“No hoof, no horse” isn’t just an old proverb. Equine experts estimate that 70 percent of all lameness experienced by horses is caused by hoof-related problems. Neglecting proper horse hoof care can allow problems such as thrush, canker, abscesses, cracks and laminitis to develop and worsen.
That’s where farriers become an important member of a horse-care team.
A farrier is a specialist in equine hoof care, including the trimming and balancing of horses’ hooves and the placing of shoes on their hooves, if necessary. A farrier combines some blacksmith’s skills (fabricating, adapting, and adjusting metal shoes) with some veterinarian’s skills (knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the lower limb) to care for horses’ feet.
Farrier comes from “ferrarius,” a Latin word meaning “of iron” or “blacksmith,” which explains why farriers are so often confused for being blacksmiths.
Historically, the jobs of farrier and blacksmith were practically synonymous. A farrier’s work in Colonial America or pre-Industrial Revolution Europe would have included shoeing horses, as well as the fabrication and repair of tools, the forging of architectural pieces, and so on.
There’s a lot involved in the work of a modern farrier, including knowledge of biomechanics, sculpting, locomotion, anatomy and, of course, blacksmithing. A farrier has to be able read how a horse moves, how it gaits, read wear patterns on hooves and how it all relates to the limbs.
Additional tasks for the farrier include dealing with injured or diseased hooves and application of special shoes for racing, training or cosmetic purposes. Horses with certain diseases or injuries may need remedial procedures for their hooves, or need special shoes.
Acting as veterinarians, farriers care for hooves by watching for signs of disease or other ill-health. They also perform the following tasks:
Farriers maintain hooves by keeping them trimmed. A young horse should get its first hoof trim at three months of age, before the cartilage has set, to prevent problems such as pigeon-toeing. Using tools such as rasps and nippers, farriers cut away the hoof material. This allows the horse to maintain foot balance by keeping the feet at the proper shape and length.
Hygiene is important, especially for animals confined and allowed to continually walk over the same ground where they urinate and defecate. This underlines the importance of farriers cleaning the feet and cutting out excess hoof walls.
Most domesticated horses need horseshoes because their hooves harden less than in the wild, they’re not walking on hard surfaces as often and their hooves don’t naturally wear themselves down as much.
Farriers also apply horseshoes as a corrective measure to improve a horse’s gait and to help an animal gain traction when walking in slippery conditions such as ice. Not all horses need shoes. It all depends on how often the person rides the animal and what type of environment they live in. If you ride a horse less than three times week, you can probably get without shoes. Racehorses and performance horses obviously need shoes.
The farrier trade has been passed down from the days of Romans. In the second millennium, Asians were putting leather sandals on their horses.