The History of Horseshoes
Most of you know that my horses are barefoot and have been for some time. You may also know that my horses were mostly shod for many years, too, but this was before I began learning about barefoot and other hoof protection options. This post isn’t intended to persuade anyone to go one direction or the other; I was just interested in sharing a general overview on the history of horseshoes. So here we go!
Though some might believe that the invention of horseshoes occurred in conjunction with the domestication of horses (which occurred around 4000 BC, as far as we know), this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, it appears the widespread need for hoof protection didn’t fully arise until hard-surfaced roads and paths came along, and even then, it mainly came about in the wetter, warmer climates where hooves would have been more susceptible to damage.
Interestingly enough, some of the first forms of hoof protection weren’t metal shoes, but a more rudimentary form of hoof boot, often made from softer materials. For example, horsemen in Asia made equine “booties” by weaving plant material together and early Romans made hoof coverings known as “hipposandals” that fastened on with leather straps. These first forms of hoof protection were apparently used not only for riding and work, but also for therapeutic purposes when a horse was injured.
The exact time period when horsemen regularly began using nailed-on shoes isn’t clear, and historians have mainly relied on references from written texts to identify when this shift occurred, but by 900 AD, documentation of metal shoes appeared, referring to “crescent figured irons and their nails”, and though, in 1897, four bronze horseshoes with what appeared to be nail holes were found in an Etruscan tomb dated around 400 BC, very little evidence exists suggesting nailed-on shoes were widely used prior to 500 or 600 AD.
By 1000 AD, however, using metal shoes (often made of bronze) became mainstream practice throughout Europe. These horseshoes were designed with a scalloped outer rim and six nail holes. By the 13th and 14th centuries, horse shoes forged of iron were produced in large quantities and by the 16th century, “hot-shoeing” became popular, especially in Great Britain and France.
The practice of horseshoeing became part of the craft of blacksmithing, an important profession during both medieval and modern times and a staple in every town, and the terms “farrier” and “blacksmith” were interchangeable for many years.
Organized in 1356, the “Worshipful Company of Farriers” in England supported those in the blacksmithing/farriery industry and secured standards of competence and conduct among persons engaged in the shoeing of horses. In 1674, this group received a Royal Charter from England.
By the 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution, large scale production of horse shoes began and during the Civil War in the 1850’s, the Northern armies had a horseshoe-forging machine that supposedly gave them an advantage over the Southern armies.
Over the centuries, many different materials have been used to make horseshoes, but in modern times, the most popular materials are steel and aluminum.
Of course, today, we are learning more about hooves, especially in regards to the expansion and contraction necessary for proper blood flow and also the natural flexion of the hoof as it moves over different terrain. This understanding has led to the development of shoes made from more flexible materials such as plastic or silicone, as well as alternative methods of applying shoes, such as glue-ons. Today, hoof boots have also become widely popular due to that fact that one can use them only as needed and leave their horse barefoot the rest of the time.
For anyone interested in learning more about the history of horseshoeing, you might want to check out these old books:
The artificial defence of the horse’s hoof considered (1817) by veterinarian Bracy Clark
Horse-shoes and Horse-shoeing, (1869) by veterinarian George Fleming