Hoof Boots vs. Barefoot vs. Traditional Shoes                          

Horseback Magazine                                                     10-10-13                                                                  Pete Ramey

In previous articles, I have mentioned that I usually prefer to use hoof boots when attempting to rehabilitate horses with hoof problems. In this article, I will further explain some of the reasons why.

My perspective

First, let me say that while I do specialize in custom-fitting hoof boots and glue-on boots/shoes, I am not married to any particular hoof care or hoof protection method. I am 100% in favor of whatever works. Some barefoot horses are sound, happy, and comfortable, and they are a wonderful sight to behold. Other horses are just dandy in their metal shoes - this is okay, too. But shod or bare, when a horse isn't sound, or if the feet seem to be gradually developing problems, hoof boots (or glue-on synthetic shoes) are often perfect for turning things around.

New Hoof Boot Designs

Hoof boots have come a long way in recent years - no longer just a "spare tire," their use in competition is rapidly increasing. Last month, five of the top ten horses in the AERC 100-Mile Endurance National Championship, including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd spots wore recently redesigned Easyboots. At the Tevis Cup, widely known as the world's toughest 100-mile endurance race, the coveted Haggin Cup (best condition) has been won 3 of the last 4 years by booted horses. The overall Tevis Cup (1st place) winners in the last three years were wearing hoof boots, as were 6 of the top ten last year, and 7 of the top 10 this year. Why this shift? The rubber-like material provides better traction and energy dissipation on the hard roads and trails, and any little edge really adds up over the course of a 100-mile race. At the 2012 Tevis Cup, 69% of the booted starters finished the entire race, compared to only 41% of the rest of the field. Another reason for increased boot use is that in recent years, hoof boot designs have improved dramatically, becoming more compact, more durable, and more user-friendly with each new design.


This Easyboot Glove was heat-fit to accommodate a horse with a 20-degree coffin bone rotation - note the distorted toe. The tread was then rasped to bring the breakover back into a correct position relative to the coffin bone. This brought tremendous relief to a horse that would have been very difficult to shoe otherwise, as there was no viable or connected hoof wall at the ground surface to nail to. This is just one example of how modern hoof boots can be modified if you put your imagination in gear. Photo reprinted from the book Care and Rehabilitation of the Equine Foot.



This is a cut-down Easyboot Glue-On application for a horse that was too lame to be turned out barefoot. The medial heel and lateral cartilage (top of photo) were contracted and collapsed underneath the horse's foot. This setup leaves room for the heel to expand, while cushioning the sensitive foot. As the frog expanded and grew stronger, a pour-in pad was injected into the boot from the back. This same setup is also being used in top-level Dressage competition, where no part of the boot is allowed to extend above the hairline. Pete Ramey files.



Rehab and Prevention

Generally speaking, there are exceptions, of course, if a horse is turned out barefoot and receives routine, competent trims, the hooves tend to improve over time; frogs improve, soles get hardened and callused, the coffin bone moves higher in the hoof capsule, and wall flares tend to grow out. But often the horse needs extra protection for riding. Using hoof boots for riding allows you to "have your cake and eat it, too." You can take full advantage of this natural healing process while also having solid protection during work. Horses managed this way tend to have above-average feet, and I feel that they are better-protected from injury.

I also like to use hoof boots for treating laminitic horses. When a horse is being supported only by the hoof walls (with the sole, bars and frog off the ground), he is literally hanging his entire weight from the laminae (which connect the hoof wall to the bone like living VelcroTM). When a horses suffers from laminitis, this attachment is severely weakened, often allowing the hoof wall to separate from the bone, or the whole horse may sink through the hoof capsule until the sole settles to the ground. To treat (or prevent) this catastrophe, the hoof walls can be shortened so that the sole bears more weight, relieving sheer stress on the laminae.

This seems simple enough on the surface, but while the sole is a weight-bearing structure, it was not designed to bear all of the horse's weight. Hoof boots allow the vet or farrier to trim the walls slightly shorter than the sole to take the stress off the laminae, while protecting the sole from the resulting excess pressure. And since the boot is not rigidly attached, all pressure is released from the sole during hoof flight, allowing adequate circulation and thus avoiding the pitfalls typically associated with sole pressure and nailed-on metal shoes. This was a real breakthrough in laminitis treatment.

Hoof boots are also excellent for horses with pain in the soft tissue of the back of the foot (often dubbed navicular syndrome). For these horses, I usually use padded insoles to dampen vibration and to stimulate development of the internal structures of the foot. Often the boots will allow these horses to impact the ground heel-first and be comfortably ridden when nothing else works, and these are important first steps to healing these horses.

Living with Hoof Boots

Now for the bad news - every silver lining has a cloud, right? Hoof boots require more work by the horse owner. Like brushing the horse, saddling, and cleaning up manure, it adds one more thing you have to do before you ride.

The boots must fit correctly, and this may require some tinkering at first. Few horse owners would expect some random horseshoe to fit their horse, but it is amazing how many people have "tried" hoof boots without even considering whether they fit correctly. Additionally, some boot models may not be right for your horse or your event. I carry every size of 4 different models of boots in my truck. And still, I heat-fit or otherwise modify almost every boot I sell. Every foot is different, and so must be any shoe, if properly applied.

This brings up the cause of most failures with modern hoof boots: there is a learning curve to using them. No one is surprised that it takes a while to learn how to shoe a horse with iron. But people seem to think they fell off the turnip truck knowing all there is to know about using hoof boots. They do work very well, but you have to learn how to use them - mostly, this means learning to fit them properly and choosing the right boot for the job at hand.


Prices vary from model-to-model, as do traditional shoeing prices, depending on where you live. But generally speaking, four hoof boots cost about as much as getting a horse shod 1-2 times. Depending on terrain, most boot treads last between 300-500 miles. Since you generally only use the boots while riding, this means a set of boots will last several years for most horse owners, although an endurance rider may wear them out in a few months.

Add to this, a little extra for replacing padded insoles and hardware along the way, as parts sometimes break or wear out. Also, you still have to get your horse trimmed on a routine schedule; this is critical for healthy hooves no matter what type of protection you apply. All things considered, I think booting vs. shod costs are pretty equal if you ride high-mileage on rough terrain, but booting is the much-cheaper option if you are a only ride 4-5 hours per week - as always, it depends.

Are hoof boots right for you and your horse? That is for you both to decide. But if you haven't given them a fair look lately, you may be missing out on a good thing. I certainly came to like them, and I'm a sooty old horseshoer.