Horse Hoof Care Information
Taking care of your horses’ hooves is a crucial part of horse ownership.
The saying “No Hoof No Horse” means just that; if you have a hoof problem and your horse is lame, you basically have no horse to do anything with.
Below we will provide you with all the horse hoof care information you need to keep healthy horse hooves.
Anatomy of the Hoof
You need to have a basic understanding of the anatomy of the horses hoof so you know what your farrier or vet are talking about and also so you know what to look for when you are regularly checking over your horse, including his hooves.
There are 4 basic parts of a hoof, although within these structures there are many more components.
This is the external part of the hoof you see the most, it covers the sensitive internal hoof tissue and provides a barrier for this area. Horse hooves are quite tough, but the wall can chip and break away if not cared for correctly.
The hoof is made up of three separate layers – the pigment layer, the water line and the white line. Combined the wall can be anywhere from 6 – 12 mm thick, depending on the type of horse and health of the hoof.
You can clearly see from the underside of the hoof after it has been trimmed this structure as a white line (hence the name) it will turn yellowish or grey after some contact with the ground. The white line is softer than the wall and the sole and so will wear away and appear as a groove.
The white line can be involved in quite a few lameness problems in horses due to this wearing away which often exposes the internal working of the hoof to infection. Problems can include thrush, white line disease and seedy toe, to name a few.
The sole is the main portion of the underside of the hoof and covers from the wall to the bars and the frog. The appearance will vary depending on contact with the ground as well as overall horse health.
In shod horses or horses with long/overgrown walls, this area does not touch the ground and can become crumbly and will crush and break away easily when scratched with a hoof pick. The sole may vary in colour from yellowish white to grey.
In barefoot horses (horses without shoes) this area will touch the ground intermittently and may become quite smooth and very hard.
The front portion of the sole beneath the front of the pedal bone is called the ‘sole callus’.
This is the V shaped structure that extends forwards across about two-thirds of the sole. A healthy frog will be firm and rubbery.
The frogs’ main purpose is to pump the blood back to the horse’s heart, which is obviously quite a distance from the relatively thin leg through the circulatory system back to the heart.
The thickness of the frog grows from the front to the back and, at the back, it merges with the heel periople. Along the centre of the frog is a groove called the sulcus, which runs back all the way to the bulb of the heel.
The frog will often wear away and harden into a callous like consistency where the horse is paddocked and exposed to natural ground; whereas in stabled horses the frog can become soft due to fungal or bacterial activity and will disintegrate.
These are strong structures which are the fold of the wall that grow inwards, and run from the heel to the edge of the frog. The bars have a similar structure of three layers to that of the wall.
Your farrier will trim these if they become overgrown and covering the surface of the sole.
There are some excellent images and more details about correct angles when trimming etc. on the Mill Creek Veterinary Service web page, so rather than reproduce them here click on their name link above to check them out.
Common Hoof Problems
This is caused when the horse treads on a sharp or hard object and causes bruising to the sole. Often high impact sports like show jumping will produce bruising of the sole.
The major symptom is lameness, and usually this is the only symptom. Sometimes if particularly bad you may be able to see the bruising on the sole, but often times you won’t.
Regardless of any other treatment for a stone bruise the horse should be rested for a week to 10 days.
If your horse is particularly lame your veterinarian may recommend a course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs are a class of drugs used for their anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain suppression) properties. The only problem with this is as the pain is masked the horse may do more damage as the area doesn’t feel tender anymore.
These drugs are also not without their side effects, and should only be used on veterinary recommendation.
You can also poultice the hoof to draw out the bruise by using Ichthammol, which can be picked up from your chemist if the fodder store doesn’t have any. As this is drawing ointment you need to pack it on the bottom of the sole and tape in place with a poultice pad or some sort of durable but soft padded bandage (a baby nappy taped over with duct tape works well for this).
A hoof abscess can often come along looking quite like stone bruising, with sudden onset of lameness. The difference is a hoof abscess is actually an infection that has started somewhere within the hoof and is affecting the sensitive structures within the hoof.
The horse may also show signs of swelling and heat in the lower leg, and an increase in digital pulse – but not always.
The abscess may erupt on its own, or a vet or your farrier can identify the area, usually with hoof testers and then scrape away the sole to expose the abscess and allow it to drain.
If you do not have access to a vet or competent farrier you can try to draw out the infection yourself to speed up the process.
You can use the Ichthammol as indicated above, but another option if you don’t have that, is to make your own drawing ointment by using Epsom Salts.
