How riding surfaces impact the hoof

Your horse’s hooves are resilient and adaptable, and can handle varied riding surfaces – as long as you pay proper attention to basic hoof care, conditioning and a balance between wet and dry surfaces.

Where do you ride your horse? Are you spending most of your time in arenas doing dressage, reining or jumping? Do you ride hunt courses? Do you ride in rocky canyons or mountains, or traverse grassy hills and dales? Are you often on pavement or gravel roads? The riding surfaces our horses spend time on are important considerations when we are trimming and caring for their hooves.

Five key points for adaptable hooves

The hoof is a remarkably resilient and adaptable structure. To make sure you get the most out of your horse’s hooves, and be able to do what you want, when you want, on many different riding surfaces, factor in these key points.

1. It starts with the basics: good forage, fresh clean water and movement. Simple as it sounds, I nevertheless often see poor quality hay in stalls, dirty water buckets and horses standing in stalls. If you want your horse to be able to move the way you wish, you have to give him the building blocks for healthy hooves, and allow him to move for himself. If you leave him standing in a stall, his hooves cannot respond to the environment. They will experience increased exposure to manure and urine, and their circulation will suffer from standing still on a single surface.

2. Conditioning your horse for the use you have in mind will prepare him not only for the exercise, but for the riding surfaces he’ll be on. For example, if your horse is in a pasture five days a week, where the grass is thick and the ground is soft, but you want to trail ride him on gravel roads during the weekend, he may tell you he doesn’t like the gravel surface. He may step gingerly, act sore and refuse to go. It’s the equivalent of you going barefoot after wearing shoes most of the time. Your feet are tender and unaccustomed to the change. Since your horse can’t tell you what his complaint is, he will act out.

3. Supplements may help at times, but there is no substitute for giving your horse the opportunity to live like the equine he is. He needs fresh air, multiple riding surfaces, varying moisture for his feet, proper nutrition and hydration, and exercise.

4. If you plan an unusual or short-term change in the riding surfaces you will expose your horse to, condition him gradually for that surface or use a boot to offer temporary protection. Shoeing your horse for that one big trail ride will disrupt his routine and his normal adaptability. In other words, use a short-term fix for a short-term problem. If you want to condition your horse to a surface, start slow and increase exposure time. I advise my clients to take their horses for walks on the new surface, slowly building up the time and movement spent on that surface. They can then move on to riding on that surface.

5. If your horse has “terrible feet”, you need to go back to the basics. Don’t just give up! Why is he not growing hard solid hooves? Talk to your farrier and vet. Look at your routines. Are you making the most of his natural ability to grow good hoof? Don’t fall into the common trap of being told, “Oh, this particular breed always has bad feet.”

Dry and wet surfaces

It’s important to remember that your horse’s hooves will interact with the surfaces on which he lives and over which he is used. A healthy hoof will offer the best defense against extreme conditions.

  • DRY riding surfaces will suck moisture out of hooves. These surfaces include sand, arena dirt, some synthetic surfaces, desert conditions and drought-stricken ground. The hoof will lose moisture to the environment, which can make it more brittle and less elastic. Moisture is necessary for healthy hooves, so if a horse is kept in constantly dry environments, his hooves may suffer if provisions are not made to provide that moisture. A horse living in a stall with deep bedding may suffer from this same issue if the shavings or bedding are dry.

In these dry environments, it is important to find a good moisture source. Let your horse linger in the creek a bit, even making it part of your ride. You can also let the water tub “run over” so your horse has to stand in a wet area to drink.

  • WET environments will naturally make moisture available to the hoof, but too much wetness will also cause problems. From dew on grass to standing water in the habitat, horses that spend too much time in very wet conditions may have problems with hoof integrity, fungal infections or bacterial exposure. While moisture is essential in the hoof environment, standing endlessly in mud or water is not beneficial.

Horses who are asked to travel muddy trails should be allowed to take their time so they don’t pull on tendons and ligaments as they remove their hooves from the suction caused by mud. It is also important to give your horse a dry or higher place to stand if his paddock or pasture is muddy.

Whether we’re talking about feeding, horse-keeping or riding, we have to strike a balance and give the horse an opportunity to use his natural tools. Equine hooves are amazing and resilient structures, and as long as we are giving them what they need, all we usually have to do is get out of the horse’s way. His feet will adjust to almost anything we have to offer.