The adage “no hoof, no horse” is well worn for a reason: It tells us exactly how important hoof care is. In fact, proper maintenance of your horse’s feet may be the single most crucial factor for keeping him sound. And a simple mistake can be all it takes to turn a sound horse into a lame one.
As an equine veterinarian with almost 30 years in the trenches, I’ve seen certain hoof-care mistakes over and over. In this article, I’ll tell you about the seven most common blunders out there—what they are, the problems they might cause, and how to take aim against them.
Blunder #1 Infrequent Farrier Visits
Your farrier performs two key functions when he provides care. First, he helps to maintain the integrity and health of the structural components of your horse’s feet, including the hoof wall, sole, and frog. Second, he ensures that the feet remain in the proper balance. If you allow your horse’s feet to go too long between farrier visits, you’re asking for trouble in a number of different ways.
Most commonly, hoof walls will begin to chip or break, and as your horse’s toes elongate, the white line (the junction between the hoof wall and underlying structures) loses its integrity. This can be the perfect set-up for developing bruising or sole abscesses that can even become chronic over time.
Then, too, cracks that start small can creep up vertically; if they reach the coronary band, they can cause instability and long-term lameness.
Even more important than simply keeping your horse’s feet in good shape, timely farrier visits are essential to maintain the balance that minimizes stress to structures within the foot—or even further up the leg. For example, if your horse has a tendency to grow a long toe, this puts excessive pressure on structures such as the navicular bone and navicular bursae. So an important part of your farrier’s job is keeping those toes at a proper length to minimize these stresses. If his visits are too infrequent, however, he’ll be fighting a losing battle against your horse’s tendency to grow long toes.
Take aim by: Setting and keeping a schedule. For most horses, an ideal interval between farrier visits is approximately six weeks. If your horse has inherent balance problems, an interval as short as four weeks might be recommended.
You should also be aware that feet grow faster during certain times of year, including spring and summer when temperatures are warm and your horse is getting more consistent exercise. Consult with your vet and farrier about an ideal trimming/shoeing interval for your horse—then be willing to adjust it as needed.
Blunder #2 Neglected Daily Care
It may seem obvious, but regular hoof care—including making good use of a hoof pick—can make a big difference when it comes to the long-term health of your horse’s feet.
Wet, soggy footing can cause the feet to become soft and unhealthy—leading to conditions such as thrush. And if mud or clay packs into your shod horse’s feet, it can create sole pressure that bruises and creates sensitivity (shoes will act like a mold that holds mud in place to dry).
Finally, rocks, sticks, or other foreign bodies that become wedged in cracks or crevasses can lead to bruises or abscesses.
Take aim by: Picking feet out daily, if possible. This is especially important if your horse lives in a stall full time or has only daily turn-out. If daily picking isn’t practical (he lives in a pasture, say), at a minimum try to do a good visual inspection daily, and use a hoof pick two or three times a week. Always pick feet out before you longe or ride.
If you do notice black, tarry goo accumulating in the crevices alongside your horse’s frogs, consider applying a thrush-fighting medication several times a week. And if his soles get soft, consider using a sole toughener on a regular basis to help fortify them.
Finally, if your horse’s hooves have poor-quality walls that tend to break or chip easily, add a biotin supplement to his daily ration to help improve his overall hoof health.
Blunder #3 Poor Turn-Out Conditions
Naturally, if your horse stands out in mud for months on end, it’s going to wreak havoc on his feet. His soles will become soft and tender, and his hoof walls will start to fall apart. The result? Problems like thrush, bruising, and abscesses.
On the other hand, if he’s turned out on large gravel, rocks, or hard/uneven ground, he could experience an even more serious problem, such as a coffin-bone fracture.
Take aim by: Paying attention to his turn-out environment. If it’s a large pasture, minimize mud by avoiding over-crowding and installing mudresistant footing (such as sand over a gravel base) in high-traffic areas surrounding feeders, troughs, and gates. If he lives in a stall with day turn-out, consider sand or other hoof-friendly footing options.
