Like any animal, caring for a horse is a big responsibility and in addition to making sure they have shelter, appropriate and nutritious food, and medical care, horses also need their hooves taken care of. Like other ungulate mammals, horses have hooves that require a frequent amount of care. These complex structures are incredibly important because they absorb the impact of walking and support the weight of the horse. Any sort of imbalances or lack of care can cause serious issues for the hoof, leg, and other parts of the horse, which makes regular care like cleaning and trimming particularly vital.
The inner framework of a horse’s hoof consists of ligaments, tendons, muscles, and several bones (the coffin bone, the navicular bone, and the distal end of the short pastern bone). All of these work to help support and move a horse’s hoof but are also greatly affected by the outer condition. The names for the internal structures include the pedal, navicular, and short pastern bones, the digital cushion (which sits above the frog and is vital in shock absorption), the coriums, and the lateral/ungual cartilage.
As far as the external part of the hoof, the hoof wall is what you see when you look at the hoof as the horse stands. It’s made from keratin, the same thing that human nails are made of, and is what farriers will nail horseshoes in. Other parts of the external hoof include the central sulcus, lateral sulci (the most common part of the hoof for thrush to occur), white line, sole, heel, and frog. The frog might be the most well-known part of a horse hoof and is the triangular raised portion in the middle of the hoof. This portion is one of the most important parts of a hoof and is believed to be a sort of blood pump (although, that is a bit controversial)! The frog helps blood pump blood back up the horse’s leg when stepped on.
Horse Hoof Care
There are plenty of things every horse owner needs to do (or make sure gets done) to keep a horse and their hooves healthy. Hooves need to be cleaned almost every day (or at least, a few times a week) and like a person’s fingernails, hooves grow all year round and need to be regularly trimmed. A farrier is a specialist in equine hoof care and they are the professionals that trim, balance, and shoe a horse’s hooves. Farriers have some blacksmith and some veterinary skills, as their work involves needing to know at least some horse anatomy and physiology and the fabricating and adjusting of metal shoes. During the summer, plan to have a horse’s hooves trimmed every 6-8 weeks; during the winter, this can be less frequent and should happen every 6-12 weeks.
A horse’s hooves need to be regularly picked out, a process that involves cleaning any packed debris out of the bottom of every individual hoof. This should be done before and after every ride, when the horse is brought in from the pasture at night, and before turnout in the morning. Picking out a horse’s hooves is important in making sure there aren’t any stones or small objects lodged in the hoof and that there aren’t any injuries or infections. Also, make sure to (gently) clean the crevice of the frog. The frog does seem to peel off twice a year, as this part of the hoof is regularly shed.
While cleaning them, make sure to establish what’s normal for your horse’s hooves. The obvious is to keep an eye out for any signs of immediate worry, like an injury or something stuck in the hoof, but it’s also important to keep an eye out for the temperature (they should be slightly warm) and if there are signs of possible issues like thrush, cracks, or abscesses. If there’s something like a nail stuck in a hoof, don’t remove it and instead, call your veterinarian to come out and make sure that nothing else is wrong.
Veterinary Hoof Care
In addition to farriers, a veterinarian will be incredibly helpful in the care and maintenance of horse hooves. Hoof radiographs can make a big difference in the care of these important structures, as x-rays can provide a clear diagnosis or offer a better solution to a problem. Portable hoof radiographs can really only show bones of a hoof and limited information about the soft tissues but can still help in many situations.
Horseshoes are rather iconic, with an entire game and some superstitions around the metal objects. But horseshoes were designed to be more than just used in a game, as they are usually used to protect horse hooves in the way that shoes protect human feet. The domestication of horses really popularized this practice as protection in more inhospitable climates. As the ones trimming and possibly shoeing a horse’s hooves, farriers are an important part of the horse world. Trimming and shoeing hooves don’t usually hurt a horse because the hooves are vaguely similar to human nails and horses don’t usually feel anything during either event.
While horseshoes have been used for centuries, not every horse needs them, particularly horses that are just ‘pleasure horses’. There are times when shoes are necessary, like when horses need to pull abnormal amounts of weight or to help give horses traction in the snow and ice. Racing horses with weak hoof or leg muscles often need shoes too. But in many situations, horseshoes probably aren’t necessary and there are temporary alternatives, like hoof boots, that provide a similar level of protection. Ultimately, there is no universal right answer for whether a horse should wear shoes or not. Certain situations do call for horseshoes but that is something a farrier can work with you on.
If you do decide to shoe your horse, regular cleaning and farrier visits are important in keeping the shoes and hooves well maintained and healthy.
Why is Hoof Care Important?
As mentioned, hoof care is an incredibly important part of having a horse, as long-term hoof imbalances can cause damage to the hooves and legs. Without regular care and trimming, hooves can continue to grow and grow. That can cause all sorts of problems for a horse, including pain and damage to a horse’s bones, muscles, or ligaments. There are, unfortunately, too many stories of horses being rescued from cases of neglect with impossibly long hooves.
Ultimately, hoof care for all ungulates is incredibly important and that’s particularly evident with horses. Regular care for a horse’s hooves includes trimming and farrier visits several times a year, cleaning, horseshoes (if context calls for it), and veterinary care. Regular cleaning of the hooves is particularly important for all horses, as doing so can remove small rocks and debris and allows owners to keep an eye on any issues that may arise. While it can, at times, be a bit time consuming or expensive, hoof care is so important and could mean finding some problems early on. Like with human feet, caring for a horse’s hooves can have a positive effect on the whole horse.