A Beginner's Guide to Shoeing Horses

Hank Rate provides a detailed homestead beginner's guide to the back-country skill of shoeing horses.
September/October 1970

Figure 1. Bottom View of Foot

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When a man moves from an urban to a rural environment, he needs to develop a number of new talents. Depending upon the area and his line of work, shoeing horses can be a necessity. It can also provide a source of supplemental income. The population of recreational horses is exploding, and very few horse owners today can shoe their own stock. The existing farriers can't start to keep up with seasonal demand. There are a few schools that teach this trade, but such training isn't mandatory.

I was raised on a river-bottom farm in Iowa, where we let the ponies run barefoot, so's they'd grow big paddle feet to help them get through the swamps and bog-holes. Then I moved to Montana, where I worked as a forest ranger and a cowboy, and a barefoot horse in the summer might as well have a broken leg. I wanted to learn about shoeing horses, but had neither the time nor the inclination to become a professional. Using modern cold shoes and a minimum of equipment, I wanted to be able to shoe a sound, gentle horse. This article is what I would have liked for a reference while I was learning.

Shoeing Horses

Now if you have a falling-over-backward type of bronc, a horse with a faulty way of going, or one with an unsound hoof, you'd best call in a farrier. Most of the existing literature is geared toward these problems, but let's rule them out and stick with the nuts and bolts of getting that shoe on a sound, gentle horse.

Lesson one is observation. Become hoof conscious. The important thing is to learn the appearance, balance, and symmetry of a normal hoof. Hang onto the halter rope for a farrier whenever possible. He may be a silent or cantankerous old cuss, but at least you'll be looking at the bottom of a lot of feet, and becoming acquainted with the tools and, their use. And if he is willing to talk, take advantage of it, but don't believe all you hear.

Next is to develop a firm, quiet method of handling horses' feet. I've seen a ten-year-old girl pick up the feet of a horse that a "farrier" had to tie up to shoe. Remember that you're going to be shaky at first. About the time you decide that it takes four hands to hold a hammer, nail, shoe, and hoof in proper alignment all at once, and your gasket is ready to blew, you'll telegraph your feelings to the horse. About then, even the most gentle old plug will figure it's time to throw a falling-down fit.

At this stage of the game, the average article on horseshoeing throws in a six-credit course in anatomy and pathology. With regard to anatomy, let's keep these two pictures (see figure 1 and 2 illustrations) and the few terms listed alongside in mind as we continue. As for abnormalities, the important thing is to recognize them. Be suspicious of any lack of symmetry, separations, unusual ways of going, etc. Ask for help or advice before attempting to shoe such an animal.

You'll need a basic set of tools (see horseshoeing tool list at end of article). If you skimp, you'll frustrate yourself. It's tough enough to learn with good tools. Driving nails with a claw hammer shaping shoes on a railroad iron, and clinching on the edge of a rasp are OK as field expedients once you are experienced. But they'll lead to frustration and discouragement if you try to learn that way.

Dull tools are a common problem. The hoof knife, nippers, and rasp must be sharp or the beginner is doomed at the outset. Protection during storage and transportation is important. More nippers and rasps are dulled bouncing around in the back of a pickup or rusting in a tool box than are ever worn out in use.

Now let's go to work on those feet. The best old farriers I know start with the left front and work around the horse counter-clockwise, winding up at the right front. They repeat this sequence for each of the operations until all four feet are shod.

If the horse is shod, we must pull the old shoes. First clean the mud and debris from the sole with a hoof pick (I like an old pritchel). Under normal conditions, the nails and shoes will not be excessively worn in the six weeks or less (hopefully) since the last shoeing. Therefore, it is necessary to "cut the clinches" before pulling the shoe. Various methods will do this job, but I like to use a small cold chisel. Tap it up under the points with the shoeing hammer and straighten the clinches. Then grasp one heel with the pullers, and pull forward and down, always in a vertical plane. Do not twist sideways, as you have tremendous leverage working against the small bones in the pastern joint. Repeat with the other heel, and keep working forward on each side until the shoe is off.

