Farriery for the Working Horse

The successful use of the horse, bearing its welfare and comfort in mind, depends on the correctness of the principles and practices on which shoeing is based. The horse would be almost useless for heavy draught on the artificial road surfaces we have today without shoes. By studying the anatomy and function of the foot, we can see how it serves the purposes of locomotion and weight bearing, and how it must be shod on sound principles if the function of the foot is not to be impaired.

The horse’s foot has always been looked up on by horsemen as the principal region to which care should be given, because without a good sound foot the horse’s uses are diminished or lost, hence the old adage, ‘no foot, no horse’.

The amount of injury done to a foot by incorrect shoeing is much greater than a cursory examination would lead one to believe, especially over a period of time. So good shoeing principles are of immense benefit, not only to the horse but to the user as well.


It is important to understand the fundamental aspects of hoof anatomy. The hoof contains two and a half bones, the pedal bone, the navicular bone and half the short pastern.

The pedal bone resembles the hoof in shape and is the foundation on which the foot is built. The navicular bone lies behind the pedal bone and forms a fulcrum over which the deep flexor tendon glides to its insertion on the solar surface of the pedal bone, thus providing extension to the foot. Half the short pastern is within the hoof capsule and forms the pedal joint.

The two lateral cartilages are attached to the wings of the pedal bone and form the flexible foundation to the heels, thus allowing the foot to expand. The fibrous coronary cushion, in conjunction with the horny frog and digital cushion, helps dissipate concussion. The horny sole protects the solar surface of the hoof and the bars keep the foot strong and the heels open. The white line forms a flexible bond between the wall and the sole, which it allows to flatten slightly under the body weight. It also indicates the thickness of the wall and shows the farrier how much wall there is to nail to.

The shoeing nail may enter the white line but must not go beyond it, as this may cause ‘pricking’ or ‘nail binding’ to the sensitive circulatory tissue.

Although this is a very brief description of the structures which make up the hoof, it is enough to appreciate the necessity of understanding the anatomy of the foot, which is vital if the horse is to be shod on sound principles.

Shoeing a Heavy Horse

In order to shoe the heavy horse appropriately, we need to consider its role in the 1990s. There are still some horses working on the land, some are in town work, and a few are engaged in the forestry industry. Many are used for promotional work and advertising, showing in harness. The majority, however are used for breeding and showing in-hand.

Horses that were worked hard and regularly were seldom difficult to shoe, as they were, in the main, handled by people who knew their job and were probably not influenced by the ‘gentle giant’ syndrome we are familiar with today. Shoeing cart horses is hard work, and can be much harder by horses that have never been taught to stand still while their feet are handled and shod. If a young farrier’s first introduction to cart horses is to be leant upon or thrown about, then there is no wonder that some farriers refuse to shoe them.

Some horses, particularly those with an abundance of hair and inclined to be ‘itchy’, are made difficult by using the feather hair to pull up the hind feet. It is far better to pull up the hind foot with the claw of the hammer and then take hold of the toe. Remember it is not the fault of the horse that it is ‘itchy’. It is advisable not to get too far underneath the horse whilst ‘clenching up’. Unclenching can be made easier by taking the foot forward on a stool and knocking a few nails back with a buffer, before proceeding to pull the shoes off. Of course using pincers with large jaws makes the task easier. This is a useful tip for an owner or attendant of a horse with a twisted shoe or one that is half off and needs urgent attention. Re-shoeing is usually necessary every 6 weeks or before if the shoe is loose or worn.

Shoeing an Agricultural Horse

Agricultural horses are often shod with shoes which are too long and heavy. We need to understand the type of work they do. The major benefit of cart horses is that they can be used when it would not be practical to use a tractor: for instance, in wet sticky conditions for feeding stock living out during winter. These horses are best shod with a light shoe, which should last for for about 6 weeks. The foot can be shod slightly longer than the last bearing point of the heel, and any protruding shoe boxed to the foot. We not only have to safeguard the horse from standing on its own shoes, but because farm horses often work in pairs, we must safeguard his work mate also. The inside branch of the hind shoe should be narrowed about one-third of the width of material and well rounded off on the ground surfaces. If a horse is used in the furrow, he is apt to ‘brush’ or ‘cut’ if this precaution is not taken.

In parts of the eastern counties it was customary to forge twisted wedge heels on the hind shoes for grip and support. It was not often done to forge caulkins for farm horses, because it is potentially damaging to the opposite foot when turning tight in heavy ground.

