To many people, a horse’s hoof may look like a solid object, tough and hard all the way through. However, that isn’t the case. The hoof is made up of several different layers and structures, each with a specific function.
Evolution of the Hoof
Horses have evolved from the four-toed, dog-like eohippus into the single-toed creature we know today. Evidence of the vanished toes remains. The chestnut and ergot are cartilage-like protrusions along the inside of the horse’s legs, and on the underside of the pastern joint.
On some horses, they grow rapidly and although no harm is done if they are left to break off naturally, they are sometimes trimmed for a neater appearance. Two bones run down either side of the horse’s front leg between the knee and pastern joint. These two splint bones are believed to be what remains of the former toes.
Inside the Hoof
There are three bones inside the hoof. The longest is the short pastern bone that extends down from the long pastern bone in the horse’s leg.
The largest bone within the hoof is the pedal or coffin bone. Within this bone are many minuscule passageways for blood vessels and nerves.
Beneath the junction of the short pastern bone and the coffin bone sits the small navicular bone. Several tendons and ligaments run down from the leg and attach to the bones within the foot.
Surrounding these bones is the sensitive laminae. This is a layer of tissue that carries blood to all the components of the hoof. Beneath the sensitive laminae and bone structures sits the digital cushion. This is a rubbery pad of tissue that forms the heel of the hoof and helps absorb the shock as the horse’s hoof makes contact with the ground.
Visible Parts of the Hoof
Surrounding the sensitive laminae is the horny laminae. This layer is quite hard and has no feeling. It attaches to the outer wall of the hoof in a similar fashion to hook and loop fastener.
The margin where the wall and the horny laminae attach is called the white line, which provides the farrier with a visual indication of how deep he can trim the hoof, and where to set in the nails for horseshoes.
The wall is similar in composition and function to our fingernails and is constantly growing. The wall of the hoof can be very thin, or very thick depending on the type of horse, its nutrition, and environment. Wild horses wear down hoof growth naturally, but domestic horses require regular trimming by a farrier.
The color of the hoof is influenced by the color of the skin above it. If a horse has white markings directly above the hoof, the hoof wall may carry down the same pigmentation. Many people believe that hooves with black walls are stronger than hooves with white walls. This is not true.
Hooves’ Natural Protection
The very outside of the wall is protected by the periople. This layer protects the moisture within the hoof. The coronary band runs around the very top of the hoof. This is a blood-rich band from which the hoof grows, somewhat similar to the cuticle on our fingernail. Severe damage to this band can cause deformities of the hoof wall.
On the underside of the hoof is the sole. This is a concave, thick but flexible padding of hard tissue that protects the sensitive sole directly beneath the bones of the foot.
In the middle of the sole sits the V-shaped frog. The frog contacts the ground surface as the horse travels and helps the blood circulate in the foot. The cleft of the frog runs down the middle of the frog and aids in flexion and grip. The bars of the foot run on either side of the frog, and they provide stable suspension for the walls and frog as the horse’s foot impacts the ground.
Basic Care for Horses’ Hooves
Domestic horses require daily foot care to stay healthy. It is important to clean dirt and manure from the underside of the hooves as well as remove any lodged rocks, sticks, or even pine cones that can cause discomfort and bruise.
As you visually check your whole horse, look for any swelling or cuts around the foot. If your farrier recommends it, coat your horse’s hooves with a moisturizing dressing when grooming. If your horse has weak hoof walls consider trying one of the many feed supplements that claim to benefit hoof growth.
About every six weeks, a farrier should trim down growth, help correct any hoof problems and suggest proper care depending on your horse’s use and environment.
Shoes or Go Barefoot?
Horseshoes are designed to protect horses hooves the same way shoes protect our feet. Horseshoes were popularized as horses became domesticated as a way to protect the horse’s hoofs in inhospitable climates. Many breeds of horses were not bred with hoof strength in mind leading to weaker hoofs in some breeds. However, in normal condition horses do not need horseshoes and can go without, which is referred to as barefooting.
