As a kid riding lesson horses first and then grooming and exercising privately owned horses for lesson money. I got pretty far without knowing much about horse hoof care other than to always pick the hooves before and after riding.There were a lot of boring hoof products my horsey catalogs that I didn’t understand. I figured some horses had good feet, some horses had Navicular disease.
I did like those bell boots with the interchangeable colors a lot. Maybe dramatic foreshadowing?? Farriers love bell boots.
Farrier science takes years of study and thousands of feet in your lap to really wrap your head around how they respond to trimming, shoeing, time, the environment, management, use, etc..
The hoof is so perfect, it seems simple at first glance. It is anything but.
This simple appearance is a source of many misconceptions. What seems like the obvious answer to an otherwise seasoned horse person, or sometimes fellow shoer, is not actually correct once the true complexity of the hoof is considered.
Here are a few examples:
1. Some horses just have good feet.
There are horses born with good feet, however, usually have some other things in common other than the prized, high quality hoof wall. Often good feet reflect of other nice things about the animal or where he lives.
- Horses with legs that are mostly straight with hooves pointing in the same general direction will wear their feet evenly and be free of distortions like dished toes and flares
- Horses with cupped hooves
- Horses that are in dry environments
- Being related to other horses with good feet, intended or otherwise
There are also animals with not so great feet. This is not necessarily because they have actual “bad hooves”, it can be a result of one or a combination of factors.
- Horses with conformation that causes them to paddle, rope walk, drag a toe, stab, be lame, etc will wear unevenly. Without the regular intervention of a conscientious farrier one side will get wore to a nub while the other side grows long and flares outward.
- Horseshoeing or trimming by an unqualified or careless farrier can cause problems, especially if the same mistake is repeatedly made.
- Hoof left not level or not trimmed often enough. The hoof will flare on longer.
- Shoe doesn’t fit foot or left on too long. This causes corns or bruising of heels.
- Shoe doesn’t fit, or left on too long. The nails waller out hoof wall of an loose shoe. Excessive nails.
- Excessively wet environments are very detrimental to hoof quality.
- Repeated shoe loss
- Horses with sloping pasterns and low heel angle conformation
- Nails behind the widest point of the foot restrict hoof function. This can lead to or exacerbate chronic hoof problems.
Horses that I would classify as having truly “bad feet” may have issues such as club foot, chronic laminitis, horses with “no heel”, and or moderate to severe white line disease. Feet like this have weaker or distorted hoof due to pathologies in the hoof capsule. This will require more frequent visits from a farrier with experience in managing imbalances and management of their environment.
Fortunately, even horses with compromised and diseased hooves can improve when hoof care is a priority.
My best advice is to be proactive and get your horses feet done before they look overdue and evaluate management practices in regard to the daily care and conditions. A step such as waiting until the dew has dried from a grassy field to turn out a horse would be a good example of this.
If your horse has distressed looking feet that are not improving and you are not getting a satisfactory answer of why, just like in other aspects in life, it may be time to try a different approach.
2. Feeding supplements will cure my horse’s feet.
I do not recommend hoof supplements until all other balance, management and environmental issues have been resolved. Horses with bad feet have normal levels of biotin in their blood. Despite what you may have heard, there is little evidence that supports that they have a significant impact on hoof growth or quality. These products cost well over $1 per day and there are valid, industry-wide concerns about the lack of regulation in the supplement industry. There have been recent allegations by scientists claiming these products do containing any evidence of containing what the label promises.
Biotin is he main ingredient touted by the supplement makers to promote hoof growth and it is required for not only hoof growth. It is required by every cell in the body. What no one ever mentions is that biotin deficiency is extremely rare. It is found in oats, hay and grass which is what most horses eat anyway. If you are feeding quality horse food, you should be fine.
Also, because hoof grows so slowly, it will take more than a year’s worth of supplementation to see the purported “results” that the supplement makers promise. I would like to suggest that it is more likely that improvements in the horses environment, management and farrier work is what leads to better looking hooves.
It is possible that since there are products that are touting other ingredients not as present as biotin in the equine diet. This may be of real benefit to some horses, I am not a nutritionist. People seem to really like to feed the hoof supplements for the right reasons. They want to avoid or remedy a nasty hoof problem, and of course I do too. I don’t think it is possible to “supplement” your way out of the majority of the hoof problems I come across.
The efforts and resources need to go into good shoeing and management first.
3. Judging the quality of a shoeing job by how long the shoes stay on.
No one likes a lost shoe, but losing shoes is a part of shoeing horses well. The best way to never have to go back and replace lost shoes is to use a shoe that is too small for the foot.
I was reading an olden time farrier book that has all horses on a 3-4 week cycle and going any longer was asking for trouble. Those people needed those animals so they did what it took, that may be the case with some today.
A properly fit horseshoe is going to be slightly larger than the horse’s hoof, especially in the heel area. The hoof repeatedly expands as it strikes the ground, supporting the horse and rider then contracts as the hoof is picked up. The shoe must be fit to accommodate both phases.
Although this extra lip of shoe is needed to avoid heel pain, it is more likely to get pulled than one that is too small. Fortunately, an expertly applied shoe should come off without damaging the wall.
Using a hoof gauge to determine toe and heel length
A hoof gauge is a protractor for the hoof that measures the toe angle in relation to. Mathematically, the correct answer would be “not enough information”. No two horses are alike it is not possible to determine optimal balance without first addressing the animal.
I have worked for many nationally respected farriers and have attended many continuing education clinics and none give any credence to this measurement that seems so important to some people.
Toe angle is important in the way the hoof relates to the limb and the horse’s conformation, not the ground, which is what the gauge is measuring.
The hoof angle should match the angle of the pastern. The length of the pastern will dictate the hoof angle and no farrier can change the conformation of your horse, nor is it a good idea to try.
5. Don’t touch the heel!
The heel should be brought back to the widest point of the frog. Attempting to make the toe steeper by leaving the heel sounds like a good idea, but since the hoof grows forward and down, this practice is detrimental to the health and proper functioning of the foot.
6. Using topical products to “fix” imbalance issues.
There are many premade hoof dressings on the the market and many more old-timey recipes that people claim will heal hoof cracks, grow hoof fast and cure what ails your horses troubled soles.
Hoof dressings can enhance the water repellency of hooves in some environments. It may help with some fungal/bacterial invasions as the ingredients usually contain some kind disinfectant like pine tar.*
Topical dressings do not grow new hoof or do anything to heal the sensitive structures within the hoof capsule no matter what they claim.**The hoof is dead, it is not possible for it to heal, it only possible to create conditions where it will be eventually replaced with undamaged horn.
*Horses with cracks in their hooves are very common in the Southeast that is related to year round wet/dry conditions that is hard on all of us. It is usually a white line disease related problem and needs a farrier with experience to debride affected horn. I do recommend antifungal topicals to fight fungal and bacterial invasions of the hoof wall.
**I do think hoof poultices are helpful to help with inflammation and isotonic soaks/packs to draw infections from the hoof, See this for more.
Thanks for reading my blog, please spread the word. If you have any questions about consultations on your horse or general hoof care questions you would like to see my take on, feel free to contact me here.