Hoof Structure and Foot Facts (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Equine Hoof Care by Heather Smith Thomas. This book is available from www.ExclusivelyEquine.com.

Knowing the anatomy and function of the foot can help you take better care of a horse's feet--and do a better job of trimming or shoeing if you do that yourself. A working knowledge of the foot also enables you to select animals with the most desirable structure. You want a horse that is more apt to stay sound through a long life of hard work.

The old saying, "No hoof, no horse" is very true, especially as it pertains to the horse's working ability and soundness.  The horse is an athlete; we use him for a variety of athletic purposes -- racing, jumping, chasing cattle, pulling carts.  The health and soundness of his feet are of vital importance.  Another old saying is that a horse is as old as his feet and legs.  If they are not sound and healthy, he cannot be used for much. 

It has also been said that a horse's feet and disposition both deteriorate when he is not used. His feet -- and his mental and social nature -- evolved with continual activity. Therefore, regular exercise is crucial. Because the horse is a creature of movement, he is healthiest and happiest when he has room to roam, grazing on the go.

Horses are all unique.  From head to hoof, each is genetically engineered to be built a little differently. Each horse's hooves have their own shape, hardness, and rate of growth. White (non-pigmented) hooves are often less resilient than colored ones.  White hooves are softer when wet and more brittle when dry, making them more prone to chipping and cracking.  As a result, white feet usually wear more quickly than pigmented ones. Some horses with white feet have tough hooves, but as a general rule when a horse has white feet and colored feet, the white ones are less resilient than the dark ones.

In addition to conformation, climate also makes a difference; a moist environment makes hooves softer, while dry conditions make hooves harder and tougher.

Breed difference is also a factor.  Draft horses tend to have relatively flat feet.  Their ancestors evolved in marshy regions of northern Europe -- where a large, flat hoof was well suited for boggy ground, enabling a heavy horse to travel without sinking so deeply. 

Concussion was minimal on soft surfaces, so having a flat hoof didn't matter.  At the other extreme, Arabian horses evolved in dry desert country.  Their feet are smaller, blockier, and tougher, with a concave sole to prevent bruising.  This type of sole has more flex and "give," to dissipate concussion; the sole can flatten as the hoof hits hard ground, then spring back into place when picked up.

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.

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