Got Healthy Hooves? Here’s How to Keep Them That Way

Last Updated on February 24, 2022 by Allison Price

My horse is barefoot. He is sound. I think his feet look great. How can I keep them looking this good? What are the best products or ways to manage them? What if he ever needs shoes?

These are just some of the many questions horse owners have about their horses’ feet. Many horse owners have experienced or heard of less-ideal feet. It’s natural to want to preserve the good times and prevent future problems. Two farriers shared their tips on how to maintain healthy hooves with or without shoes.

Paul Goodness, CJF is a farrier at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM), Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg. He says that horses’ feet can be resilient and adapt to most conditions. However, sometimes they may need a little assistance. Travis Burns, CJF. TE, EE. FWCF, assistant professor in practice and chief of farrier service at the VMCVM, agrees and states that horse owners can do many things for their horses to maintain healthy hoof capsules.

Genetics: Get started with good feet and legs

Burns says, “If I had to give you one piece of advice it would be to breed or buy horses based on conformation” It’s much easier to have healthy feet if you buy/breed horses with good feet.

He explains that if a horse has poor hoof qualities, the owner must fight the problem for the rest his horse’s lifetime. It can be difficult to keep your feet healthy and / or shoes on.

Got Healthy Hooves

Hoof strength, conformation, and durability are all genetic. Some horses have stronger feet than others. Poor conditions can have a negative impact on horses’ feet. However, environment, hoof care and nutrition can all make a difference.

Goodness knows horses come with basic hoof shape and angle.

He explains that P3 (the third or coffin bone), has an influence on the hoof’s outer structure. The shape and angle of the hoof is also determined by the length and angle of the pastern bones. Horses born with upright pasterns may be more inclined to be club-footed. He will have a longer, more sloped pastern, which means he’ll have a shorter hoof, a longer toe, and lower heels.

Farrier Care: The No-Brainer

Regular trimming is the best thing for horses’ hooves.

Burns states that while some horse owners believe that bare feet should be trimmed only once or twice per year, horses require more frequent trimming to maintain a proper balance of the hoof capsule (so structures are stressed equally) and keep edges from chipping and cracking. He adds that trim cycles can last anywhere from four to eight weeks depending on which horse it is.

Goodness says that each horse has a different rate of hoof growth, and therefore requires different trimming frequencies. “This can also depend on the type of work done and the season.” Hoof hair grows faster in summer due to optimal nutrition in green grass. It is slower in winter.

He continues, “Horses should be checked regularly by a farrier and hoof care specialist, if only to check for abnormal circumstances that might benefit from any kind of action.” A farrier can detect problems such as white line disease, bruising or cracks in the hoof wall in the early stages. He should intervene before it becomes more serious and costly to correct.

Goodness states that the farrier can help maintain the feet and answer any questions an owner may have, especially new owners.

Environmental Influences

Horses are amazing at adapting to whatever environment we place them in. However, it takes time for horses to adapt to different conditions, such as wetter, dryer, softer or more difficult.

Goodness states that not all horses are capable of adapting on their own. This is why the horse owner plays an important role in helping them through this adaptive period. “If horses live in a wet area or if the feet become too soft due to being wet, it is important to provide a dry area in the paddock. This will allow them to get out the mud and let the feet dry out.” Feet are generally healthier if they aren’t constantly wet.

Burns says that moisture is a problem for the hoof capsules. It predisposes them t to cracking, whiteline disease, abscesses and other problems.”

Horses’ feet can become brittle and weaker when they are wet. The hoof wall may splay out more than necessary, making it more likely that the foot will develop flares or cracks. Softer soles are more susceptible to bruising.

Burns says, “Even worse than being constantly wet is an environment in which the horse goes from dry to wet to wet…over and over.” “Here, in the mid-Atlantic, even in summer, when it’s bone-dry due to drought, people believe that the feet are too dry. But, they get wet with morning dew. The feet dry out again by the afternoon, and horses start stomping flies,” which can lead to cracked horns.

Pest management techniques can be used to control flies, as well as the stomping that they cause. You should also take care of pastures by using rotational grazing to keep fields grassy and managing high-traffic areas such as gates and waterers to prevent them from becoming mud bogs.

Hygiene and hoof dressings

Burns says that horses should be checked regularly to ensure they aren’t packed with rocks or mud. This can further exacerbate the dry-dry cycle. You’ll be able to spot problems like thrush. This is a black or foul-smelling substance. Or whiteline disease. This is a chalky powder which spills out when you scrape the hoof with a hoofpick. There might be signs that your horse is suffering from a hoof infection.

You must keep your feet clean, but dry. Horses who are bathed often can develop cracked hooves. The same goes for horses who get their hands wet, which can cause dryness and chapped skin. Ask your horse care professional for a non-drying hoof dressing to protect the feet from excessive moisture if you bathe the horse often or if his feet start to crack from the dry/wet cycle of walking in morning dew.

Connective tissue is what makes up the hoof wall. It’s similar to skin but much more difficult than human fingernails. Goodness also says that hoof horn must have a certain amount moisture in order to stay flexible and resilient. Too much moisture can cause the horn to become soft, wear away quickly and won’t hold its nails. Too much moisture can cause hooves to crack, chip and become brittle.

