Commonly asked questions about hoof health, anatomy, and maintenance
The equine hoof might look like a simple structure, but we know that it’s incredibly complex and requires regular, individualized care. It also does some weird things—it cracks, peels, and stinks, among others. So how do you know what’s normal and what’s not? How can you ensure your horse’s feet stay as strong and healthy as possible?
In this article veterinarians, farriers, and yours truly answer common hoof health questions we hear from owners.
What’s inside the hoof capsule?
A. The equine hoof has the same basic anatomy as our middle finger. The capsule houses and protects phalange III, commonly known as the coffin or pedal bone, which is suspended by very vascular, very innervated soft tissue called corium. On the palmar aspect (back) of the hoof is the digital cushion, which acts as a pump that helps push blood to all parts of the hoof. The capsule itself is made of keratin, the same protein that constitutes human fingernails and hair.
How soon can I ride my horse after he gets trimmed or shod?
A. This common question doesn’t have a hard and fast answer. The act of routine trimming and shoeing should neither cause overt problems for the horse nor prevent you from riding. However, if your horse is suddenly lame under saddle after a trim, get off and notify your farrier and veterinarian. Also, older or arthritic horses might have a hard time standing for the farrier—balancing on three limbs can be hard on joints, as can holding a limb up for an extended period. These individuals might benefit from a day or two off after.
Should the frog shed?
A. The frog is the triangular structure extending from the horse’s heels midway to the toe and, ideally, it’s in constant contact with the ground.
“Frogs exfoliate as the tissue underneath develops to replace it. This may happen all at once, or you may not notice it at all,” says Ashley Gasky, CF, owner of Precision Hoof Care, in Ballston Spa, New York. In addition, “any portion of the frog can become undermined with some level of bacteria or fungi, and that can cause a portion of the frog to shed or perhaps the entire thing.”
Farriers commonly manicure the frog, however, so most owners see little shedding of the structure. If you do, rest assured it’s most likely a natural process.
Should my hoof care professional trim my horse’s soles?
A. The solar aspect of the hoof hugs the frog and extends to all edges of the hoof wall. Not all horses, however, are blessed with thick soles. “The crux of being a responsible hoof care provider is knowing what material to remove and when,” says Gasky. “It’s easier to take more later than it is to remove too much too soon.
“Most of the horses I work on have feet that tend to platter out versus grow tall,” she adds. “With that in mind, I rarely remove material under the coffin bone. On a foot with plenty of vertical depth (height from the hairline to the ground) I’m more likely to remove exfoliating sole. I do routinely trim bars that have laid over the sole, as they can trap bacteria or debris.”
What is breakover?
A. Breakover can be a complex concept—and an easy way to start an argument at an equine podiatry conference. “As a pure biomechanics definition, breakover is the time between heel liftoff and the time the toe leaves the ground,” says Patrick Reilly, Grad.Dip.ELR, chief of farrier service at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, who has been involved in equine locomotor research at the Royal Veterinary College, in London. “In equine discussions, breakover most commonly refers to the last part of the hoof (or shoe) to leave the ground.”
A long toe, for instance, can increase the strain on soft tissue structures such as the deep digital flexor tendon, impar ligament, and collateral ligaments as they move the foot and represents a common cause of lameness. “We do have the ability to manipulate that through trimming and orthotics,” says Reilly. By reducing that toe extension and “easing” breakover, the farrier can reduce the strain, and the horse can move more comfortably.
How do I know if my horse has thin soles?
A. Thin soles, which I commonly see in Thoroughbreds, can be a literal and figurative pain. You might first notice that your horse is intermittently lame, bruises easily, or just has “off” days. Your farrier can then detect thin soles with hoof testers. Further, your veterinarian can radiograph (X ray) the hoof and measure sole depth. Personally, I like a depth of about 30 millimeters (a little over an inch), but 15 millimeters of sole depth is usually more realistic, and this varies depending on horse breed and hoof size. Ideally, your farrier and veterinarian will work as a team to formulate a management plan for thin soles. These horses usually benefit from the protection of shoes.
What are those red spots on my horse’s sole?
A. Red-purple speckled spots are not surprising findings on the soles. These horses can be perfectly sound or suddenly very lame. The discoloration often indicates a hoof bruise or stone bruise caused by traveling over rocky surfaces. When a horse steps on a rock or firm surface just right, inflammation of the underlying corium can result in the red-purple spots. Stone bruises usually resolve on their own over several days. If lameness persists, get your vet involved to assess the situation and devise a pain control plan.
