Caring for Horse Hooves

Horse’s hooves undergo an incredible amount of stress and strain each day. The entire weight of a horse or pony is directed down to the tiny bones at the base of the foot producing intense pressure (something you know all about if a horse ever stands on your foot). This article looks at some of the facts and figures in relation to the hoof and also look specifically at the condition of laminitis which affects the hoof and foot development.

Healthy Hoof

Any damage to the foot or hoof can have disastrous effects on the horse’s ability to move, so it’s important that they are properly looked after at all times. So why do some horses have healthy hooves and not others and what does a healthy hoof look like?

Some horses are naturally born with better hooves, possibly due to genetic factors. There are then other external factors such as living in a dry environment, or having straight legs with hooves pointing in the same direction which creates an even wear these also impact on how the hoof is worn.

Conversely horses living constantly in wet environments (like Ireland!) are prone to developing problems with the hoof, or leaving shoes on for too long and/or having badly fitted shoes in the first place. Horses may also have specific problems related to the hoof such as laminitis which affects the condition.

The diagram below illustrates the two different types of hoof on the left in purple is a healthy hoof whilst on the right hand side in green are the signs of an unhealthy hoof.

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Image found on redemptionhorsemanship.tumblr.com

To Supplement or Not?

One solution, that many horse owners try in order to improve the hoof condition, is to add supplements to the horses feed, but this isn’t recommended by some specialists. Most hoof supplements contain added biotin however according to one farrier expert even bad hooves contain sufficient biotin and horses would need to be taking supplements for well over a year to have any impact on the biotin levels already in the blood.

As you can see form this amazing diagram which illustrates the blood flow to the foot, hundreds of tiny vessels carry the blood ensuring that nutrients are absorbed in the foot.

Diagram blood supply to hoof
Blood supply to the hoof – image found on Pinterest

 

Horse Hoof Care

Part of the care of a horse is to make sure that the hooves are checked regularly and trimmed and if the horse is wearing shoes that these are changed and fitted properly. You can see from the diagram below what happens when horses are not allowed natural movement and do not get their hooves clipped. This is part of a possible pending cruelty case

A pending animal cruelty case with hooves not cut for years image found on Horse Collaborative
A pending animal cruelty case with hooves not cut for years image found on Horse Collaborative

As well as trimming hooves for growth, they also need to be looked after and reshaped if the hoof is in constant moisture. The softening of the hoof can cause a flaring at the bottom so that it looks like the diagram below. The white line demonstrates the angle the hoof should take to the ground and the hoof above this line is the flare.

photo flared hoof
Photo courtesy of barefoot horse.com

In the wild, horses can trim their own feet (not very well but it works) as can be seen in the next diagram. This is how many European wild horses living in the wetlands cope with the constant moist conditions.

photo wild horse hoof
Natural trimming – photo courtesy of barefoothorse.com

Trimming and correct shoeing can prevent most forms of difficulty that the horse hoof experiences. However other conditions such as laminitis can cause a different kind of problem to the hoof, as the next section shows.

Laminitis

Laminitis is a painful disease which is caused by the breakdown of the laminae in the hoof. This can eventually cause permanent changes to the foot structure and result in lameness. It is a multi-factual type of disease meaning that many different factors are involved in causing it. It has been most often associated with rich feeding and overweight ponies, with pasture associated laminitis being the most commonly presented type of laminitis according to some vets.

 

The following video is provided by the World Horse Welfare and provides a good introduction and overview of laminitis and how to prevent it.

In the video it mentions ‘fructans’ which are certain types of sugar molecule found in the fructose in grass that cannot be digested by the horse’s intestine. Instead the fructans ferment inside the stomach and in large doses this can sometimes cause colic or lead onto laminitis.

As well as overfeeding there are also other conditions that can cause laminitis such as;

  • An injury to one leg or foot which causes additional weight bearing for long periods of time on the other foot. This additional weight bearing can also induce laminitis.
  • Some other causes known to predispose a horse to laminitis include septic conditions in the intestine, and bacterial infections.
  • For laminitic conditions that are related to overweight horses, this is often due to an increase in insulin resistance, where the high levels of insulin can cause the laminitis.

Early Warning Signs of Laminitis

There are a number of early warning signs that can help you to catch this before it gets too severe, and below I have listed 5 key signs to look out for.

  1. Hot hoof – It is normal for horses to get hot hooves especially after exercise or if they have been outside in the sun. However hot hooves on a cooler day or a long time after a period of exercise, might also be a sign that something is wrong with the hoof.
  2. Foot lifting –  Horse normally raise their feet and swap from one foot to another in order to encourage the blood circulation to the hoof. However unusual amounts of foot lifting or not lifting at all on one side can be indicators that something is wrong.
  3. Bleeding from the laminae – This is often a sign that the laminae are separating from the walls of the hoof as they start to break down. Spotting blood in the white lines around the hoof could be an early sign of laminitis.
  4. Increased heart rate –  A normal horse pulse is quite weak to detect but one difference with a laminitic horse is that the heart rate is easier to detect. It has been described by some vets as bounding rather than the standard 30-40 beats per minute. Obviously increased exercise will also increase heart rate so make sure the horse or pony is at rest before checkin
  5. Unusual rings on the hoof – The normal pattern of growth on the hooves is altered with laminitis, causing wider growth rings to appear at the heel rather than the toe.

     

    “This altered pattern causes the hoof’s rings to curve upward and abnormal rings to develop on the hoof wall surface, which can precede lameness sometimes by months or years, says Donald Walsh, DVM. Walsh leads the Animal Health Foundation, in Pacific, Missouri, which funds research and education projects related to laminitis.” The Horse.com

Treating Laminitis

Researchers and nutrition experts now advocate that regardless of the cause of laminitis, it is important to control the sugar and carbohydrate intake once laminitis of any kind has been detected. This can mean restricted grazing for some ponies and horses or soaking rich hay to remove sugars and fructans.

Turnout

Changing the times of turnout can be one option to stop horses eating higher doses of fructans, as the fructans in the grass are produced during daylight as part of the photosynthesis process.  Turnout in the evening and early morning may alleviate the problem for some horses.

Hydrotherapy

One of the ways of increasing movement and encouraging weight loss, without placing too much pressure on the damaged foot is to use water to carry the weight of the horse. A hydrotherapy bath is one way (or swimming with your horse in the sea is another).

Horse in hydrotherapy bath
Hydrotherapy Bath – photo courtesy of circleoakequine.com 

ACUPUNCTURE

Finally acupuncture has been used on horses alongside other medicines especially in laminitis, as a way of reducing the pain and discomfort. Acupuncture can also boost the efficiency of traditional medicines as it encourages pain reduction and has an anti-inflamatory effect as well.

 

picture of acupuncture use in horses
Acupuncture and laminitis – photo courtesy of Thehorse.com

Caring for your horse is an ongoing task and a checking the hooves is part of that process. Hopefully this article provided some useful information on the hoof, and if you want to add or share any other links or information on the topic please feel free to add it into the comments section below.

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