Horse Hoof Care 101

You might say that horses are a semi-DIY venture: Some care you must perform yourself, and some requires expertise that most horse owners simply don’t have. But the care you perform—and the pros you choose—will mesh to provide your horse with optimum hoof (and overall) health.

As the daily, hands-on human in your horse’s life, you provide the first line of defense for any health problems. It’s imperative that you know how to perform daily checks and procedures so you can detect potential problems early and enlist the help of your hoof care professional when needed.

“Picking your horse’s hooves every day is a good thing to do,” said Craig Lesser, DVM, of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, in Lexington, Kentucky. “Today alone, I had two horses with nails in their feet, and the owners wouldn’t have noticed them if they didn’t pick out their horses’ hooves every day. Picking your horse’s hooves allows you to check for potential problems such as a rock stuck in the sole that could cause a bruising or thrush in the sulcus (the grooves on either side) of the frog.”

“Picking removes the current mud pack, if there is one, along with the layer of bacteria and fungus trapped between it and your horse’s hoof,” added Debra Taylor, DVM, emeritus professor of equine medicine at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a 2015 inductee into the International Equine Veterinarian Hall of Fame, which honors hoof care professionals. She also owns her own equine practice, Twin Creeks Podiatry.

After picking out any dirt or mud with a hoof pick, Taylor recommends using a hoof brush or wire brush, similar to what you’d use on your barbecue grill, to remove that bacterial and fungal layer at least every other day. Both Lesser and Taylor agreed: There’s no such thing as picking your horse’s hooves too often.

Lesser added that, especially with thin-soled horses, it’s important to remove soil or snow that can compact in hooves and cause soles to crack. Then, if necessary, apply something—a boot or specialty shoe, for example—to prevent that compaction.

Setting a Schedule

Lesser and Taylor agreed that whether you’re shoeing or merely trimming your horse’s hooves, his individual needs will determine his schedule. “Start with the traditional six-week baseline,” Taylor said, “and then adjust that depending on what kind of work your horse is doing, on what type of terrain, with what kind of protection (barefoot, shod, hoof boots, or other type), and his growth-to-wear ratio—how well his hooves are being maintained at those parameters.”

These variables can affect hoof care intervals. Younger horses, for instance, might need trimming every two to three weeks. Pasture pets in winter, when hoof growth slows, might get along fine with eight weeks between visits, Lesser said.

Selecting Your Pros

How should you select your hoof care professionals? “I’d trust a journeyman (the highest American Farrier Association credential) over somebody who’s certified, and somebody who’s certified over somebody without credentials,” Lesser said. “But that being said, somebody who just trims might do a very, very good job. Word of mouth is probably the best source, or you could reach out to a local farriers association for a recommendation.”

When you do, know that professionals offer varying services, from strictly trimming to shoeing to equine podiatry, for which veterinary foot care professionals are promoting a board certification process. The American Farriers Association also offers various certifications.

Boots for Barefoot Horses

If your horse does well barefoot, thank your lucky stars. Shoeing works just fine for the vast majority of horses, Lesser said, but if your horse needs more traction or protection or mechanics for laminitis or other problems, boots are great options.

“If a horse is very lame and needs boots even for turnout, then the big thing becomes boot hygiene,” Taylor said. “We’ve found that for horses that need boots 24/7, putting (human) athletic socks on underneath them makes a huge difference. When the socks get wet, take off the boots and socks, hang the boots to dry while you towel-dry the horse’s foot and let him stand in dry bedding for a couple of hours, then put the damp boot back on over a dry sock and turn him back out. Repeat daily or as needed. With this procedure, the foot and the hair line will stay in really good shape. Without socks, 24/7 boot turnout is a no-go for me.”

Take-Home Message

By heeding our sources’ advice and monitoring your horse’s individual circumstances and condition, you remain your horse’s necessary link to optimal hoof and general health. And his good health will provide you both with uninterrupted enjoyment.