How to shoe a horse

I have a number of diverse interests beside running ultramarathons and my career as a physician. I enjoy gardening, playing my musical instruments, brewing beer and wine, fly fishing, other outdoor recreation and horses.

Sometimes, it is difficult to find the time for all of them!

Some years ago, I took a course on horse shoeing and blacksmithing at the Oklahoma Horseshoeing School. It was money well spent. Up until that point, I  had ridden, chased cows, roped, and trained  horses for years. However, trimming and shoeing them was something I didn't understand. So I took off a few weeks and went to Purcell, Oklahoma to learn how to do it right.   

There are many individuals out there who claim to be horse shoers but who learned simply by trial and error, or by watching someone else. This can be a serious problem because unless it is done correctly, poorly done horse shoeing, can injure, or even cripple a horse. 

Now that I am a farrier myself, I realize that in the past, some of the "horseshoers" I used to trim/shoe my animals, probably had limited training. Fortunately, no long term harm was done. However, now that I know how to do it myself, I would never let someone else shoe my horses, unless I had first seen their work on someone else's horse and knew they knew what they were doing.

As with any other skill, horseshoeing isn't impossible, once you know how. The key, of course, is in learning "how" and also being aware of your limitations. There is no one who is so experienced that they never have to ask for help or advice.

The following is a step-by-step description of how to trim and shoe a horse. Obviously if you are interested in doing yourself, I strongly encourage you to take a course and/or spend some time wth an experienced farrier to learn how to do it correctly.

The horse to be shod today was Jezzy. He is a 20 year old quarter horse gelding who has been in our family for years. He was my wife's horse when we rode and mule-packed from Mexico almost to Wyoming in 1998 as our 6 month "honeymoon" adventure.

Yeah, that was quite a trip. 

Now that our 9 year old son is doing some more riding on his own, Jezzy is the perfect horse for him. Not a mean bone in his body, kind-hearted, calm, and experienced Jezzy is happiest when he gets a soft pat on his neck and some cookies to eat. The oldest horse is often the best for the youngest rider.

Steady-old Jezzy.

I keep most of my shoeing and trimming supplies in a horse shoeing box. Over the years, this box has been kicked, stepped on, broken apart and nailed back together.

As you can see if you look closely, sometime ago the original handle was broken. I replaced it with the most readily available replacement at the time- an old horse shoe!

I hadn't trimmed since last fall so it's a little bit embarrassing to see how badly in need Jezzy's front feet need to be trimmed.

I'm somewhat spoiled with my other horses. They have such good feet that shoeing them is easy. I barely have to take off any hoof. Most of the time,  I only have to level their feet, shape a shoe and nail it on.

On the other hand, Jezzy has feet that are challenging. His feet are shaped oddly and he has a low sole, which if you are not careful, is easy to remove too much and cause lameness.

After shoeing him for years, I know exactly how to shoe him. But I'd much rather shoe one of my other horses. 

No matter. Even if Jezzy might not be the most straight forward horse to shoe, he makes up for any faults by having a gentle kind heart.

Before doing any trimming, the first task is to remove any manure and debris on the bottom of the hoof with the hoof pick and wire brush.

This is important so you can see what you are dealing with and also to avoid dulling the edge of your hoof knife on stones and sand. 

Using the hoof knife, the sole is removed. At first, it is difficult, especially if the weather has been dry. After some sole is removed, it starts to come off like potato peeling.

I keep my hoof knife razor sharp. That makes it work more effectively but means I must be careful to avoid slipping and cutting myself.

Once the sole is removed, it is time to use the hoof nipper to take off excess hoof wall. I trim down to the "white line" so I can see how far to trim down the hoof wall. It is in this white line where the horse shoes nails later will be nailed.

Some farriers remove a large portion of the frog (triangular portion in the middle of the hoof) but I only take off just enough to open it up and prevent thrush (a black foul-smelling hoof infection due to a bacteria). I shoe our horses not for the arena but for the mountains and prairie.

Here in the west, we tend to leave more sole and frog for additional protection on the rocky trails we ride.

Starting at the toe (middle or front part of the hoof) and working back, I take overlapping bites with the nipper, taking special care to keep the nips in a generally straight and even line. 

The more accurately this is done, the less work will need to be done with the hoof rasp later.

Once the entire hoof is trimmed, the excess hoof falls off (if you were careful to overlap each nip).

Most dogs love to chew on peices of old hoof. Our dogs are no exception.  

Now it's time to take the rasp and level the hoof in preparation to fit and nail on the shoe. Although this looks simple, there is a knack to it.

The heel (back) and the walls (sides) rasp down relatively easy compared to the toe.

It is important to look at your work frequently to make sure your are leveling the foot and/or taking own any excess hoof that need to be removed.

Is it level?

No, it's not!

