Unsung Inventions: Horseshoes

As mentioned in my June 20, 2013 post, I’ve been reflecting on humble yet revolutionary inventions that ancient Greek horsemen lacked, and today’s focus is horseshoes.

A horse’s hoof might look hard as a rock, but it’s not. It’s similar in makeup to our own fingernails, which means they can also crack, chip, and split. Under damp conditions, they soften. They’re designed to take on a certain amount of stress, but the demands on a horse in the wild are dramatically different than one running with the weight of a rider or pulling loads.

A horse is constantly on its feet, and as any horse owner knows, once it starts having foot problems, the rest of its health can quickly decline. Unfortunately, a cavalry or caravan can’t always be choosy about the terrain it travels through, so someone got the bright idea to put on some foot protection.

Horseshoes as we know them help to offset the demands on working horses by preventing excessive wear and strengthening the hoof wall. Nailed horseshoes weren’t developed until around 900 A.D., but even in the B.C. era, equestrians were experimenting with metal and leather coverings on horses’ feet.

The Greeks were not among those folks. Instead, they went about hoof care another way. In Xenophon’s On Equitation, he writes that stables should have sloping floors (to promote drainage) and be cobbled with round stones in order to keep hooves hard and in good shape. He also advises against washing horses’ legs. In other words, Greeks maintained conditions that would keep their horses’ hooves dry (so they wouldn’t soften) and wearing evenly. That latter part is important because the Greeks didn’t trim their horses’ hooves. Vegetius, a Roman veterinarian, writes about cutting hooves to the quick in the case of laminitis but doesn’t mention routine trimming, which is regarded basic horse care nowadays.

As much as horseshoes have done to enable horses to work under loads and conditions they couldn’t otherwise, horseshoes are not without drawbacks. (Apparently, horseshoes can impede blood circulation, among other things.) As such, many owners keep their horses shoeless part of the year, and some, like the Boyz’ Mom, keep them barefoot all the time.

Having shoeless Friesians does mean extra work for the Boyz’ Mom. She spends a half hour each week filing their feet down (unlike the Greeks, she’s not going to rely on a cobblestone yard to keep those hooves well-shaped), but she’s willing to put in that effort to keep her Boyz happy and healthy. In that sense, perhaps the ancient Greeks had the right idea after all.

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