Basic Hoof Care

A horse is only as sound as his feet. Care and management of the feet will vary, however, depending on the individual horse, his conformation and hoof structure, environment and climate, and use. Whether he needs to be shod or can be left barefoot will also hinge on these factors.

Trimming and Cleaning

Julie Bullock, DVM, an equine practitioner who primarily treats foot problems in Mt. Sidney, Va., says horse owners should try to keep a barefoot horse's feet tidy, with no rough edges to split or chip. "They can do this themselves by rasping away superficial cracks and keeping the edges smooth," she says. "Cracks and flares give infection an opening to enter the foot. I see a lot of white line disease in our area due to lack of foot care."

Periodically rasping around the edges can prevent or eliminate cracks and flares, but you should leave the sole alone because it needs a thick callous. Leave the barefoot horse's foot with a slightly longer hoof wall than a foot you'd put a shoe on, but keep it very smooth--rasping whenever it becomes ragged.

As a veterinarian and horse owner, Bullock does not recommend cleaning out the feet on regular basis. "The bars, frog, and sulcus of the frog are designed to allow dirt to pack in, creating a natural hoof pad," explains Bullock.

Tia Nelson, DVM, who is a private practitioner as well as a farrier in Helena, Mont., says the mud/dirt that packs into the feet helps as part of the foot support, to protect and cushion the foot. A horse at pasture shouldn't need the feet cleaned. "You should periodically take a look at the feet, however, to make sure there are no cracks or problems," says Nelson.

"The material that packs into the foot will fly out on its own when the horse 
exercises," says Bullock. "I try to look at how Mother Nature designed the foot."

Wild horses travel on more abrasive terrain (which keeps their feet trimmed and smooth) and also travel many miles per day as they graze and go to water. No one ever cleans out their feet or trims them.

"This doesn't mean they can't get cracks or flares, but they tend to keep a very tidy foot," says Bullock. "It's amazing what 
happens to a mustang from out West when it comes to the East Coast. We have more humidity and don't have the abrasive footing, and their feet deteriorate badly."

It's important to note that whether or not your horses' hooves require regular cleaning depends on where/how he's housed.

Climate and Environment

"Environmental influences change the requirements for hoof care," says Bullock. "A horse that lives in dry conditions will have healthier feet. I had a client here with a donkey that got white line disease. Just putting him in a sandy paddock--with more opportunity for the feet to dry out--took care of that problem."

A humid climate usually presents more challenges than a dry climate for keeping feet healthy. "This hard, dry, rocky environment here in Montana, with decomposed granite soils, is the best footing for horses," says Nelson. "If the foot is conformationally balanced, you won't have to put shoes on a hard, dry foot. In 1998 when it was so hot and dry (with forest fires burning), and again in 2000 when it was hot and dry with horrendous fires, I had several different client horses in which I could not drive nails into the foot. They were that hard. In these situations you ask, why are we shoeing this horse?"

Hoof Dressings and Supplements

What an owner adds to his or her horse's hoof care regimen can also affect the hoof and its requirements. "People who put hoof dressings on the hoof wall to try to correct too-dry feet are missing the point, because the moisture in a horse's foot is lost through the bottom of the foot, not the wall," says Bullock. "If you stand a barefoot horse on dry concrete, or if you trim the foot and set it down, the foot will leave a damp imprint."

Nelson has not been very impressed with hoof dressings: "If you're going to use one, make sure it's not a petroleum-based product. Those are not as good as lanolin- and organic-based products. If a horse has feet that are cracking, you need to figure out why, rather than just trying to treat the symptom."

Cracking might be due to too much or not enough selenium, for instance. There might be a trace mineral imbalance, or there might be a lack of physical balance putting stress on one area of the foot.

Bullock is not a fan of oral hoof supplements. "Environment has more control over the foot than anything we can put in the horse's gut," says Bullock. "Beware of fads, and this includes many types of hoof dressings and supplements. If you do use supplements, learn how to read labels. The ingredients are listed in order of amount. The first thing you see is the largest amount in the product. A lot of hoof care products are mostly filler.

"Biotin was the rage for a long time," she says. "Most hoof supplements contain biotin, but you can order straight biotin from a feed store a lot cheaper than some of the hoof care products; you have to get to the fourth or fifth ingredient to find the biotin, which means you have to feed a lot of the product."

Ideally, the horse should be getting enough biotin in his regular diet.

Most hoof supplements contain selenium, methionine, and biotin. Nelson instructs, "Carefully watch the selenium. Signs of selenium overdose are very similar to the signs of deficiency--inferior hoof walls."

Assess the horse's whole diet and make sure you aren't doubling up selenium supplements in feeds, mineral or salt blocks, vitamin-mineral products, etc. "I've seen many people oversupplement with selenium, thinking they were doing a good thing, and turn their horses' feet into cardboard," Nelson notes. "As soon as we eliminated the excess selenium, their feet grew out just fine."

Bullock adds, "Reputable feed companies spend a great deal of money on nutritional research to develop a balanced feed. Yet people take those feeds and skew them by adding multiple supplements, creating an unbalanced diet."

The biggest problem she sees in her part of the country is equine obesity, which is not healthy for feet and legs. Horses are not designed to have that much weight on their feet and might founder, she explains.

Importance of Exercise

A horse that gets little or no exercise rarely has healthy feet. "If you want to grow more hoof, exercise the horse," says Bullock. Blood circulation in the foot is better if the horse is moving.

"When you put a horse in a stall, he will stock up because of decreased circulation," she continues. "The legs are gravity-fed by blood, and unless the horse is moving, to push the blood back up to the heart, the legs tend to swell."

Nelson says it's important to understand basic anatomy and conformation of the foot. "When you think about the circulatory pattern in the hoof, you realize it's mandatory that the horse has exercise," she says. "If he's just standing, the frog is not stimulated."

No Magic Recipe

"There is no across-the-board formula for proper foot care/management practices because of our diverse climate and soils," says Bullock.

There are many variables that affect hoof care and whether or not a horse needs to be shod. "I've seen horses do well barefoot in some circumstances and not in others," says Nelson. Owners should look at the whole picture when deciding whether horses need shoes, supplements, or topical hoof applications, and they should consider what the individual horse is telling them, rather than trying to find a certain recipe for hoof care. They should also develop good working relationships with their veterinarians and farriers and ask these individuals for their help and guidance.

"There are no guidelines that fit every horse," says Nelson.

You could have two horses of similar breeding, in the same environment, eating the same feed, doing the same work, and their feet might have very different needs. Conformation and hoof makeup may be different. Some horses have a longer pastern/shoulder angle, with different stresses on the toe, for instance. Some have harder or softer feet, or feet that are more brittle and prone to cracking.

Often horse owners want instant solutions or a magic cure. "There are no set rules, however, about what you should do about certain problems, because it's completely variable with the individual horse," says Nelson. Owners must get to know their horses--their needs, weaknesses, and strengths. Finding how best to care for a horse's feet is often trial and error.

Basic foot care consists of keeping things simple, avoiding fads, keeping the horse in as natural an environment as possible, and trying to think how Mother Nature took care of horses--before humans became involved. Proper care involves natural feeds and plenty of exercise. The most important thing is to look at your individual situation, the individual horse, and what works best for that horse.

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,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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