identifying hoof soreness

Does your horse seem sore? For answers, look first to these two main problem areas.

When your horse starts to look “off”, pinpointing the root cause can be challenging. Luckily for us, there are not quite as many real problems as the touted solutions available for them. For the astute horse owner, proper horse care involves sifting out reality from dogma. Once you develop a discerning eye and address the two main “hot spots” in your horse’s body where issues arise – the back and the hoof – other areas of soreness become more easily identifiable.

Learn the Warning Signs

Horses do not conspire to deceive or mislead us. They don’t pretend something is wrong when it’s not. It is our responsibility to understand what they are saying, which can be difficult because some people are so used to seeing a stilted tender gait that it becomes their “normal”. When you see a horse running with complete freedom of movement, it looks quite different compared to many of the horses we are accustomed to seeing under saddle. The astute horseperson is able to tell the difference – she has developed acumen.

For example, your horse will tell you long before the obvious development of discoloration and white hairs on his back that his saddle is not fitting well. His movement will be stiff and unnatural. When you approach with a saddle, he will pin his ears back. He becomes unable to pick up the proper lead. He swishes his tail when he canters. By the time his hairs have turned white around the withers and he no longer has pigment in his follicles, circulation to that area has been inhibited for many months. If you could read the earlier telltale signs, you would be able to remedy the cause of the problem well before symptoms arise.

Watch his Back

Here are some issues concerning your horse’s back and the things you should be paying attention to:

1. Uneven saddle construction. Like a pair of human shoes, even good saddles may have slightly uneven construction.

• Trees are often asymmetrical.
• Stirrup bars may be placed unevenly.
• Panels may be stuffed unevenly, displacing the gullet or creating lumps or bumps.
• Wool flocking changes shape over time.

Turn your saddle upside down and look down the center. You will often see a difference from one side to another.

2. Asymmetry of the horse’s body. Horses (like humans!) may develop differently on the left and right sides of their bodies.

3. Changes in the horse’s musculature. Bodies change and develop. A horse’s musculature will change throughout the riding day (as the horse tires) and over the season (as the horse ages, develops, tones or loses muscle mass).

Saddles as Static Objects

A saddle is a static object, but your horse is a living dynamic creature. Even slight changes in your horse’s weight throughout the year have a significant impact on the saddle’s fi t. And naturally, saddle fi t in turn significantly impacts your horse’s experience.

That’s just common sense, of course. But many riders forget that a horse normally undergoes alterations in weight and posture throughout the seasons, and his life. Yet we continue to put the same old saddles on their backs, year in and year out. That’s what saddle pads are for, right? In some cases, yes. But most saddle pads underperform when it comes to a customized and continually changing fi t. You need to find the saddle pad that addresses all the changes that come with new seasons, age, injuries and habits. And at various points, you should have a qualified saddle fitter look at your saddle and evaluate whether changes are needed.

Hoof History

Horses were first shod with metal shoes about 1,500 years ago, long before people understood the physiology of the hoof. The shoes were intended to elevate the hoof out of the manure and urine-saturated ground where horses were tied. The premise was that the elevation would stop the hoof from rotting. The captive horse’s hoof was not only weakened by a fetid environment, but also by lack of movement, a radical change for animals meant to be constantly on the go. Limited motion meant limited blood circulation, which translated to a significant lack of nutrient supply. Not surprisingly, the rot worked its way between the metal plate and the hoof. Cutting out the middle of the plate was thought to allow the hoof to retain some breathability and air circulation, hence the origins of the current horseshoe shape. Not much has changed since.

Five Hearts and Hoof Mechanism

hoof boots
Hoof boots can be a positive alternative to metal shoes for many horses.

You may have heard it said that a horse has five hearts – four on the ground and one in the chest. This refers to the frog’s bloodpumping function, circulating blood down through the extremities and back again. The frog spreads the heel apart, drawing the sole flat and inviting the bone structure of the leg to descend into the hoof. This is how shock is absorbed in the hoof capsule. If you can accept that circulation is imperative to the distribution of nutrients throughout the system, and that healthy blood flow facilitates healing, it follows that limiting blood fl ow will lead to degeneration. If the frog cannot make ground contact and function as it should, then shock cannot be properly absorbed and blood cannot freely flow. When metal is nailed in all around and the hoof is clamped in its smallest most contracted position, both proper blood circulation and shock absorption are dangerously impeded.

Take a metal shoe and bang it against a hard surface. You will feel the tremors vibrate up your arm. In fact, even the nails cause vibration, compromising hoof integrity and breaking down hoof structure. If you think metal shoes provide protection, please remember that the outside walls of the hoof are already hard and that it is actually the softer and more vulnerable middle sole area that needs the protection. We prefer to use hoof boots to provide overall hoof protection.

So if your horse looks “ouchy” or isn’t performing to his usual standard, take a look at his back and feet first. In many cases, this is where the problem lies. Once you’ve ruled out these two areas, you’ll have a better idea of where to look next for the source of the issue.

Carole Herder has a genuine passion for educating horse owners worldwide, especially on all matters related to natural horsemanship. Given her strong belief that keeping horses natural and barefoot alleviates hoof problems, Carole designed and developed Cavallo Simple and Sport Boots. In 1993, she also designed and developed Total Comfort System Saddle Pads to address the other “hot spot” for horses ridden under saddle – sore backs. Providing comfort for horses is Carole’s passion. In 2010, she won the Royal Bank Of Canada Western Division Trail Blazer Woman Entrepreneur Of The Year Award. Carole presents training at numerous horse events worldwide.