Looking after your horses is probably the most important thing you can do for them. You wouldn’t walk down the road without anything on your feet and then not wash and clean them when you got back would you, so why would you not do the same for you horse. A horse’s hooves are far more important that to them that just ‘shoes’, they also act as shock absorbers as well as help them feel the surface they’re standing on.
You don’t need to spend a long time caring for your horse’s hooves if you do it every day, but those few minutes could be a godsend to your horse if you do find a problem. Around five to ten minutes every day is all you need but your horse will thank you in the long run.
- Check for stones and other debris.
- Brush the hooves every day, even if you don’t see anything obvious – it’s always a good habit to be in. If you do find any larger objects in the sole then you can use a hoof pick to remove those.
- If your horse is shod check the shoes for signs of wear and tear and call the farrier if needed.
- If unshod check the hooves for splits, crack or any misshapen overgrowth.
- When the weather is hot apply oil every other day, this will help stop then from drying out and prevent cracks from developing.
- Make sure that the farrier checks your horse’s hooves regularly too, this should be four to six weeks for shod horses and six to ten for unshod horses.
How to clean horse hooves
Before you start to clean your horse’s hooves make sure you have a hoof brush, hoof pick and hoof oil to hand. If the hooves are really dirty you may want to rinse them down with a hose or some water first to get the worst of the mud off.
Start by standing in the opposite direction to your horse and with your shoulder next to his then run your hand down the front of his leg and gently lift his hoof. Applying light pressure use the hoof pick clear out and dirt or debris, always working from the back to the front of the hoof. After this, you can use the brush to remove any smaller dirt particles. If more horse has shoes now is a good time to make sure they’re still fitting properly and that none of the nails are protruding through the wall.
Before applying oil it’s good practice to check the hooves for any signs of damage, wounds, or infection. Make sure there are no open cuts, discharge, pus, or anything that looks worrying. If there are any cuts they should be cleaned and treated with ointment before being covered with a dressing. The dressing should be changed regularly and if it doesn’t get better then you should speak to the vet. If you see a black discharge around the frog then it’s likely your horse has a thrush infection, this can be easily treated by keeping the hoof clean and dry until it’s gone. The hoof should also be free of cracks and rings. Cracks can make the hoof susceptible to damage and germs whereas rings can indicate an underlying health problem that may need veterinary assistance.
If you’re happy the hooves are clean and healthy now is the time to apply oil, during the summer when the weather is hotter it’s a good idea to apply oil every other day to stop then cracking. It doesn’t matter if the hooves are wet or dry but they should always be clean before applying the oil.
Anatomy of the hoof
The make up of a horse’s hoof is similar to our fingernails and hair in it’s made of a protein called keratin. The strength of their hooves comes from the fact that this keratin is layered horizontal, it’s this horizontal layering that also reduced the risk of the hoof splitting in the event of a crack. Much like our nails horses don’t feel pain in the outer layers of their hooves. Being digitigrade (meaning they walk on toes) horses have a soft cushioning pad beneath the heel and this part can feel pain.
The structure of the horse’s hoof can be divided into various parts with the visible outer wall taking the majority of the horse’s weight.
- Wall – The wall is the outer structure of the hoof that covers and protects the soft delicate tissue inside. The wall acts as a shock absorber and doesn’t have any blood vessels or nerves. Like our nails and hair is continuously grows and will often need to be trimmed. If your horse has shoes then the nails from them will go through this outer structure only. The wall of the hoof can’t move so if your horses has any damage to the internal structure it can often cause lameness.
- Coronary band (or coronet) – This is the small band at the top of the wall where the hoof joins the leg, unlike the rest of the hoof wall though it does have a blood supply.
- Periople – Sitting just below the coronary band it covers new wall tissue, giving it a time to harden.
- Sole – The underneath of the horse’s hoof protects the inner hoof (especially the coffin or pedal bone) from damage. The edge of the sole where it meets the wall is called the toe.
- Frog – The frog is the V-shaped structure in the hoof. It acts as a shock absorber to the horse and enables him to feel the ground which aids traction. The frog is shed a few times each year, during which time the horse’s feet are tender. The triangled centre of the frog is called the cleft of the frog.
- White line – Often yellow in colour, it separates the wall from the sole. The white line helps to protect the sole but if it becomes damaged it can spread throughout the hoof.
- Quarters and Heels – The quarters and heel are at the side and back of the wall respectfully.
- Bars and Heels – The bars add strength to the heel and are extensions of the hoof wall. They run run from the wall to the along part of the frog.
- Commissure of the frog – This is the grooved area between the frog and bars. The centre groove is called the central sulcus, while the grooves either side of it are the lateral sulci. This has to be kept clean, especially if your horse’s hooves have any damage as germs can get into the hoof and cause infection.
- Coffin (or pedal) bone – The coffin bone is the biggest bone in the hoof and helps to give it its shape. It’s covered by the tissue of the laminae and sole. If the tissue around the bone is damaged it’s likely to result lameness.
- Digital Cushion – This is the area underneath the coffin or pedal bone. It’s one of the most important shock absorbers in the hoof. The digital cushion is well protected within the hoof but if it is damaged it’s not able to heal itself.
- Navicular bone – Sometimes called the distal sesamoid bone it’s the small bone that behind the coffin and short pastern bones and helps to stabilise the horse over uneven ground.
Does my horse need shoe?
There is a common misconception that all riding horses need to wear shoes. This isn’t true at all and a lot of horses don’t need to wear shoes at all, after all, they don’t were them in the wild! When deciding whether your horse needs shoes or not you need to think about the type of work you’re going to do as well as the sort of surface your horse will be ridden on. If your horse is pulling heavy loads or is ridden on concrete a lot then shoes would be a good idea, they’ll help to prevent the hoof from wearing excessively and will also give some traction.
If you feel that your horse does need shoes but don’t like the thought of shoes fear not there is an alternative. Hoof boots are removable boots, much like our human shoes, that can be quickly put on before riding and then removed after. The advantage of these is that they give your horse extra grip, prevent the hooves from wearing too quickly, but can easily be removed when your horse is in the stable or at grass.
No hoof, no horse
An old saying that actually makes a lot more sense than you might think. If you don’t look after your horse’s hooves not only will you be causing them a great deal of stress and discomfort you won’t be able to ride them either. For the sake of your horse’s health and well being a few minutes spent caring for the hooves every day is time very well spent.
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