Blunder #4 A Do-It-Yourself Approach
Would you do surgery on yourself? Probably not. In fact, if you’re like most people, when you need surgery you’ll look for a surgeon who’s done the procedure in question as many times as possible.
Care of your horse’s feet is no different, really. Proper hoof trimming with an eye to maintaining correct balance takes education, skill, and experience. Even if someone “shows you how,” it’s extremely unlikely you’ll get good enough to do justice to your horse’s feet if he’s the only one you try to trim.
And when it comes to putting on a shoe? Forget it. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a horse “well shod” by a non-farrier owner.
Take aim by: Just saying no. It may be hard to believe, but I actually found an online article titled, “Beginner’s Guide to Shoeing Horses,” with detailed instructions included. My advice? Hit delete.
Blunder #5 A Mediocre Farrier
See #4. An experienced, competent, reliable farrier just might be the most important member of your horse’s health-care team. Experience and competence are the attributes you should look for when choosing a farrier—not “cheap” or even just “a really nice guy.” An excellent farrier may cost a little more, but in many cases, you get what you pay for.
Moreover, if you do have to spend a bit more to have your horse well shod, chances are you’ll wind up saving even more on vet bills by avoiding soundness troubles.
Take aim by: Seeking solid references before you decide on a farrier. Your veterinarian is a good place to start. It’s interesting that most of the best farriers have solid working relationships with equine veterinarians and are considered highly respected colleagues. Less-skilled farriers, by contrast, may get defensive when faced with veterinary intervention.
You should also look for a farrier with at least several years of experience outside of farrier school. The best have often spent time apprenticing with an established farrier before heading out to work on their own, which means they’re not only more experienced, but also have a mentor to turn to for help with more complicated problems.
Finally, look for someone who’s readily available, answers calls or texts, and is responsive when it comes to lost shoes or other problems.
Blunder #6 Fixing What Ain’t Broke
Your horse is sound and working great. In fact, you’ve had the best summer ever competing in local breed shows and trail riding in the mountains. You’re especially happy because last year was a different story—your horse was on-and-off lame all summer until your vet and farrier got together and figured out a shoeing strategy that really made a difference.
Now summer’s over, so you’ve decided to give your horse’s feet a break and pull his shoes for the winter. What? Why? I guarantee you a month from now your farrier and vet will be pulling their hair out when you call because your horse is lame…again.
I see this scenario often. We finally get a horse figured out—and staying sound. Then the owner decides to save a little bit of money by getting rid of pads or going back to regular shoes. Guess what? Your horse most likely was staying sound in large measure because of those pads or special shoes.
Take aim by: Staying the course. If your horse is sound and doing great, don’t change anything. This is especially important if he’s had soundness problems in the past that’ve required any kind of special shoeing.
If you feel strongly about making a change, at least consult with your vet and farrier first. They’re the ones in the best position to guide you on what to change and how—usually with a gradual approach.
Blunder #7 Ignoring Youngsters’ Feet
Ideal hoof balance can be influenced by how a young horse grows. Keeping your horse’s feet balanced as he develops can be extremely important for determining not only the shape of his feet but also the straightness of his legs when he’s mature. What happens when he’s young plays a big part in determining his future.
Moreover, you want your horse to learn from the start how to stand for the shoer. Being a farrier is a difficult, physically demanding job. To do the best job possible, your farrier needs your horse to stand quietly while the work’s being done. If your horse is poorly behaved, not only will it make your farrier’s job harder, it may even make it more difficult to find a genuinely good farrier who’s willing to do your work.
Take aim by: Starting hoof care early. Begin picking up your foal’s feet the day he’s born. Schedule your farrier to start trimming your youngster’s feet when he reaches 8 to 10 weeks of age—or even earlier if you detect a problem like an upright foot or crooked leg. Then plan to keep your horse on a regular trimming and shoeing schedule for the rest of his life.