Using Composite Shoes in my Barefoot Practice [When I use them, how they help and why they may be the right option for your horse]
Our world is ever changing and the technology and research in the farrier industry is evolving fast. Composite shoes and pads are flooding the market, being manufactured by many different companies around the world.
While I am a huge barefoot advocate, I am also an advocate for keeping horses comfortable and sometimes that means they require hoof protection. I am not in favor of traditional metal shoes because in my opinion they are too rigid and limit hoof flexion as well as increase the impact energy of movement (by negating digital cushion function). This impact must then be absorbed by the horse's joints and musculoskeletal system. Metal shoes also peripherally load the hoof (meaning they only weight the outer hoof wall), causing frog and digital cushion atrophy and lack of sole stimulation.
Composite shoes are a good alternative as they can provide protection and comfort while still allowing the hoof to function naturally to absorb impact. This is because of their anatomically minded design that incorporates weighting the frog and therefore the digital cushions as well as the sole, bars and hoof wall collectively. [Weighting the whole bottom of the hoof as nature intended]
Like traditional shoes, composites can be used in concert with hoof packing, wedges, anti fungal pastes, and be customized to the individual horses' needs and hoof shape.
In order to fully understand the benefits that composite shoes can provide we have to understand when they may be a good option for a horse. I see all shoes, boots, pads, casts and hoof protection sources as a band aid approach. This is not a negative thing, but should be seen as a means to an end. In other words we should use these devices to keep the horse comfortable while we are addressing the root cause of the problem (i.e. weak or damaged hooves) so that we can ultimately return proper hoof form and function so that protection is not needed.
Horses that have thin soles, disconnected hoof walls, weak frogs and digital cushions, who are foundered or have navicular disease can all benefit from the use of composite shoes.
Below are several examples where I have applied composite shoes for various reasons:
The most important part of applying a composite shoe is the trim you apply underneath the shoe. This goes for traditional metal shoeing as well. Setting the shoe back to the optimal breakover point is crucial. Leaving excess hoof wall at the toe will allow the toe to migrate forward, leading to under run or crushed heels and a distorted hoof shape.
When does a horse need composite shoes?
Horses are not naturally flat footed. Flat soles with a lack of concavity come from disconnected hoof walls. Horses that don't have this connection can benefit from composites because they add immediate "false concavity". This concavity provides relief to the inflamed and over stimulated solar corium on the underside of the coffin bone that is commonly seen in flat footed horses. These are typically the horses that are sold as "needing shoes", and are the ones instantly lame when the shoes are pulled. There is a severe breakdown of the hoof capsule and in my opinion it needs to be corrected, by facilitating a proper hoof function via the trim underneath the composite shoe. The horse can then grow in a well connected hoof wall that will in time re-elevate the coffin bone and create the concavity that is needed for soundness barefoot.
Horses that have thin soles also benefit from composites. They protect the sole and cause it to thicken by decreasing the wear on it. It is common practice for traditional farriers to "clean up" the sole during a trim, or "carve in concavity", thereby thinning the sole and removing the often ugly but helpful protective outer layer. Routine trimming like this leads to thins and weak soles that are unable to bear weight. Giving the sole a reprieve by using composite shoes call allow it to thicken and then we can transition back to barefoot in a way that allows proper hoof function to actually stimulate more sole growth and an overall thicker, healthier sole.
Horses with navicular disease or a weak caudal hoof can also benefit from using composite shoes. The design of the composite shoes I use (Easyshoe Versa product line) incorporate frog support and a thick outer rim that also weights the sole of the hoof. Typically the back of the hoof becomes weak from a lack of proper stimulation. Traditional metal shoes only weight the heels and hoof wall, lifting the frog off of the ground. This lift reduces stimulation on the frog and therefore the underlying tissues of the digital cushion. This lack of stimulation over time can lead to atrophy and degeneration. When the soft tissue starts to fail, the horse usually overloads the toe and avoids weighting the heels, further compounding the problem and this can lead to irreversible damage to the navicular region. Using a composite shoe with sole packing and/or heel padding can often create enough of a cushion that these horses can start to comfortably weight the rear of the hoof again and start to regenerate the soft tissues. Over time you can reduce the padding and sole packing and eventually move from composite shoes back to barefoot. Prioritizing heel first landings is key to this rehabilitation process.
I love to be able to utilize composite shoes when needed in my practice. They truly have become a game changer for me. For clients who are not interested in using hoof boots, or horses that require 24/7 support in the beginning of their rehab these shoes can be the difference between soundness and pain.
My number one goal of using composite shoes is to return the hoof to it's proper form so that doesn't require protection in the long run.
In all actuality everything we can do with composite shoes can be done with some variation of hoof casts, boots and pads, but often the use of the composite shoes is far more convenient for the owner. While my primary goal is to help the horses, I can't facilitate that if I don't keep the owners happy :)
Kristi Luehr is a barefoot trimmer/farrier, author, and founder of the Okanagan School of Natural Hoof Care. She is certified by the Canadian Farrier School as well as the Oregon School of Natural Hoof Care, and also has certification in equine massage and dentistry. Her focus is to educate owners about hoof anatomy, function and proper barefoot trimming that supports and grows healthy and functional hooves specific to each horse's individual needs. She is the author of three online courses specific to hoof care and is always striving to create more educational content for students to learn from.