What’s that strange smell?
A. Horse hooves come into contact with some pretty gnarly substances, from mud to manure and urine. You can usually tell, however, when a distinctive odor is coming from the hoof itself and not something the horse stepped in.
“The first sign something is not right is usually a strong, unpleasant odor and a dark-colored discharge in the sulci around the frog,” says Meredith Chamberlain, DVM, of Steinbeck-Peninsula Equine, in Salinas, California. “The unpleasant odor can be a sign of a developing infection (thrush) caused by anaerobic bacteria.”
Because these bacteria grow in the absence of oxygen, a mud-caked frog sulcus can be prime real estate. Simply cleaning out the hoof daily can reduce the infection, but you’ll need a farrier to clean out the necrotic (dead) tissue in some cases. You can find a wealth of topical products to treat thrush, but consult your farrier or vet to see which ones they recommend.
Why should I soak my horse’s foot to treat an abscess—isn’t excessive moisture bad for the hoof?
A. Hoof abscesses are bacterial infections that set up in the soft tissues of the hoof capsule. The bacteria produce gas that puts tremendous pressure on the hoof structures and can result in extreme pain. While it might seem counterintuitive, a hallmark abscess treatment is soaking the hoof alone or with a poultice boot.
“While moisture in the environment can allow the hoof to become more permeable and allow bacteria in, we can also use that to our advantage to draw the bacteria back out,” says Chamberlain. “By using drawing agents in combination with warm water, an environment is created that allows for the bacteria to be more easily drawn out of the hoof.”
At my first suspicion of an abscess in a client’s horse, I often suggest soaking the affected foot for several days to soften the hoof. This allows me or the farrier to try to carve out a drainage tract. While excessive moisture isn’t ideal, several days of soaking doesn’t cause lasting damage to most horse hooves.
Should I be worried about a missing chunk of hoof quarter?
A. Generally, a chunk of missing hoof doesn’t pose a clinical problem. You might, however, wonder why it broke off in the first place. “The majority of cases that I see like this are horses whose feet are overgrown, and the hoof wall breaks away secondary to leverage,” says Betsy Lordan, DVM, CJF, TE, of SRH Veterinary Services, in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
If the hoof wall simply breaks off at the white line (the visible junction between the inner hoof wall and the sole) and does not involve sensitive tissue, your horse should be fine. “In more severe cases the horse will develop cracks or even can sustain a hoof wall avulsion where the hoof wall is separated from the soft tissues and the area is exposed and bleeding,” she adds. These horses likely need veterinary attention to address the issue. “Don’t hesitate to discuss (with your farrier) if the horse needs to be on a shorter trimming cycle or if adjustments in the trim itself need to be made.”
What causes flares?
A. We’ve all seen hoof wall flares, and they can seemingly go in every direction. “A hoof flare is a deformation of the hoof capsule, and this can be caused by either a nutritional or a mechanical issue,” says Kara Wilson, DVM, of South Shore Veterinary Services, in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Wet environments put hooves at risk of developing flares, as well.
Typically, nutritional issues involve vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which weaken the capsule and predispose it to cracks and flares. You can easily prevent these with a properly balanced ration.
“Mechanical causes of hoof flares may be due to overgrown hooves, conformation issues, or movement issues,” Wilson says. “Proper trimming to suit your horse’s needs, depending on their conformation and rate of hoof growth, is important to control mechanical flares.”
What if a flare breaks off?
A. Flares can break off easily, and getting your farrier or veterinarian involved is an important first step toward managing them. Farriers can address smaller breaks via proper trimming and filing, but larger breaks pose more serious problems.
“If a large break is present, it can cause lameness and expose the sensitive structures of the hoof to further damage or infection,” says Wilson. “This may require further diagnostics such as radiographs to ensure there is no deeper involvement to the coffin bone and better guide trimming in the future.”
When in doubt, take a photo of the break and send it to your farrier or veterinarian so they can determine how soon they need to see it, if at all.
No one knows your horse (and his hooves) better than you. So when something seems amiss, don’t hesitate to reach out your professional team. Your veterinarian and farrier can work together to keep your horse in riding shape.