Managing your horses health is a laborious yet important task, requiring continuous support and often recognising slight changes in your horses demeanour and mobility levels.
In this article we focus on how vital managing your horses hooves is to their overall health, the importance of ensuring your horses hoof conformation is good and how to keep your horses hooves clean and maintained. A happy horse has healthy hooves.
The basics of horse hoof conformation
Let us take a quick look at what is meant by a horses hoof conformation.
A horses hoof conformation is based on millions of years of evolution, from a 5-digit limb to todays single digit hoof. This evolutionary process has ensured horses have a strong footing to support their movement on all types of ground conditions.
Wild horses maintain their hooves by walking long distances across a variety of surfaces. In domesticated horses this is not possible, so maintaining the shape (conformation) of a horses hoof is vital.
Without maintaining your horses hooves your horse will be susceptible to high levels of pain and lameness.
A horses hoof is a complex structure which is made up of three bones and supported by tendons, ligaments and cartilage. A horses hoof is the lowest point of each horses leg which makes contact with the ground and as such carries the weight of the entire horse. The first part of the hoof you see is the hoof wall, which in a healthy horse should be approximately half the length of the wall at the toes.
It is now well recognised that horses hooves should have an angle of between 45º- 50º in their front hooves and 50º-55º in their hind hooves.
Without overly complicating the subject, if the angle of the horses hoof is not within these recommended angles then additional pressure is placed on the sole of the foot which leads to increased strain on tendons, ligaments and other areas of the horses body - a ‘butterfly effect’ as it were.
The basic structures of a horses hoof
To understand the basics of horse hoof anatomy is key in providing the best support you can to their hooves. The hoof is made up of 3 components; the wall, the sole and the frog.
The wall of the hoof
This part of the hoof is visible and can be easily seen when the horse is standing still. The wall of the hoof is horn-like and continually grows. It contains no nerves or blood vessels and is separated into three different sections; the toe, quarters and heel. Due to the nature of a horses movement the front feet have thicker walls at the toe whereas on the hind legs the thickness of the wall is equally thick.
The sole of the hoof
The sole of the horses hoof is only visible when the horse lifts its leg and is shaped as such so it prevents the sole from touching the ground when moving. The horse sole contains no nerves but protects the sensitive tissues that sit beneath it.
The frog of the hoof
This element of the hoof is the first part of the hoof to make contact with the ground when moving. The horses weight presses down directly on the horse frog and has evolved to provide shock absorbing properties to the horse and promote greater blood flow through the leg.
How to maintain healthy hooves
As we touch on above, the angle in which the horses hoof sits on the ground is vitally important in ensuring a sound horse.
A farrier is a highly-skilled professional who is trained in caring for your horses feet. They will have studied the anatomy and biology of a horse and provide services such as trimming, shoeing the horses hooves and be experienced at addressing any injuries or existing conditions relating to the feet or hooves.
Farriers play an important role in ensuring each individual horse has healthy hooves. Choosing a farrier is critical in making sure your horses welfare is maintained and finding a registered farrier is an important step in this process.
Farriers will advise on many aspects of a horses hoof which will require an understanding of the individuals workload, clinical history and overall hoof balance.
The work a farrier carries out on your horses hooves plays an important role in your horses health. Regular trimming will be required and ensuring a health balance of the hoof is key to maintaining a happy horse. They will also be best-placed to advise on whether your horse needs shoes or not.
Alongside the work your farrier will carry out on your horse, you also play an important role in maintaining your horses hooves. Regular and continuous cleaning of your horses hooves is important in avoiding common hoof conditions.
Let us take a quick look into four top-tips in what you can do to support your horses hoof health:
1) Help your horse grow the best possible hooves
Genetically horses hooves grow better than others. Your role is to ensure they are being given the right environment to achieve optimum growth.
Diet plays a pivotal role in hoof growth.
Horses require certain nutrients in specific quantities to grow, and then maintain, healthy hooves - just as we do with our finger nails.
