The Origins of Horseshoes
Although barefoot trimming has increased in popularity over the last decade, most riders have their horses shod.
So, who first had the idea to nail shoes onto horses’ feet, and what was their reasoning for doing so?
In this fascinating article, we take a look at the ancient art of the farrier and its origins.
The origins of shoeing
When people discovered the value of the horse as a means of transporting both people and goods, they realized that it was necessary to protect the horse’s feet to maximize his usefulness and extend his working life.
Wild horses have no need for shoes. But herds move slowly across varied terrain, foraging as they go, only showing short bursts of speed when necessary to escape from predators.
Horses with sore feet won’t stay sound or fit for work, so early horse owners quickly realized that their animals’ feet needed some form of protection if these first workhorses were to remain useful.
In Asia, early equestrians used booties made from leather and woven plant fibers to protect their horses’ feet and guard against injury.
At some point in the first century, the ancient Romans fitted their horses with hoof coverings that were inspired by their own sandals. These “hipposandals” were made from metal and leather, fitted over the horses’ hooves, and were fastened with leather straps.
Early metal horseshoes
In the colder, wetter regions of northern Europe, horses’ hooves became softened, leaving them more susceptible to soundness problems.
Many solutions to the problem were tried, but eventually, horsemen found that they could nail metal shoes onto their horse’s feet without harming them, providing the perfect answer to the question.
Such was the popularity of the metal horseshoe in Europe; it inspired folktales.
In one tale, Weland Smith, an invisible farrier, covertly replaced lost shoes when the owners’ backs were turned! Even more bizarrely, St. Eligius had a weird remedy for lameness. He removed the lame leg, shod the hoof, and then replaced the limb! St. Eligius later went on to become the patron saint of farriers.
Over the years, shoes evolved to be less scalloped in shape, were made of slightly heavier metal, and were held in place by eight nails.
Why are horseshoes said to be lucky?
Horseshoes are said to be lucky. But why?
Well, in England, coins and horseshoes were both cast from iron. However, the horseshoes were often more valuable than the coins!
In fact, during the Crusades of the 12th century, the populous often paid their taxes with horseshoes instead of money. The cache of shoes kept soldiers’ mounts shod during the holy wars. It was around this time that horseshoes became synonymous with luck.
Sometimes festivals were marked by a “lucky” silver shoe being lightly fitted to a horse’s hoof just before a ceremonial parade. Naturally, the shoe came off during the festivities and the person who found it won a prize.
Also, horseshoes were often kept as lucky talismans for fending off evil and the devil. Legend has it that a chaste farrier lamed Lucifer’s cloven foot with a nail bind!
Mass production of horseshoes
By the 13th and 14th centuries, horseshoes were being forged in quantity so that they could be bought ready-made.
Around this time, cold-blooded draft horses had become popular for use in transporting goods and as war horses. Consequently, shoes became longer and wider to accommodate the drafts’ dinner plate sized feet!
Until the 16th century, it’s thought that all shoeing was carried out “cold.” Then, in France and Great Britain, the practice of hot-shoeing began and the Latin term “ferrier,” from the French, meaning the process of shoeing horses, came into general use. So, the word, “farrier” was born.
Have you heard the phrase, “No foot, no horse?” That term comes from a book written in 1751, which noted the importance of correctly shoeing horses.
When the Industrial Revolution arrived, horseshoe production went into overdrive.
In 1800, a machine was launched that forged horseshoes automatically. That innovation gave the northern forces in the American Civil War a distinct advantage over their southern enemies.
The advancement of farrier training
Of course, having proper shoes was one thing, but having someone skilled enough to do a good job of fitting them was quite another.
At Fort Riley, Kansas, Farriery courses were held, supplementing the traditional apprenticeships and providing much-needed farriers for a nation that was powered by the horse.
The first farriers’ regulatory body, the Journeymen Horseshoers National Union, was founded in 1874.
And today …
Take a look at farriery today, and you’ll see many varieties of shoes that were in use in the U.S. during the 19th century.
The rubber hoof pads that are used to protect your horse’s feet against injury from hard ground and the over-boots that are used to protect the hoof during recovery from conditions such as abscesses both have their roots in the past.
Also, the toe clip that’s commonly used today to prevent horses from throwing shoes is one of the original features of the earliest shoes. And those super-lightweight aluminum shoes that were developed for racing now have a place in the dressage arena.
So, next time your farrier comes out to shoe your horse, you can rest assured that many centuries of research and development have gone into perfecting the shoes you see today.
Does your horse wear shoes? If so, is he hot or cold-shod? Share with us in the comments section below.
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