About the same time that early man stopped hunting horses and started taming them, he discovered that his steed's feet were just as important as his, and just as sensitive, so he had to figure out something to protect them. Horses have been wearing something on their feet for millennia.
The earliest example of equine footwear we have is made of animal hide and dates from about 600 B.C. This primitive hoof protector looks more like a horse bootie than what we think of today as a horseshoe. It was probably stuffed with dried grass or other available natural material and tied on with hide thongs. Roman horses wore hipposandals strapped to their hooves like those on their masters' feet. Some of these were reinforced with metal.
The first all-metal nailed-on horseshoes we would recognize were cast in bronze about 1000 A.D., followed some 200 years later by cast iron shoes horses wore during the Crusades. By the 14th century, forged iron was being used to make custom-sized shoes for saddle horses and heavy draft horses. Machine-made steel horseshoes came into production in Troy, Michigan, in 1835, but hand-forged iron shoes were still preferred by many U.S. cavalrymen because they required less fitting than the ready-made. When horses, ponies and mules were used in underground coal mining operations, brass shoes and nails served to limit accidental sparks that could cause explosions. By 1929, aluminum shoes called "plates" were in use for race horses, both ridden and in harness. The lighter-weight shoes, substituted on race day in place of the heavier iron or steel shoes, made an appreciable difference in horses' speed. Aluminum plates that cover the whole underside of the hoof serve horses who need their feet treated medically on a regular basis because they are easy to remove and replace.
Rubber horseshoes were being made in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, as early as 1897; in 1899 a rubber horse overshoe was patented. Rubber never really caught on for horse footwear, however, because it was a specialized application for local weather extremes and was not very long-wearing. Vulcanized rubber is most commonly found today as padding between hoof and shoe, or as a coating on metal shoes for horses used in police work or pulling carriages to provide extra traction and a silencing effect. In developing nations, old tires are being used to make protective shoes for horses who work on pavement or other hard surfaces.
Synthetic horseshoes, available since 1990, are made of nylon and various forms of plastic, such as acrylic polymers, polyurethane and polyethylene. They are glued, rather than nailed, to the hoof, which prevents the trapping of moisture between the shoe and the hoof. They mimic the flexibility of the natural hoof and provide better traction on ground and grass than steel shoes. An added plus, to some, is that they come in a wide range of colors.
- Cole the Farrier: The World of Horseshoeing
- Victory: The Story of Victory Racing Plate
- The Horseshoeing Book; Martin Humphrey BVMS, MRCVS, AWCF: Aluminum Shoes
- Wisconsin Historical Society: The Manufacture of Rubber Footwear
- TodayInSci: June 6
- Horse Science News: Synthetic Horseshoes Reduce Impact
- Farriers Pages: Shoes Without Nails
- Plastic Horseshoes: Striking New Ground
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images