Horse hoofs are similar to human nails, only much thicker. Farriers will usually nail the horseshoe into the thick unfeeling part of the animal’s hoof. While the center of the horse’s hoof is very sensitive the outside feels no pain. Sometimes the farrier will opt to glue the shoe on instead. Be warned that your horse can lose its shoes, especially when riding in muddy conditions.
Some people think horses should never wear shoes and that if trimmed and maintained correctly, a horse can participate in any discipline and remain sound without them. Many barefoot proponents believe that even serious hoof problems that are traditionally treated with specialized shoeing by a farrier can be solved with natural trims, changing the footing the horse stands on, and changing its diet. Some people even maintain that shoeing is inhumane.
Shoeing Your Horse
For most pleasure horses, shoes probably aren’t necessary, and sensible maintenance, including regular trimming, may be all that is needed. You need to pay attention to the wear of the hoof and the comfort of your horse as you ride over all sorts of footing. If your horse is getting sore feet, you have some several options. Your horse may need protection like hoof boots, that can be worn only when you ride. Or, you may opt for traditional nailed on shoes. There are also glued on shoes, which some view as more humane. The best resource for information about what hoof protection your horse may need is your farrier.
While barefooting is considered the ideal for horses, there are times when shoes are necessary. Horses that pull abnormal amounts of weight require shoes to prevent their hooves from wearing down. Shoes are often used to protect racing horses that have weak hoof or leg muscles. They are also used to give horses extra traction in the snow and ice.
The Dangers of Horseshoeing
Barefoot enthusiasts point to shoeing as the cause of many problems, and, indeed, poor shoeing can do more harm than good. But shoeing also has many benefits. Whether or not barefoot is best is up to you and your horse. Most farriers are very good at their jobs, but mistakes do happen. If the horse’s hoof is brittle or damaged the nails used in horseshoeing can damage the hoofs further. Sometimes the nails are inserted incorrectly causing the animal pain and damaging the soft tissue in the hoof. An improperly placed or fitted shoe can cause damage when the animal walks, similar to the issues that arise when humans wear shoes that are too small.
Signs Your Horse’s Shoes Should Be Reset
As a rule of thumb, you should plan to have the farrier reset your horse’s shoes approximately every six weeks. There are a number of signs you can look for that your horse’s shoes need to be reset:
- Loose nails that push up from the hoof wall
- Nails that seem to protrude further out of the shoe on the underside than when they were first put on
- A shoe becomes loose or comes off altogether
- The hoof is starting to overgrow the shoe and is getting out of shape
- The shoe has become excessively thin or unevenly worn
- The shoe seems twisted on the foot
While all of these signs mean it’s time for a reset, it really isn’t a good idea to wait until you notice one of these things. Instead, most of these signs indicate that the shoes have been on too long—although nails can loosen and shoes can twist or wear prematurely.
Six weeks is a general guideline for good hoof health. This is also about the time that a barefoot horse will have to be trimmed. Some horses may need to be reset sooner, and some can go a little longer. Don’t leave shoes on for months, though. That can damage the hoof, and overgrown hooves can lead to soft tissue damage like strained tendons and ligaments.
The Re-shoeing Process
When the shoes are reset, the farrier will pull the shoes off, trim the hoof growth off, shape the hoof, and nail the same shoes back on. Because there is no natural wear on the hoof—as there would be if your horse was barefoot—the hooves may seem to grow a bit faster. Your farrier may have to reshape the shoes, especially if a problem needs to be corrected.
Shoes can be reset as long as there is no excessive wear to the metal. This will depend largely on the type of terrain you have been riding on. For instance, shoes may only last through one or two resets if you typically ride over an abrasive surface like rocks but may last months if your horse walks mainly on grass.
Once the shoes start to thin, a new set will have to be put on. The initial shoeing will cost more than a reset.