It is believed that horses were first domesticated in around 3500 BC. They quickly became an absolute necessity for human civilization – for everything from agriculture to trade. And we needed to take a real good care of the horse’s hooves. But did you know that horseshoes are nailed on with special nails? Ordinary construction-grade nails simply wouldn’t work.

Special horseshoe nails are not round. They have a chissel tip and a prominent head with chamfered edges. (RickP, Wikimedia(CC BY 2.5)

Why domestic horses need shoes and wild one don’t?

Domestic horses need to have shoes because they walk and run much less than wild horses. Wild horses travel up 80 km per day, which both wears down their hooves to a healthy trim and hardens them. Also, wild horses normally avoid hard surfaces, while domestic ones have to walk on whatever we tell them to walk on – asphalt and concrete are just not good for them, unless they are wearing shoes.

Domestic horses walk much less, which is why their hooves are not that hard and tough. In addition, a lot of domestic horses work very hard – their hooves have to withstand not only their own weight, but also the weight of riders or various implements. It is necessary to protect their hooves and traditionally it’s done with horseshoes. A farrier is the person whose job is to take care of horses’ hooves, which includes fitting horseshoes.

Farrier nailing a horseshoe. These special nails are directional – you have to make sure the chissel tip is point towards the outside. (Jamain, Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why horseshoe nails are special?

Horseshoes are made by a blacksmith, who often plays the role of the ferrier as well. Although horseshoes made of synthetic materials are now available, traditionally horseshoes are forged from steel. Hooves can have different shapes and horses may have different needs, which is why horseshoes are also adjusted before being nailed on.

Horse’s hoof is a lot like a human nail – if the farrier does not make any mistakes, the horse doesn’t feel any pain from the horseshoe being nailed on. In fact, a good farrier can help the horse feel more comfortable. But let’s talk about those horseshoe nails, which do not have a round cross section.

Coat of arms of a Lithuanian city of Utena. You can see that this horseshoe was made for special nails. (Jamain, Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Rectangular nails are used for several reasons. First of all, there is no way they can turn in their holes. This reduces the chance of the horseshoe falling off. A groove at the bottom of the horseshoe with rectangular holes also helps keep the nails in place.

Secondly, horseshoe nails have an asymmetric point – sort of like a chisel. This shape makes horseshoe nails directional – that angle of the pointy end directs the nail away from the sensitive part of the horse’s foot. Finally, such nails are easier to forge. This was particularly important before nails were made in massive quantities in factories.

Once the horsheshoe is fitted, these sharp tips need to be snipped off. (Alex brollo, Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Who else used horseshoe nails?

Horseshoe nails are used not only by farriers (and not only by horses), but also by American lumberjacks. Traditionally they used these rectangular nails to make hooks for their measuring tapes. A horseshoe nail makes for a great hook, which holds firmly in the log, but immediately releases when the lumberjack tugs on his end of the tape.

Because of their shape and asymmetrical tips, horseshoe nails were also used for fitting glass in the wooden window frames. Carpenters would sometimes use horseshoe nails in their furniture, because they are less likely to come loose and that chisel-tip helps directing the nail close to inside corners.


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