "plastic weeks". In these cases, horseshoes definitely make sense. However, there is no doubt that plastic horseshoes are much more appropriate considering the horse's health.
Naturally, many people have different attitudes towards horseshoes. The reason for using horseshoes, as everyone knows, has nothing to do with excessive horn abrasion that would restrict the use of the horse, but rather with the belief that some horses would be completely unable to walk without horseshoes. But if this is really the case, then they should not be forced to walk albeit with horseshoes. Then the right thing to do would be to heal the hooves as the foundation for the extremities of the horse, i.e. to restore their functionality. This is no less difficult, but it makes much more sense than concealing and prolonging the problems over years with compensatory and repair work. Of course, asymmetric, deformed and unevenly loaded hooves have to be treated properly and adequately in order to restore their most efficient condition. Horseshoes that only compensate for asymmetries will certainly never achieve this aim.
We call for treating hooves in a fashion that maintains the horse's well-being. Horses with sound hooves can be shod without endangering the horse's health if plastic is used. However, healthy hooves generally do not need shoeing in the first place.