soft hooves

Equine Wellness Magazine talks to an expert to get to the bottom of the term soft hooves.

EWM: What do people mean when they say their horse has soft hooves?

JJ: I think there’s an easy explanation, but we first need a little background in hoof structure.

The very epidermal (horny) structure of the hoof is designed to express moisture from the vascular system outward, which is to say the hoof “perspires”. This constant outward flow of moisture through the hoof’s protective armor is what gives the entire hoof resilience and protection from concussional trauma as the hoof strikes the ground and loads during support.

At the same time, the outer epidermis (the hoof capsule) is necessarily hard and dry in order to withstand the impact. This makes sense, since the hoof needs this hard outer shell to protect itself, and the resilience within to put the brakes on shock. You’ll notice when the practitioner trims the hoof that the parings on the ground shrink towards the sole as they dry. This reflects — inversely — the moisture gradients of the hoof: as moisture dessicates towards the inside of the paring, where it was most hydrated before being trimmed away, it shrinks.

But…because the keritinized horn of the hoof wall (the sole and frog too) is structured to release moisture, it can also absorb moisture — and, as a result, “soften”. Just like your own feet will begin to “shrivel” if you soak them too long in the bathtub! This is why horses standing around in mud will have softer hooves than if they were running around in the desert. This is the hoof’s biological response to its environment.

It’s what happens to horses’ feet in the wild too. In my 1982 to 1986 studies of our Great Basin free-roaming wild horses, I sampled over a thousand hooves in both summer and winter seasons. While hoof size, shape and proportion did not change, I reported (in my book The Natural Horse: Lessons From The Wild) that the character of the hoof was somewhat different in the winter months. To quote myself:

“The hoof wall and the entire hoof capsule are dry as a bone in summer, and most of the rest of the year too. The surface has a dull, matte finish, not unlike the patina of fine grain leather. During wet spells, the wall’s ‘hard-as-plastic’ surface … and matte finish convert to a dullish, slightly softer, hard rubber finish (e.g. like the white thermoplastic, Sanalite). Yet, the horses do fine, negotiating the same difficult terrain as in the drier times of the year.”

These physiological and environmental factors must be taken into consideration when describing a hoof as being “hard”, “soft”, “too soft”, or even “too brittle”. How is the horse being managed, and what are the conditions of his habitat? There is no other way for a hoof to become soft unless we are somehow obstructing its natural circulation within, or adding things to the hoof wall that preclude the release of moisture trying to perspire. Clearly, these are problems in the horse-using community, because I’ve seen them many times in my 30-plus years as a professional.

EWM: What issues arise from “mushy” feet, in terms of hoof function and the horse’s performance?

JJ: The horse is probably going to have hypersensitivity issues if circulation is impaired, if hoof dressings or other substances are painted on the hoof to obstruct perspiration, or he is kept in mud or “muck” most of the time and then taken out to ride on hard ground before the hooves can dry and harden off. As likely, and assuming this is the way he is kept, he will begin to develop capsule weakness and opportunistic fungal/bacterial infections (thrush), especially if his diet is triggering laminitis due to proteolysis.

EWM: What causes this problem – diet, environment and/or trimming?

JJ: All of these are causes. So is shoeing, which adversely impacts hoof structure and circulation.

EWM:  How do you recommend riders deal with soft hooves, both short term and long term?

JJ: When it comes to soft hooves, prevention is probably the best way to go. Providing dry turnout 24/7 in an area large enough for the horse to move freely and run with other horses is ideal. If your climate makes this difficult to impossible, use Paddock Paradise and its tracking and pathing system to get the horse to hard ground. People are doing this all over the world — especially in wet climates — so there is no doubt it is possible. Remember though, it’s okay for horses to stand in water/mud part of the time. In the wild, they tromp around in it for weeks at a time, and during every day when they drink water and bathe. The horse’s foot is adapted to this, so it’s okay. What is not okay is if the horse lives in mud or muck most of the time.

If your horse has soft hooves temporarily due to weather, use boots and you can ride anywhere. My trimming recommendations (based on the wild horse model) will spare your horse any sensitivity issues since it is safe, proven and non-invasive 100% of the time.

This leaves diet, and this is a big issue. I am now convinced that upwards of 75% of hoof sensitivity issues are due to diet-based laminitis. I believe that horses as a species are biologically insulin resistant (IR) and must not be fed non-structured carbohydrate diets of any kind. Unnatural boarding (e.g. fructan- rich, green grass pastures) is a huge part of the diet-based problem too.

Invasive or unnatural trimming is another big problem, I hate to say, and a lot of poorly trained and confused people — albeit some quite well known — are contributing to the problem among barefooters. Unless the trimmer is using a wild horse-based model, I would decline the service and look elsewhere. If your horse is coming up with “mushy” or sore feet after the trim, get someone else who knows what they are doing. (And of course, if the hoof wall is thinned, weakened or trimmed away completely — frequently seen at the toe by some barefoot methods — that will cause soft hooves and a host of other issues!)

EWM: Are the commercial hoof dressings said to harden hooves any good?

JJ: My advice is to avoid every hoof dressing known to man, regardless of its purpose or the manufacturer’s claim. Nutrition and moisture are delivered properly through diet and responsible hoof care. That also means no shoes and no invasive trimming that leaves the hoof sore. If you put something on the hoof other than mud or water “to help it”, there will be problems as I’ve described above. Go with nature, and your horses will do just fine! Nutrition and moisture are delivered properly through diet and responsible hoof care.