If you want to start a heated discussion among horse people, one surefire way is to bring up the topic of hoof care. Should horses be barefoot or shod? How about boots? And what about glued-on shoes? How often should they be maintained? What’s the ideal hoof? And on and on.
Every horse is a unique individual who lives in a specific environment and has his own set of genetic traits. Plus, each person who has a horse has specific expectations of him or her. In our experience, there is no right or wrong answers to the questions posed above. Beware anyone who uses words like “only” (as in “horses should only be barefoot”) and “always” (as in “horses should always wear shoes”) when talking about horse feet. Because so many factors affect horses’ feet, there can be no “one size fits all” answer. Below, we discuss a number of these factors.
Every horse is born with the feet that her parents gave her, whether they’re 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. She 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 two 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.
A horse’s hooves adapt to the environment she lives in. 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 her 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?
Movement and exercise
How much exercise your horse gets can influence her 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 encourages 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 her 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, often 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, in many cases, 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 itself. 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. These activities can take place in a variety of environments and may require an approach to hoof care specific to those jobs.
Regardless of what a horse’s job is, we need to make sure that we are setting our horses up for success by keeping them comfortable regardless of the footing, 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 for us. It’s not fair to the horse to expect her to do a job when her feet are sore or she can’t move properly.
Frustrations can arise when our expectations don’t match reality. For example, I may want my horse to go from wearing shoes to going barefoot, but she may not be able to comfortably make that transition overnight. Am I OK with not riding for a few months while her feet acclimate from wearing shoes to being barefoot? If I’m not willing to allow her time to transition or to invest in a good pair of hoof boots, then perhaps barefoot isn’t the right choice for her.
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. And 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?
Commitment to supporting the hoof-care provider and vet
The best results for a horse’s hooves 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 feeding your horse a well-balanced diet and maintaining her at an optimal weight? As mentioned above, proper diet and body condition are essential when managing conditions like laminitis. Are you keeping on 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 makes all the difference.
Horse’s behavior and handling
Another factor in hoof care is how well your horse stands to have her 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 her feet handled is the responsibility of the horse’s human, and it’s vital to the health and well-being of her hooves.
Some of these factors we can control and some we can’t. We can’t control a horse’s genetics after she’s born, and we may only be able to adjust her 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 that their feet can be maintained easily.
Ask your horse
The most important opinion about what’s right for your horse’s feet should come from your horse. How does your horse respond to what’s happening with her feet? How does she move before and after trimming or shoeing? (It’s not normal for a horse to be sore every time her feet are worked on.) Is she more comfortable or less comfortable? Does she pick up her feet nicely for you, but not for your hoof-care provider? Do her feet appear to be getting more healthy or less healthy? Your horse can tell you a lot, if you just listen.
Be a proactive part of your horse’s hoof care
Remember that it’s best to work together as a team with your hoof-care provider and veterinarian. You’ll want to understand what factors you can control (e.g., diet, environment, exercise and training) and do your part to take care of your horse’s feet.
As mentioned above, don’t be shy about asking questions of your hoof-care provider. There should always be a reason for what he or she is doing (or not doing) to your horse’s feet. If the provider can’t explain what she’s doing, then chances are she doesn’t know. Really talk things over with your hoof-care provider and come up with a plan together that meets your expectations and is in the best interest of your horse.
If your current hoof-care provider isn’t willing or able to answer your questions, or you feel uncomfortable with the way he handles your horse, or your horse has ongoing issues with her feet that your hoof-care provider does not address, it may be time to seek out a different hoof-care provider. Getting recommendations from your veterinarian is a great place to start.
Learn to trim 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 not something to be taken on lightly. You can do more harm than good if you don’t understand what you're doing.
If you truly want to learn, be serious about it. Take classes and become an apprentice with a trimmer or farrier who’s open to teaching and supports your goals. Having support and 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 to trim, keep the following in mind:
- Do they discuss anatomy and cover the internal structures in the hoof? It’s super 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 she require shoes or more specialized knowledge?
If you’re interested in taking classes, here are a few options you can explore that offer everything from basic anatomy and trimming classes to full farrier courses:
- Equine Lameness Prevention Organization
- Equine Lameness Prevention Organization Farrier School
- Daisy Haven Farm: School of Integrative Hoofcare
- Mission Farrier School
Educate yourself and be open to new ideas
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 if 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!