Hoof health is a good indicator of your horse’s overall health. You’ve probably heard the statement, ‘if you don’t have feet, you don’t have a horse,’ and this statement is pretty accurate. As a horse owner, there are many things you can do to reduce the chance of lameness and ensure your horses have healthy hooves.
How often should horses have their feet trimmed?
One of the most important things horse owners can do for hoof health is schedule regular trims to maintain proper shape and balance. While some horse owners believe horses only need trims once or twice a year, most horses need more frequent trimming based on their hoof growth to stay balanced and sound.
The general guidelines for trimming horse hooves are every 6-8 weeks in the summer and every 6-12 weeks in the winter. Hooves do not grow as quickly in the winter, so you do not have to trim them as often. This interval will depend on the type of ground your horse is walking on, the level of work they are doing, and their overall health. During their routine visits, farriers will also check for common hoof issues, including thrush, white line disease, bruising, and cracking. Early identification of these issues allows for faster treatment and recovery for your horse and often prevents progression into a worse issue.
Horses with balanced hooves can move more easily because they have less stress on their bones, tendons, and ligaments. A properly balanced hoof will have a straight hoof-pasture angle, an easy break-over at the toe, a medial-lateral balance (foot lands evenly from side to side), and adequate heel support. Proper hoof trimming and routine hoof care will help to maintain balanced hooves. Hooves can naturally become unbalanced due to conformational issues or specific work that puts excessive strain on one area of the body.
Environmental Impacts on Hooves
Moisture and hard ground are enemies to the hoof. Moisture fosters bacteria which will attack and damage the hoof over time. This could include thrush, hoof abscesses, and white line disease. Knowing this, it is important to keep your horse in a dry pasture or stall to reduce exposure to moisture. Springtime is often the hardest for horse owners because fields are wetter. Consider turning your horse out in the arena and allowing your pastures to dry rather than turning them out in the mud.
Continual impact on hard surfaces also damages the hoof as it puts more strain on the flexor tendon, ligaments, bones, and joints. Hard surfaces and rocky terrain also put your horse at higher risk for sole bruising. If your horse is worked on pavement or another hard surface, you may need to provide more supportive shoeing to help reduce the impact on their body over time. Speak to your farrier about supportive shoeing and pad options to see if they are right for your horse. Commercial hoof tougheners might also be appropriate for your horse.
Nutrition and Hoof Health
Nutrition is vital to your horse's overall health, especially their hoof health. Optimal hoof health requires a balanced diet. Feeding good quality hay, providing access to clean, fresh water, and feeding balanced vitamins and minerals will keep your horse’s hooves healthy. For most horses, pasture offers the right balance of nutrients for horses, unless the soil is deficient in nutrients. If you are concerned about soil nutrients, you can send a sample for testing.
Research has shown supplements containing biotin, iodine, methionine, and zinc can help improve poor hoof quality. Hoof supplements are available for horse owners, but before you stock up on supplements, discuss your horse’s diet with your veterinarian. You don’t want to overfeed certain nutrients, which can lead to other health concerns.
Common Hoof Issues
Poor trimming and shoeing can lead to many hoof issues. If you are interviewing farriers, make sure they are qualified and consistently trim for balance. Most states do not have licensing requirements for farriers, and some farriers with minimal training provide services for horse owners. Unbalanced trimming puts additional stress on supporting ligaments and joints. Any combination of toe and heel problems can cause trauma to bones, tendons, and joints. Long toes and collapsed heels strain tendons and the navicular bone. Short toes and long heels place excessive pressure on the coffin bone and joint.
Hoof cracks are a common hoof issue experienced by horse owners. Cracks are not always caused by poor trimming or shoeing, however. A hoof crack can be caused by waiting too long between trims, hot/dry weather, hard ground, or poor hoof quality. Luckily, all of these causes are easily treatable. If you live in a hot, dry climate, you can apply hoof moisturizers to the hoof wall and sole to reduce hoof brittleness and resulting cracks. While you cannot add moisture to the hoof with hoof moisturizers or hoof dressing, these products help lock in whatever moisture is already in the hoof. Check with your veterinarian to ensure your horse is eating a nutritious diet. Additionally, keeping your horse on a regular trimming schedule will reduce the chances of cracks occurring.
Thrush is a terrible-smelling, black liquid around the frog. It generally occurs during very wet conditions, most often in the springtime for most horse owners. Thrush hits the sensitive areas on the hoof, breaking down tissue, and can result in lameness if untreated. If your horse suffers from thrush, make sure their stalls are as dry as possible and keep them out of wet paddocks. You can treat thrush by cleaning out the hoof and applying an over-the-counter thrush medication every day for about one week.
Laminitis and Founder
Laminitis is the swelling of the laminae (connective tissue) within the hoof capsule. This swelling is very painful for your horse and can cause the coffin bone to rotate and/or sink towards the sole of the hoof. Laminitis has many causes, including genetic predisposition, ingesting grass with high sugar content, illnesses with high fevers, and eating large quantities of grain. Laminitis can be treated, if not too advanced, with corrective trimming, pain management, and sole support.