Your Guide to Equine Health Care

Horse Hoof Anatomy, Part 1

Learn how the bones and soft tissues in a horse’s hoof work together and impact soundness.

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Coffin bone
When blood flow within the hoof to the coffin bone is compromised for long periods, the bone breaks down starting at the trim and can lose significant mass, as seen with the bone on the right. | Photo: The Horse Staff

Understanding the hoof’s inner structures and how they work together

Like the tires and suspension on the truck you drive to the barn, your horse’s hooves take a beating daily. The hoof is cleverly engineered to handle stress, yet hoof problems are unfortunately common. “The foot appears to be the dominant site of lameness in performance horses,” says Stephen O’Grady, DVM, MRCVS, owner of Northern Virginia Equine, in Marshall.

Lameness results from pain in the foot’s inner structures, which are heavily influenced by the outer hoof. O’Grady explains that the hoof is viscoelastic, meaning that it deforms or changes shape dynamically with high stress (expands with weight bearing). It also changes shape or distorts in a more long-term manner with consistent stress (such as contracting over time because of shoes that are too small). 

In short, we can cause significant changes in the outer hoof and thereby its inner structures, both for good and for ill, with our management practices. The better we understand how the hoof is made and how it works, the better we can recognize problems brewing and manage the hooves to keep small issues from becoming time-off or retirement-level

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Written by:

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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