Do draft horses need shoes? “It depends,” said Doug Butler, founder of Butler Professional Farrier School in Crawford, Nebraska.
Traditionally, draft horses naturally have strong hooves and don’t need shoes. However, years of selective breeding focused on cosmetics rather than conformation and utility has increased the number of draft horses that require shoes year-round to keep the horses sound. Chances are if you buy a horse with good solid feet, you’ll never have to shoe a horse.
“In Europe most draft horses have good feet due to rigorous culling,” he said, “but draft horses in the United States have weaker hooves with Belgians and Percherons known for having better feet than Shires or Clydesdales.”
Even draft horses with solid hooves may eventually need shoes. Traditionally, farms that relied on heavy horses for working the fields and other farm tasks only shod the horses when absolutely necessary. The horses were left barefoot until their hooves wore more quickly than they could regrow or in situations when the hoof needed extra protection. “There has been a barefoot movement in recent years, mostly driven by economics,” he added.
The type of footing, how often the horse is worked and the natural structure of the horse’s hoof all play a role in determining whether or not a draft horse needs shoes. “Most working draft horses in the United States aren’t working hard or often enough to need shoes,” he explained. “An exception to this is farms or communities committed to horses as the prime source of farm power.”
However, if the horses are working in soft ground or on hard surfaces they will likely need shoes to maintain the integrity of their hoof. “Hard surfaces will wear a horse’s hoof down quickly,” he said. Horses working in sticky ground may also need shoes with heel caulks to help them during plowing or pulling.
In years past, logging horses were “sharp shod” with shoes that featured a welded toe-grab. Toe grabs measured two to three inches wide and as much as one inch in height. These were applied to logging horses regularly worked on snow-packed, slippery areas that were dangerous. Today, the sharp caulks have been replaced with four to five studs drilled and threaded or driven into the shoe toes and heels.
What type of shoes do drafts need?
When a draft horse is shod, it’s likely the shoes will have toe clips. Every stride a draft horse takes exerts a tremendous amount of force on a shoe as the hoof strikes the ground. A toe clip alleviates the additional strain on the nails and cinches.
In Europe, specifically Scotland, draft owners tend to use shoes that are ½-inch thick and 1 ¼-inch wide. “It’s tradition in Scotland and the horses are worked intensively,” he said. Draft horses in the United States are unlikely to need shoes that heavy. “Here it’s better to use 1/2-inch thick stock by 1 ¼-inch wide stock on the front hooves and 1/2-inch thick by 1-inch wide stock on the hind hooves because horses aren’t worked as hard in the U.S.,” he said.
Most purchased draft horse shoes are manufactured in Europe. Originally, wrought iron was the metal of choice for draft horse shoes, but today they are made from mild steel. Draft horse shoe styles are much more limited than light riding horses. Farriers are limited to four main styles of machine-made shoes: keg shoes, Scotch Bottom, Scotch Bottom Show and synthetic shoes.
Keg Shoes are the most commonly used shoe. They have an open-heel designed for a hoof trimmed with a short toe and small perimeter. Borium is added to these shoes for added traction for horses worked on streets.
Scotch Bottom shoes are another common option, especially for horses working in soft ground. A fuller toe and a boxy shape prevent horses from sinking into the ground. The term “scotch bottom” literally means that the edge of the shoe is beveled or angled to meet the angle of the foot. Given the strong tradition of working horses in the soft ground of Scotland, this shoe was a standard option.
Scotch Bottom Show Shoe is straight across the toe, full at the toe, wide and heavy to accentuate the horse’s movements in the show ring. Horses wearing these shoes are encouraged to grow longer, flared hooves, which contribute to stride action.
Synthetic Shoes are constructed of nonmetal materials and most commonly used on horses working on streets. The shoes are designed to absorb the concussion of the hooves striking pavement. Many cities have banned steel shoes with traction devices from streets to limit damage to pavement, making synthetic shoes the only choice.
Pads are often placed in between the horse’s hoof and the shoe. Pads can soften the impact from pounding on hard surfaces and can protect the horse from big rocks that can bruise a horse’s hooves. Halter horses also tend to wear pads, which help to enlarge and enhance the look of their hooves in shows.
Finding a farrier
Not all farriers are willing to trim and shoe draft horses. “It’s hard work and you have to have extra equipment like stocks, a larger anvil and forge to make draft horse shoes,” Butler said. Those farriers who do accept clients with draft horses often charge double the going rate for light, riding horses to cover the additional labor and equipment needed to do the job.
Though draft horses are often called gentle giants, they are not always willing to cooperate for the farrier. “Draft horses are trained to drive, pull a wagon or work. They’re not trained to pick up feet,” Butler said. “When a farrier arrives to trim they can be uncooperative, making the job more difficult.” When draft horse owners take the time to instill ground manners specifically, “a farrier should reward you for working with your horse,” he concluded.
For additional information or to find a draft horse farrier in your area, it may be best to contact a draft horse shoe supply company in the United States that manufactures and or sells draft horse shoes nationwide.
Cover Photo: Kary Nieuwenhuis/istock