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I've recently read about horseshoes, so I get the general idea behind them.

However, what happened when a horse's hoof, for whatever reason, was "broken" or "worn out"? Would that feel really painful to the horse? Like a human crawling around on their knees and hands on glass or sharp rocks?

I'd rather not think about any animal being in pain, but I'm interested in this, so I have to ask.

Maybe it happened in the middle of nowhere? Would the horse "scream" and refuse to walk another step? Or would it be able to keep on going, just a little slower? Was it common for a hoof to "break" rather than wear out? Just imagining a hoof "breaking" makes me shudder.

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Horseshoes are meant to protect the hooves from the kind of damage that would have happened on a long-term basis - in other words, chronic wear, uneven abrasive damage and material fatigue. However, this kind of damage is not something that would immediately become evident at instant after the horseshoe was to be removed. Horse hooves are made of a tough protein called keratin - it's the same protein that hair and nails are made of. It's resistant and reliable enough in, so to say, "native" settings - these that horses have evolved to live in. It's just the horse domestication that brought a different environment, the one that evolution wasn't exactly prepared for.

Wild horses usually tend to travel constantly, covering great distances, but do so at a slow pace - in that case, the hooves are naturally worn in a smooth, gradual and even manner. Domesticated horses, however, often travel at a much faster pace and do so in inconsistent bursts, separated by periods of complete idleness, which makes the wear unnatural and destructive to the whole structure of the hooves. Also, wild horses live naturally in semi-desert climate, whereas the domesticated ones are often subjected to travelling in moist and colder conditions - by which the keratin is significantly softened and rendered prone to damage.

Also, walking without horseshoes wouldn't be painful nor anything like walking on sharp rocks / glass because - like our hair and nails - hooves are composed of inanimate matter. For the same reason, it's possible to painlessly attach the horseshoe to the hoof in the first place. But if it was the case that just one of the four horseshoes got deattached or broken, it would certainly mess with the horse's balance a bit, cause unhealthy muscle strains and uneven load on skeletal structure. Please think about how would it feel to walk or run if you were to wear a thick-sole shoe on one foot while leaving the second one bare.

However, while keratin is relatively hard and tough, steel and aluminium - the most common materials of which horseshoes are made of - are even harder and tougher. And walking without horseshoes in damp and cold environment, especially with a heavy load, would progressively damage and weaken the structure of the hooves and ultimately destroy or split them apart. At that moment, the living tissue underneath would get exposed - and it's when it would start to be really painful.

Regarding whether it is common for the horseshoes to break - no, it's rare but still could happen if the horseshoe is old and its material is severely fatigued due to accumulated damage of its crystal structure at the microscopic level. It is much more common that the horseshoe just slowly becomes loose after a month or so, and needs to be reattached.

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The hoof of a horse is composed of the same material as the nails of humans or the claws of other animals. It is hard on the outside and the closer it is to the skin and flesh, the softer it gets. It grows the whole life of the horse.

In the optimistic case, the hoof grows at the same speed as it is worn by walking. But the natural walking surfaces for horses are not rocky streets and asphalt - so in that case the hoof grows slower than the street abrases the hard part of the hoof away. Because of this, the humans invented the horseshoes of different kinds. They protect the hooves if the horse has to master "un-horse-ish" circumstances.

If a hoof is not protected against abrasion, the hard part will get thinner and the soft part (with the nerves in it) will feel the walking surface more and more prominently. It is like the difference between soft shoes and such ones for hiking. If there is a spiky stone, this will be more and more unfriendly for the foot.

The horse will become slower, unfriendly and if one hoof is worse than the other, the walking will become against the rhythm. If you could count by a healthy horse "1 2 3 4" like the drum in a melody, at a foot-ill horse it would be with a pause before the bad foot, for example "1 2 - 3 4" (all counting for the slowest walking, not gallop, this is "1 2 3 -" naturally).

If no one helps the horse, and if it doesn't get a long break to let the hoof grow, it will ultimately stop walking completely.

If one hoof gets broken (I could not imagine it, but it could be possible in general) the horse will try to walk on three legs. Its survival depends on running faster than the predators, so it will give all it has to stay walking.

In human care the horses should see a smith regularly - regardless whether the horse is with or without horseshoes, because the smith will cut the hoof in forms good for walking (like care for fingers nails) and will see, if the hard part is too thin. And the broken hoof would get to the vet and gets the right treatment to heal (to be stabilized until enough new hoof material is grown).

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