History of the Horseshoe

Long before the invention of the steam engine or spinning wheels was a human invention that revolutionized ancient means of trade, transportation and warfare – horseshoes.

Indeed, the invention of the horseshoe came from necessity. Roughly the same time that humans discovered the domestication of horses, they immediately understood the need to protect the horse’s feet. The goal was to make the most out of their ride.

The earliest forms of horseshoes can be found as early as 400 BC. Materials used ranged from plants, rawhide and leather strap gears referred to as “hipposandals” by the Romans.  In Ancient Asia, horsemen equipped their horses with shoes made out of woven plants. The shoes were not just for protection but also to soothe existing injuries the horse might have sustained in its activities.

In several parts of Northern Europe known for its cold and wet climate, horses found it difficult to get a toehold on the terrain. This gave birth to the craft of nailing metal shoes around the six and seventh centuries.

These pieces of archeological evidence found across the globe point out to the fact that ancient civilizations were aware of the need to equip their horses’ hooves with some kind of protective gear. These prototype foot gears became the precursor to the modern shoes used to protect equine hooves nowadays.

The invention of the horseshoe stemmed from working animals such as horses being exposed to harsh conditions on a daily basis that lead to breakage or excessive damage to their hooves. By providing sufficient protection from sharp objects in the ground and the constant stress of travelling hundreds of miles every day, horses became more useable for longer periods of time.

Another reason from which the invention of horseshoes turned into a pivotal moment in history is the fact that horses equipped with protective foot gear actually run faster compared to horses in the wild. For instance, aluminum horseshoes have actually been proven to lighten the weight of moving the horses’ feet. They protect the feet from breakage, and allow the horse to move a few seconds faster – which can spell the difference between winning and losing in a horse race event.

The history of horseshoes is a bit of a convoluted narrative as historians find it hard to agree on several accounts when horseshoeing first started. Cast iron horseshoes are particularly difficult to date, especially when such materials were usually repurposed to create weapons and other forms of metal craft.

This resulted in archeological findings becoming so scarce that the beginning of such practice became hard to prove. Even the history of horse domestication is a tricky subject. The ongoing consensus is that horses were first ridden around 3500 BC.

Around 2500 BC, war horses normally strapped on chariots were widely used in warfare, and horses had to be equipped with some form of protective foot gear made out of leather. At any rate, the practice of horseshoe-making became widespread during 1000 AD, mostly in Europe. The shoes were made from light bronze alloys characterized by a scalloped shape structure and six nail holes.

Over time, the scallop-shaped shoes gradually disappeared. Two nail holes were added into the design. This resulted in a wider and heavier structure. By the 14th century, horseshoes became a common commodity. It began selling in large quantities in medieval Europe. Specialized shoes were designed for horses used in different situations such as trade, transportation, or war.

It was not until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution that horseshoe production reached its peak. The 1800s saw the emergence of machines capable of mass-producing horseshoes that gave a huge advantage in warfare. And by 1835, a horseshoe manufacturing machine was patented for the first time in the United States. The machine was capable of producing 60 shoes per hour.

During the American Civil War, horseshoe production turned out to be a significant advantage for the Northern armies’ victory as they acquired a horseshoe-producing machine. Horses properly equipped with protective gear preformed better in the battlefield compared to horses without shoes. This led to the defeat of the Southern forces in the 1860s.

By the early 1900s, equestrian horseshoes became a commercial success, owing to a stable market brought by the emergence of horse-riding as a sport. It was during the 1900 Olympic Games that equestrian was introduced to the world as a competitive sport. A new age dawned for horseshoes and horse use in general.

A wide range of materials have been used in horseshoes since then. But throughout modern history, equestrian horseshoes have been made largely out of steel and aluminum.

Horseshoes made out of steel have been found to be more durable and cheaper compared to aluminum shoes. With the emergence of equestrian as a sport, and horse racing came the need for equestrian horseshoes that were lighter. These allowed horses to move faster while providing enough protection from hoof breakage.

A recent study published on the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science observed horses wearing steel and aluminum shoes. The study pointed out that horses wearing steel shoes (with weight 2.5 times heavier than aluminum) generally demonstrated greater flexion on the lower leg joints as well as an improved animation at the trot. On the other hand, horses wearing aluminum horseshoes demonstrated lower knee action and hoof flight.

The significance of this finding lies in the fact that putting greater weight on the horses’ legs (through heavier horseshoe materials such as steel) results in higher flight arcs for the hoof and greater flexion.

This makes sense when horse use is considered – horses used in equestrian would be better off with aluminum horseshoes as the material allows for greater sweeping action. On the other hand, horses used in performance events would be better off wearing steel shoes. Nevertheless, the study was not able to prove that either type of shoe materials significantly affected stride length and suspension.

Indeed, the history of the horseshoe has come through great lengths. It demonstrates the scope of human ingenuity and proves that necessity is the mother of all invention.