horse's hooves

Maintaining your horse’s hooves between farrier visits doesn’t have to be tricky! Here are a few tips.

A horse in his natural environment would travel around ten to 18 miles a day over various terrains, and his hooves would generally adapt to those terrains. Under the care of humans, however, horses almost never get as much movement as they naturally and biologically require. As a result, both hoof growth (which is largely dependent on blood circulation created by movement) and hoof wear (the amount of abrasion caused by traveling over miles of hard ground) are drastically affected, and not usually in direct relation to each other.

Without the proper environment and diet, hoof function is limited and growth is affected. Without proper movement over appropriate terrain, abrasion and wear do not occur as they should. In order to imitate the natural balance of growth and wear in the hoof, it is necessary to trim it to maintain proper function.

Most of us who have spent any time around horses have grown accustomed to traditionally accepted six- to eight-week visits from the farrier as the golden rule for proper hoof care. But how many of us have actually thought about the reasons behind this schedule, and the validity of that timing with regards to your individual horse? And how many of us have considered alternative ways to maintain healthy hooves?

Optimum hoof shape and health

A surprising number of horse owners believe hoof care is the sole responsibility of their hoof-care professionals. Hoof care and farrier visits often seem to be treated as a time-consuming and expensive hassle instead of an actually very simple part of a horse’s daily management.

While farriers/trimmers and veterinarians are vital to the health of all domesticated horses, hoof health is subject to such a variety of factors, including nutrition, environment, maintenance and care, that sound hooves actually begin with the horse owner. We are the ones who see our horses’ hooves most frequently and are therefore able to influence our horses’ overall lifestyle.

Maintaining healthy hooves – a look at environment

For those who are in a position to do so, the best way to maintain healthy hooves and reduce farrier bills (and often vet bills) is to create an environment that encourages the horse to move constantly and fairly consistently on firm and abrasive ground.

A healthy hoof in its natural environment does not just shorten itself. It sculpts itself into a physiologically correct and functional form. There is nothing flat in a healthy hoof. The form and functions that create a healthy hoof have been studied by professionals who saw problems with conventional hoof care and have offered alternative ways of maintaining perfect hooves.

The concept of natural boarding environments and track systems (see Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise) are not new and have become more and more popular as the beneficial effects are seen by horse owners around the world.

Granite screenings and/or crushed gravel in high traffic locations not only provide good drainage in these areas, they also offer compressive and abrasive surfaces to shape and strengthen hooves. Pea gravel in contained areas such as loafing sheds or open stalls offers an excellent part-time stimulus and support to the sole and frog areas.

DIY maintenance trims

If the environment is not sufficient to keep the hooves properly shaped, some additional maintenance is required. It is best to maintain hoof form on a regular basis, so that proper hoof function can be maintained consistently, resulting in a healthier horse. The hooves perform vital metabolic and circulatory functions that support the horse’s immune system. Better to keep them in shape rather than allow them to get consistently out of balance on a regular basis, as is often the case with the traditional eight-week farrier schedule. Owners can do a lot to keep their horses’ hooves in top shape.

The actual how-to of a maintenance trim, although basically very simple, is a little beyond the scope of this article, since some physiological and anatomical knowledge of the hoof and leg is required. But a motivated horse owner can easily and safely learn some of the basic skills needed to do regular rasping between trims; and most farriers and trimmers are more than willing to demonstrate the basics of a maintenance trim.

Simply rounding the hoof wall with a rasp into what’s become known as a “mustang roll” will help prevent flares and some cracks. Done moderately, it will not affect the bearing surface of the hoof, so owners need not be afraid of interfering with proper balance. There are a lot of excellent resources available to help motivated owners begin doing their own maintenance trims between regularly scheduled farrier visits.

When does a hoof need maintenance?

Several factors let us know when hooves need attention. The most obvious are wall growth and wall flares. When the length of the wall has grown much beyond the adjacent sole, or when the wall flares out from its normally straight line, it’s an indication that trimming or rasping is required. Minor chips and cracks in the hoof wall at the surface also indicate that the hoof is trying to “trim itself” and could use some attention.

Once a horse owner begins to understand the hooves and watch for wear patterns, she can then decide on the best trimming schedule for her individual horse(s). Horses that live on many acres of dry, partly rocky ground, and that go for long trail rides several times a week, may only need a trim once or twice a year. Transitioning or insulin-resistant horses often need some rasping done at two- to four-week intervals, especially if the toe wall grows to the level of the sole, to prevent flaring of the still-weak white line.

Some horses wear their toes enough that they rarely need a trim; in that case, trim only when the quarters need it, to prevent flares and cracks from developing.

Just what the doctor ordered

Each environment tends to grow a different type of hoof. A hoof grown in the desert will look substantially different than one accustomed to wetlands or a domestic stable environment. So it stands to reason that if you want your horse to have “gravel crunching hooves” for those weekend trail rides, make sure she lives in an environment that promotes that type of growth.

Given that the best way to grow and maintain a good hoof is movement on the proper terrain, get out there and play with, work or ride your horse as often as possible! Talk to your farrier/ trimmer about what you can do to maintain his hooves between trims. You’ll be surprised at how little effort it really takes, and how much better your horse’s hooves will become!