Do you ever find yourself looking at your horse’s hooves and wonder how ‘feet’ so small can support an animal so heavy and mobile? Some would say equine hooves are a miracle of Mother Nature. But they need plenty of care and attention to ensure they do the job that they are designed to do.
Horse hoof care can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re a first-time owner. The equine hoof is extremely complex – plus there’s always the chance of getting kicked when you’re inspecting them! And while regular farrier visits will go some way to making sure that your horse’s hooves are suitably shoed, you also need to maintain the integrity and health of the structural components of your horse’s feet on a day-to-day basis. It’s all part of being a responsible horse owner.
Failure to give your horse’s hooves the time of day can lead to problems down the line – you could quickly find yourself with a hefty bill from the vets for emergency treatment. That’s where your horse insurance can help shoulder some of the unexpected financial costs.
In this ultimate guide to horse hoof care, we’ll look at what you should do to minimise the risk of your horse developing a problem with their feet. We start with some basic equine anatomy…
What do horses hooves comprise?
You can’t begin to think about looking after your horse’s hooves until you’ve got to grips with their make-up. As we alluded to earlier, they are made up of a number of different components, each playing a crucial part in a horse’s conformation. The Equine Podiatry Association outlines the components of a horses foot that you need to know about:
Located at the top of the hoof, the coronary band keeps the hoof wall primed with the nutrition that it needs to be healthy. Although hardy in structure, it contains a large blood supply – meaning that if it becomes damaged, it can impact proper hoof growth and render a horse unrideable.
The periople can be found in the soft area just below the coronary band and adds protection to the hoof wall. It comprises newly formed hoof wall tissue, and the periople keeps it concealed whilst it hardens.
The exterior of the hoof – the hoof wall – adds a tough protective layer around delicate internal components. This also helps to support the weight of the horse and absorbs shock as the horse moves and runs around. It can take up to a year for the hoof to grow from the coronary band to the toe – a healthy diet and good general health are essential for promoting adequate horn growth.
Although the sole sits on the underside of the hoof, its concave shape means it does not make contact with the ground or bear weight. Similar in structure to the hoof wall – but the sole is more easily rubbed or worn down. The sole also helps to protect the inner components of the hoof – it has a ‘white line’ which, if impaired, can cause unwanted germs and bacteria to enter and separate the layers of the hoof wall.
As you lift a horse’s hoof, the frog is what you will see first – it’s the V-shaped component pointing down from the heels. Providing protection to the pad beneath it, it acts as a shock absorber when the horse moves. The frog is made up of sensitive nerves which communicate to your horse the position of their feet so they can move fluidly.
Inside the horses foot
Sat underneath the frog, this component is a cushion of cartilaginous material, acting as one of the primary shock absorbers in the hoof. It also helps with blood flow throughout the leg. If the digital cushion were to perish for any reason – for example, a horse has a conformation that means the heels bear more weight than normal – it will not regenerate.
The inner wall has more ‘give’ than the outer wall which allows it to expand a bit with movement and absorb shock, protecting the inner components of the hoof. There are both insensitive and sensitive laminae at the hoof wall – the divide between the two is visible in the shape of the aforementioned ‘white line’ on the sole of the foot.
Why is conformation important?
We’ve mentioned conformation already in this article but what exactly is it? Referring to the shape or structure of a horse, it can not only impact a horse's athletic ability but also their general health and welfare. Poor conformation in the hooves can result in strains to tendons and ligaments, tripping and bruising.
Blue Cross explains what good feet conformation looks like: “The front feet should slope forwards and be at a 45-degree angle to the ground, and on through the fetlock and pastern. The hind feet should be at an angle of 50-55 degrees to the ground. The hoof wall should be smooth and free from cracks. Any lines could indicate poor nutrition or past cases of laminitis.”
The good news is that most foot conformational faults can be put right – but it requires you to identify any issues in the first place and take preventative measures to ensure that as few problems as possible arise with your horses’ hooves. The advice and care of a good farrier is essential, too.
Having horse insurance in place means that you won’t delay in calling a farrier or equine vet should you need one.
Getting a horse to lift their feet
For some horse owners, it can feel like it’s an impossible task to give proper care and attention to their equine’s feet. If your horse is known to show some resistance when trying to get them to lift their feet, you’ll probably be inclined not to do it as often as you should.
However, there are ways and means of getting a horse to lift their feet without living in constant fear of being kicked.