I tip the hoof over and look down on it from exactly this angle. If you look closely, you can see that the middle is higher and slants down towards  the sides. Before fitting and nialing on the shoe, this must be take down so it is completely flat. 

When I was first learning to shoe, getting an "eye" for this was one of the more challenging lessons to learn. Even being off as little as a fraction of millimeter could potentially cause problems later.

After the hoof is leveled, it is time to fit the shoe. Some farriers prefer to shape the foot first and then the shoe. However, I prefer to fit the shoe, nail it on and then rasp off any flare (extra hoof wall that "flares" outward) or excess hoof wall  later.

It's what works for me.

I prefer the brand St. Croix Extra-EZ horse shoes because I believe they are better made and longer lasting than the more commonly available Diamond and other brands.

The St. Croix Extra-EZ's come in fronts and backs that are already pre-shaped into a general front or back hoof shape- this means I can spend less time shaping the shoes compared to the more common keg shoes that are neither but are shaped somewhere between a front and a back.

Finally, the St. Croix Extra-EZ's are a little bit wider of a shoe than other types. This seems to provide just a little bit more protection, very important when riding over sharp rocks. 



I learned how to shape shoes on an anvil, and if necessary, use my propane fired forge.

However, a few years ago I came across a horse shoe shaper called a "Pocket Anvil." Initially, I was very skeptical. I tend to be more of a traditionalist. There is something about the sound and feel of the hammer to the shoe on the anvil and sound of the "hiss" when the shoe is dipped into water to cool it off.

I did purchase a pocket anvil, despite my skepticism, mainly because it is lighter and can be packed into the mountains to shoe if necessary any shoes that are be lost while in the high country (I take special attention when shoeing so this rarely happens to me).

After using the pocket anvil, however,  I've now come to prefer it. It's lighter, easier to transport and is certainly quieter than the traditional hammer and anvil.

Of course, if I have any pent-up stresses that need to expend- there's no better therapy than pounding on a cold shoe on the anvil!

I still get my old forge out if I need to make custom hand-made shoes or if I'm doing something special such as forge-welding borium onto my shoes for extra traction on ice or slick rock. I enjoy forge and anvil work.

However, when all I need to do is get my horses shod, I take the easy route. I know, I know- it's not "traditional."

Sometimes, when my goal is to get the job done, I take "easier" over "traditional." 

Once the shoe is shaped to fit the foot, the next step is to nail it on. This is one of the tricky parts.

It is important to get at least two nails in to hold the shoe to the foot. If the horse lunges before this is done, the shoe can shift.  It will need to be pulled and re-nailed.

I usually put in two or three nails before letting the foot down and putting it up on the hoof stand. The hoof stand is a metal stand for the horse to rest his hoof on while you work on it.

That's much easier than the more "traditional" manner of letting him rest on your knee.

With the hoof on the stand and using the rasp, excess flare and hoof wall is removed before all the other nails are put in. 

I find it easier to go down with the rasp parallel to the fibers of the hoof wall instead of perpendicular across them.

After the final shaping of the foot is done, the other nails can be placed.

I usually put three nails on a side or six total and only use all eight nail holes if I need additional strength to hold the shoe on the foot.

I prefer Mustad brand nails than the more commonly available Capewell because they are sharper, softer and more easily respond to my hammer- such as when I want to drive them out of the hoof.  

Nailing the shoe onto the foot is a delicate task. Special care must be taken to avoid "pricking" or nailing into a tender part of the foot. 

As you can see in the photo of the nail about, one side of the nail tip is slightly slanted. This angle allows the nail to slowly come out of the hoof wall.

The nail must be placed with the angle on the proper side; otherwise it will angle inward and injure the horse than outside where you want it. I made that mistake…once when I was learning… and made a horse lame temporarily. It is a mistake I'll never do again.

Nails are started in the white line. Tap, tap, tap-slowly and carefully the nail is nailed with the shoeing hammer. Then, you can hear this betterthan I can describe it- the sound changes from dull tap to a more brighter tap- this is a signal that the nail is ready to exit the hoof.

Then I TAP, TAP, TAP- I tap harder now to drive the tip of the nail completely out of the hoof wall. 

If you don't hear that change in sound when you expect it, you'd be better off to pull it and start over. Perhaps the nail is bending the wrong way and you are about to prick the horse? 

As soon as the nail is nailed all the way in, the claw of the hammer is used to bend it over.

This is the part of shoeing where the shoer as well as the horse is most likely to be seriously injured. If the horse suddenly pulls its leg away from you before you have bent the nail over, it could deeply cut you or seriously injure its opposite leg. 

Ouch! Those nails are sharp!

I've had nails come through the tough thick protective leather of my shoeing chaps. Thus, I bend them over immediately with a flip of my hammer to avoid injury to me or horse.

Next, using a metal block, I "set" the nails.

I hammer each nail head firmly while the other side rests on the block. This seats the nail heads in the holes on the horse shoe and firmly sets this in place.

