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A horseshoe is a flat metal plate which is attached to the hoof of a horse. Generally, horseshoes are roughly U-shaped, with special variations for unique uses such as the treatment of lameness. Humans have been shoeing their horses for centuries to protect their feet, correct gaits, and treat diseases of the leg and hoof. Hoof care is an important part of horse care, since conditions like laminitis, a severe inflammation of the bones of the foot, can kill a horse if they are not caught early and treated.
The most basic type of horseshoe is known as a keg shoes. Pleasure horses and horses who are lightly worked tend to wear keg shoes because their simple design meets the needs of these animals. Draft horses and sport horses wear specially designed shoes which are designed to increase traction and stability. Many of these shoes have protrusions known as calks which help the horse grip the ground as he or she moves.
Gaited horses, horses which have special gaits beyond the walk, trot, canter, and gallop, may also wear special shoes to enhance their natural gaits. Some of these horseshoes can get quite complex, especially on valuable performance horses. Racehorses also wear unique, lightweight shoes which increase their traction on the track without weighing them down. A farrier may also work with a veterinarian to design special shoes to address medical conditions.
A number of materials can be used to make a horseshoe. Metals like iron and titanium are the most common, but shoes can also be made from plastic or even rawhide in some cases. For domesticated horses, shoes are important because the animals live in unusual conditions. Their diet is not as rich in keratin as the diet of wild horses, and as a result the keratin in their hooves is reduced, making their hooves weaker and more subject to disease. Domestic horses may also spend a great deal of time on hard ground, which can damage the bones of the legs.
Horseshoes are applied by a farrier, a professional who is trained in the anatomy of the horse and the use of horseshoes. The farrier starts by pulling each old horseshoe off and assessing the health of the feet while trimming excess hoof material away. Because domestic horses are not always as active as wild horses, their feet are not naturally ground away, and it is important to trim the hooves to compensate for this.
Once the hooves are trimmed and prepared, the farrier can put new shoes on. Ideally, the farrier will use the hot shoeing technique, in which shoes are heated in a forge for shaping to the individual horse's foot. A farrier may also adjust the shape of the horseshoe when it is cold, in which case it is known as cold shoeing. Once shaped, the horseshoe is nailed onto the foot, with the nails going through the thick keratin of the hoof wall so that they do not hurt the horse.