The Year-Round Hoof

From practicing daily hands-on care to taking baseline photos for later comparison, here are tips for keeping your horse’s feet healthy.

How much attention do you give your horse's feet? Many times it's just the old once-over with the hoof pick ... until there's a problem. But hooves are the equine athlete's silent supports, absorbing and adapting to stresses of all kinds. To be at their best, hooves need regular attention throughout the year.

Winter: When The Weather Outside is Frightful

What's slower than molasses in winter? Not much, if you live in a cold, icy climate. But no matter your average temperatures from November through February, a generally slower pace of activity means it's the perfect opportunity to spend quality time with your horse's feet.

"The way to avoid most hoof problems is through proactive daily care and regular observation, so that you'll notice the subtle changes before clinical symptoms, and more serious problems, develop," advises Tracy Turner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, of Anoka Equine Veterinary Services in Elk River, Minn. "If you get a good idea of what your horse's hooves look like on a daily basis, you'll notice the small changes that can be a sentinel to larger problems."

William Moyer, DVM, professor and head of the Large Animal Clinical Sciences Department at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, agrees. "Wild horses don't pick their feet," he says. "The feet naturally pick themselves through motion. In a stall environment, manure and moisture fill in the hoof and get packed in. What people should be doing is picking up the feet, gently cleaning them out every day, and getting an idea of what that foot looks like as a reference point."

Examining your horse's hooves each day is a habit to practice throughout the year. Even if your pastures are covered in snow, you should check for ice balls forming in the hoof or shoe, and look for cracks or other signs of hoof distress.

Another good wintry habit is providing your horse with daily exercise. "Horses aren't designed to live in stalls and eat grain; they evolved as roaming, grazing animals, traveling long distances on a daily basis," says Moyer. "Every tissue in their body, not just their muscle mass, is responsive to and strengthened by the stresses of travel and movement. If those stresses aren't there, the tissues weaken."

Although many people cease riding over winter months for safety and comfort reasons, their horses still need exercise and fresh air. Moving out and over a variety of terrain is also essential to hoof health.

"I believe overall hoof strength and health has declined in the last 50 years due to the decrease in available pastureland and ability of horses to be on the move," states Moyer. "Since most horses are constantly exposed to the same flooring or environment, there's no physiologic stimulus to grow a strong foot. This makes exercise and turnout even more important. But 20 minutes in a round pen is insufficient exercise; not enough for a horse nor his hooves."

If long turnout periods or winter riding aren't options, consider hand-walking as a supplementary activity, one that will also help you work off any sneaky holiday pounds. Or find someone to ride your horse for you.

Even with regular turnout and exercise, longer stretches of stall time are common in the winter. If you haven't looked recently, it's a good idea to review what's underneath your horse's feet.

"Good stall footing should be absorbent, capturing as much moisture as possible," says Moyer. "If your horse is primarily an 'apartment dweller,' living in a 12-by-12 box, you've got to provide fresh bedding on a regular basis, and keep the stall as clean as possible."

Adequate shock absorption is another point to consider to reduce fatigue and improve comfort. This can be provided via rubber mats or other cushioned surfaces.

Spring: It All Depends on the Shape You're In

Spring is prime time for assessing your horse's dietary regimen and how it's affecting his hooves. Evaluate his current weight, access to spring pasture, current grains or feed and forage, and dietary supplements as part of the overall picture. Both quantity and quality of nutrients should be controlled, especially in instances where your horse is an "easy keeper" or already has a condition such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID, formerly known as Cushing's disease) and might be susceptible to developing laminitis.

"Many horses today are overfed and oversupplemented," states Moyer. "It's best for the feet to keep your horse on a common-sense diet and at an appropriate weight, and resist the urge to go overboard. Commercially prepared feeds formulated for the type of horse you have, combined with fresh water and hay or pasture forage, serve the nutritional needs of the majority of horses."

Spring grass, with its concentrated sugar content, can be a laminitis trigger. If your horse is pastured on grass or receives longer periods of turnout as the weather warms, consider a grazing muzzle. Be sure to use a breakaway halter with it, and leave it off for several hours each day to allow your horse the chance for adequate salt/mineral consumption.

Pastured horses have several advantages in terms of hoof health. Unrestricted movement is one, but grass also provides ideal footing. If you have a dirt lot or rocky terrain, your horse can still do well; remove manure regularly and ensure horses have dry areas in which to stand and move, especially during spring rainstorms.

Whether you shoe or leave your horse barefoot, both Moyer and Turner agree that a good farrier is an essential part of each horse's hoof health strategy. A farrier will be able to advise you on local geographic and seasonal factors affecting hoof growth, and the right type of shoe and trim.

