Applying consistent management practices and watching closely for problems can help even horses with less-than-ideal feet lead sound and productive careers
Many horse owners spend an extraordinary amount of time fretting over their horses’ feet, believing soundness is impossible because the animals’ hooves don’t match those depicted in anatomy textbooks. So says Maryland-based farrier Darren Greaves, CJF, who notes that the “ideal” foot is quite rare. In most cases, Greaves stresses that deviations from optimal angles and shape are not the end of the world. Rather, with consistent, proper care farriers and horse owners can manage most hoof types, and horses can function successfully in their designated capacities.
Greaves and Scott McKendrick, CJF, of Trenton, Utah, share the very basics of seeking hoof balance and recognizing common foot problems.
Striking a Balance
A balanced hoof allows the horse to travel across the ground better, and this hoof balance is a farrier’s primary concern when trimming and shoeing. Make sure the horse is standing square on flat, level ground while you evaluate hoof balance. Good foot balance (although it will vary among each individual horse) consists of:
- Equal medial/lateral size and shape (the foot’s inner and outer quarters, or edges, land evenly when the horse walks);
- Anterior/posterior balance, in which the foot can be divided evenly at the widest part of the hoof from front to back;
- A straight hoof-pastern angle (there’s a straight line from the pastern down the front of the hoof wall);
- Easy breakover (the toe is not too long and is squared, rounded, or rolled to allow for easier movement);
- Adequate heel support (if shod, the shoe extends to the end of the hoof wall to support the back of the leg); and
- A hairline (coronary band) that is parallel to the ground.
For maximum soundness, providing regular hoof care is a must. Generally speaking, horses that are not being ridden or are in light work can be trimmed every 10 to 12 weeks, but performance horses need regular hoof care every five to seven weeks. Of course, each horse is an individual and situations are unique. McKendrick points out factors that can influence trimming and shoeing schedules:
- Age Younger horses typically grow hoof wall faster than older horses;
- Climate Hooves grow slower in the cold winter months;
- Nutrition Horses that do not consume adequate nutrition grow less foot;
- Environment Hooves of horses kept in soft, grassy pastures exhibit less natural wear than those of animals kept on hard, rocky ground; and
- Exercise Regularly exercised horses tend to have healthier hooves.
The “Not So Ideal” Foot
Hoof imbalances, if not addressed, can lead to soundness issues. “All hoof and leg deviations from the ideal get worse with neglect of hooves and excess growth and can even become more deviated in their form and function,” McKendrick says. Greaves adds that hoof imbalances result from both foot and conformation defects. He says veterinarians and farriers can work to improve and possibly correct hoof imbalances in young horses caused by conformation defects within the first year of life. By the time the horse is 1 to 3 years old, he notes, more damage will be done in the long run by trying to “fix” the defect than by simply managing it.
Two major types of imbalances arise in hooves: First, the long toe-low heel imbalance is fairly common among all types of horses. In this case, the broken-back hoof-pastern axis (when the pastern is more upright than the toe) shifts more weight onto the heel and makes the hoof more prone to heel bruising, navicular (bone) problems, and/or deep digital tendonitis. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s common to see high heels with a dished toe appearance in young horses; these might be true club feet or more simple hoof imbalances. Careful trimming can help bring these feet into better alignment, but it might not fix the problem entirely.
Common Foot Problems
Our sources recommend keeping an eye out for seven specific problems when evaluating your horse’s hooves:
Hoof cracks are frequently caused by hoof imbalances, and farriers and veterinarians classify them by location: near the toe, quarter, heel, or bar. Horses with dry, brittle hooves or those whose feet are constantly changing from wet to dry conditions commonly develop cracks. Coronary band injuries can also be catalysts for hoof cracks. Most cracks are superficial, do not cause lameness, and grow out in time. However, if they become deep and reach the hoof’s sensitive tissues, they can cause considerable pain and require more intensive care.
Sole bruises appear as red spots or specks on the sole or frog. Trauma or excessive weight bearing of the sole on hard, rocky ground usually causes the bruises. Hooves that are trimmed too short can bruise easily, as well.
An abscess is an infection of the sensitive tissues of the foot. An existing bruise or penetrating wound can lead to an abscess. Bacteria become trapped under the hoof wall, multiply, and form a pus pocket. The pressure can cause significant pain that persists until the pus pocket ruptures. An abscess can cause mild to severe lameness and the hoof might feel hot to the touch. Veterinarians use hoof testers to locate the abscess so they can carefully pare away the sole and relieve the pressure. Otherwise, the pus will travel the path of least resistance and might break out at the coronary band or the heel bulbs.
Thrush, an anaerobic bacterial infection of the frog and/or its clefts (sulci), occurs frequently in horses housed in wet conditions. Owners generally recognize it as black, decaying material with a foul odor.
White line disease or gravel is a bacterial, fungal, or yeast infection of the white line (the portion of the hoof that delineates sensitive tissue from insensitive tissue). Impacted tissues also can emit an odor, and a painful separation or crack might form.
A hot or close nail occurs when a farrier shoes a horse and drives a nail too close to the sensitive tissues. The horse might become lame immediately and point his toe to take pressure off the painful area. Have your veterinarian remove the hot nail immediately and treat any infection in the area. To be safe, he or she might also administer a tetanus -booster.
Corns often result from bearing unequal pressure due to poor conformation or wearing a shoe that is fitted too tightly. These form where the heel and bars meet. Veterinarians and farriers usually describe corns as either dry or moist. A dry corn resembles a red bruise due to the tubular horn filling with blood, while a moist corn appears yellow because serum is present. Corns require time to heal, and lameness might linger until the damaged horn grows out.
Good management practices can go a long way in preventing or minimizing hoof issues, regardless of whether your horse’s hooves are “ideal.” Be sure to:
- Maintain optimal hoof balance in your individual horse by implementing regular trimming or shoeing schedules;
- Select appropriate shoes based on weather and footing conditions;
- Select and offer your horse proper nutrition; and
- Provide appropriate treatment if a problem occurs.
With consistent time and effort, even a horse with less-than-ideal feet can lead a sound and productive career.