Next comes the most important part of the entire job: preparation of the hoof to receive the shoe. Great crackerbarrel debates have been conducted over how much trimming should be done on the sole and frog with hoof knife. Here is my approach: Trim off the flaps of dead tissue around the frog and bars to the extent that the structures appear clean and distinct, and so that you can detect any problems or abnormalities. Get more vigorous as you approach the toe. Cut just inside the white line deep enough to where the sole will give somewhat in response to thumb pressure. Once in a while you will draw some blood in this manner. Stop cutting if you hit blood, but no harm has been done. However, don't be fooled by dry red flecks embedded in the sole. Work around them carefully, but often they will cut right out. They bear no relation to the depth of cut needed.

When this point on the toe has been determined, you are ready to use the nippers. Now you must decide how much to take off the heels. There have been lengthy discussions as to proper methods of "leveling the foot", the "angle" the hoof makes with the pastern joint, etc. However, once you have determined how far you are going to take your toe down and how much to take off one heel, these decisions have all been made. Obviously, you are going to leave the other heel the same length. (I check by looking at the back of the foot, and comparing the distance from the hair line to the heel on each side of the frog.) And three points determine a plane! (see figure 3 illustration). The normal amateur makes the mistake of taking too much off the heel. This gives the foot a broken-backward appearance. I think this results from the fact that the heel doesn't grow as fast as the toe. When shoeing a horse that has been running barefoot, you often don't need to take anything off the heels.

Another common error is to nip too deeply into the narrow portion of the quarter just ahead of the heels. This forces you to either leave a gap here, or lower the heels more than you had intended. I prefer to leave a gap, if this occurs. By the same token, if you are too conservative in cutting down the heels, especially if you keep the horse shod over a period of time, the heels will tend to pinch the life out of the frog, resulting in "contracted heels". So you want to keep the frog down between the heels, but don't overdo it.

Once you have decided where you want to cut the heel, draw an imaginary line from the heel to the toe and nip the hoof along that line. Repeat on the other side, and the worst of the job is done. It should take but little rasping to finish leveling the foot. Remember to keep your rasp level at all times, or you can rapidly spoil your alignment. Try to start each stroke of the rasp on a wide portion of the wall (not the heel) in order to avoid cutting too deeply.

Next we get to a highly controversial subject. Many farriers will tell you never to rasp the wall. But if they fit the nail holes of the shoe to the white line, they almost invariably must dub the toe off with a set of nippers after the shoe is set. (see figure 4 illustration). This is one exception to the rule. "Fit the shoe to the foot, not the foot to the shoe."

In order to properly place the crease of the shoe on the white line, the distance from the white line to the toe of the hoof cannot exceed the distance from the crease to the toe of the shoe. Normally, horn growth on the wall in creases near the sole. So I rasp off the portion shaded in Figure 4 (see figure 4 illustration). I try to straighten the line of the front of the foot without cutting the periople (waterproof outer layer of the wall) above the portion I have to remove. Usually this is the lower one-third to one-half at the toe, very little if any in the quarters. If this operation takes a considerable portion of the periople, I use a hoof dressing after I finish, and repeat the dressing every week or so where possible, especially with horses whose hooves tend to dry and crack excessively, or in areas where the feet are always dry,

Now we are ready to select the shoe. Don't try to predetermine the shoe size. We want the crease to fit the white line and the heels of the shoe to fully cover, but not extend too far behind the heels of the hoof. (see figures 1 and 5 illustrations). Cold shoes have a tendency to stretch with hammering, so don't select a shoe with a considerably longer heel than necessary, if the foot you are fitting is quite wide. Chances are, your heel will be too long on the finished shoe,

Fitting the shoe can be tedious until you get the knack of it, but cold shoes will bend and bend and bend until they take the correct shape. Here we want to be sure to "fit the shoe to the foot". Any rasping or nipping on the hoof from this stage on is an effort to cover up errors made in fitting the shoe. You can warp a shoe around an old wagon axle or a piece of railroad iron, but to be able to consistently do a rapid and accurate job of fitting a shoe, you'll want a good farrier's anvil. It should weigh in excess of 100 pounds, have a long tapered horn, and a good underslope to the heel, so that it is shallow in the area of the hardy hole. (see figure 6 illustration). With such an anvil, you will do gradual spreading and gentle curves on the horn, leveling and abrupt spreading on the face, and sharp bends in the hardy hole.

