Basic Hoof Care for the Horse Owner
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“No foot, no horse” is an old saying that is still true. A sound and healthy hoof is crucial to the health and function of the horse. Regular hoof care is one of the most important aspects of keeping a horse.
The hoof continually grows, like human fingernails, to compensate for normal wear and tear. Under natural conditions, horses’ feet wear about the same rate they grow, but the confined horse’s feet may grow too long if he’s not ridden much — and may split, chip, or break. At the other extreme, hooves may wear too fast if he’s ridden a lot. Proper trimming and shoeing can keep feet healthy and at the proper length.
A normal hoof wall grows about ¼ to 3/8 inch per month. The entire hoof wall may be replaced by new hoof horn every eight to 12 months. If the horse isn’t wearing its feet as fast as they grow, the feet must be periodically trimmed to keep them from getting too long. If the horse is shod, his shoes need to be reset or replaced — after trimming the feet — every six to 10 weeks on average, depending on the rate of hoof growth for that horse.
This is why regular farrier visits are important (or learning how to trim and shoe the horse yourself), to keep your horse’s feet within a healthy range of hoof growth. A certain horse might have feet that grow very fast and toes become too long (putting the feet out of balance) in just four to five weeks after being trimmed or shod. This creates more risk for stumbling (and cracking/chipping if the horse is barefoot and not wearing his feet enough). That horse needs more frequent attention.
By contrast, other horses have slow-growing feet and can go two months or longer — especially if the feet are well balanced by a proper trim before needing to be trimmed or shod again, unless the shoes wear out faster than that. If you ride your horse a lot in rocky terrain and shoes wear out before the feet have grown long enough to need trimming, your farrier can add hard-surfacing to the shoes so they last longer.
A good farrier will keep the feet balanced and functioning properly so the hoof will be elastic and resilient, keeping proper foot and pastern angles for optimum movement, agility, and hoof health. The farrier will clean out the foot, assess the frog and sole to trim away loose tags or excess material, then trim the hoof wall to proper length for that particular foot and the horse’s needs. If the horse will be left barefoot, enough hoof wall is left at the ground surface to take most of the weight — so the horse won’t be walking on his soles and bruising them. The edge of the wall is smoothed so it won’t chip or split.
If the horse will be shod, the farrier trims the hoof wall more, to make a smooth, level seat for the shoe. The type of shoe chosen depends on the work the horse will be doing, whether it’s winter (needing more traction on ice and frozen ground) or summer, and the type of footing/terrain your horse will be ridden over.
YOUR JOB AS A HORSE OWNER
You are the person most responsible for the health and welfare of your horse and daily care. Even if your farrier may come to trim/shoe the horse, this animal depends on you to monitor and care for his feet between visits.
If you are riding, training, or handling the horse daily, this gives you a good opportunity to look at his feet. Regular hoof care is important. The feet should be picked up and examined each time you do anything with the horse. If you clean them out completely, you can assess the health of the frog and sole. A hoof continually packed with mud/manure is more likely to develop thrush, caused by microbes that thrive in a moist, dark, airless environment. If you detect the beginnings of thrush (black grime along the edges of the frog, with an unmistakable bad odor) you can treat it with a product recommended by your farrier — or tincture of iodine — and halt it early.
Picking up and cleaning the feet regularly is not only good for training and helps develop good manners — keeping the horse comfortable and cooperative about having his feet handled — but also gives you a chance to feel the feet and legs, to know if there is any heat in the foot or any heat and/or swelling above the hoof.
If the horse has a serious problem, he will be lame. Sometimes, however, a problem starts mild and you won’t detect it early unless you are paying attention to the feet. Feeling the feet to see if one hoof is hotter than the others or swollen can give an early warning. Morning is the best time to feel the hooves because they are generally cool at that time of day, and it’s easier to tell if one foot is warmer than the others.
If you pick up each foot, you’ll also know if there are any rocks or sharp gravel stuck into the bottom of the hoof. Just as you would never saddle a horse without first brushing his back to remove any matted hair/mud or dirt/debris, you should remove any rocks and debris from the bottom of his feet before you ride him.
If you are practicing regular hoof care, you will also know if they are becoming dry and brittle and vulnerable to cracking, or too soft. Hooves in a dry climate may get brittle and crack, but this can also happen if you bathe a horse too often, with water running down over his feet. Being continually wet and dry, wet and dry can deplete the natural oils in the hoof wall and lead to horse hoof problems such as dryness and cracking, just as a person gets cracked, chapped hands when they are in and out of water continually.
If you live in a wet climate and the horse is standing in mud or walking around in a wet pasture, his feet may become too soft and weak. If the integrity of your horse’s feet is compromised by environmental conditions, ask your farrier about hoof products you could use between farrier visits, to try to protect the feet from these extremes.
If you are riding the horse and he’s shod, check each foot before you ride — not only to make sure the bottom of the foot is clean but also that the shoe is tight and no nails are working loose. At the end of every ride, before you put the horse away in his stall or pasture, check the feet and shoes again. A rock jammed into the shoe might not be obvious until you look. It might not make him lame immediately, but if he has to walk on it for a few more hours (or days!) it might create a bruise.
Even if your horse is out at pasture and not being ridden, or has some days off, don’t ignore him. It pays to do periodic checking to make sure he is healthy and sound — and this includes his feet. Unless you check, you won’t know if he has an injury, a stone bruise, a rock or stick jammed into the bottom of the foot, a shoe coming loose, or feet that are beginning to crack and chip if he’s barefoot. There is no substitute for “the eye of the master” when it comes to taking care of horses. If you notice a problem early, you can take care of it immediately if it’s something you can handle, or be able to call your farrier and have him/her come sooner than the next scheduled appointment or call your veterinarian if it’s some kind of injury that needs medical attention.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.