As Horse and Hound explains, it all starts with greeting your horse with a positive reaction. Approaching them quietly at their shoulder, crouching down to rub their front forearm and lower leg to show them that they have nothing to worry about. Then, take a moment, giving your horse time to notice that you’ve stopped massaging their leg, before moving to the “raise your foot” cue.
This cue involves squeezing or twisting your horse’s chestnut (the hoof-like growth on the inside of his forearm). The slight discomfort of the action will prompt them to lift their foot. At the moment your horse lifts its foot, return to massaging their leg as a reward.
Repeat that process over and over again until your horse understands what you want from them – these intelligent animals are often quick learners!
For the front legs, it is a similar process: bending down to rub your horse’s leg, with a slight hesitation before moving on to the cue.
However, with the hind leg, you’ll need to squeeze the coronary band. Applying pressure to this area should cause your horse to lift their foot – when they do, stop and go back to rubbing their leg.
It sounds simple enough and with a bit of luck, your horse won’t take long before they are lifting their feet at will when you need them to. However, sometimes horses will kick out of fear or dominance. It’s all about teaching them that having you handle their legs can be a pleasurable experience and that they shouldn’t feel threatened.
So, make leg rubs a regular ‘treat’ and take care when wrapping their legs, too. It will probably take a little bit of coercing at first, but with lots of repetition, they will learn to love the time you spend looking after their legs and hooves.
How should you care for a horse’s hooves?
Once you’ve got to grips with what’s what and getting your horse to lift their legs to allow you to inspect their feet, you can move on to giving their hooves the care and attention they need.
You don’t have to become an expert – but by doing the basics and understanding some of the signs of common hoof problems in equines, you can keep those farrier and vet bills down and your horse happy and healthy.
Here’s a short and simple checklist to follow:
- To prevent splits and cracks, apply hoof oil every other day during the warmer months.
- Using a hoof pick, pick out your horse’s feet on a daily basis.
- Book a visit from the farrier every four to six weeks.
- Always take the time to inspect your horse’s feet after the farrier has visited. If shod, Equus says there should be no gaps between the shoe and the foot. The clenches should be around halfway up the hoof wall from the floor; in a straight line and be flush with the hoof. The toe clips should also be even with the hoof wall.
- In unshod horses, the sole of the foot should not be making contact with the ground.
- If your horse shows any sign of lameness after the farrier has visited, they must be recalled immediately to address the problem.
- Keep an eye on the conformation of the feet – remember the angle should be around 50-55 degrees from the ground at the back. When viewed from the back, with the foot raised, the sides of the foot should be level.
- Trim the sides of the frog should be trimmed so that it is level or slightly below the edge of the hoof wall.
The importance of selecting a good farrier
There’s only so much you can do to take care of your horse’s feet – you’ll also need to be able to call upon a professional farrier to give your horse the full care and attention it deserves.
When it comes to selecting a farrier, your vet is a good place to start. They will probably be able to give you a decent recommendation. Your stables or riding school will be able to point you in the right direction, too. Correct trimming and shoeing is vital to a horse’s welfare, and any mistakes can lead to serious, irreparable damage so hire someone with a good reputation.
Whether shod or unshod, your horse’s feet need to be correctly balanced – if they’re unbalanced, this can lead to lameness which can affect the whole movement and development of your horse.
While shoes are not always essential, you should consult with your farrier, telling them the amount and type of work that your horse is getting through in a week.
When conducting your daily hoof care routine, you want a farrier that won’t mind if you call them to consult on any potential issues that you find. They might tell you there’s nothing to worry about – but they might need to come and pay your horse an emergency visit if they suspect more serious hoof problems like thrush or sheared heels.
We’ve listed some of the most common hoof problems in horses elsewhere on our site. Be sure to check it out.
Horse insurance through Equesure
Whatever the condition of your equine’s hooves, adequate horse insurance is a must in case of an expensive vet visit.
With more than 60 years’ experience in the equine insurance market, Equesure boasts a team of specialists who can offer you a bespoke insurance policy with options tailored for the particular needs of your horse.
Whether you own a veteran or a thoroughbred used for competition, we can help you protect your equine friend against a number of risks.
We can also arrange horse rider cover for you, as well as cover for your horsebox or trailer.
If you protect your horse with horse insurance from Equesure you could benefit from the following:
- Vets’ fees up to £4,500 per incident, but with an unlimited number of claims within the policy year.
- An additional 10% discount for insuring more than one horse.
- Public liability cover up to £5 million available.
Give our equine insurance team a call today on 01480 220089 and protect your horse, whatever the future brings.
Get a quick quote today.