Caring for a Horse’s Hooves: The Ultimate Hoof Care Guide

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Everything You Need to Know to Care For Your Horse’s Hooves

Horse hooves may seem like simple structures, but they are actually quite complex. They must be strong and stable enough to carry the horse’s weight yet sensitive enough to navigate challenging terrain accurately. The horse hoof is incredibly important to the animal’s life and must be cared for as such.

How do you care for horse hooves? Hooves must be maintained by a professional farrier every 4-8 weeks, even if the horse doesn’t wear shoes. They must also be cleaned (picked) out and inspected at least once daily. A horse’s hoof grows continually, similarly to a human’s fingernails, and must be trimmed regularly to keep the horse in good shape. A hoof in bad repair will affect the health of the entire horse.

As I started researching hoof care, I was shocked to learn how much climate, diet, and genetics affect the horse’s feet. I was also surprised at how problems in the hoof can affect the horse’s whole body. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about caring for a horse’s hooves!

Parts of a Horse Hoof

While many compare the growth of a hoof to a human fingernail, they are really so much more than that. What you see on the outside of the hoof is only the exterior protection of a much more complex structure within. Let’s look at the components of a horse hoof from the inside out.

  • Coffin bone – the largest bone in the hoof and is located near the front of the foot (the “toe”). The coffin bone is generally responsible for the shape of the hoof.

  • Navicular bone – behind the coffin bone lies the navicular bone. This is the bone that allows the hoof to tilt, which is important to the stability of a horse, particularly on uneven terrain. If the coffin bone is akin to the toe of the horse, the navicular bone could be described as the heel.

  • Tendons – where there’s a joint, there are tendons. The extensor tendon is attached to the coffin bone and straightens the leg. The deep digital flexor tendon wraps around the navicular bone, allowing the leg to bend. As you can imagine, both are vital for a horse’s natural gait.

  • Digital cushion – behind the coffin and navicular bones sits the “digital cushion,” which, quite literally, is a cushion. This cushion acts as the primary shock absorber for the hoof and protects the bones. It is made of cartilage. Digital cushions can become damaged under excessive weight and, unfortunately, cannot regrow. 

  • Laminar layer – the laminar layer is attached to the coffin bone and is somewhat pliable, acting as a secondary shock absorber. It lies just inside the hoof wall. 

  • Frog – the frog is the most sensitive part of the hoof. It is filled with nerves that tell the horse about the ground they are standing on. It’s shaped like a “v” and found on the hoof’s underside. 

  • Sulci – the central and lateral sulci are the grooves found on the sides and in the center of the frog. This area should be picked out and cleaned daily.

  • Sole – the sole is the hoof’s underside and is concave in shape. It’s made of keratin (like our hair and nails) and protects the inside of the hoof.

  • Hoof wall – the hoof wall is what you see when you think of a horse hoof. The hard outer layer surrounds the bones, tendons, and cartilage inside the foot. The hoof wall comprises keratin and must be trimmed regularly by a farrier. Horseshoes are nailed to the hoof wall.

  • Periople – this is the “new growth” portion of the hoof wall, similar to the bottom of your fingernails. As it grows, it hardens into what we know as the hoof wall.

  • Coronary band – this is the area where the hoof meets the rest of the leg. The coronary band supplies nutrients and blood supply to the rest of the hoof and often gets overlooked. However, it can reveal much about the health of the rest of the horse’s foot.

How to Clean a Horse’s Hoof

Cleaning out your horse’s hooves is very important. It should be done at least once daily, preferably before and after every ride. Debris can get caught and packed into the horse’s hooves and can cause discomfort for the horse. When a foot is packed with mud and manure, it’s also easy for bacteria to start eating away at the hoof.

Horse feet get cleaned out by using a “hoof pick.” It’s a simple tool designed to scrape out anything and everything that can get trapped in the foot. Follow the below steps to properly clean out your horse’s feet:

  1. Secure your horse – Tying your horse up or putting it in cross-ties can help keep it still while you work on its feet. It will also prevent it from walking off and trying to escape. If your horse isn’t good at standing tied, have another person stand at its head and hold it on a lead rope while you work on its feet.

