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How do we best care for the hooves of our horses?
 
The horse’s foot is a complex and amazing piece of architecture, and we all know that having good feet is paramount to having a sound horse. So is the conformation most important or is it more the sheer sturdiness that matters most? Are white hooves inferior to black? And how do we keep our horse’s feet sound, healthy and functional? Are shoes the end-all and most important thing we can do for them? Do all horses need shoes? Pads? What about nutrition, lotions, potions and supplements? Knowing how to best care for those four critical most distal points of horses’ appendages is enough to make us throw up our hands in despair, but is it really that complicated?
 
Here are some fun facts:
Each hoof on a horse can be, and likely is, a little different from the other three; both in size and shape. 
 
Hooves are dynamic; able to expand and contract based on the time of year, the amount of moisture, the hardness of the ground, the activity the horse is engaged in and the length of the hoof wall.
 
The hardness of the hoof wall fluctuates due to weather, moisture and footing.
 
Hooves constantly grow, albeit slower in the winter or dry months, and must be kept trimmed regularly.
 
Knowing the structure of the horse’s foot is important so we can best identify how to care for them. Starting at the top, the coronary band is basically where hair meets hoof. It is responsible for creating the substance we call horn, which makes up the hoof wall. Kind of like our nail bed, it’s sensitive and vascularized. It takes about 9-12 months for the hoof to grow from the coronary band to the toe. 
 
The hoof wall  is the outside of the hoof, made of a keratin-based substance, is the outside of the hoof. This outer armor that protects, keeping all the internal bones, vessels and nerves safe.
 
The periople is the outer layer of the hoof that some farriers rasp off after trimming or shoeing. By removing the almost waxy substance, the hoof looks clean and polished. It’s believed the periople forms a protective covering on the hoof wall, and helps regulate the amount of moisture in the horn, that is secreted from the perioplic ring above the coronet. There is some discrepancy on the actual purpose for the periople and sanding it off doesn’t seem to end in disaster, so as long as the coronary band remains intact, so removing the outer layer may or may not matter. Talk it over with your farrier and get their opinion so you can make the best decision for you and your horse.

The sole of the hoof is the tough part we see when cleaning the feet. It’s also protective, but can be punctured or bruised. The should be slightly concave and not bear weight. 

The frog is the triangle shape you see that goes from the heel to halfway down the sole. The frog works kind of like a pump, allowing blood to be returned up the leg, toward the heart, and is flexible enough to absorb concussion, as well as provide grip and is a weight-bearing surface. The grooves along each side of the frog  allow it to expand with every ground-striking step.

Inside the horse’s hoof, the sensitive sole is underneath the pedal bone, and above the hard sole. 

The digital cushion lies between the pedal bone and deep flexor tendon. It is an elastic, fibrous pad that absorbs concussion when the hoof strikes the ground. This flexible area also works to help to push blood back up the leg.

The lateral cartilages attach to the pedal bone, helping to protect the coffin joint. 

The insensitive laminae are supportive structures that attach to the hoof wall and connect to the sensitive laminae. The sensitive laminae attach and support the pedal bone. If you look at the bottom of your horse’s foot, you can see the division between sensitive and insensitive laminae as the white line on the sole of the foot.

Each hoof is the equivalent to the last bone of our own fingers or toes. Horses, at a thousand-plus pounds stand on them, balanced, poised and elegant. These small, complex structures are capable of holding up all that weight, running, walking, climbing, and even landing after a jump on only two hooves. During a canter, lope or gallop, there is a moment where the horse is completely suspended, so their hooves allow flight as well. Incredible!
 
The fronts are more round than the hinds, which are more of an elongated shape. 
 
Wild horses don’t ever wear shoes and never need them (although once captured, some must).
 
Made up of highly vascularized tissue and then covered by a substance much like our own fingernails, the hoof wall appears indestructible, dead and yet it grows always, is quite alive and crucial to the horse’s overall well-being. 

As hardy as horse hooves are, they are also quite fragile. They are prone to thrush, abscesses, splits, cracks, chips, laminitis, founder, and punctures. The most amazing things are their ability to grip ice and rocks, feel heat and cold, and dig, pound and land a kick that can cut, harm or just graze the intended target.
 
So, knowing these things, how do we, as horsemen and women care for this aspect of our horses? Do we need to buy expensive topical potions? Are shoes the answer? Do horses need pads? Where do you find the answers you seek?
 