The healthiest of horses have a well balanced and nutrient rich diet. Specific ingredients are required to achieve this. A horses hoof contains, as with our finger nails, an insoluble protein called keratin. Keratin is made up of amino acids which the horse digests and then uses to form its structure. There are several types of amino acids that make up the perfect mix for hoof growth, so a good tip is to provide a diet which contains the ’10 essential amino acids’. Your vet, and in some cases the horses farrier, can recommend the ideal diet for this but many supplements are now available which provide these essential acids.
Biotin, or vitamin B7, is also an important vitamin for hoof health. Biotin contains sulphur and although biotin naturally exists in grass and is a ‘water-soluble vitamin’ any excess of this vitamin is simply excreted naturally. Again, there are any supplements available on the market developed to provide your horse with sufficient levels of biotin.
Understanding the individual horse needs is vital so often advise from the vet and even obtaining a mineral test (now widely available in the equine community) can shed light on what nutrients and vitamins the horse may require, or not require.
2) Keep your horses hooves relatively dry
If your horse continually has wet legs and hoofs then the walls of the hoof can weaken and provide an ideal environment for bacterial infections. Trying to limit extreme fluctuations in the moisture content of the hoof is important.
In the summer months when the ground is dry you may look at providing an element of moisture to the hoof although in most climates the morning dew will provide this. Equally, as important as ensuring the hooves are not too wet, overly dry hooves can lead to cracking which can lead to further health complications.
One challenge to owners is trying to avoid the summer cycle of wet-dry-wet hooves which can lead to slight swelling and reduction in the hoof itself meaning shoes will regularly fall out.
3) Cleaning your horses hooves
Whether your horse is stabled or turned out, routinely cleaning your horses hooves plays an important role in the overall health of the hoof. Carefully lift each of your horses legs and inspect their hoof. Check their feet and soles for any stones, cracks or splitting. If they have shoes on, check the shoes are in place properly and that there is equal wear-and-tear across the shoe.
Hoof cleaning can be done using hoof picks which are widely available to help you maintain a clean hoof. Work from the heel to the toe paying careful attention to the cleft around the frog. Many picks now have a stiff brush attached to them helping you brush away any unwanted pieces of dirt.
If you are unsure how best to do this, ask someone who is experienced at picking horses feet as it can be a daunting task at first. It is also advisable to fully understand the anatomy of what makes up a horses hoof.
As well as regularly cleaning your horses hooves, providing your horse with a clean environment is also important. Keep stables mucked out and supplied with clean bedding.
Keeping your horses hooves clean will help avoid unwanted bacteria infections such as equine thrush and mud fever.
4) Make sure your horse is exercising
Another valuable tip to help your horse hooves is to ensure your horse is exercising. Wild horses maintain their hooves by covering long distances and naturally wearing down their hooves. Movement of the hoof is essential in circulating blood and providing good blood supply to the hoof.
If your horse is stabled for long periods it is important to encourage regular movement and exercise. This can be done from regular turnout, lungeing, hacking or ridden work.
If you are regular exercising your horse then you can look at investing in a pair of hoof boots. These are an effective way at absorbing the shock experiencing in moving on uneven ground and are widely available in tack stores.
Horse hoof trimming
Maintaining your horses hoof shape and length is done by trimming. This is a service carried out by a farrier. The purpose of trimming is to replicate the natural wear-and-tear of the hoof.
In most cases your horse will require regular trimming in 3-6 week cycles.
How to establish if your horse has a happy hoof?
The first important step in establishing whether your horse has happy hooves is their demeanour. A horse with issues relating to their hoof will give early indications of pain or discomfort by changes in their overall demeanour. You know your horse better than anyone so detecting any slight changes in their demeanour can be vital in spotting early signs of lameness.
Another sign to look out for is a well-balanced hoof. This is visible when the horse is in a standing position or when the horse is walking. A horse with unbalanced hooves will likely show signs of a reduction in mobility and alter their natural gait.
