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  • September 21, 2021 11 min read

    A guide to your horse's hoof health

    'No hoof, no horse' is an oft-used saying for a good reason.

    The hoof is one of the most critical parts of the horse's body and the adage, and 99% of lameness issues occur within the foot. So, owners should be familiar with this one part of the horse.

    Use the table of contents to jump directly to the section you need

    Anatomy of a horse hoof

    The hoof is a marvel of Mother Natures' most ingenious design. It's a closed capsule containing bones, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels, creating a small but mighty support structure that facilitates locomotion and acts as a shock absorber.

    There are three notable structures in the anatomy of a horse hoof.

    First, there are both insensitive and sensitive parts of the hoof, which is why it can bear a horseshoe. There are three bones within the foot: the pedal bone, the main one, and the lower half of the short pastern above it. There is also a tiny bone called the navicular bone, which is behind the pedal bone. The pedal bone is supported within the hoof by leaves of interlocking tissue, called laminae, some of which are incredibly sensitive.

    Second, there is no pump to promote circulation within the hoof. Instead, the horse relies on the natural effect of gravity and its body weight pressing on the plantar cushion, which sits above the frog in the hoof capsule.

    You can feel the pulse of the blood supply on either side of the horse's fetlock, where the blood vessel is close to the surface, and this is called the deep digital pulse. It is often used as an indicator to assess lameness or injury. A slight pulse is regular, but a firm or bounding pulse indicates inflammation and can indicate something amiss.

    Lastly, there is no muscle below the horse's knee and hock. Instead, a selection of tendons and ligaments continue down both the front and back of the leg. These attach to different areas of bone within the hoof to provide the mechanism for support, movement, and control.

    All three of these anatomical structures make up the bulk of the horse hoof and work together to ensure the balance and mobility of the horse.

    The critical parts of the hoof  



    To help owners gain a more intimate knowledge of their horses' hooves, below are the critical parts of the foot:

    Hoof Wall  The hoof exterior provides a hard protective layer; it is made of keratin. It takes the horse around a year to grow an entirely new foot from the coronary band to the toe.

    Coronary Band – Also called the coronet, connects the horse's skin and hair to the top part of the hoof. It is the point at which the horn is generated to form the foot.

    Injuries to the coronary band cause significant disruption to horn growth which is visible for months as it grows down the wall of the hoof.

    Periople – This is the shiny outer layer on the wall of the hoof that looks like varnish. It helps regulate the moisture content in the horn and is secreted from the perioplic ring, which is above the coronet.

    Sole – The underside of the horse's foot, visible when you pick up the foot. The visible outer sole is rigid and insensitive, designed to protect the sensitive sole and other structures which sit beneath it in the hoof capsule.

    The sole should be slightly concave and is not designed to bear weight. In horses with flat feet, the sole does maintain weight, which can cause different issues, such as corns and bruises. An owner can protect a horse's flat sole with rubber pads.

    Frog – This is the 'V' or triangular-shaped area visible on the underside of the foot. The frog begins at the heel and extends to a point about halfway down the sole. Additionally, the frog is designed to provide shock absorbency, offer grip, and should bear weight and come into contact with the ground.

    Grooves along either side of the frog facilitate expansion when the frog makes ground contact. Ground contact is essential, as this momentary pressure on the frog promotes blood to return up the horse's leg.

    Sensitive Sole – This sits directly below the pedal bone and is protected by the rigid outer sole.

    Plantar Cushion – This can also be called the 'Digital Cushion.' It is located between the pedal bone and the deep flexor tendon. It is an elastic and fibrous pad that provides protection from a concussion and helps to push the blood back up the horse's leg.

    Lateral Cartilages are attached to either side of the pedal bone and are designed to support and protect the coffin joint, which is the joint between the short pastern and the pedal bone enclosed in the hoof capsule. They also have a role in absorbing shock.

    Laminae – These are the leaves of interlocking tissue, and they attach to the hoof wall and link to the sensitive laminae supporting the pedal bone. The divide between the two types of laminae is visible as a junction of white lines on the sole of the hoof.

    Despite its many different shapes and sizes, the hoof is an interconnected system of bones that work together to support a horse. When it comes down to hoof conformation, there are three major components: wall thickness, frog shape (or lack thereof), as well as how much space there is between each toe pad on all four hooves.


    How hoof anatomy fits together for correct hoof conformation

    Correct foot conformation

    Apart from good quality horn, in general terms, the horse's feet should be in proportion to the size of the rest of his body. The front feet should appear round and roughly the same size, while the hind feet should also appear to be a pair. 