Mr. Google is invaluable and we turn to the internet more often than not; at least as a first step. Knowing the internal structures of hooves helps us to understand the concept of angles and the make-up of the nerves and blood supply. This knowledge helps us decide how best to tackle the care of our own horse’s feet. 
 
Caring for horses’ hooves is mostly pretty straightforward and simple:
 
  • Keep ‘em clean. Pick your horse’s hooves before and after every ride. Use a brush to thoroughly clean out sand, gravel, and manure from frogs.
     
  • If shod, clean the area where the shoe meets the hoof wall and check for anything that may be wedged, such as wood or gravel.
     
  • If shod, check the clinches (where nails holding shoes on are bent over) daily.
     
  • If shod, check for shoe-fit. Especially after farrier is finished. There should be no gaps between hoof and shoe. Clinches should be tight and about a third of the way up the wall. Be sure they are flush!
     
  • If shod, check for loosening shoes and double-check by walking on a hard surface as you listen for any rattle or other odd sound.
     
  • If shod check for pinched heels or excessive wear to the shoes.
     
  • If shod and your horse has lost a shoe, find it so no one inadvertently steps on it, and protect the now-barefoot hoof using a boot, keeping him in a clean, soft environment such as a stall.
     
  • If not-shod, check for cracks, splits or chunks missing; then call your farrier before anything worsens.
     
  • If unshod, your horse needs to be standing on the hoof walls and frogs, not the soles.
     
  • All horses should step heel, then toe. If they aren’t, call the vet and farrier to find out why.
     
  • Check your horse’s hooves for heat that may indicate a bruise or an abscess, or inflammation which may indicate the onset of laminitis.
     
  • Keep your farrier on a solid schedule.
     
  • During very dry months, consider adding a mud patch near the water trough so your horse walks through it whenever he gets a drink. This helps add moisture to his hooves.
     
  • Do not paint the hoof with oil of any kind as it will seal moisture out of his hooves.
     
  • Ask your veterinarian and farrier how best to help maintain moisture to your horses’ feet.
     
  • Promote good hoof growth from the inside by feeding a good quality diet.
     
  • Supplement with biotin if needed.
     
  • Supplement with flax seed (must be ground) to help add omega 3 oil to his diet and this helps both his hooves and his hair to be healthy.
     
  • Check the frogs for any sloughing and clip off any flaps or excess. If you aren’t able or comfortable doing so, your farrier will help.
     
  • By keeping feet clean and healthy, you are helping to keep your horse sound, balanced and happy.
     
  • Sometimes hoof issues will cause a horse to be lame. Other times, he may begin showing bad behavior such as bucking, balking or rearing.
     
  • Most lameness issues will show up in the hoof, not higher.
     
  • None of us has X-ray vision; call your veterinarian if your horse is lame, has hot or warm feet, begins acting out, stumbles frequently, or for any other reason that you cannot easily determine.
     
  • Not all horses need shoes, but not all are able to go barefoot, so consult with your vet and your farrier if you aren’t sure.
     
  • When choosing supplements for good hooves, consider what you are feeding, where your horse lives and what he needs. Usually a good biotin supplement will tell you how much to give daily.
     
  • Remember, it takes almost a year for any changes to feed and supplements to show up on the hooves since growth time from coronary band to toe is that long.
     
  • No hoof, no horse. This is true, so take care of them!
 
When buying a horse, don’t just kick the tires! If you notice something that looks concerning, get a professional opinion as to whether radiographs may be indicated. Those tiny bones on the inside that are connected to tendons and ligaments are fragile. They break, they crack, and they can simply be formed incorrectly from birth. Look first at the outside of the horse for good conformation, stay away from club feet or short, straight pasterns. Research, ask questions and remember that feeding and caring for a sound, happy horse costs the same as feeding and caring for an unsound one. Difference is, you can safely work with and ride the sound one, he’ll be happier and you’ll have him longer. 
 
The takeaway here is to remember that our horses need good hoof care, and that mean regular farrier visits, a good diet and good footing. Doing your own research and consulting with a veterinarian and qualified farrier can save you money, time, heartache and enable you and your horse to live together, Happily Ever After!
 
~Tanya Buck
HorsesHappilyEverAfter.com 
 
As usual, if you want to chat about anything here, give a shout, I love hearing from you! info@TanyaBuck.com
 
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Tanya Buck
Published on 2020-02-05