You simply keep adding Epsom Salts to a bucket of warm water until it reaches the point of saturation where no more salt will dissolve. And then stand your horses hoof in the bucket up to the coronary band for 10 minutes.
The salts help to draw out the infection, you can then follow this up by submerging a nappy in the Epsom salts and strapping it to the hoof as per above direction to continue the drawing action.
I do not recommend repeating the standing in Epsom salts frequently as it can weaken the hoof wall, so I prefer the bandaging option.
Once the abscess comes to the surface which may be at the original site or at the coronet band, you need to keep the site clean from dirt so as not to re-introduce a secondary infection.
Some horses if the infection is close to the surface may be sound in a few days, others can take a week or more.
This is a very distinct infection which creates smelly, gooey discharge usually around the grooves of the frog. If you lift the hoof and your horse has thrush you will smell it!
It is actually a bacterial infection, which is eating away the hoof, and usually occurs in dirty and wet environments, so horses left in muddy paddocks or standing in uncleaned stalls on manure and urine for extended periods of time.
The mud or manure packs into and around the frog, which creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Horses hooves need to be picked out daily in those types of conditions, as well as maintaining good housekeeping for your stable obviously.
Horses are not usually lame in the early stages, but if left thrush will continue and cause sensitivity in the frog and heel and eventual lameness.
Thrush is easily treated with over the counter medication, purchased through your fodder shop, veterinarian or pet produce store.
White Line Disease
As the name suggests this is a disease of the white line, specifically where the inner hoof wall begins to separate, followed by bacteria or infection invading the open space between the layers.
The infection if left untreated will eat away the hoof tissue and hooves may look dry and brittle, with white flakes or crumbly material when scraped with a hoof pick.
Factors which increase the risk of white line disease are:
- Long hooves, which become weaker and therefore increase the risk of separation
- Laminitis which cause hoof injury and predisposes horses
- Any openings into the hoof wall through injury or accident
This is a case for your vet or farrier. The dead hoof wall needs to be removed to expose the bacteria and to allow it to be thoroughly cleaned. In some instances this can be quite extensive even up to the coronary band with a very large piece of hoof needing to be removed.
Your farrier can fit the horse with supportive shoes while the area grows back. Depending on the extent of the removal some horses can carry on with light work, others will be completely out of work until the hoof grows back.
Chips and breakage
The hoof wall grows down in the three layers explained above, if this is not regularly trimmed and shaped either by naturally wearing or by a farrier the hoof will break off, chip in certain sections or crack, or a combination of all of these.
This again can cause lameness in your horse. Prevention in this case is far better than cure. You don’t want to be treating your horse with NSAIDs because of a lack of routine maintenance on your part.
Prevention is Better than Cure
Find a Good Reliable Farrier
The best definition of a farrier I could find comes directly from Wikipedia:
A farrier is a specialist in equine hoof care, including the trimming and balancing of horses’ hooves and the placing of shoes on their hooves. A farrier combines some blacksmith’s skills (fabricating, adapting, and adjusting metal shoes) with some veterinarian’s skills (knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the lower limb) to care for horses’ feet.
It is essential that you find an experienced farrier, and this is where other horse people in your area become invaluable. Ask them who they use and who they recommend (and any to steer clear of). Word of mouth is your friend here, as experienced horse owners will not keep using a farrier who is doing a poor job.
Most countries have a Master Farriers Association, and this is a good recommendation but not the only one.
The other aspect to consider if how often your farrier can come to you.
I recommend every 6 to 8 weeks, 8 weeks being the absolute maximum. If you need shoes on your horse then 6 weeks is preferable otherwise the hoof will start to protrude past the shoe and cause damage to the hoof.
I live quite remotely so my farrier comes some 500km to our area every 6 weeks and does all the horses on his rounds. You might be lucky and have a good farrier just up the road who can pop down if you have problems in between trims or shoeing.
Angles and length of toe to heel are all very important in keeping your horses’ hooves healthy and your horse well-balanced, but again this is an extensive topic and will be covered separately.
Shoes or Barefoot?
This is an extensive topic all of its own, and I won’t go into it here other than to say if your horse can cope happily without shoes, this is my preference.
Barefoot is more natural, and less expensive.
Having said that my Bill had front shoes the whole time he was ridden, as he just pulled up lame too often without them. On the other hand Jon Boy had his shoes taken off as soon as he finished racing 2 years ago and been barefoot ever since with no problems.
Horses for courses as they say!
Healthy Hooves Need You
I hope the above information has been helpful to you and given you a basic idea of what to look out for with your horses hooves and how important regular maintenance is.
If you have any questions about the above horse hoof care information please leave them below and we will be more than happy to help you out.