Goodness says that you cannot add moisture to a hoof as it is dependent on a healthy blood supply. However, you can use a good hoof coat to retain the moisture that is already there. The hoof’s protective waxy periople, which protects the outer surface of the hoof, can be damaged by both wet/dry cycles and urine and manure. Ammonia in urine-saturated bedding and acid in manure can eat away the coating. Horn tissue is also broken down by ammonia. Goodness says that a hoof dressing can be used as a temporary cover to protect the horn and reduce moisture loss.

If your horse has small cracks on the surface of his feet from constant moisture changes, a hoof sealant may be able to help. Hoof sealants prevent external moisture from damaging your horse’s hoof and keep the internal moisture from drying out. They also counter the effects of environmental changes.

Refer to the label for the correct application and frequency. Products contain many ingredients that can affect tissues differently. Some stay on the hoof longer than others.

Goodness says that you can use “toughening products” to your horse’s sole, frog and heel bulbs to prevent soreness and bruising. Some products can even be used to form a living cushion over the foot.

Feeding your pets for good health

Goodness says that optimum hoof health is dependent on a healthy diet and steady supply of nutrients. Although it is easy to give the right amount of nutrients, excessive feeding can cause serious problems for the horse’s feet and other parts of the body.

Green pasture is the best food for horses. It contains protein, vitamins and minerals.

We try to imitate nature as best we can but not all horse owners are able to keep horses in pasture full-time. Some horses also have metabolic conditions that prevent them from doing so. When supplementing with harvested feeds such as hay or grain, ensure that they contain the right nutrients. Goodness says that hay’s nutritional and quality can be affected by harvest conditions.

Goodness states that if you suspect your horse’s feet are suffering from poor nutrition, it is worth speaking with a professional. Before you rush to grab one of the hoof-oriented supplements, consult an equine nutritionist to discuss its nutritional content and whether your horse actually needs it. There is a fine line between “overdoing” and “underdoing” nutrients.

You should also monitor your horse’s health, especially if he is a good keeper. Americans tend to overfeed their animals. Burns says that horses who are overweight put extra strain on their joints and feet.

Age is a Matter of Life

Seniors and foals are two age groups that require more hoof care than an average adult horse. Owners don’t tend to take care of a youngster until they are able to ride or need shoes. Routine farrier care is the best way to get your horse’s feet started right, especially for young horses.

Travis Burns, CJF. TE, EE. FWCF, assistant professor of clinical and chief of farrier services at Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Leesburg, says that many people forget about hoof care. The first two-to four weeks should be taken care of by foals. They often need to be trimmed to keep their feet straight. Foals’ feet can be easily molded and shaped by you. This is a great time to have a positive impact on their first three months.

The retired horse is turned out to pasture at the opposite end of the spectrum. Paul Goodness, CJF, VMCVM farrier, says that feet are not given much attention until they are in a crisis. “I have seen many horses of my clients get into their 30s and their feet often deteriorate with age. I have been shoeing for a long time. Three to four of these elderly horses have forced me to put on shoes after years without them.

You can put extra strain on already-painful joints by allowing the feet to grow too long on older horses with arthritis.

Don’t only focus on your horses, but also take care of your children and retired friends.

Get your feet moving

Exercise is good for the horse’s overall health and also helps to maintain the hoof.

Burns says that horses move more than they walk. This improves blood circulation and the health of the feet. This stimulates the growth of the hoof capsule and keeps the feet healthy. The hoof capsule can adapt to changes and respond to stressors.

It stimulates stronger and better growth if the stress level isn’t too high. Burns says that horses who are kept in stalls for long periods of time and don’t have the freedom to move around will not grow good feet.

Goodness is in agreement. He says that horses with healthy feet are those who have enough space and exercise regularly. I work with a lot show horses who are more in their stalls than they are out working. Their feet are not as strong as horses out in the field.

Get your horse moving, especially if you don’t exercise him often.

What is the best time for my horse to wear shoes?

The function of the barefoot is as it was intended by nature. It can expand when the horse puts weight on it, and then spring back to shape when the weight increases. The sole and frog pump blood around the foot, increasing circulation.

Burns says it’s better to be able to “function as biomechanically efficient as possible, with no restriction.” Self-cleaning is a must. Mud, snow, and rocks won’t easily get stuck in a barefoot as much as they would in a shoed one.

Burns explains that there are four reasons to groom a horse.

  1. Protection Footwear that is too worn or tender to wear might be needed. Sometimes, this is a temporary solution.
  2. For therapeutic reasons Some horses require special shoes in order to treat certain diseases or manage/compensate conformational problems.
    Goodness says that if there is a disease or a hoof capsule imbalance or distortion, a boot or shoe is often the best option to get healthy hooves.
    A shoe can help a weak hoof capsule to keep its shape and get back on the right balance.
  3. Horses that are involved in different activities require different types and levels of traction. Horses that jump and run require more traction than horses that can slide. Reining horses need less.
  4. Gait alteration Horses that are interfering with each other’s movements (e.g., hitting opposing limbs with their feet) can be prevented by the farrier using special shoes. Many people want to alter or improve a particular phase of the stride, particularly in certain gaited breeds.

Burns states that a horse should not be allowed to walk barefoot if it doesn’t fit into any of these four categories. Shoes can have negative consequences, including lost shoes and stepping on horseshoe nails or clipped feet. Shoes can add weight to the hoof and cause a change in the normal mechanics. This causes shock and concussion to be more severe for the distal (lower), limbs.

Take-Home Message

You now have a clear picture of what factors affect horse hoof health. You can monitor each one and make adjustments as necessary to ensure that your feet look great.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!