There are many important questions when it comes to hoof health. How do I choose the right farrier? To shoe or not to shoe? How can I promote my horse’s hoof health naturally? Anyone who owns and cares for a horse will eventually come to a crossroads in determining just how involved they should become in his hoof care.
Every horse has different needs, just as every owner has different abilities and skills. However, no one knows your horse better than you do. You may observe him every day of his life if you are caring for him at your home. You may listen to everyone you encounter in your search to do the best for your equine friend, only to receive conflicting opinions. In the end, it always comes down to determining who to trust for the advice you need, and beyond that, following your own instincts and intuition.
TO SHOE OR NOT TO SHOE
If it is determined that a horse needs to wear shoes, it’s generally because the use of the animal exceeds the strength of his anatomy. Shoes are used, in many instances, to keep the hoof wear from causing lameness in a horse, or for correcting an anatomical problem. A professional horse shoer can use methods that he knows will correct gait or alleviate lameness, depending on his training and experience. There is a strong movement among horse owners to choose barefoot methods of managing hooves. The damage done by nailing steel to a hoof is easy to see, and the tools and skill involved make the thought of doing the job on your own not an option. I personally went to horseshoeing school as a young man to learn how to take care of my own horses. In doing so, however, I fell in love with the trade and have ended up participating at a professional level for many years. Not everyone wishes to go to such extremes, but there are many places that offer shorter courses of study for horse owners.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GOOD PROFESSIONALS
There is also great value in being around other horse professionals on a routine basis. An owner or manager of a horse facility (of any kind) is likely to pick up a few skills from the horse shoer that frequents his or her barn. This would become the person who, on a trail ride, would be able to tack a thrown shoe back on for a fellow riding companion. Knowing little details such as which way to face the nail when they set up to drive it, or how to block clinch the nail with a set of pullers as it exits the hoof wall, is sometimes talent enough to get a horse back to the barn safe and sound. Skills such as being able to pull a loose or bent shoe, or rasp down a nasty chip in a hoof wall, are also valuable day-to-day tasks that most horse owners can learn how to do.
TWO BUILDING BLOCKS FOR SUCCESSFUL HOOF CARE
Just how successful an owner may be in doing her own hoof care depends on two things beyond farrier skills: To become more involved in the care of your horse’s hooves, you need to pay attention to some fundamental points.
ONE – Training
In this case, the owner may have an advantage over a skilled blacksmith. The familiarity of an owner’s touch can calm a horse far beyond the hurried procedural nature of the journeyman farrier. Being certain that a horse is standing straight and square is the starting point. Any other posture will cause an imbalance. A hoofjack or similar type of stand can ease the burden of a horse’s weight and offer stability to a tricky situation. Teaching a horse to support his own weight on three legs has a trick to it – always give the captive leg back to the horse before he demands it back.
Although holding on to the leg through the first couple of protests is necessary, once the horse settles into position it is time to give the leg back. Release is always the best reward to a horse. Each time the hoof is handled, the length of time the horse must surrender his will is increased, until he becomes quite sure he will get his hoof back when necessary, thus diminishing his anxiety. This means many training sessions teaching the horse to support himself must happen before you start administering any barefoot trimming methods you may have learned, such as a mustang roll.
TWO – Nutrition
The other important component is nutrition. If a horse is getting the nutrition he needs, it can be seen in the extrusions of connective tissue, specifically the hoof and hair. The sole of the hoof will become thicker, and the frog more substantial. Thrush and fungus find it hard to survive in a healthy hoof, shoes hold on better, and healthy hooves are more successful in transitioning to and staying barefoot. Your horse has no choice but to trust you to make responsible choices for his diet. There was a time when nutrient rich grasses were a staple all over the earth and horses thrived because of it. Today, nothing could be farther from the truth. Depleted soil conditions are the norm, and commercially produced hays are often rich in anything but nutrients.
After 40 years in the horse business, the combination I recommend to the horse owners I talk to daily is hay and pure, freshwater blue green algae with sea minerals.
A STRONG BASE
The strength of the hoof material is essential to success, whether your horse is shod or barefoot. There’s nothing sadder for an equestrian than to have to cut a ride short and lead her horse home with a missing shoe and hoof wall torn to shreds because the hoof material was not strong enough to hold the weight of a shoe. You can tell a hoof has developed strongly when it has a “plastic” appearance – this is only displayed when live tissue is apparent distally. The sole growth is the best indication of a horse’s progression toward good health and is measured by taking radiographs. When comparing radiographs the critical measurement is the amount of soft tissue below the point of the coffin bone. Veterinarians are generally used to exposing their equipment to show bone; therefore, it is important to tell them it’s the soft tissue you wish to display. As a horse develops more soft tissue in the sole, it is easier to trim to hoof angles and lateral balance that put the bone alignment of the entire leg into harmony. Whether you find a farrier you can depend on, or come to understand and master trimming or farrier techniques yourself, you still need to practice training basics and understand nutritional requirements for good hoof material, before you will be able to take complete control of your horse’s hoof care.