  1. Pick up your horse’s hoof – To pick up your horse’s hoof, stand directly next to the leg you want to pick up. Stand with your back to the horse’s head and face behind the horse. Next, run your hand down the horse’s leg. To signal the horse to pick up its foot, you can pinch the chestnut inside the front legs, lightly squeeze the tendon at the bottom of the horse’s leg, or gently tug at the feathers on the horse’s fetlock. When the horse picks up its foot, hold it with the hand closest to the leg and use the other hand to hold the hoof pick.

  1. Pick out the hoof using your hoof pick, work your way through the grooves around your horse’s frog, scraping out all of the trapped debris. You can also use the pick along the inside of the shoes if your horse wears them. This is usually a quick task, but at times, you’ll find you really need to get in there to loosen and remove everything. You’ll know you’re done when you can clearly see the horse’s sole. If your hoof pick has a wire brush on the other end, you can use that to remove any loose dirt on the hoof.

  1. Release the hoof – before releasing your horse’s hoof, make sure that your own feet are clear of his landing spot. Finally, know that your horse will be anticipating your release – don’t let him pull his hoof away from you; allow him to drop his foot only when you have released it.

Scheduling Regular Farrier Visits for Your Horse

Another aspect of caring for your horse’s hooves is acquiring regular farrier visits. If you don’t already have a farrier, ask for trusted recommendations in your area. A bad trim can leave a horse lame, so find a farrier who is experienced and trustworthy.

How often should your horse see a farrier?

How often you schedule farrier visits will depend on a few factors, but almost all horses should be seen at least every 4-8 weeks. Farrier frequency may depend on the following factors:

  • Riding – A horse ridden more frequently will experience more wear on its hooves due to extra movement. These horses may require more frequent visits compared to a retired horse that doesn’t get worked and lives out in a pasture.

  • Climate and Seasons – The climate can greatly affect the growth rate and condition of the hooves. Wet seasons or climates cause hooves to become soft, grow more quickly, and more prone to bruising. Dry climates will cause the hooves to become hard, tough, and slow-growing. Where I live, Summers tend to be wet while Winters are dry. My horses usually get trimmed every six weeks in the Summer and every eight weeks during the Winter.

  • Terrain – Muddy or wet terrain is really not ideal for any hoof and can cause soft feet and even fungal infections. Horses in this type of terrain will require more frequent hoof inspections and care. On the other hand, horses on dry terrain tend to have harder, stronger hooves and may not need as much maintenance. Harsh terrain, in general, may or may not benefit a horse, as it will naturally wear down the hoof walls – this can keep the hooves naturally trimmed but may also result in tender feet on a more sensitive horse. 

  • Shoes – Horses with shoes will need more frequent visits. The hoof wall is constantly growing, and shoes cannot expand with the hooves. Leaving shoes on longer than recommended can negatively affect the hoof. Your farrier will tell you the recommended amount of time between each farrier visit.

Should a Horse Wear Shoes or Be Left Barefoot?

Like human feet, hooves will vary among horses in sensitivity and durability. Some have flatter feet than others, while others are naturally strong and concave. If your horse’s feet do well barefoot at its current level of riding, leave the barefoot. That said, the following scenarios may indicate when shoes are needed:

  • Riding level – Horses ridden heavily will experience significantly more wear and tear on their hooves than horses ridden more casually. This includes horses who trail ride, work in endurance and eventing, and are even regularly used as lesson horses. The more a horse lifts and places a hoof, the more wear and tear the hoof will sustain. Shoes would help absorb some of the trauma and wear the hoof experiences during work.

  • Sensitivity level – Some horses are more sensitive than others. This doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is “wrong” with them or their physiology; rather, they are either more soft-footed or the connections between their nerves and brains are more excitable. Sensitive horses may need shoes to protect the hoof from rocks and terrain that can cause discomfort.

