2938 Vet. Med. Basic Sciences Bldg.
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
"The single most important part of equine hoof care is regular cleaning and inspection. Hoof cleaning should be done on a daily basis and always before riding," says Michael C. Finn, farrier at the University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital at Urbana. "Use a hoof pick to remove dirt, rocks, and debris and inspect the foot for problems, such as bruises, cracks, wall separation, and thrush." This will detect a hoof problem early, before the horse is lame. Also, a horse that is used to being handled makes the job of your farrier and your veterinarian easier.
How often to trim hooves and whether to shoe or go barefoot depends on what the horse does and the quality of the feet. Shoes support the horse's feet and protect them from the surfaces you ride on. A horse with sturdy feet that trail rides on weekends may only need regular trimming and can do without shoes. A horse in daily training must have shoes or the hooves will wear down until it is lame. Whether or not to shoe is a function of how fast the hoof grows, how fast it is worn down, and how much support is needed.
A properly fit shoe is long enough and wide enough to support the horse's hooves. The back of the hoof flares out when weight is put on it and contracts when it is lifted off of the ground. A shoe should fit wide through the heel area, where the expansion and contraction occurs, and should not be nailed at the heel, so that the hoof is able to expand and contract. The properly fit shoe will develop grooves at the heel where the expansion and contraction of the hoof wears it away. If the hoof side of a used shoe is as smooth as new in the heel, then the heel of the hoof was nailbound to the shoe and could not expand and contract. It got pinched every time the horse landed on it. Not only does this hurt, but the hoof cannot grow properly and will eventually break down in the heel area.
Proper shoeing will maintain the soundness a of horse's hoof has but it cannot recover soundness lost to disease or mismanagement. Therapeutic shoes give added support for a horse with conformation problems and can make a lame horse more comfortable. Many performance horses, such as dressage horses, wear therapeutic shoes for the additional support demanded by their work. The shoe style and material depends on the needs of the horse.
Standard horseshoes are made of steel and are one quarter of an inch thick. Steel shoes can take a beating and work well when a horse must be surefooted, for example when it's on the trail. Lightweight aluminum shoes can help hunters achieve their long, low, less animated stride. A horse that is flat-footed or whose soles bruise easily would benefit from a thick aluminum shoe to get the soles off the ground without the additional weight of steel. Borium on the bottom of a shoe provides extra grip for traversing rocks or ice and snow. Three-day eventers use shoes with cocks, like cleats, for traction on wet grass. However, it is important that borium or cock shoes be removed when not actually needed so as to prevent potential problems caused by the continuous, excessive traction of these shoes.
"Thrush is the foot problem horse owners ask about most often," says Mr. Finn. "It is usually seen only in horses that stand in manure and urine and never have their feet cleaned." The condition results when bacteria and moisture invade the sole of the hoof. The bottom of the hoof gets soft and crumbly and can degenerate until the heel begins to split, which then bleeds and causes pain. A farrier needs to inspect hooves with thrush and remove all the decayed parts. The owner can then medicate the sole with a drying agent, such as bleach and water or a commercial product. Daily cleaning, of the hooves and the environment, is the best way to prevent of thrush.
In the driest part of the summer Mr. Finn advises horse owners to replenish moisture to coronary bands and bulbs of the hooves with hoof lotion. However, he cautions that lotion applied to the sole can create a very soft, tender, and easily bruised foot. Also lotion is unnecessary on the hoof wall because it cannot penetrate there.
Are you looking for a farrier? "A good farrier is one that is competent, shows up on time, treats your horse with respect, and charges a fair fee," says Mr. Finn. If you are showing, find someone who shoes for that style. Some farriers can shoe many different horses and do therapeutic shoeing. Others specialize and shoe only arabs, saddlebreds, walking horses, or quarter horses.
"Basic care includes daily inspection and cleaning," emphasizes Mr. Finn. "Simple, but extremely important."
For more information on equine health, contact your local