My horse is barefoot. And sound. And his feet look pretty great, if you ask me. What can I do to keep them this way? Are there special products I should be using or certain ways I should be managing them? What if someday he needs shoes?
Why should your horse ‘someday…need shoes’? What can conceivably change, apart from your own conceptions, that would demand this?
These are just a few of the many questions horse owners ask about their horses’ feet. They’ve heard about or have managed less-ideal feet, so it’s only natural to want to keep things going the way they are and stave off problems. We gathered advice from two farriers on how to have the healthiest of hooves, with or without shoes.
The healthiest of feet -and horses- are always without shoes
Paul Goodness, CJF, a farrier at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s (VMCVM) Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, in Leesburg, says horses’ feet are fairly resilient and can adapt to many conditions, but sometimes they need a little help. Travis Burns, CJF, TE, EE, FWCF, assistant professor of practice and chief of farrier services at the VMCVM, agrees, and says horse owners can do many things to help their horses maintain healthy hoof capsules.
Genetics: Start With Good Feet and Legs
“If I could give one piece of advice, it would be simply to buy or breed horses based on conformation and hoof quality,” says Burns. “It’s far easier to have healthy feet by buying/breeding horses that already have good feet.”
Conformation is a human definition. Very few horses ‘conform’ to the standard imposed by man. Hoof quality has little to do with the horse’s conformation, more to do with management; but to avoid problems later on, the bottom line is ‘never buy a horse that has been shod’.
If a horse has poor hoof quality, then the owner is fighting that problem for the rest of the horse’s life, he explains. It can be a constant challenge to keep the feet healthy and sound and/or shoes on.
As already said, poor hoof quality is a management problem. The challenge is not keeping the feet healthy but for the owner to change attitudes.
Indeed, hoof conformation, strength, and durability are mainly genetic. Some horses just have much stronger feet than others. Environment, hoof care, and nutrition can make a difference, but the horse that starts out with strong, well-conformed feet is less apt to be adversely affected by poor conditions.
All horses start out with potentially strong feet -genetics can play a small role in hoof strength but environment, care and nutrition are by far the most important factors.
Goodness says horses are born with certain attributes that dictate basic hoof angle and shape.
For instance, “the shape and density of P3 (the third phalanx, or coffin bone) has a direct influence on the outer structure of the hoof,” he says. “The angle and length of the pastern bones also help determine the angle and shape of the hoof. If a horse is born with upright pasterns, he may have a propensity to be club-footed. If he has long, sloping pasterns, he’ll have a more sloping hoof and longer toe, with lower heels.”
The shape and length of the P3 varies from individual to individual and has little influence on performance. The biggest problem is poor hoof care through a misunderstanding of the function of the hoof. ‘Upright pasterns’ will NOT give propensity to club-footedness; the club foot is in almost every single case, a management problem and NOT a natural deformity. Likewise the so-called ‘long sloping pastern’ is primarily a hoof care problem where the farrier has not identified a poor trim/preparation for shoes.
The most important thing you can do for your horse’s hooves is to schedule regular trims to keep them in proper shape and balance.
While some owners think bare feet only need trimming once or twice a year, most horses need much more frequent trims to keep the hoof capsule properly balanced (so structures are stressed evenly) and to keep the edges from cracking and chipping, Burns says. Trim cycles can span four to eight weeks, depending on the horse, he adds.
“Each horse … has a unique rate of hoof growth and a different need for trimming frequency,” says Goodness. “This can also vary due to the type of work and the time of year.” Hoof horn tends to grow faster during summer, perhaps due to optimum nutrition in green grass, and slower during winter.
The main reason for augmented growth in the summer is that the horse is ridden more often, stimulating growth. But if a horse is ridden on hard surfaces frequently enough, then the hoofs will wear sufficiently to not need trimming for anything up to 5 months. No amount of farriery can possibly ‘balance’ a hoof and wear patterns are individual to the horse.
“Most horses should be checked by a farrier or hoof care specialist regularly, if for no other reason than to check for abnormal conditions that might benefit from some kind of action,” he continues. Your farrier might discover problems, such as thrush, white line disease, bruising, or a chip or crack in the hoof wall, in the early stages and intervene before the situation becomes serious—and more expensive to fix.
