Tips on Regular Trimming and Shoeing

At one point in my life, I decided to learn about farriery. I enrolled in an intensive 10-day short- course. During the day, we would fashion shoes, trim horses, and when the instructor thought we were ready, attach the shoes to an equine foot.

Each evening was devoted to classroom sessions. We discussed, debated, and learned. One evening the debate was on the proper time to first trim the feet of a young foal. A variety of opinions were expressed. I really didn t know the answer and had little to offer.

Finally, the instructor turned to me. "When do you think a foal should be trimmed for the first time?" he asked.

At loss for a definitive answer, I blurted out, "Whenever the foal needs it."

He smiled and nodded. The debate was over, and I was the temporary classroom hero. As time has gone on, I realized that the answer that popped off the tip of my tongue makes continuing sense not just with foals, but all horses under our care.

Unfortunately, this isn't always the case with horse owners. It has been my experience, during a lifetime of involvement with horses, that the most neglected aspect of equine care generally involves the feet.

I m not sure why this is true. Perhaps one reason is that it is so easy to put off. After all, you do have to call the farrier and make an appointment. Then, you have to catch the horses and be there to handle them when the farrier arrives.

The sad part for both horse and owner is that neglect can quickly negate the horse's usefulness and even cause it to be in severe pain, something that is inhumane to say the least.

Perhaps another reason for widespread hoof neglect is lack of knowledge about how rapidly the hoof grows. While the rate of growth varies from animal to animal, the average rate of growth for all horses is in the range of 0.25-0.35 inches per month. However, not knowing this is hardly a justification when a glance at long hooves ought to be reminder enough. It is true that wild horses do not receive farrier care and many of them have sturdy, durable hooves. However, we must remember that there has been an ongoing selection process based on survival of the fittest. Wild horses with poor hooves often become a meal for predators. Then, too, these wild horses often inhabit country that is dry, where they travel over hard ground surfaces that serve to wear down hooves to an appropriate level.

We changed all that when we domesticated the horse. Putting it in a lush pasture of grass might keep the horse sleek and fat, but it will do little to wear down hooves. The same is true of horses which spend much of their time in a box stall or soft-surface paddock. Although I will always maintain that a horse should have its feet trimmed or shod when it is needed, there are some general guidelines that can help one stay on track with a proper foot care program.

Generally speaking, the average horse used for trail and pleasure riding should have its feet trimmed or reshod every six to eight weeks. That being said, it is immediately obvious that the use of the horse as well as the time of year will have a bearing on how often it is trimmed and reshod.

For one thing, a horse's hooves grow faster during the summer months than they do during cold winter weather. Unfortunately, many owners carry this knowledge to the extreme. They pull the shoes in the fall, turn the horse out to winter pasture, and put hoof care on the shelf until the following spring when another riding season rolls around.

In the meantime, the horse's hooves continue to grow, albeit at a slower rate. If the horse is on hard, flinty ground, some of that growth might wear off. If the horse is on soft ground, however, the hooves will grow unchecked. The longer they get, the more apt they are to break and crack. The owner might catch the horse in the spring and find that he is virtually unusable because there is a hoof crack that reaches all the way to the sensitive coronary band, or he has broken off so much hoof that the hoof won't hold a shoe.

Routine hoof care, maybe every eight weeks in the winter, could be expected to prevent such problems. The interval between trimming or resetting shoes also varies with usage and rate of hoof growth. For example, if we ride our horses frequently in the rocky Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, we must keep a close eye on the wear and tear sustained by the shoes.

There have been times when the shoes were worn down to thin pieces of steel in a six-week period of intensive riding. Slipping and sliding over rugged, rocky trails also takes a heavy toll on the nails that hold the shoe to the hoof. Frequently, the pressures exerted cause the nails to work loose, and the next thing we know a shoe has been torn free.

This can cause severe hoof damage if a chunk of hoof tears off with the shoe. What this means is that the trail rider, no matter what the terrain, should be checking those shoes on a daily basis. If one shows signs of coming loose, it should immediately be tightened. This is not a difficult procedure and is one that your farrier probably would be happy to demonstrate. Sometimes it isn t economically beneficial for a farrier to make a trip to your place just to replace a lost shoe. Many farriers don t charge for this service if the shoe loss was within a short time of the last shoeing.

