Hoof health and shape are critical components of any equine (horse, mule, burro or donkey) care program. Routine hoof care should include cleaning, trimming, corrections of minor imperfections and treatment of foot diseases and injuries. It is said that the Arabs believed, “No hoof, no horse!” This stressed the importance of hoof care to an animal’s performance. Lameness of the feet and legs in equines is the cause of most of their permanent incapacitation.
Historically, wild and estray horses ran loose throughout their environment and their hooves adapted to wherever they traveled and were worn down naturally as they roamed the varied landscape. Unfortunately, domestic equines are often kept in unnatural confinement, including paddocks, corrals and fenced fields where the surface doesn’t provide for natural shaping of the animals’ hooves. Such areas are also prone to contain sharp rocks, nails, small pieces of metal, pieces of bailing wire, etc., which can penetrate the hoof and cause substantial injuries and infections.
Hooves are somewhat similar to human fingernails and need to be trimmed or their growth can make them weak, uneven and allow them to splay, split, crack, chip or break off in large pieces. This may cause lameness, poor balance, decrease the animal’s stride, comfort, and performance or cause permanent damage to the hoof structure.
Hooves grow at a rate of about one-quarter inch a month and should be trimmed regularly — about every six to eight weeks — to maintain healthy hooves and prevent uneven surfaces and hoof breakage. The bottom of the foot should be level and the inside and outside walls of the hoof should be kept at equal lengths. Ideally, the toe and pasterns should be three inches long, the quarter, two inches long and the heel one inch. The angle of the hoof wall should be about the same angle which is formed by the shoulder and the pastern, usually forty-five to fifty-five degrees, although this will vary with each animal and its use. The goal is to have the angle of the heel line up with the angle of the toe / front hoof wall, resulting in a well-proportioned hoof which reduces stress to its legs and tendons. The more incorrect the hoof angle, the worse the consequences will be to the foot. Trimming can be done by a knowledgeable equine owner, a horseshoer or a farrier.
Remember that the animal’s diet and nutrition has a direct impact on the growth and development of its hoof. Animals which do not receive quality nutrition will have reduced hoof growth. Those with too little protein will also have poor quality hooves which are likely to crack.
There are a number of things that an equine owner or custodian can do to insure good hoof health. Use a specialized tool, called a ‘pick,’ to regularly remove debris which can be lodged in the underside of each hoof, between the fleshy portion, the ‘frog’ of the hoof and the interior hoof wall. Pick from the heel to the toe. This removes impacted manure and soil and allows you to visually check for bruising, cracks, abscesses, punctures, embedded objects or disease. Check for shoeing nails sticking out of the hoof (risen clinches), ill-fitting or loose shoes, or other shoe-related problems.
Use the pick to remove any of the above material all around the frog and inner hoof wall, then use a stiff brush to clean the entire surface of the sole. Be aware that horses normally shed the frog several times a year.
If you are riding or working the horse, you will probably want to have the horse fitted with shoes to protect the hoof from damage. A good horseshoer or farrier can trim the hoof to the proper angle and shape and fit the correct type of shoes to the animal’s feet, depending on the type of riding or work for which the animal is being used, as well as the existing environmental conditions and surfaces.
Regular exercise, at a walk or a trot, on safe and sure surfaces will increase blood circulation to the hooves and encourage healthy growth. Allowing your equine to constantly stand in mud, manure and filthy conditions can create an environment which may support thrush, a bacterial infection, or weaken the hoof structure.
If you require assistance with your animal’s hoof care, be sure that you use a reputable horseshoer or farrier. Ask other horse owners, veterinarians, and horse facilities who they use and how satisfied were they with their previous work. Ask if your farrier is certified by the American Farrier’s Association (AFA) as either a certified farrier or journeyman-certified farrier. These certifications show that the individual has passed required written shoeing and veterinary-related examinations, as well as demonstrating their work in practical examinations.
When scheduling an appointment for hoof work be sure that your animal is immediately available in the area where the trimming or shoeing is to be done. Clean the animal’s legs and feet before the horseshoer or farrier arrives, so that the animal is ready to be handled. The area should be clear of debris or dangerous equipment which might injure the horse or others present during the hoof work. Avoid interruptions, including kids, dogs, cats, other livestock and any power equipment or vehicles which might startle the animal while it is being worked on