A crack in the hoof wall is easy to fix and is not a major problem. It is more often an indicator of inadequate rather than infrequent trimming. Thrush and white line disease are problems that need more than the services of a farrier…they demand a change of management. Bruising is a natural occurrence that demands little or no attention since it will go away by itself.
“The farrier is in a good position to help keep the feet healthy and to answer any questions the owner might have, especially a new owner,” Goodness says.
A very divisive comment. The farrier is in reality often in a very poor position to advise. He will tell you that his profession is one of the oldest but what he forgets to tell you is that its concepts are still rooted in those early days. Farriers themselves often forget -or ignore- the original reasons for shoeing horses but new owners are all too often swayed by his ignorant, at times incompetent, but apparently ‘professional’ arguments.
Horses have an incredible ability to adapt to wherever we put them. It takes time, however, for their feet to acclimate to wetter, drier, softer, or harder conditions.
“Not all horses can adapt on their own, so the horse owner can play an important role in assisting with that adaptive period,” Goodness says. “If horses are living in a moist area, or there’s a time of year when the footing is very wet and feet become too soft, we need to give them an area in their paddock that’s higher and drier where they can get out of the mud and enable the foot to dry out a bit.” As a general rule of thumb, feet are healthier when they are not constantly wet.
“Moisture is an enemy of the hoof capsules and predisposes them to abscesses, cracking, white line disease, and many other problems,” says Burns.
Moisture itself is not a problem and is NEVER a cause of abscesses. Cracking is more a problem of the hoof being over long and white line disease is a fungal infection most frequently caused by bad management.
Some horses’ feet deteriorate readily when wet; the hoof horn becomes softer and tends to lose its structural integrity. The hoof wall might splay out more than it should, which makes the foot more likely to develop flares or cracks. Softer soles are more prone to bruising.
A soft horn does not lack structural integrity. If the wall splays, it is because it is too long.
“Even worse than constantly wet is an environment where the horse goes from wet to dry to wet … over and over again,” says Burns. “Here in our mid-Atlantic states, even in summer when it is bone-dry because of drought, people think the feet are too dry, but they get wet with the morning dew. Then the feet are dry again by afternoon and the horses are stomping flies,” which can cause the now-brittle horn to crack.
Typical farriers’ old wives tales make people think they should oil or soak hoofs…an adequate trim is all it takes.
Use pest management methods to control flies and the stomping they trigger, and take good care of pastures, using rotational grazing to ensure fields stay grass-covered and managing high-traffic areas around gates and waterers so they don’t become mud bogs.
There is nothing wrong with stomping. This will not damage the hoofs. Nor will the areas around gates and water troughs. Grass is NOT the solution, a variation of hard and less hard is what is needed.
Check your horses’ feet frequently to make sure they are not packed with rocks or with mud, which can also exacerbate the wet-dry cycle, and that the frog is healthy, says Burns. Doing this you’ll notice problems such as thrush, evident as a black, foul-smelling material, or white line disease, seen as a chalky powder that spills out when scraped with a hoof pick, as soon as they appear and can treat them or call your farrier or veterinarian for help. You might also see clues that a hoof abscess is brewing.
It’s important to keep feet clean—but also dry in the process. Horses that are bathed frequently often experience the wet-to-dry problem, which can result in cracked hooves, just as getting your hands wet frequently can lead to dryness and chapped skin. If you have to bathe a horse a lot or his feet are starting to dry out and crack from the wet/dry cycle of walking through morning dew, ask your hoof care professional to recommend a nondrying hoof dressing that can help protect feet from the effects of excessive moisture.
The hoof wall is made of connective tissue—similar to skin, except much harder, like human fingernails. And also like fingernails and skin, hoof horn must contain a certain amount of moisture to remain resilient and pliable, says Goodness. Too much moisture and the horn becomes soft and wears away quickly or won’t hold nails. Too little moisture and hooves become brittle, chipping and cracking.
The hoof wall is keratin, so it is the same as hair and nails, not ‘similar to skin’. Even under quite extreme circumstances, the hoof will never wear away too quickly so this is not a problem; not wearing away fast enough is the reason for cracks.