If you have properly prepared the hoof, such that the distance from the outside of the wall to the white line is equal to the distance from the edge of the shoe to the crease, you may fit the edge of the shoe to the wall. But remember that the basic goal is to make the nail holes correspond to the outside of the white line. Turn the heels in slightly to cover the bearing surface of the heel of the hoof, but not to the extent that it affects the freedom of the frog. Level the shoe, and the job is done. If you have the same experience I had while learning, you will find that one shoe will shape right up, while the next one (almost identical to the first) will take an hour of mashing and cussing. But after a while, you will standardize your operations, and this will become less of a problem.

Next you should open up the nail holes with a pritchel. Often bits of metal are left in the holes during manufacture, or you might have partially closed some holes while shaping. Moreover, you will normally want to use the largest nails possible, and a little pritchel work might allow the use of a size larger. And as we will see below, you need the full opening of the nail hole to work with in order to properly set the shoe.

Select the size nail with the largest shank that the nail holes will accept. If the head slips plumb down into the crease without any hammering, the shoe will twist and shear the nail heads in short order. As a rough guide, I generally find myself using No. 5 city heads on 00 and 0 shoes, and No. 5 regular heads on 1 and 2 shoes, but this will vary with the make of shoes, the amount of pritchel work you do, etc.

Now you are ready to nail the shoe to the hoof. As mentioned before, this involves quite a juggling act, complicated by the fact that you're hanging onto the business end of a halfton beast. However, most farriers find that this process becomes routine with practice, and that the difficult decisions and craftsmanship are really in shaping the hoof and fitting the shoe.

For some unknown reason, if you just set the shoe on the foot in the desired position and nail into the center of each of the nail holes, the shoe will invariably wind up setting one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch back from where you intended. This means you either must pull and reset, or dub off the toe. To avoid this, I use the following method: Place the shoe on the foot, with the toe centered and flush with the wall. Check the heels and make sure they are equidistant from the frog and cover the heels of the hoof. Then press your first nail (flat side out, of course) into the outside front corner of the second nail hole from the toe on one side of the shoe. (see figure 7 illustration). Drive the point in with a couple of licks of the hammer. This should be no deeper than necessary to avoid pulling the nail out in the next operation. Check the position of the shoe again, and (keeping your first nail in the same location in its nail hole), start a second nail in the same location on the opposite side of the shoe. After this nail is deep enough to also be firm, check the position of the shoe again. If it is correct, continue driving these two nails, first a few licks on one, then a few on the other, until both are fully driven.

This puts a lot of tension on the shoe as the tapered nail shanks grip the nail holes, and holds the shoe solidly in the proper position. The other six nails can usually be driven into the centers of the nail holes. If you need to pull the shoe slightly outward at any one hole, put the point of the nail in the outside edge of the hole, and vice–versa. If the first two nails are properly driven, it is common to want to shift the heels slightly outward in this manner. (Heels can also be spread with the jaws of your pullers.)

Nails driven into the white line with the flat side out will naturally bend outward, and will never penetrate sensitive tissue. (see figure 8 illustration). They must emerge high enough to have a firm grip on the wall, but low enough to allow a good clinch. Usually this is one-half to three-quarters of an inch above the sole. The more uniform the depth of the clinches, the neater the job will look, but this is not a major concern. For uniformity, where the hoof slopes back sharply (as at the toe), incline the nail head forward somewhat as you start to drive. Where the hoof is nearly vertical (as near the heel), start the nail in a position perpendicular to the sole. Use rapid light taps with the hammer to drive the nail. This will allow you to "feel" what the nail is doing. As long as it is following the white line, it will slip in quite easily. When it enters the horny wall, you will feel greater resistance. This should happen soon after the point enters the hoof. If the nail is driven over half its length without entering the horny wall, it will emerge (if at all) too high to allow a good clinch. Pull the nail and bend the point slightly outward. Usually you can drive it back into the same hole and it will emerge properly.

As soon as a nail is fully driven, bend the point over. I prefer this to twisting the point off with the hammer claws, as I feel it is safer and makes for a straighter clinch. Dealer's choice, but don't leave those sharp points aiming at you for over a second or two. If you are using a clinching block, you are now done with the chore of tacking the shoe on. But if you have alligator clinchers, give each of your nail heads a couple of sharp raps with the hammer before letting the foot down.

