Yesterday, while writing, I remembered the old proverb and poem:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
…which led me to wonder exactly when horses began wearing shoes. I’d done the research before, but given that my mind bears more resemblance to a colander than a fireproof safe, I’d forgotten the answer long ago.
So, having nothing in life but time to look up random information, I dropped what I was doing and did the research.
Mongolian horsemen wrapped their horses’ hooves in makeshift boots made of hide to protect them against injury. (It’s known that Genghis Khan cared for his horses, though I haven’t been able to document exactly when the horse-boot came into fashion.)
Roman soldiers also used leather horse-booties to protect their mounts from the paved roads of the Empire (all of which led to Rome).
The first recorded uses of metal horseshoes come from Europe during the sixth and seventh centuries. Farmers and noblemen used them to protect their horses’ hooves (which are porous and tend to soften when exposed to damp turf for long periods, much like our fingernails) and to stop the horses from slipping on slick ground.
Early horseshoes were made from bronze, though by the time of the Crusades iron shoes were in widespread use. The size and shape of horseshoes has changed relatively little from then until now, though methods of production and fitting have improved substantially.
Without shoes, horses’ hooves tend to soften, crack and splay, much like human feet when exposed to difficult terrain without proper covering. Shoes lengthen a horse’s useful life, increase its comfort and enable it to perform the variety of functions that proved so critical to early European settlement, development and war.
All for the price of a horseshoe nail.