You can’t add moisture to a hoof because moisture comes from a healthy blood supply within, says Goodness, but you can apply a good hoof coating to help retain moisture that’s already there. The hoof’s natural protective coating, the waxy periople protecting the outer surface, can become damaged not only by wet/dry cycles but also by urine and manure (acid in manure eats away the coating, and ammonia from urine-saturated bedding breaks down horn tissue). A hoof dressing can serve as a temporary covering to protect the horn and minimize moisture loss, says Goodness.
The Snake Oil merchant…adding oils, waxes or other products to the hoof wall has absolutely no effect whatsoever other than to line the pockets of those selling this junk. The hoof wall is a sealed protective layer that does not absorb moisture of any kind. Any softening is ingress from under the hoof – an area that will lose its ‘protection’ minutes after it is applied.
A hoof sealant can help if continual moisture changes have caused tiny surface cracks in your horse’s feet. Hoof sealants keep external moisture from damaging the hoof, keep internal moisture from evaporating, and counter the effects of the aforementioned environmental changes.
Utter nonsense. And, anyway, cracks on the surface have absolutely no influence on the final quality of the foot.
Follow label directions for proper application and frequency of use, as products contain a variety of ingredients that affect the tissues in different ways, and some stay on the hoof longer than others.
If your horse is ever at risk of bruising, you can apply “toughening” products to the sole, frog, and heel bulbs to help harden these tissues and prevent bruising and soreness, says Goodness. Some products even form a living pad over the bottom of the foot.
Yet more nonsense – the only protection is to train the horse on hard surfaces.
Feeding for Good Feet
“Optimal hoof health depends on a balanced diet and a steady stream of nutrients,” says Goodness. “Although it’s fairly easy to provide adequate levels of nutrients, overfeeding any one of those can have a damaging effect—and not just on the feet but on the horse in general.”
For most horses, green pasture is the ideal meal, containing protein, vitamins, and minerals, generally in proper balance (unless soils are extremely deficient in copper, selenium, iodine, or other trace minerals—which you can check using a soil test).
While we try to mimic nature as much as we can, not all horse owners have the ability to keep a horse at pasture full-time (and some horses have metabolic conditions that preclude this). So when supplementing with harvested feeds, such as hay and grain, make sure they supply a balance of the appropriate nutrients. “This will vary from region to region,” says Goodness, adding that harvest conditions and timing of cutting (maturity) can also significantly affect hay’s quality and nutritional content.
Strongly advised against since the shortcomings and their attempted compensations throw more than just one or two items off balance. The horse should NEVER be fed grain of cereal, only vegetation and, in times of scarcity, hay. The owner that cannot provide full-time at pasture is putting his own needs at the expense of those of the horse.
“If you think the horse’s feet may be suffering from improper nutrition, it’s often worth consulting with a professional,” Goodness says. And before you reach for one of the many hoof-oriented supplements out there, talk to an equine nutritionist about its nutrient content and whether your horse really needs it. Because there is such a thing as “overdoing” certain nutrients.
Hoof supplements, with the possible exception of biotin, are nothing more than quack remedies and should be avoided like the plague. The so-called nutrition professionals, including the majority of veterinary surgeons, have little or no concept of the actual nutritional needs of the horse.
Also monitor your horse’s body condition, particularly if he’s an easy keeper. “As Americans we tend to overfeed our animals. If a horse is overweight, this puts extra stress on joints, feet, etc.” says Burns.
(Not just Americans!) The two body score indices in common use, the 5-point and Henneke’s 9-point, are neither ideal. They are both based on averages and their mid-ranges are still weighted towards a weight surplus. There is a tendency to prefer a horse slightly rounded but a well muscled horse is not rounded.
Get the Feet Moving
Besides promoting good overall equine health, exercise also supports condition of the hoof itself.
The more a horse moves around, says Burns, the better the blood circulation to the extremities and inner parts of the foot. “This stimulates the hoof capsule to grow and keeps the feet healthy. The hoof capsule is an adaptive living structure, capable of response to change and the stresses that are placed upon it.”
If the stress is not extreme—that is, to the point of damage and injury—it stimulates stronger, better growth. If the horse is confined in a stall most of the day and doesn’t get to move around, he won’t grow a good foot, says Burns.