    To illustrate, the front hooves of an adult horse look like they could fit in a balled-up hand, while the hind legs are longer and jagged, with each toe ending in distinct points that give them their descriptive name "cloven."

    The shape, size ratio, and coloration on all parts (including ears) must match up. That means there should be no discrepancy between what you see when riding through daily workouts versus how the animal moves around its home range during feeding time.



    Good horn quality is essential to a horse's well-being, but there can be more than one factor at play when it comes down to poor conformation and hoof care. For example, a poorly conformed foot may result in strains to tendons and ligaments in the case of low-heel, long-toe horses and will offer poor shock absorbency in horses that predispose to a more vertical foot.

    In most cases, owners can rectify poor horn quality with proper care and appropriate nutrition. However, a good farrier and carefully chosen shoes can help support a horse with hoof conformation issues.


    What can you do to influence the hoof?

    Unfortunately, hooves cannot be influenced in terms of confirmation. Like us, some horses are born with better feet than others. However, owners and groomers can still help a horse with confirmation issues by first understanding what they may be.

    For example, certain breeds are predisposed to certain types of hoof structures. Thoroughbreds can often have flat feet with soles that bear weight on the ground and are low or collapsed in the heel area.

    On the other hand, cobs or heavier breeds tend towards a much more vertical foot with a better hoof or pastern angle. However, the lack of angle can increase the concussive effect through the foot and leg, causing wear and tear issues later on in older horses.  

    With better knowledge of the conformation challenges of their horse, owners can influence horn quality with proper nutrition and external care. Also, good farriery techniques can impact nature's defects, so it's always a brilliant idea to be on good terms with your farrier. Perhaps making them a cup of coffee on a cold morning is not such a chore after all.


    How can your farrier help conformation issues?

    Different types of shoeing can improve undesirable aspects of a hoof, such as low or collapsed heels or feet that are too upright or boxy. Horses with a low heel may benefit from a bar shoe. Farriers can provide either a completely round egg bar or a similar heart bar shoe with a heart-shaped piece of metal over the frog. 

    Supporting the heels helps prevent injury from overreaching and relieves strain on those all-important tendons and ligaments, which originate further up the leg.

    Corrective or remedial shoeing may be used long-term for anatomical issues or a short period after a specific injury or illness, like laminitis. There has been a lot of research and development into the glue on shoes, and they offer laminitis horses and ponies support without the trauma of nailing a shoe onto an already inflamed foot.

    Good farriery is about collaboration with the owner and the vet. Additionally, this can be just as applicable to horses recovering from an injury due to sporting events. A different or alternative shoe is just one part of the picture; shoeing intervals, the location of the nails, and daily care of the foot are all part of a good hoof care program.


    Nutrition and hoof health

    Other than genetics, the second most significant influence on the horse's foot is nutrition. A balanced diet should provide a horse with all the dietary requirements for good horn growth. That said, some horses may need supplements in certain circumstances.

    If the horse is young or resting, it may not be receiving a sufficient quantity of rations to ensure coverage of the necessary nutrients. Illness, injury, or a change of routine can also lead to the requirement of an essential boost, which you can provide with specifically designed hoof supplements.

    The most important dietary element for good hoof growth is biotin, also known as vitamin H.

    Biotin is synthesized naturally within the horse's body through the processing of fiber in the hindgut. So, feeding plenty of long fiber should be the horse owner's first port of call when considering good overall nutrition. A poor diet would be the first thought when a horse has a struggling hoof horn.

    Another potential issue is the horse is not absorbing food properly across the gut wall. A compromised gut function could be caused by either illness or a diet that is perhaps higher in grain-based feeds than long fiber. It is not necessarily because the horse is being underfed or is lacking in the correct nutrition.

    Horses evolved to eat long fiber, and it is easy to confuse the energy-rich demands of competitive riding and the plethora of attractive modern mixed feeds available to buy. 

    When looking for a good hoof supplement, it is essential to understand that you should not feed biotin in isolation. It is because critical dietary elements do not act independently; they are all interrelated. Further, a good supplement should also contain MSM, bioavailable sulfur and methionine, and trace elements, such as zinc and manganese.

    Feeding the appropriate level for the horse's size and weight is crucial; otherwise, the supplements will not be effective. The ballpark figure for daily feeding is usually around 15mg for ponies, 30 mg for horses, and 45mg for more extensive or heavy horses.

    As the horn grows slowly, improvements may not appear immediately; although, some products recommend a loading dose at the start to kickstart good growth. It takes 9-12 months for the horn to grow down from the coronary band and around half that for development at the heels.



    Using topical hoof products 

    Many products help support poor horn growth or look after other aspects of the horse's feet. 