If you are managing a sports horse, whether in dressage, 3-day eventing, showjumping, polo or any other active equine discipline - regular and continuous inspections of their hooves are required to protect your horse from the potential of injury.
Healthy hooves have a consistent temperature across all four feet, so its worth touching all four regularly and establishing that the temperature is equal across all of them.
As with the temperature of the horses hoof, you can also detect the hoof pulse - or digital pulse. Place your hands either side of the fetlock and you should be able to detect a faint pulse. If any inflammation is present then the digital pulse will likely be stronger, an indication that further investigation is required or that an injury has occurred. A happy hoof will only have a feint pulse so don’t be alarmed if you cannot detect one.
A well maintained hoof will be flat and smooth with a few occasional ridges vertically down the hoof wall. Keep a close eye on any changes to the smoothness of the hoof all as this can be an indicator if changes occur that something is not right. Ridges on the hoof wall are a natural reflection of any shift in the horse hoof health and horizontal cracks or ridges indicate any potential issue.
Make sure, if your horse is shod, that the shoes are well-fitted and match the natural shape of the horses hoof wall. If the horse is continually losing shoes this can warrant further investigation. The shoe should fit completely flat against the hoof and avoid contact with the frog.
Supporting a newborn horses hooves
When a newborn foal arrives in your care there are some key things you can do to support their hooves which differs to looking after an adult horse.
When a foal is born it is important to assess their conformation immediately, often by the vet; any deformities can often be address if handled properly and although hooves should not be trimmed for the first two months in some emergency cases if deformities are found then experienced farriers can begin to work on foals hooves after they are two weeks old, although rare.
After two months the foal should be seen by the farrier. The farrier will begin to desensitise the foal by rubbing down the legs and patting the soles and frogs of the feet with their hands. They will continue to do this for several minutes on each foot until the foal relaxes - many farriers will show owners how to do this so it can be done on daily basis. This will help the foal establish a connection with their hooves and that they require regular maintenance lifting their feet and being comfortable in the process. It is important at this stage to ensure the hooves are clean and free from any debris.
Trimming will begin with regular foot balancing to allow the foals hooves to grow as straight as possible and provide an evenly distributed gait. Although regular trimming is required, more often than with adult horses, very little of the hooves are actually trimmed. Many foals will not require shoes until they begin some form of serious training, your farrier is well placed to support you on that decision moving forward.
Treating hoof problems
Equine hoof problems are a major concern for many horse owners and can lead to various levels of lameness and potentially your horse being forced to retire, or worse! Treating any indication of a hoof problem is of great importance.
Whilst the majority of hoof problems are treatable they can become far worse and lead to further complications if left untreated. Whilst most hoof conditions are mild, issues such as navicular and laminitis are health concerns which need addressing.
Regular farrier visits and good stable management are important when treating any hoof problem and understanding your horse dietary requirements will be key to aiding the horse recovery.
If you horse is showing signs of pain or indications of lameness then many owners now regularly look at providing their horse with tack which is developed at supporting their general health and wellbeing. Advanced magnetic technologies, such as EQU StreamZ horse bands, provide owners with a valuable technology aimed at reducing inflammation and rebalancing the system to support the nature healing process.
Whether your horse has faced a hoof condition or not, the likelihood is that at some stage they will. Understanding your horses hooves when no issues are present can be key to noticing any small changes which may indicate a potential issue.
Find the right farrier for your horse and spend some time understanding the key components of a horse hoof and how that applies to your individual horse. Knowledge is key.
Remember that every horse is different and that as you are their carer it is vital that you maintain their hooves to prevent complications or painful issues for the horse moving forward.
Ensure they have somewhere warm/cool and dry to sleep and that their hooves are regularly cleaned and maintained. With all the preparation and knowledge behind you, even if a hoof issue does occur you will be well placed to deal with it, and don’t forget, if one does arise - you are not alone!