Stress cannot be factored out by the addition of shoes; on the contrary. The average unshod horse will rarely get to the point of extreme stress; the horse that is asked to go one step further needs to be trained first -as with any sporting activity.
Goodness agrees. “Horses that live outdoors in enough space to move around or have a regular work program are the ones with the healthiest feet,” he says. “I work on a lot of show horses that are in their stall more than they are out working, and their feet are just not as strong as those of horses out in the field 24/7.”
So get your horse out and moving as much as possible, particularly if he’s not exercised regularly.
Bottom line: do not keep your horse in a stall. But why not say so? Horses should never be kept confined, incarcerated. This goes against their very nature.
When Does My Horse Need Shoes?
The bare foot functions as nature intended, able to expand as the horse places weight on it and spring back into shape when the weight lifts. This pumping action of the sole and frog helps increase blood circulation within the foot.
It’s better able “to function as biomechanically efficiently as possible, without restriction,” says Burns. This includes self-cleaning; mud, snow, and rocks don’t get caught and packed into a bare foot as readily as they do in a shod foot.
Burns says there are four reasons to shoe a horse:
1.Protection If feet are wearing away faster than they can grow and becoming tender, they might need boots or shoes. This is sometimes a temporary measure.
If this is really the case, you are asking too much of your horse. As already said, even under even quite extreme circumstances, the hoof will not ‘wear away’. Feet are tender primarily because they have not been exposed to the right sort of surface. Horses living on soft ground will have correspondingly soft feet whereas horses living or working on hard ground will have correspondingly resilient frogs and soles.
2.Therapeutic reasons Some horses need special shoes to treat disease conditions or to manage/compensate for conformational defects.
“Whenever a disease process is involved or a hoof capsule distortion or imbalance occurs or a lameness develops, often the most expedient path back to healthy hooves is use of some type of boot or shoe,” says Goodness.
A misconception promoted by farriers – a lack of understanding in a profession that has not evolved in 500 years, still believing that attaching a bit of inflexible iron to a flexible hoof will be an aid.
A shoe can help a weak hoof capsule hold its shape and get back to proper balance.
If the hoof capsule really is weak then adding a shoe and forcing the hoof wall to carry the weight of the horse will not do anything to improve the situation.
‘Balance’ is a fabulous concept proposed by farriers and barefoot trimmers alike. There is absolutely no way that a human can ‘balance’ a horse’s hoof. The hoof is dynamic, it changes with every contact with the ground and its static property, when in the hand of the farrier or trimmer, bears no relation whatsoever with its actual conformation. A proper trim will allow the hoof capsule to (re)gain is correct form without causing collateral damage – the trim will not ‘correct’ anything but simply give the hoof the chance to finds its own balance and form.
3.Proper traction Horses in different disciplines require different types of traction. Those that run and jump need more traction, while reining horses, which must be able to make sliding stops, need less.
Are we thinking in terms of what the rider wants or what the horse actually needs? Do not forget that a horse without shoes will run faster and more coordinated than one with; a horse without shoes will jump more fluidly than one with… and with or without shoes, sliding stops are extremely detrimental to the horse’s health.
4.Gait alteration If a horse is interfering (hitting opposing limbs with his feet as he moves), for instance, the farrier can use special shoes to prevent this. Some people also want to change or enhance a certain phase of the stride and alter animation, especially in some gaited breeds.
This is caused by the presence of shoes, not by their absence. A horse is naturally balanced not to interfere; adding shoes puts the whole locomotive mechanism off balance.
“If a horse doesn’t fall into one of those four categories, it should be barefoot,” Burns says. “There are some negative consequences associated with shoes, such as lost shoes, stepping on a clip or horseshoe nail, etc. The extra weight and application of a shoe does change the normal hoof mechanics of the hoof capsule and increases shock and concussion to the distal (lower) limb.”
…this explanation of weight and application of shoes immediately negates Heather Smith Thomas’ argument (see box) about arthritic horses.
Now that you’re equipped with a thousand-foot-view of the factors at play in your horse’s hoof health, you can keep an eye on each and make changes as needed to help those feet continue to be healthy and functional and look fabulous.