"There's a lot of discussion right now about whether it's best to shoe or leave a horse barefoot," says Moyer. "A barefoot trim is a wonderful idea if you're living on a ranch and the horse is out all the time, covering lots of miles, because the hooves develop the strength they need.

"But, a horse standing in a box stall doesn't have the same physiologic and environmental stimulus to grow a strong foot, so a good trim combined with the proper shoe can provide the stability and strength his natural hoof lacks," he concludes.

Hooves need to be trimmed and shoes reset generally every six to eight weeks. Seasonally, hoof growth slows in cold weather and speeds up with warm weather and spring grass consumption; you might need to adjust your trim/shoe schedule to prevent balance or soreness problems caused by overgrown feet.

As milder weather and longer daylight hours allow, Turner suggests gradually increasing your horse's activity levels, saying, "I advise clients to avoid being 'weekend warriors.' The horses hang around all week, doing nothing or sitting in the stall most of the day. Then on the weekend, the owner wants to do a 25-mile trail ride or local competition; that's a hoof problem waiting to happen."

So how do you keep your equine athlete sound as you head into summer competition? Daily exercise--as much as you can provide--and gradual workouts combined with the correct trim or shoe for the work at hand.

Summer: Those Lazy, Hazy Days

By June your horse's hoof health plan is well under way, now that you've considered his housing, nutrition, and exercise needs, and you are checking his feet daily. Hooves grow approximately 1 centimeter per month, so you should be seeing some healthy growth of the hoof wall by this time of year. But do you know what else to look for?

Per Turner, you're looking for what's different. "You're looking for changes in the hairline, which indicate a different stress on the hoof," he says. "The foot is pliable enough to adjust, but it could be indicative of a coming problem. Watch for postural or gait changes, such as a previously straight horse that's now toeing in. It might be age-related, or it could be a symptom of a larger, structural issue.

"I also think it's a good idea to measure the length and width of the frog," he notes. "If it starts to narrow, it means they're not landing right and there could be pain involved."

Turner suggests taking annual pictures of your horse's hooves: "Digital cameras are a boon for horse owners, because they can take pictures and save them on the computer. The digital file has a date so you can create a record over time. Video is also good for creating a record of how a horse moves." Summer is ideal for this task, since you can pick a sunny, dry day for it.

Warmer temperatures and increased activity often go hand in hand with more frequent bathing. "Washing the hooves with detergents is deleterious," cautions Moyer. "It's like the old 'Madge, you're soaking in it' dish soap commercial; the more water and detergents the hooves are exposed to, the softer they'll get."

To minimize hoof softening, Turner advises his clients to dry the hooves and leg hair up to the knees and hocks on freshly bathed horses. "You can coat the hooves with a hoof grease or sealant before washing to repel water and keep hooves from absorbing the moisture," he offers.

Summer travel and environmental changes can cause psychological stress, affecting a horse's overall immune response and, ultimately, his feet.

"Stress from new environments is difficult to measure, but transportation stress is well-documented; other stresses would most certainly have an effect," Turner confirms. "I view the hoof as being their 'shock' organ; if something changes in the horse's routine, it's going to show up in the hoof. Hence, we see laminitis and things like that."

Other stresses can be climate-related, such as extreme dryness or excessive moisture in the environment. The bottom line on environmental factors is to consider their impact to each horse's hoof health.

Moyer says, "There are an enormous number of variables influencing the hoof, such as breed and individual genes, nutrition, activities. But any environmental condition will directly affect the kind of foot your horse has."

Autumn: Look Before You Fall

Following summer activity and stresses, it's time to evaluate how your horse's feet are doing on your yearlong plan. Plus, catching a small problem now and treating it early on translates into time and money saved, as well as a healthier horse.

"Horses are among the best at covering foot pain, because showing weakness in the wild meant getting eaten," says Turner. "The horse's body, including the hoof capsule, will do everything it can to cover up and compensate for structural and mechanical stresses and abnormalities. But a lot of times this happens so slowly in the foot that we just don't notice it.

"However, if you have a structurally weak hoof, and it's subjected to unexpected extremes in movement or pressure through excessive or unsuitable activity, the coronary band can deform and crack."

After Labor Day, review your horse's workload, activities, and trimming/ shoeing schedule with your farrier, and make adjustments as needed to keep your horse's feet sound. It's also a good idea to plan next year's hoof health strategies.

Take-Home Message

Even when you do everything right, your horse can still develop hoof problems. But if you've applied common sense and helped your horse grow strong hooves through proper nutrition, frequent and suitable exercise, regular farrier care, and early detection of problems through careful hoof monitoring, you've improved your chances for success.

About the Author

Lisa Kemp

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