Now all that remains is the clinching operation. Although it adds a ten dollar piece of equipment to your tool box, I strongly recommend the alligator-type clinchers for a beginner. Many a pony is gentle as a dog until you start hammering on the clinching block, and the alligator clinchers eliminate this operation. Moreover, you can conduct the entire process from the top of the foot, thus minimizing the danger from the unclenched points, should the horse suddenly take his foot from you.

Set the foot on your knee or a block, and nip the nail points as close to the hoof as possible (if you haven't already twisted them off). Use a pair of seven-inch end cutters, and pry the nail slightly away from the hoof as I cut. This makes it a little easier to start the clinch. Now, using an old rasp to avoid dulling your sharp one, rasp a shallow groove below each nail point so that the finished clinch will be flush with the wall. Also run the edge of your rasp around the juncture of the wall and the shoe. At this time you can do a little rasping to cover your mistakes at points where the wall may slightly override the edge of the shoe, but this should be kept to a minimum, because if you have properly shaped the foot, you will be thinning the wall excessively if you remove much horn.

Bend each point over with the clinchers, using the curved jaw on the nail point, while being sure that the straight jaw is covering the head of the same nail. Don't try to complete the clinch with the clinchers, as this may weaken your nail. Just bend the nail far enough so that you can finish the job with your hammer. Hammer the points flush into the grooves, and you are done.

If clinching with a clinching block or the edge of your rasp, take a position facing the sole of the hoof when starting the clinches. Hold the block under each nail point with the hand that is supporting the hoof, and hammer the head sharply until the nail is bent over enough to allow you to finish setting the point with the hammer. Even if you have a set of clinchers at home in your box, you will need to use this method occasionally on the trail, so it is well to understand it.

There's a lot of satisfaction in being able to shoe your own horse. And locating a farrier when you need him can be difficult. There's no particular magic to the job, just a little patience and common sense. But don't underestimate the value of observation that I mentioned at the start of this article. If you've already watched quite a few horses shod, you may be closer to being a farrier than you realize. If you've seen different men do the job, you've noted certain ones where they operate differently. All of these observations will give you clues as to methods you want to accept, try, or reject. Then take an old gentle pony with sound feet and try your hand. Maybe some of my ideas here will help you over a few of the rough spots, as I have tried to elaborate where I encountered unexpected problems while learning. Then get an outspoken experienced hand to criticize your job, and you'll be well on your way.

Basic Horseshoeing Tools and Supplies

(Check horseshoeing illustrations here).

Leather Apron: Not an absolute necessity for cold shoeing, but it's safer, and one pair of Levi's saved will darn near pay for an apron.
Hoof Pick, Broken Pritchel, Dull Farrier's Knife or the like.
Shoeing Hammer: I prefer the lighter weight (12 oz.)
Clinch Cutter or Cold Chisel.
Pinchers: For pulling shoes, or any work where the edges will contact metal.
Hoof Knife: Must be sharp. Keep a rattail file in your box and USE IT before each job.
Nippers: For use only to trim CLEAN hooves. When removing dirt and stones from sole, check to be sure pieces of the old nails haven't been left in the wall. Baby the edges. I prefer the type which has two cutting edges. It gives me better control.
Rasps: I keep a sharp one, handled, in a makeshift cardboard sheath to protect the cutting edges. I also keep an older one to use for finishing work after the shoe is on.
Farrier's Anvil: See illustrations.
Blacksmith Hammer.
End Cutter Pliers, 7 inches.
Alligator Clinchers or Clinching Block.
Tool Box: See Illustrations.
Shoes: For general purposes, you can handle most any chore if you have a small supply of 00's, 0's, 1's and 2's, either flat plates or with mild toe and heel caulks. If you have a few 00's in flat plates you can cut off the heels for smaller animals (down to a limit).
Nails: A basic supply would include a few No. 4 regular head and No. 6 city head. Most of your jobs would take No. 5 city and No. 5 regular. Small frozen juice concentrate cans with labeled plastic lids make good containers.

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