The main problem with farm horses, as they do not often wear out their shoes, is the amount of time owners leave shoes on between shoeings. If shoes are left on too long it can cause excessive strain on the tendons and throw the feet into a state of imbalance. In some cases, horses doing land work can be shod in front only, or even not at all. As an unshod horse loses a lot of traction, shoeing is essential if heavy work is undertaken. It is preferable to shoe a horse before it becomes foot-sore. This applies essentially to young horses when they are first put to work. If their feet are sore it can make them troublesome at their first shoeing, which is not their fault.

Shoeing a Commercial Horse

A commercial horse requires another style of shoeing, since their work differs from that of the farm horse. Again, it is beneficial to the wear and tear on the horse’s feet if the shoes will withstand at least 1 month on the roads without being too heavy. These horses can be shod much longer and wider than the farm horse, but such shoes must be well rounded on the protruding edges for safety and to prevent them being trodden off.

Capped elbows can be caused by the prominent heel of a shoe rubbing when the horse is lying down. The fore shoe should have a wide bold toe, which can be rolled slightly to assist the horse with the ‘break over’: the point at which the horse’s foot rolls over the toe. As most cart horses are pigeon-toed, the clip can be fitted slightly to the outside; this will give the appearance that the horse is standing straighter.

As most wear in the hind shoe is taken on the outside toe quarter, plenty of width in this area will help withstand wear. If the shoe is driven across the foot, then a strong quarter clip will help prevent this. With regard to non-slip devices, a plug stud in each heel quarter will suffice; large prominent studs are often too traumatic for the joints. Double caulkins or caulk and wedge seem to have fallen into disuse for road horses, and on modern road surfaces there is no advantage in having them.

Shoeing a Heavy Horse for the Show Ring

For showing, a horse should be shod in such a way as to show it off to its best advantage to the judge. This is often a very controversial subject, with many theories on the correct way to do it, often from self-appointed experts! This causes a problem, because the farrier is not willing to compromise. It is often the farrier who is blamed by the owner if the horse ‘dishes’ whilst giving its show in front of the judge. In many cases it is because the groom has not learned to show a horse properly. Many horses can be made to appear to move straight if correctly paced and shown. Some horses move straight when in a ‘natural’ condition, but once brought up to show condition, faults in stance and gait are often exaggerated. Having a horse in tiptop condition and keeping the feet and legs in good condition is another element in the art of showing heavy horses.

Ensuring that the horse has good sound feet and is well prepared in advance is a matter of good management. At the end of the showing season, the shoes should be removed and the feet trimmed prior to a run at grass. Too often shoes are left on, and after a time they become loose. Then they fall off, in many cases breaking large pieces out of the hoof wall and leaving the feet in a state of imbalance. The horse’s feet should be trimmed again during the rest period and a light set of shoes put on as soon as the horse is brought back to be prepared for the next show season. This should be done in plenty of time. It should be remembered that because the horse has run ‘bare-footed’ it will be at least a month before any sign of growth will be perceived, and therefore shoeing early is important if the feet are to be strong for the coming season. A strong sound foot should be deep in the heel, short in the toe and wide in the quarters, with the bars left intact. A very long foot is not necessarily a big foot. It is not possible to get length and breadth in a foot at the same time.

Shoeing a Shire Horse

The main purpose of bevelled shoes is to enhance a good foot and improve the appearance of a poor one. The bevel should be at the same angle as the hoof wall and exaggerated at the heels. It is important to shoe with a good length, especially on the outside heels, which can be ‘donkeyed out’ if required to give the appearance of more width at the heels. Again the clips should be positioned to make the horse stand square. It is important to have the feet trimmed and balanced before the shoe is fitted. If a horse is shod light before fitting the heavier bevels, this will exaggerate the action. It is unfortunate that some judges of in-hand Shire classes continue to place horses with long, over-sized feet at the top of the line, which perpetuates this practice. There must be some compromise.

Hind shoes need to be narrowed up slightly on the inside branch, which should be hot-rasped to give an almost rounded effect. If the horse is used on the road, it is advisable to take the rough edge off with an old rasp. This will help a Shire keep his feather. It is surprising how they will shave themselves when the inner edge of the shoe is sharp. The outside branch of the hind shoe can be thickened to encourage the horse to keep his hocks together. If they turn their toes out, then fit the clip to the inside of the middle line. If a horse is sluggish in its hock action then shoe with plenty of length behind; this will certainly help.

Nail holes should be stamped very coarse, thus utilising the full thickness of the wall. This will keep the feet strong and sound. The hoof wall will chip and break if the shoe is made with fine nail holes.

