Many have called the equine hoof a natural wonder. Not only does it bear the animal’s weight, this complex mechanism also absorbs shock, provides traction, is responsible for temperature regulation and allows for speed and versatility. Hooves are the horse’s foundation, yet instead of ranking uppermost in many owners’ priorities, they are often overlooked.
Consistent and proper hoof care is critical, allowing the horse to remain sound, athletic and comfortable throughout his life. And it all begins right after the horse is born.
Foals: Building a Foundation
In the uterus, a foal’s hooves are covered in soft, flexible tissue that protects the mare’s reproductive system during the birthing process. This pale, feathery covering, called eponychium, can be rather alarming in appearance if the horse owner isn’t prepared for it, but within a couple of days, it dries up, hardens and leaves a more normal-looking hoof.
A foal’s hooves are more upright and tubular-shaped than those of mature horses, with the front pair slightly pointed to help tear the placenta during birth. These differences may also surprise the uninitiated, who are likely used to the more rounded hooves of adult horses.
To prepare a foal for a lifetime of stress-free hoof and leg handling, owners should touch and stroke a foal’s feet and legs thoroughly the day he is born and regularly thereafter, eventually teaching him to lift his hooves for increasing lengths of time until he is comfortable balancing on three feet and holding his feet up for inspection and hoof picking. Tapping on the hoof with a hoof pick or a brush will also accustom the foal to sensations he’ll encounter with the farrier, hopefully making that inevitable first visit easier on everyone.
Most farriers recommend the first trim take place between one and three months of age. In those early months, the hooves are still quite soft, so no more than light rasping and squaring off of the pointed toes to allow for proper breakover (the stride’s phase between when the heel lifts and the toe comes off the ground) is required.
Rasping should then take place every four to six weeks to keep pace with the hoof’s fast growth rate; about 15 millimetres per month, compared to nine millimetres in an adult. The hoof’s cosmetic appearance is not the goal at this point. Instead, the focus is on structure and promotion of a thick, strong wall, a deep sole and strong heel base.
Peter Allen, farrier and instructor at the Maritime Farrier School in Truro, Nova Scotia, said a foal with ideal conformation would wear down his feet evenly, allowing the leg joints to grow correctly. In this case, a farrier wouldn’t be needed for years, he said.
“The wild horse is a prime example. If the horse has bad feet, it will die and natural selection takes place. Most wild horses have great feet if nothing else,” said Allen. “The problem is, humans have interfered, and we breed for specific traits such as colour, refinement, movement, size or shape, and the last thing we think about is the feet. Farriers love this because we will always have a job.”
Early diagnosis and treatment of foot and leg issues such as angular limb deformities, toeing in or out, contracted tendons, bowed knees, club feet and dropped fetlocks, can mitigate major, permanent problems down the road. A veterinarian should also evaluate the foal’s limbs and feet and work together with the farrier and the owner to correct irregularities.
Allen explained that bones grow from the ends at regions called epiphyseal growth plates – cartilage that ossifies (turns to bone) in an immature horse. The epiphyseal plate closes at different times, depending on the length of the bone. The shorter the bone, the quicker it closes. The short pastern bone, for example, closes at about three months of age, while the cannon bone takes about two years.
“When the plate closes, there is very little a farrier can do to make corrections,” Allen said. “Bones need blood flow for growth. If the hoof is not balanced, it will restrict blood flow to one part of the joint, therefore, causing it to grow unevenly. If the joint is crooked, it will cause uneven pressure on the hoof causing it to grow uneven or out of balance as well.”
He also said that the lower the joint on the leg, the more it affects the foot and the sooner it stops growing. “There is nothing a farrier can do after two years to help remodel the foot and it’s very limited after three months.”
The most common problem Allen sees in foals is balance – base-wide (hooves are farther apart at the ground than at the top of the leg) and base-narrow conformation (the horse stands narrower at the ground than the top of the leg).
“If a horse is base-wide, it will be low on the inside or medial side and if it is base-narrow it will be low on the outside or lateral side,” he said. “This causes uneven weight distribution and, therefore, uneven blood flow to the joint, which causes uneven growth in the joint. This causes a poor stance, putting uneven pressure to the foot. As a result, the foot grows more to one side, causing flares. Flares are a weakness and will sometimes break off or, even worse, crack. The horse will often not travel straight as well, winging in or out. It’s a vicious circle.”
More serious conformation defects can often be treated with lateral or medial extension glue-on shoes, which will help by equalizing the weight on the growth plate. Hoof repair materials such as epoxies and acrylics are also sometimes used to build up areas of the hooves as necessary.
No matter whether the farrier is doing simple rasping or more involved corrective work, Robin Powell, a farrier from Grafton, Ontario, said she and her colleagues have a responsibility to make those initial encounters good ones for baby. “The farrier should work quickly, yet efficiently, as young horses have short attention spans,” she explained. “You want the foal to have as pleasant an experience as possible, as behaviour problems can stem from a young age and become lifelong if the horse becomes afraid or hurts themselves. The farrier should never manhandle a young horse, as their legs are delicate and can injure easily.”
