A Guide to Horse Hoof Care

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person engaging in horse hoof care, working on a horse's hoof and horseshoe

If you want to start a discussion among people who care for horses, one surefire way is to bring up horse hoof care. Should horses be barefoot or shod? How about boots? And what about glued-on shoes? How often should hooves be maintained? What’s the ideal hoof?

Every horse is a unique individual who lives in a specific environment and has their own set of genetic traits. Plus, each person who has a horse has specific expectations of their horse. In our experience, there is no right or wrong answer to the questions posed above. Beware anyone who uses words like “only” (as in “horses should only be barefoot”) or “always” (as in “horses should always wear shoes”) when talking about horse feet. Because many factors affect horses’ feet, there can be no one-size-fits-all answer. 

Here are several factors that affect horse hoof care.


Every horse is born with feet influenced by genetics, good or bad. Are both of the horse's parents sound with great confirmation, or have they suffered from hoof problems? Unfortunately, people don't always consider the hoof genetics that horse parents pass on to their foals. Genetics aren't the only factor of course, but they do set the stage for the rest of the horse’s life.

Development as foals

In the wild, a foal is up and moving with the herd, sometimes for miles, within a few hours of birth. The foal isn’t standing in a small stall with a thick bed of shavings. Exercise and movement are essential for the hooves and legs to develop optimally. 

In most domestic situations, it’s also important for a foal’s hooves to be trimmed on a regular basis, sometimes as frequently as every three weeks, to encourage the hooves and legs to develop with the best confirmation possible. It’s ideal to start looking at a foal’s hooves as early as 2 weeks old (perhaps even earlier if there are notable leg deviations that need to be addressed). Waiting too long to begin hoof care in a foal can have a huge impact on a horse’s future soundness.

The horse's environment

A horse’s hooves adapt to the environment. Some things we can’t influence, such as how wet or dry the climate is where we live. But how aware are you of the footing where your horse spends most of their time? Is the terrain helping to develop your horse’s feet, or is it contributing to hoof problems? Is it similar to the environment where you ride? Are there things you can do to improve it and make it more likely to improve your horse’s hooves? 

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Movement and exercise

How much exercise your horse gets can influence hooves in a few different ways. More movement results in greater circulation and stimulates hoof growth. Being in shape and having muscle tone, flexibility, and body posture that results from good exercise can have some very positive influences on horses’ feet (and vice versa — healthy feet encourage better overall health, muscle tone, flexibility, and body posture).

For horses who have a tendency to be a little chubby, exercise is vital for maintaining a healthy weight. Devastating hoof problems, such as laminitis, can be linked back to obesity in some cases.


Your horse’s diet directly affects hoof health. Feeding a diet that’s well balanced nutritionally — with all of the essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals — makes for much healthier hooves. 

We humans can have a tendency to love our horses to death through food. Obesity, excess use of concentrated feeds that are high in sugars, way too many cookies and other treats (e.g., apples and carrots), and lack of understanding about how nutrition affects a horse’s health has caused much suffering in horses, including death as a result of laminitis. 

Injury or disease

Even in the safest environment, horses seem to be able to find a way to injure themselves. And those injuries can sometimes affect a horse’s soundness. Wire cuts through the coronary band, for example, can cause permanent damage to the hoof. 

Some injuries can be healed and therefore don’t cause a long-term issue, but others can be much more problematic. That’s why seeking veterinary care and farrier care early gives your horse the best chance of healing and returning to health.

The horse's job

Different horse activities have different requirements. Activities can take place in a variety of environments and can require a specific approach to hoof care.

Regardless of what a horse’s job is, we need to set our horses up for success by keeping them comfortable, offering them the best biomechanics we can for healthy movement, and being aware of how they move and respond to what we’re asking them to do. It’s not fair to the horses to expect them to do a job when their feet are sore or they can’t move properly.

People's expectations

Frustrations can arise when our expectations don’t match reality. For example, a person might want their horse to go from wearing shoes to going barefoot, but the horse might not be able to comfortably make that transition overnight. 

Will that person be OK with not riding for a few months while the horse's feet acclimate from wearing shoes to being barefoot? If you're not willing to allow time to transition or to invest in a good pair of hoof boots, then perhaps barefoot isn’t the right choice for your situation. 

Skill and knowledge of the hoof-care provider

As with any professional, your hoof-care provider should be educated and up to date about current research and information. When looking for a hoof-care provider, don’t be afraid to ask for references from other clients and your veterinarian. 

Ask questions about potential providers’ philosophy and approach to hoof care. Do their ideas and techniques sync with yours? Are they happy and able to answer your questions? Do they actively seek out continuing education opportunities, and are they open to discussing new information and ideas?

There should always be a reason for what the provider is doing (or not doing) to your horse's feet. If the provider can't explain, then chances are they don't know. If you feel uncomfortable with the way the hoof-care provider handles your horse, or your horse has ongoing issues with their feet that your provider does not address, it might be time to seek out a different hoof-care provider.

The horse's behavior and handling

Another factor in horse hoof care is how well your horse stands to have their feet worked on. It’s not realistic to expect your hoof-care provider to do the best job possible when the horse isn’t happily participating and standing still. Training a horse to accept having their feet handled is the responsibility of the horse’s person, and it’s vital to the health and well-being of their hooves.

Some of these factors we can control, and some we can’t. We can’t control a horse’s genetics after they're born, and we might only be able to adjust living environment to a limited degree. But we can certainly control our expectations and our commitment to do what we can to support the hoof-care provider and veterinarian. And we can ensure that our horses are safe and calm to handle, so their feet can be maintained easily. 

Participation of the horse's person

The best results for horse hoof care happen when everyone involved works collaboratively as a team. As the horse’s person, you are a vital part of that team. For example, are you keeping a schedule for hoof care or going too long between appointments? If the hoof-care provider asks you to pick out the hoof and apply a thrush treatment between visits, are you consistently doing it as recommended? Your active support and participation in hoof care can make all the difference.

Learn to trim horse hooves yourself

Some horse people find that learning how to trim their horses’ hooves themselves is very rewarding and allows them to have control over how it’s done. It’s absolutely possible to learn to do this yourself, but it's not something to be taken on lightly. You can do more harm than good if you don't understand what you're doing. 

Take classes and become an apprentice with a trimmer or farrier who is open to teaching and supports your goals. Having direction from a knowledgeable teacher will make it far less frustrating for you and much better for the horse. When looking at classes to learn about hoof trimming, keep the following in mind: 

  • Do they discuss anatomy and cover the internal structures in the hoof? It’s important to know what’s going on inside the hoof and how what you trim (or don’t trim) affects those structures.
  • Have you seen the work of other students who have taken the course? How do their horses’ feet look? Did they learn a lot in the course? Was it worthwhile for them?
  • Is just trimming the right choice for your horse, or does your horse require shoes or more specialized knowledge?

If you're interested in taking classes, here are some options you can explore that offer everything from basic anatomy and trimming classes to full farrier courses:

Even if you don’t want to learn to trim your horse’s feet yourself, the more informed you are, the better choices you can make. Look for educational opportunities about horse health and hoof care. Ask lots of questions, and then step back and think through the answers to determine whether they make sense. New research on the subject is coming out all the time. Remember to be open to new ideas and new products. And when in doubt, ask the expert: your horse! 

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