Shoeing a Suffolk Horse

The shoeing of Suffolk horses requires a different style to that of Shire horses. Suffolk horses compete regularly in best-foot classes at major shows where the prize money is divided between the groom and the farrier. The reasoning behind the foot classes is that historically, the main criticism of Suffolk horses was their weak shelly feet. The Suffolk Horse Society Council promoted best-foot classes, and this had three major effects. It encouraged breeders to use stallions with good feet, it gave an incentive to the groom to look after the feet and it gave an incentive to the farrier to make an extra effort. Nowadays, it is not often that Suffolk horses are seen with poor feet. However, foot classes remain as popular as ever.

The Suffolk horse should be shod as light as possible, with the same amount of bevelling on the inside and outside borders of the shoe, exaggerated at the heels, which gives the appearance of a wider foot. The position of the clips is most important because Suffolk horses are more prone than most to being pigeon-toed. Great care is needed in the fitting of the shoes if they are to appear straight. The feet should not be left long. If they are, they will soon become weak and start to chip and break.

Shoeing a Percheron and an Ardennes

The Percheron is noted for its hard blue feet, a trait which found favour with British officers in France during the First World War. Percheron feet are strong and able to withstand much wear without shoes. The Ardennes, now much more numerous in this country, have very similar feet. The toughness of the feet in these breeds often leads owners to leave the shoes on for far too long. This is not beneficial to the horse: it does nothing but harm to the joints and throws excessive strain on the flexor tendons.

Percherons can be shod ‘heavier’ than Suffolk horses, and as they are also inclined to be pigeon-toed, they should be shod accordingly.

Shoeing a Clydesdale Horse

Those who favour this breed, especially in the north of the UK, prefer a much squarer toe on the fore foot, the theory being that it helps the fore foot ‘break over’ better, thus improving the horse’s action.

The hind feet are encouraged to grow with a flared outside quarter. This is brought about by lowering the inner-heel quarter and letting the outside grow. Often a three-quarter hind shoe is fitted, sometimes with a caulkin on the outside heel to encourage the hocks to be kept together. As this will make the toes turn outwards, the clip must be placed well to the inside of the middle line, to give the appearance of being straight.

Shoeing a Working Cob

Cross-bred horses, light vanners and cobs are suitable for light draught work, both on the streets and in agriculture, as well as the heavy draught horse. A Fell or Dales pony is an ideal ‘workhorse’ for the smallholder or hill farmer, and can often perform light tasks without shoes. A light, plain stamped or three-quarter fullered shoe will suffice for this type of horse, but the principles of shoeing are still as important as for any other horse.

If this type of horse is used for riding as well as draught work, then a hind shoe with quarter clips is preferable, as this lessens the tendency to ‘over-reach’ in wet ground. A small plug stud or non-slip nail with a tungsten pin will normally be sufficient to stop much slipping on the road.

Shoeing in Winter

If a horse is to be used all year round, it is often a good plan in the winter to have each shoe drilled and threaded in each heel and outside toe for the reception of studs should it become necessary. In the event of a heavy fall of snow, the stud holes can then be cleared with a ‘tap’ designed for the purpose, and either a sharp jumping stud or the correct chisel-shaped frost stud screwed in. Remember these studs must be taken out at night to prevent the horse damaging itself.

This will enable the horse to keep on its feet when travelling over packed snow or ice. Filling the soles with grease will stop snow balling in the hooves in the short term.


Looking forward it is doubtful whether any major change will be introduced in the principles or techniques of shoeing heavy horses. No shoe the farrier can buy will ever equal the very best hand-made shoes, especially for Shire horses. Very good shoes for heavy horses have been produced in the Netherlands, and now appear to have overtaken the British equivalent.

Bevelled shoeing will always remain a specialised practice. Often these and other techniques related to shoeing heavy horses do not meet with the approval of the new generation of farriers and theorists.

Possibly the most difficult problem for a heavy-horse owner is finding a farrier who is willing to shoe his horse. It is a great pity that whilst many heavy-horse shoeing competitions are over-subscribed, very few of the competitors would consider shoeing a heavy horse in a day’s work.


Heavy horse ploughing information & history


Heavy horses for forestry & logging


Harness for the working horse


Farriery for the working horse


Training your heavy horse for work.

Shire Horse

Shire horse information and breed guide.


Clydesdale information and breed guide.


Suffolk information and breed guide.


Percheron information and breed guide.


Ardennes information and breed guide.


Native and working crosses information and breed guide.