Allen agreed. “If the foal trusts you, it will let you do anything. You shouldn’t punish a horse for being scared. I treat a foal very gently and give it lots of breaks. I don’t want the foal to feel trapped, that, I believe, is a horse’s main problem.”
Growing Into Their Feet
Between four and six months of age, the foal, now likely a weanling, is developing extremely quickly. That includes the hooves, which, at this point, are still very malleable and, as Powell said, “are always changing in size and shape.” This is beneficial because issues can be corrected promptly, but it can also be problematic, as the impact from internal and external forces can quickly cause complications.
A four- to six-week trim schedule is suggested until hoof growth begins to slow slightly at the yearling stage. Then, every six to eight weeks is usually satisfactory.
A yearling should be well accustomed to routine foot care by handlers and farriers, and can hold up his feet for longer periods, but his attention span and manners may still be a bit lacking. He should be taught to balance himself rather than leaning on the handler when a foot is up and to put the foot down only when asked. At this stage, it’s also a good idea to prepare the horse for the hammering sensations and sounds of shoeing by striking the hoof with the hoof pick edge or a similar tool.
While every breed and individual animal is different, as a general rule, horses stop growing around age five. Depending on what the horse will be used for, by this time, he’s likely in training, if not already being ridden or driven. He is, by all accounts, now an adult.
Adult Hoof Care
“The daily care of the hoof falls to the owner, who should pick out each hoof every day. This should be done before and after work and exercise and at the end of the day,” urged Edmonton farrier Fraser Leonard.
A stone or sharp object wedged in the sole can cause a lot of problems such as bruising and abscesses. Packed in dirt, grass, stall waste can lead to thrush, a bacterial/fungal infection that, at its most benign is a black foul-smelling discharge, and at its worst, can spread into the sensitive tissues of the hoof and internal leg structures. Hoof picking also allows for inspection of the hoof and legs for wounds, cracks, abscesses, bumps, bruises and unusual changes in shape or form.
Along with hoof picking, daily care also comes in the form of good nutrition and exercise. As Allen said, “a healthy horse usually means a healthy foot.”
A balanced diet provides nutrients, such as the amino acid methionine, minerals zinc, copper, manganese and selenium and vitamins A E and C that promote strong hooves, while helping thwart hoof-related problems. Research has shown that some horses benefit from addition of the vitamin B-complex biotin to the diet. While biotin improves new growth, it won’t affect the existing hoof, so it might be several months before a difference in quality is observed.
Movement, whether in the form of targeted work, turn out, or both, is vital to the production of good hooves. Consistent exercise increases circulation to the feet and encourages growth. The hooves of a well-nourished, fit horse not only grow stronger, they also tend to grow faster. And rapidly growing hooves are usually of high quality and easy to maintain.
Hoof growth rate depends on the season, nutrition, environment and exercise and breed. The average is about nine millimetres a month. Therefore, it takes approximately a year for a completely new hoof to grow from the coronary band to the ground.
“With excessive untrimmed growth, hoof balance alters dramatically, at best, decreasing the stride, comfort and performance of the horse, at worst causing permanent structural damage and lameness,” said Leonard.
The barefoot mature horse needs trimming every six to eight weeks, although if they have good feet and conformation, they may be able to go for longer periods.
A horse might need shoes when hoof wear exceeds new hoof growth and also for corrective purposes, performance or protection. Shoes should be removed and reset or replaced every six to eight weeks because they prevent wear and can cause excessive strain on the tendons and ligaments when the hoof grows too long. Owners must check shoes daily to ensure they’re in place and should learn how to remove a sprung or shifted shoe, potentially saving the horse from pain and hoof damage.
“Trimming and selecting shoes should be consistent with the amount and type of work required of the animal, the environmental conditions and the surface upon which the horse will be used,” said Leonard.
In winter, growth slows, and trimming every eight to 10 weeks can be sufficient. Farriers often find, however, that owners ignore routine farrier visits completely during the colder months. “Some horse owners don’t want to spend more money than necessary and so, if they are not working the horse, they will sometimes neglect the feet,” said Allen.
Regular trims and shoe resets are also important during the off-season, said Powell, so that “no drastic changes have to be made in the spring.”
The horse’s environment is also an important hoof health consideration. During dry weather, or with frequent changes from wet conditions to dry, horses can develop flaky, brittle feet, due to the swelling and contracting process. This not only creates cracks and chips, but shoes can become loose and fall off.
Hoof ointments, conditioners or oils can be used, albeit with discretion, to retain moisture in the hoof wall. Allen cautioned, “Only a little is usually necessary. Going overboard can create another set of problems.” Conversely, hoof hardeners will remedy the too-wet foot, but judicious use is recommended because they can be hard on an already damaged hoof.
