If you’re lucky, you don’t need to think about your horse’s hooves too often. You just pick them out regularly, give them an occasional once-over and call the farrier out every six weeks or so for trimming and/or new shoes. But every aspect of your horse’s management —from the feeds you offer to the footing you ride on—can have a significant effect on his hooves. Here are four things you can do to keep your horse’s hooves healthy and strong.
1. Provide proper nutrition.
Healthy hooves require good nutrition. To grow hard, healthy hoof horn, a horse needs a diet with the proper balance of nutrients and minerals.
The average pleasure horse can usually get all the nutrients he needs from good quality pasture or hay, supplemented with a commercial concentrate formulated for his stage in life. If you have any doubts about the quality of your horse’s diet, have your veterinarian or a qualified equine nutritionist evaluate your hay and grain, and feed according to their recommendations.
Of course, you don’t want to give your horse too much of a good thing, either. Beyond the obvious risk of laminitis from overfeeding, an obese horse can literally ‘crush’ his hooves under his weight. And the bigger load can affect joints as well, contributing to both acute injury and arthritis.
If you horse has weak or shelly hooves or you are concerned about his hoof growth, consider feeding a supplement formulated to support healthy hooves. Studies have shown that supplements containing biotin improve the growth rate and quality of hooves. Biotin supports the pro-duction of keratin, a protein that provides the structural basis for hair and hoof horn.
2. Exercise your horse regularly.
If a horse has fragile feet, you might think that restricting his exercise will reduce the risk of cracks and other troubles. But the opposite is true: Regular exercise promotes hoof health.
The simple act of walking stimulates blood flow within the hooves, which brings in nutrients. The work of continual loading and unloading with each step also increases metabolic activity in the foot, which causes it to produce better quality hoof at a faster rate than if the horse were just standing still most of the day.
This doesn’t mean a horse needs to be forced into an extreme exercise regimen to have good hooves. A horse turned out in a large pasture around the clock will walk enough on his own to benefit his hooves. If 24-hour turnout is not an option, just let him stay out as often and long as possible and ride him regularly.
If your otherwise sound horse has a hoof crack or defect that makes you nervous about riding him, examine it closely. If the crack does not spread with each step the horse takes, it’s stable enough to ride on.
3. Take care of your footing.
The ground conditions in a horse’s habitat can affect his hooves for better or worse. Conditions that are extremely dry can cause a foot to “shrink” and harden. Conversely, a wet, swampy environment will cause a foot to weaken and spread. Ideally, you want footing that is not too hard and not too soft; not too wet and not too dry.
Sudden changes in footing can also be damaging. If you take a horse kept in very wet surroundings without shoes and ride him on hard soil, his hooves may not be able to withstand those unfamiliar concussive forces. Repeated wet/dry cycles also contribute to hoof abscesses, as bacteria become trapped in the hoof capsule as it expands and contracts.
Striking the right balance between wet and dry, hard and soft may require some changes to your stalls, pastures and arena. The ideal stall bedding, for example, “molds” to the bottom of the foot, to support the sole and frog as well as the hoof wall. If you’re stabling on mats, a layer of gravel or a lot of bedding can give the horse something resilient to stand on and pack into the foot.
Obviously, surface conditions are more variable and difficult to control in pastures. But you can take some measures to improve your horse’s footing. If you get chronically wet, muddy ground during each rainy season, for example, consider spreading sand or gravel in some areas—especially high-traffic “hangouts,” such as around the feeders—to give them some respite from standing in the muck. The goal is to provide safe, level, firm turnout.
In the riding arena, select footing that “cups” below the horse’s hoof with each step. If you look at a hoof print, you’ll want to see a complete mold of the bottom of the hoof. That means it’s supporting it with each stride. Keep in mind that footing can become “dead” over time and lose its supportive and cushioning properties. Be prepared to refresh or replace footing as needed.
Nonetheless, riding over a variety of terrains can be very helpful to a horse’s hooves. With patient and thoughtful conditioning, horses can acclimate to a wide variety of footing, even traversing over them in the same day.
4. Take a closer look periodically.
As simple as it sounds, just looking at your horse’s hooves each day can help keep them healthy. The more familiar you are with his hooves, the more apt you’ll be to notice changes or problems early, when they are easier to address.
The easiest way to become familiar with your horse’s hooves is by picking them out daily. That sounds like extremely basic advice, but picking hooves is an easy task to skip in the rush of other, bigger chores—parti-cularly if you don’t groom or ride daily. One tactic to help ensure it gets done is to hang a hoof pick by the paddock gate. Take a moment to pick your horse’s feet on the way out of the pasture each day.
After you’ve picked out the hooves, take a few moments to examine them (see sidebar, page 42). Are there any new cracks or chips? Is the frog firm but supple? Take some time to learn what healthy hooves are supposed to look and feel like so you’ll be able to spot deviations. If something looks different, but you’re not sure what, take a picture for comparison a few days later. And never hesitate to call your veterinarian or farrier if anything looks unusual or off.
One condition you want to catch early is thrush. An anaerobic bacterial infection that penetrates the soft tissues of the foot, particularly around the frog, thrush is notoriously difficult to treat. But it’s not hard to detect—thrush is known for its black discharge and strong, nasty odor typical of anaerobic bacteria, unlike any other you are used to around the barn. It is also very persistent; if you get it on your hands, a faint odor may linger for weeks.
Thrush requires moisture to grow, and it has long been associated with poor hygiene. But many factors contribute to its development, and some horses who are perfectly well cared for may develop thrush when the pasture is wet for more than a few days.
Contact a veterinarian or experienced farrier if you think your horse may have thrush. Several commercial preparations are available that are effective against thrush. Avoid home remedies, many of which are toxic to hoof tissues. You may kill the bacteria, but also damage hoof tissue in the process. Those pockets of dead tissue become perfect places for the bacteria to re-establish themselves a few days later. Thrush is best treated in cooperation with your farrier, who can cut away the dead tissue and ensure the treatment is working as it should.
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