    For example, hoof dressings promote good horn quality and help prevent and deal with cracking, dry, brittle horn, and loss of moisture. Most hoof oils and conditioners will contain properties that nourish the hoof and also offer some protection against bacteria.

    Conditioning products must allow the hoof to breathe. Meaning, owners should not seal the horn so that the moisture level can fluctuate as nature intended. It is also crucial that they do not overly soften the horn.

    Nowadays, most manufacturers are aware of the criticism leveled against traditional hoof oils and provide products for the show ring, which will leave a lasting and deep shine without compromising hoof health. Splitting and cracking can occur when the hoof is too dry, and so any products used should support good moisture retention. 

    There are also plenty of products to treat the underside of the hoof. Iodine and anti-fungal sprays are popular during the winter months when thrush can be more of a problem. Beyond these, some treatments harden the sole, particularly helpful for thin-soled and flat-footed thoroughbreds.


    Environmental factors and hoof health

    Working on artificial surfaces is excellent for a horse's joints, but sand is abrasive, which can impact the horse's hoof over time. Furthermore, arid conditions can lead to cracking and brittle horn as moisture continuously evaporates from the horse's hoof.

    Blood and lymph nourish the horn cells in terms of moisture, but a prolonged dry period can be a red flag to owners who need to condition their horse's feet with a topical moisturizer. If you have access to water when out hacking, a stream, or ford, standing them in water regularly for a few minutes every day can prevent these issues.

    Other environmental factors include excessive moisture, which is just as undesirable as extreme heat. Meanwhile, long and wet winters can cause changes within the hoof because it is wet for protracted periods. 

    Stabling horses is the simplest way to minimize the horse's exposure to boggy, wet fields. That is why late winter is traditionally referred to as 'abscess season.' A horse can develop an abscess at any time of year, but it's much more common in late winter following prolonged exposure to the wet ground.

    Changes and distortions occur within waterlogged hooves, leaving spaces and crevices where bacteria can penetrate. Those bacteria then thrive in moist conditions leading to a build-up of infection and pus.


    Good daily, monthly and seasonal hoof care routines

    Each season will present different challenges in terms of hoof care. Winter is often characterized by waterlogged hooves and soft heels, whereas the summer months make horses prone to raised clenches and brittle, cracked feet. 

    While care does, to some extent, vary according to the conditions, some things never change:

    • Pick out all hooves at least once per day, especially after bringing them in from the field and following any exercise.
    • Check shoes for risen clenches and hooves for any cracking or damage after picking out feet.
    • At any indication of an unpleasant odor, spray the hooves with an anti-fungal or iodine spray.
    • Stick to the shoeing or trimming intervals recommended by your farrier. Overgrown feet and long toes are far more likely to cause problems with chipping and cracking and can give rise to other issues.



    Essential hoof care items for the grooming kit

    1. Hoof pick. Some have brushes on the back of the selection to help remove dirt and other debris.
    2. A clear iodine spray is more helpful as purple mist stains red after a day or two, making it hard to see bruising on the sole.
    3. hoof food that will offer support and nourishment in dry conditions and look smart for competition.
    4. Vet wrap and veterinary padding, along with gorilla tape, are essential items to treat a hoof abscess and should always be present in your veterinary kit.


    Shod versus Unshod

    The great debate over which is better rages on endlessly. Some people feel that horses should not wear shoes as this was not what nature intended. However, humans have domesticated horses for thousands of years and required them to work for us. More recently, we have used them to engage in sporting and leisure roles so that shoes can assist with these demands. 

    Some horses cope very well without shoes and can perform various jobs, while others don't. How the horse is kept, the position it is required to do, and the local environment all, to some extent, dictate how realistic it is to go unshod or barefoot. 

    The most important thing is to look at each horse as an individual and determine whether it is both desirable and possible to go without shoes based on ridden work and conformation. 

    Some horses do well without a complete set of shoes, usually remaining shod just in front. But horses that are barefoot or unshod will still require trimming and the attention of a farrier at appropriate intervals of around 6-8 weeks.



    Final remarks on hoof care

    Four good hooves are vital to the soundness and general health of any horse. 

    Weak and brittle horns will reflect poor care and inadequate nutrition, cracking, and failing to hold a shoe. It can lead to a host of other veterinary issues, both minor and possibly major. 

    Therefore, good hoof care should be at the top of the list when it comes to stable management priorities.

    What we have learned is that while you can't change your horse's genetics, but you can make sure you: 

    • Provide a healthy diet
    • Keep their hooves clean and dry
    • Strategize with your farrier and vet

    With proper care, you can ensure your horse has the best chance of staying healthy and be free to run around happily.

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