  • Hoof concerns – Shoes may be recommended if a hoof is cracked or otherwise unstable. One benefit horseshoes provide is rigidity. The shoe acts almost like a cast or splint, holding the hoof together while it grows out.

Potential Horse Hoof Problems 

Hooves go through a lot every day, and horses who are regularly stalled or kept in small paddocks may experience more potential issues than those with access to a larger pasture. Daily cleaning of your horse’s hooves will allow you to visually inspect their feet. However, inspecting those feet won’t do you much good unless you know what to look for. The following are some of the common problems that can present in horse hooves

  • Hoof abscesses – A hoof abscess is a common source of obvious pain resulting from a bacterial infection that has caused internal pus and swelling. You may notice visible swelling from an abscess or feel heat emanating from the infected area. The pocket of infection will eventually move to the surface of the hoof and rupture, creating an open wound. If the abscess hasn’t ruptured but your horse is in pain, you can call your veterinarian or farrier to come and rupture it themselves to relieve the pressure. The open rupture must be kept clean to avoid further infection.

  • Thrush – Thrush is most often caused by a fungal or bacterial infection that affects the frog of the hoof. It is most commonly found in horses who are stalled or kept in moist conditions during the rainy seasons. Symptoms of thrush can include a foul smell emanating from the frog or pain when pressure is applied to the area. A vet or farrier can remove the damaged tissue, after which daily cleaning with an antifungal product is required until healing.

  • White line disease – White line disease results from a bacterial or fungal infection that has entered the hoof wall through a crack or separation. White line disease can become serious if left untreated and should be managed by an experienced vet or farrier. You may notice a powdery hoof wall as an indication of the disease.

  • Laminitis – horses fed excessive grain or lush pasture or who are predisposed to the issue are at the most risk of developing laminitis, a painful condition affecting the integrity of the laminae. Symptoms may include an altered gait or movements, heat emanating from the hoof, a soft coronet band, an increased digital pulse, or other signs of pain. If a horse is not treated early for the condition, the structure of the hoof can sustain irreversible damage like founder, and will have to be put down.

Small Things You Can Do To Care For Your Horse’s Hooves

So far, this article may seem overwhelming. There are aspects outside of your control, like the weather and climate and your horse’s sensitivity, that affect your horse’s feet. That said, I’ve learned a few small things you can do that will go a long way in taking care of your horse’s hooves:

  • Give your horse a dry place to stand – If you live in a particularly wet area, providing a dry place where your horse can escape the wet can protect their hooves from absorbing bacteria. Removing your horse from the wet for just one hour daily can make a drastic difference. If they live in a pasture 24/7, ensure they can access a dry run-in shed. If not, bringing them in and putting them in a dry stall for a few hours will be worth it.

  • Clean stalls daily – If your horse lives in a stall for any amount of time, make sure the stall is cleaned daily. Letting manure and waste build-up can be detrimental to your horse’s hooves.

  • Give your horse a soft place to stand – If you live in a dry climate, the hard ground can cause extra trauma and wear on your horse’s hooves and joints. Giving them a soft place to stand will help alleviate some of these issues. Last Summer, my area went through a drought. It was so dry that my horses were turning up stiff and sore. I bought a few bags of pine shavings and dumped them under the tree my horses liked to stand under. I could tell they appreciated the pine shavings as they laid down and stood in them for the rest of the drought.

  • Don’t let your horse stand in rivers – This may sound like a strange point, but it is valid! During the hot Summer months, every equestrian loves to take their horse down to the creek or the river to stand in the water. It’s relaxing and a nice way to cool off. However, soaking your horse’s hooves in water and then taking them out to a dry environment can cause them to dry out quickly and become brittle. The hoof will experience more chipping and even soreness from this.

To be able to care for your horse’s hooves, you must be able to pick up their feet. While many horses can pick up their feet just fine, others may have pain or balance issues that make it more difficult. Some may lack training. Unfortunately, regardless of the reason, hoof care should still be attended to. To learn more about why your horse may not pick up its feet and what to do about it, check out my article Why Won’t My Horse Let Me Pick Up Its Feet?

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My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

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