Hoof cleaning is one of the first things you learn as a rider, but many people neglect it after a while. Get back to basics with this vital horsekeeping task!
If you ask horse owners what they consider the most important jobs they do for their horses every day, you will get a variety of responses. As a farrier, I was surprised at the number of horse owners who feel that hoof cleaning is my job. While it is an important step in trimming and balancing your horse’s hooves, cleaning them is one job that should be at the top of your list of daily duties. In fact, it may well be the most important thing you can do for your horse.
Cleaning hooves is not glamorous. And the results are not as readily apparent as a good brushing or bath. But without healthy hooves, your pretty pony won’t be very happy. It may be that your horse is not well-behaved enough for hoof cleaning, which could be one reason why you “overlook” this necessary task. So let’s make it easy and safe!
Make sure you don’t surprise your horse. He needs to know where you are when you are close to him. I recommend that you position your body by his shoulder, facing his rear. Touch him and talk to him in a confident way. Then run your hand down his leg to the ankle area and take hold of the back of his leg. Ask him to “pick up”. If he does not readily comply, squeeze his leg with your index finger and thumb and keep asking him to pick up. When he does, tell him he is a good boy! So far, so good!
Once he has picked his foot up, lean in a bit and cup his foot in your hand, flexing him at the ankle. This allows you to see the bottom of his foot clearly, and helps with control. It also makes the horse feel more secure. If you are right-handed, support and cup the foot in your left hand so your right hand is in control of the hoof pick. The reverse is true for lefties. We don’t want any clumsy moves with the hoof pick!
The cleaning job
There are lots of hoof picks on the market, all claiming to be perfect! Select one that is not too sharp and that is easy and comfortable to hold in your hand. The tip doesn’t need to be pointed or sharp. It needs to be functional for removing debris while avoiding injury.
Select a hoof pick that is not too sharp and that is easy and comfortable to hold in your hand.
Place the cleaning end of the hoof pick into the cleft of the hoof and run it down one side of the frog, then the other. This will remove caked dirt, manure and such. For safety, I recommend that you move the pick tip away from you, or toward the toe. If hooves are not routinely cleaned, the material can become very tightly packed in this area, requiring more force or repetition. This may be why some horses don’t like having their feet cleaned – it hasn’t been part of their routine.
Next, put the cleaning end of the pick gently into the cleft in the center of the frog. This is a tender area, so be gentle. If a horse is going to have a condition like chronic thrush, this is where it will show up, and he may be sore. Clean the area carefully.
If your horse is wearing shoes, you need to clean around the inside rim of the shoe to make sure nothing is stuck there. Dirt, small stones and debris can work their way under shoes and create issues if not cleaned out.
If your horse wears boots, make sure to clean the feet before and after use. If he gets a stone or debris in the boot, it usually cannot escape until you take the boot off.
Moving from hoof to hoof
When you finish with the first front foot, set it down. Don’t just drop the leg. Take the time to let your horse know you are done with that foot. Then move to the back hoof by running your hand along the horse’s side and down his back leg. Picking up his back leg is when you are most likely to get kicked if your horse is ill-humored or not used to this routine. Additionally, many horses have more difficulty lifting and holding their back legs up – so support it well and with confidence. You may find it helpful to lean in and move your leg close so he can rest his lower leg on yours while you flex his ankle, giving you very good control. Repeat the same cleaning procedure for the hoof and set it down.
I generally recommend that you go directly back to the front of the horse without walking behind him, where he might choose to kick if he is surprised or unhappy with this activity. Repeat the same steps on the other side of the horse.
Some owners have told me that their horses prefer I start on a particular side. I will honor that request in many cases. It might stem from a horse having had a sore foot or the need for intense attention in the past. Starting with a foot that goes well or easy can set the tone for the session.
What you get out of this
This is a great time to inspect your horse’s legs for any tenderness, heat or swelling. You will free him of any stones or debris that could harm his hoof integrity or cause him pain. You will also have an opportunity to inspect for thrush, abscesses and foreign bodies.
You may become aware of cracks, chips or sloughing frog. All can be considered quite normal or at least benign, unless extreme. If you are concerned, contact your hoof care professional. By doing a good job of hoof cleaning, you may prevent more serious issues.
Abnormal hoof observations
In my practice, I find that people will often call me between trims for a crack or chip in their horses’ hooves. Depending on several factors, I may or may not come for an extra visit. In this day and age, it is so easy to snap a picture of the hoof to send along to your farrier. Take some good pictures and text a message describing your concern. It always helps to know what happened and when, and if the horse is lame at all. You can even take video of your horse moving around to send to your farrier. I generally don’t recommend that you take matters into your own hands and start rasping or trying to trim the hoof. It may be easy to make a cosmetic repair, but end up sacrificing balance or integrity of hoof contact in the process.
Should you find what you think is a foreign body in the hoof — don’t remove it! Try to stabilize the hoof and the foreign body (in place) and call your vet. Be sure to specify that you have a foreign body in your horse’s hoof. In the majority of cases, x-rays will show the vet what he or she needs to know about the foreign body, and then it can be removed. If the vet wants help from me, I will surely respond and help with the care of an injured horse.
Take time to learn
Watch videos, read articles, look at horses’ feet, and clean, clean, clean! Ask your friends to let you clean their horses’ feet. The more feet you see, the better you can observe and help your own horse. Once you see thrush, discover an abscess, or feel heat in a foot, you will not forget it. You may be able to prevent serious problems with competent early recognition. Plus, you will be providing a really valuable preventative measure for your horse.
Cleaning your horse’s hooves every day is not a high-tech skill and will not get your horse noticed in the barn – but it will keep him healthier and ready to do what you want. Your horse will appreciate you because while others may not notice, he most certainly will!
Sherri Pennanen of Better Be Barefoot is a veteran natural trim farrier serving western New York and southern Ontario. She offers balanced barefoot trims, lameness evaluations, and holistic/rehabilitation services on her farm (betterbebarefoot.com).