Hi there, human!
You might have heard the expression “No hoof, no horse.” Horses have lived with this truth for thousands of years — as prey animals, our lives literally could depend on our feet.
How does hoof health affect YOU, a rider? Imagine trying to dance ballet or run a marathon on sore or blistered feet. You’d be pretty unhappy, wouldn’t you? You might try to quit, or develop an unnatural way of moving to avoid the pain.
Before you can fairly ask a horse to do anything for you under saddle, you’ll need to make sure his hooves are healthy and happy.
Here are a few things I wish every equestrian knew about their horse’s feet:
Everything is connected
Hoof health and balance can affect the horse’s posture, balance, and muscle tone. It can cause areas of restriction all over the horse’s body along with poor spinal alignment and faulty movement. Unhealthy hooves can even make a horse appear spooky or “lazy” (would YOU like being forced to work out if your feet hurt??) or spooky.
Horses are stoic by nature, which means by the time your horse is obviously limping, he may have been suffering for quite some time.
Learn to detect signs that something might not be quite right with your horse, and if he has a problem, make sure to investigate hooves as a possible cause.
Your horse has a “second heart” — in his feet
Ever wondered what the frog is all about?
That rubbery formation on the underside of your horse’s hoof is weird and wonderful in several ways:
See the changes in my buddy Romeo's frog?
Be sure to keep your horse’s frogs healthy and happy by keeping a watchful eye for thrush, the stinky bacterial infection that can turn your horse’s hooves black, oozy and tender. Don’t ignore the middle of the frog — the central sulcus can get uncomfortably deep when eaten away by thrush!
The hoof writes its history on its walls
Have you ever taken a really good look at your horse’s hoof walls?
You might notice a faint pattern of rings running horizontally across the wall, like the rings on a tree. The hoof grows downward from the coronary band, and anything that alters hoof growth can create an “event line,” or a particularly noticeable ring on the horse’s hoof.
Sometimes these event lines can be caused by something relatively minor, like moving your horse to a new facility with slightly different pasture.
They can also indicate something more serious, such as illness or laminitis.
Hoof health starts on the inside
Nutrition has a HUGE influence on hooves. In order to grow strong, healthy feet, a horse needs a forage-based, well-balanced diet.
Trouble can occur when:
Not all working horses need shoes — in fact, many don’t. But barefoot horses benefit from a supportive environment.
When the Girl and I met, I wore front shoes. I’d had them for my whole riding career, and occasionally the Girl would try to take them off for a few months because she’d heard that was a healthy thing to do.
But I did not like my life without shoes. I was short-strided and tender-toed, and I didn’t even want to play mounted games.
Several farriers told the Girl, “This pony will never be able to go barefoot.” They said my hoof wall was too thin, my soles too flat. And I was borderline lame without shoes, so obviously it was better to keep them on, right?
Well… a few years later, I got a diet change and started living outside 24/7 instead of in a stall at night. A barefoot trimmer took my shoes off, and the Girl gave me an adjustment period where all we did was walk, on every surface imaginable: sand, gravel, and pavement as well as grass.
A few weeks later, I forgot I didn’t have shoes anymore. A few weeks after that, I went on an 8-mile hunter pace, and pranced happily down a rocky trail!
Not every horse can transition to barefoot living that quickly — I mean, they’re not the Greatest Horse That Ever Lived, are they? But my point is that you should never say never.
In my case, rotating between a wet pasture and a dry stall while eating sugary grain was the culprit behind my tender feet. Once I grew tough, healthy feet, I was able to work and compete without shoes, no problem.
Does that mean that using horseshoes is wrong? Not necessarily.
Some horses have soundness or lifestyle complications that make shoeing the more comfortable choice, and upper-level competition horses occasionally require some artificial traction to keep from slipping.
Every horse’s situation is unique, and his hooves should be treated individually with advice from a trusted farrier and veterinarian.
However, don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
Hoof boots can be used to protect bare hooves in situations that might normally require shoes, and there are emerging new shoeing techniques such as glue-on shoes.
My top tips for creating happy feet:
And if you have a hoof trimmer or farrier you love, don’t forget to show them some love in return!
Show up early to catch your horse for appointments, and provide a shady, sheltered place to work.
Teach your horses to stand quietly for trimming and use fly repellent in the summer.
Pay attention and ask questions, especially if your horse has an ongoing hoof health challenge that needs attention between trims.
My trimmer brings me horse cookies, which makes her extra-special — but having comfortable feet I don’t have to worry about is the best reward of all!