This is one of the more enjoyable steps in the process because it is straight forward and means I'm almost done (with that foot anyway)! 

The hoof is placed back up on the hoof stand and the sharp long tips of the nails clipped off.

Using a fine file, a small line is filed just under the nails. This allows for a place where the "clinches" can be bent over into.

I've heard it said that the more of a straight line the nails come out of the hoof in, the more skilled the horseshoer. Although nails in a zig-zag line hold as well as those which are straight, it looks better and the filing is easier if they all line up.

As you can see, I did a pretty good job today making them line up!

Then the clincher is used to "clinch" bend the remaining short blunt nail tips over. This is what gives them strength and holds the shoe to the foot.

After the nails are all clinched, I go over them lightly with the fine file to smooth them over and remove any rough spots.

And that's all there is to it! We're done! Or at least we're done with that foot anyway- three more to go.  

In six to eight weeks, the shoes will need to be removed, the hoof trimmed and shoes replaced if needed- or left off if not.

I left more hoof wall on the inside of this foot (left side of the photo) than I would have preferred. It's subtle and I'm sure most wouldn't have even noticed it- but I do. I'll fix it next time I trim and shoe in several weeks.

Next the fun part- riding the horses I just shod!

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11 responses

  1. Now that was very interesting. I have always wondered about how a horse was shod. I've never seen it done and really didn't know that the shoes were actually nailed on. Nice post! Looks like you did a good job to me!

    July 3, 2010 at 7:54 pm

  2. Great Photography! I confess to a continuing fear of horses up close. They are awfully large and to me, seem somewhat unpredictable, even though I know it's really humans that are the unpredictable ones!

    July 4, 2010 at 2:53 am

  3. Well thanks! When shoeing, it's important to be a bit of a perfectionist- the little things do matter.
    Perhaps next time I'll get out my forge and show how to make custom horse shoes from a piece of metal?

    July 4, 2010 at 9:35 am

  4. Thank you!
    Having a fear of something large and potentially dangerous is natural- but I agree with you on who it is who truly unpredictable.
    After you are around them and begin to understand why they do the things they do, horses and other animals become predictable in their unpredictableness, if that makes any sense.

    July 4, 2010 at 9:40 am

  5. That would be cool too. It may be every day stuff to you but to the rest of us all over the world it's different. Things we know are done but have never seen what it actually takes to do it. I personally love it! I had a lady move in the house behind me and she has a goat farm. I had never been around goats and have thoroughly enjoyed learning stuff from her. She's a breeder and has had several of them pregnant. I had done a post about them on here and one of the ladies commented that wouldn't it be terrible to carry a baby with hooves! It was funny and I was telling my neighbor about it. She said "Oh actually the babies have a coating over their hooves while they are in the womb. It's almost like a rubber seal around them and it comes off a couple of days after they are born." It was a little thing, but how interesting is that! Just one more of those little things you would never know or think about. I'm always interested in learning something new especially when it comes to animals. I really enjoyed and appreciated your post. You keep on posting sir, whatever you want to post about.

    July 4, 2010 at 9:46 am

  6. [esto es genial]

    July 4, 2010 at 11:27 am

  7. I am sure we will be able to….
    The question I have: with four riders and only three horses, who will have to stay home? I am sure it won't be Nathan.

    July 4, 2010 at 11:57 am

  8. You know, that's something I know that I've known as long as long as I can remember… baby hoofed animals have soft rubbery hooves that harden after exposure to air. It made sense to me when I first learned it as a child.
    But unless you've been around newborn baby hoofed animals- how would you know?
    Too often we take these miraculous details such as that for granted. Sometimes, it IS the little things that are important whether we realize it or not, isn't it?

    July 6, 2010 at 7:02 pm

  9. Yes it most certainly is! The sad thing is that quite often it takes the aging process for us to really sit back long enough to take notice of these things.

    July 6, 2010 at 9:09 pm

  10. George Frazier

    Thanks for all the information. I think I am missing an important step. Which way do you face the nails ? and do you nail straight down or do you angle the nail ? Sure would appreciate the answers.



    August 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    • Hey, thank you for reading and commenting…. sometimes I forget that I still have these older posts up!

      Regarding the nails, its easier to show than it is to explain. A horseshoe is rounded on one side of the point and flattened on the other side. When hammering in a nail, the rounded side goes towards the inside. When I first beging placing the nail, I tap carefully “aiming” the nail toward the hoof wall where I want it to come out, while at the same time being careful to avoid placing it too deep and “pricking” the tender portions of the foot. Then as I place the nail, I tap harder and more firmly. The rounded side causes the nail to curve or bend towards the outside where it can be bent over and the tip clipped off.

      With experience, one can control where the nail will emerge by both how the nail is aimed and how hard or softly it is tapped. It’s much easier to demonstrate than it is to explain in words.

      Thanks again!


      August 26, 2011 at 9:58 am

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