The horse’s indoor situation is important too. “I can’t stress enough that stabled horses should be kept in clean, dry bedding, with soiled bedding removed a minimum of once per 12 hours of stall keep,” said Leonard. “Ammonia from equine waste and decaying bedding is extremely destructive to hooves.”
Thanks to improved nutrition, veterinary care, de-worming protocols and better understanding of exercise physiology, horses are now living longer than ever before. Animals over the age of 15 are generally considered seniors, but geriatric horses living well into their 30s are becoming more commonplace. Along with advanced years, come associated age-related issues. “Older horses are usually stiffer and weaker or may have injuries to contend with,” said Powell.
Many people make the mistake of ignoring the hooves of older horses, particularly if the horse isn’t working as regularly or is completely retired. But the hooves are just as important in the waning years as they are during other periods of the horse’s life.
Hooves should still be picked out daily. Thrush is a particular problem in older horses because they aren’t as mobile as their younger counterparts. Oxygen isn’t circulating to the limbs as effectively, so can’t impede the organisms that cause the condition.
An older horse’s hoof horn isn’t as high-quality as that of younger horses because their system is less able to effectively use nutrients obtained through feed. They may have difficulty digesting their food due to dental and chewing problems. Nutrient deficiency can also affect other foot structures as well. “Horse owners can analyze and ration proper supplements into the horse’s diet to maintain hoof quality. Some of the vitamins older horses lack are vitamins A and E, biotin and the minerals calcium, zinc, iodine, selenium and copper,” said Powell.
Retired fellows must also be kept on a regular trimming schedule. “When horses are no longer in work due to age, it is important that they have their feet maintained by balanced trimming as they can grow long and out of balance. This can put strain on tendons, ligaments and joints and cause pain for horses that may have arthritis setting in,” said Powell.
While the hoof growth rate is usually a few millimetres less than in adult horses, the amount can vary quite a lot between individuals. Allan explained that a sore horse won’t bear weight on his foot, restricting blood flow and, therefore, hampering growth. Growth might also be slower in a horse that isn’t working or simply isn’t moving around much. This also diminishes blood flow to the feet, resulting in less growth. On the other hand, said Allen, the hooves in some older horses grow “extra fast,” even growing double, or “false,” soles and have to be trimmed more often. “The second problem is better for everyone,” he added.
Another reason owners may avoid hoof care is because aged horses can have trouble balancing and bending their joints for hoof picking. Holding up their feet for trimming can be markedly difficult and painful. “I find that the more patient I am, the better I will get along with a horse that is sore. Some horses can only lift their legs for a short period of time and I must work quickly to trim as much as I can while the leg is up,” said Powell. “I always give a leg back if the horse begins to fight. That way, they are much more obliged to lift it up again if they know there isn’t going to be a struggle to get it back.”
Some farriers use a hoof stand that holds the weight of the leg and offers the horse better balance. Cradles, specifically designed to fit into the top of hoof stands, make trimming easier for the farrier and the horse, said Allen, who like Powell, tries to work quickly and efficiently on the oldies. “Generally, I make sure the horse is standing square before I try and pick up a foot. When I work on the back feet I try and keep them as low as possible,” he said.
Asking a veterinarian about administering a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) such as bute leading up to a farrier’s visit and even for a day or so afterward can be a good idea.
Hoof Care Costs
According to Equine Canada’s 2010 Canadian Horse Industry Profile Study, hoof care is the third priciest horse-keeping cost behind nutrition and veterinary/health expenses. The cost of routine care, however, will always be far less than any financial outlay required to address problems arising from neglect. “I can’t stress regular care of the foot enough,” said Allen. “In the end it will cost you less.”
He added, “Just because horses don’t complain, doesn’t mean they are not hurting. We need to check on them every day to make sure they are getting the proper care. Some horse owners will miss a trimming appointment and then they’re embarrassed, so they are afraid to call the farrier. Don’t ever feel that way. Give us a call because the horse can’t.”
WHAT A HEALTHY HOOF LOOKS LIKE
- Naturally glossy hoof wall
- Soft, elastic coronary band
- Distinct tubule pattern running from coronary band to ground
- No cracks, chips or flares
- Wall thickest at the toe, thinning at quarters, and thickening again toward heel
- Hooves wider at ground than at coronary band in adults. Foals narrower at the ground
- Growth rings evenly spaced around the hoof, each representing about a month’s growth (narrower rings indicate malnutrition, disease, injury, sickness, balance/conformation issues)
- Heel at angle lower than the toe (angles will vary depending on breed, many other factors)
- Straight hoof-pastern angle
- Hoof proportional to the horse’s size to provide optimum weight distribution over foot
- Thick, round, low heel bulbs
- Rubbery frog with shallow grooves and wide, shallow central sulcus
- Well-developed bars
- Thick, flexible, concave sole
- Narrow white line, tightly connected to hoof wall and sole