It is much better for everyone if you keep a close eye on the horse's feet and correct a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Hoof Growth Rate

As already mentioned, one of the prime criteria when discussing what should be "normal" trimming and shoeing is rate of growth. This is something that will vary with age, diet, and other factors. While you might not like the expense involved in frequent trims when you have a horse with rapidly growing hooves, there is a definite positive to this scenario. Generally speaking, hooves that grow rapidly -- unless rapid growth is accentuated by injury or disease -- are stronger than those that grow more slowly. This means that they likely will hold a shoe better and be less apt to crack or break.

It has also been found that the hooves of young horses grow faster than those of older animals. One of the reasons that has been theorized for this is that hoof growth is tied to heart rate. The higher the heart rate, the faster the hoof growth, and foals have a heart rate that is at least twice as fast as older horses. Hoof growth rate decreases in response to the aging process.

Exercise and diet also influence the rate of hoof growth. It has been found that the hooves of horses which exercise on a regular basis grow faster than those which get little exercise. It has also been found that horses which have been fed properly will experience more rapid hoof growth than horses on a limited ration.

As most alert horse owners have learned, the front hooves generally grow more rapidly than the rear hooves.

Something else that has a strong influence on growth rate and hoof health is moisture. Moisture content can have a significant bearing on what is "normal" trimming and shoeing for a particular horse.

Doug Butler, PhD, CJF, FWCF, formerly with Colorado State University but now in private practice, says hoof moisture has been shown to have a direct effect on hoof quality. "There is constant evaporation taking place from the hoof," he says. "Moisture must be replaced to compensate for this loss. Systemic water is transferred from the extensive blood and lymph supply of the sensitive structures to adjacent horn cells and they in turn transfer it to other horn cells. Environmental water from ground sources is also conducted throughout the hoof in a similar manner. Balance of the two sources of moisture is probably maintained through the principle of osmosis. When one source is insufficient, the animal depends more heavily on the other. Hoof quality may relate more to the hoof s ability to regulate the moisture content than anything else, because as the moisture content decreases, the hoof becomes harder and tougher."

Harder and tougher in this context do not correlate with stronger. A hoof that is dry and hard will be more prone to breaking and cracking.

There is a flip side to the moisture discussion -- too much moisture can be as harmful as too little. Ric Redden, DVM, an equine foot specialist from Versailles, Ky., is of the opinion that many racing Thoroughbreds have hoof problems because of excessive moisture that causes the hoof walls to lose their strength.

This brings us again to good animal husbandry and observation in determining what is a normal trimming or shoeing schedule for a specific horse. In some areas of the South, excessive moisture might have a strong bearing on what is a normal trimming and shoeing regimen. In the West, abnormally dry conditions might have a bearing on what is normal for trimming and shoeing.

All of the above emphasizes that "normal" trimming and shoeing are determined by a wide variety of factors, and we as owners must be cognizant of all of them.

Next comes the question of whether a horse needs shoes in the first place. We know that the hoof must be trimmed regularly in most instances, but does it really need shoes? There is no blanket answer. Usage should have a strong influence on the decision. The horses we ride on rocky mountain trails would destroy their hooves without shoes. (See "The Barefoot Horse")

However, if you ride on trails that are covered with grass or soft dirt, shoeing might be an unnecessary expense. Horse owners should be aware that driving a nail through the hoof wall is an unnatural thing for a horse and creates an insult that only time and continued hoof growth will erase.

Granted there are certain horse show disciplines that dictate that a horse be shod. Reining horses, with their signature sliding stop, are fitted with shoes that allow them to exaggerate this motion. Saddlebreds, with their high-stepping gaits, require a special type of shoe, as does the competing Tennessee Walking Horse. These are shoes that are designed to enhance high-stepping action rather than protect the hoof.

But that doesn t provide an answer for the backyard horse. The best way to approach the decision is by considering the shoe as protection for the hoof. If you have a horse with strong, flexible hooves that grow rapidly and you ride in soft, undemanding terrain, protection might not be needed. If you have a horse with weak hooves, shoes might be required even in undemanding terrain. We already have stated the need for shoes in rocky terrain.

Eventually, as is the case with so many things in the equine world, the matter of trimming and shoeing boils down to treating the horse as an individual and understanding its needs.


Understanding The Equine Foot by Fran Furga is available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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