Essential hoof care for horses
Staying on top of your horse's routine hoof care can help to prevent them from developing problems in their feet.
Routine hoof care is extremely important, as any problems in the feet can be detrimental to your horse's soundness and hoof health.
Horse hoof anatomy
The structures in a horse’s feet support the full weight of the horse over a small area. The hoof is a complicated structure, both inside and out. It’s helpful to understand the anatomy of the hoof to know how best to care for it.
Structure of a horse’s foot
The coronary band is located at the top of the hoof. It's responsible for creating the horn that makes up the hoof wall.
The periople is the outer layer of the hoof that forms a protective covering on the hoof wall. It's responsible for regulating moisture content in the horn, secreted from the perioplic ring above the coronet.
The hoof wall is the exterior of the hoof, made from a keratin-based substance. It provides a hard protective layer around the internal parts in the foot. It takes nine to 12 months for the hoof to grow from the coronary band to the toe.
Hoof growth can be affected by an unsuitable diet. It can also indicate an underlying illness or poor health.
The sole is a tough structure that provides external protection to the sensitive sole underneath. It's slightly concave and is not weight bearing.
The frog is an extruding triangular structure which extends from the heel to halfway down the foot.
Its function is to absorb concussion, provide grip and be a weight-bearing surface for the foot. It also ensures that a healthy blood supply reaches the foot. The grooves along each side of the frog allow for expansion when it makes contact with the ground.
Inside a horse’s hoof
This is found underneath the pedal bone, within the insensitive sole. It produces new cells that replace lost layers of the insensitive sole.
The digital cushion is found between the pedal bone and deep flexor tendon. It's an elastic, fibrous pad that absorbs concussion from ground impact. It also helps to push blood back up the leg.
These are attached to the pedal bone and serve to protect the coffin joint. They also help to absorb concussion.
The insensitive laminae are supportive structures that attach to the hoof wall and interlock with the sensitive laminae. The sensitive laminae then attach and support the pedal bone.
The divide between sensitive and insensitive laminae can be seen as a white line on the sole of the foot.
Conformation of the feet
Good conformation is an important factor in a horse staying sound.
Your horse's feet should be even and round in shape, and in proportion with the rest of the horse. The front feet should be of equal size and shape, though they may be slightly bigger than the hind feet.
When your horse is stood on a flat, even surface, the front feet should slope forwards at a 45 degree angle to the ground. The hind feet should be at an angle of 50 to 55 degrees to the ground.
The hoof wall should be smooth and free from cracks. Any lines could indicate poor nutrition or past cases of laminitis.
Poor conformation in the feet can result in strains to tendons and ligaments, tripping and bruising. If your horse has poor foot conformation, a good farrier may be able to improve this over time.
Routine hoof care
There are some routine steps you can take to keep your horse's feet in good condition:
Picking out your horse's feet
Your horse's hoofs should be picked out every day with a hoof pick. This keeps the hoof clear of dirt and debris – a build up of these materials can lead to thrush.
Regularly picking out the hooves also gives you a good opportunity to inspect the feet closely. When picking out the feet, look out for anything unusual such as loose shoes, cracking or bruising. Feel the frog with your fingers, making sure it's firm but supple.
If your horse is shod, each shoe should be checked daily for wear and tear. You'll need to call out the farrier if there are risen clenches, pinching across the bulbs of the heel, or the foot is overgrown and misshapen. You should also feel for loose shoes, as these can cause your horse to slip or trip, resulting in injury.
Trimming and shoeing
Staying on top of regular farrier visits can prevent hoof problems from developing. On average, shod feet should be attended by a farrier every four to six weeks, and unshod feet every six to ten weeks.
Keeping the environment clean
Exposure to wet or dirty conditions can lead to infections in the hoof. By keeping your horse's environment clean – whether they are in the field or stabled – you'll reduce the risk of infections occurring.
Ensure wet or soiled bedding is regularly mucked out of the stable. In the field, you can provide an area of hard standing for your horse and avoid poaching during wet weather as much as possible.
Providing a balanced diet
Horses on a high fibre forage diet should get all the nutrients they need for healthy hooves. Biotin occurs naturally in grass, so if your horse has plenty of access to grazing, they'll consume the necessary amount to keep their feet in good condition. Some horses who are on restricted grazing, or horses with poor quality hooves, may benefit from a biotin supplement. You can ask your vet for advice for your horse's needs.
Seasonal hoof care
Different seasons can bring different challenges for keeping your horse's feet in good condition.
Summer hoof care
British summertime can be prone to constant changes in the weather, fluctuating between heavy rain and hot days.
Constant changes in moisture levels can cause the hoof to contract and expand repeatedly. This cycle can cause nails to loosen and cracks to appear. In some cases bacteria can enter the hoof capsule where they multiply and can lead to an abscess. While you cannot change the weather, there are a few ways to control the amount of moisture in your horse's hooves:
- A good hoof oil will help with dry hooves and will help to promote a more even moisture content. Your farrier will advise if this would be beneficial and which product is suitable for your horse.
- Use a highly absorbent bedding if your horse is stabled
- Monitor your horse’s hooves daily for cracks or potential abscesses
Winter hoof care
Fields are often prone to poaching in winter. Too much exposure to wet conditions can cause the hoofs to soften – this can put them at higher risk of bruising and developing an abscess.
A hoof sealant can provide a barrier against excessive moisture. You can also provide an area of hard standing in the field to give horses a place to stay clean and dry. If this is not possible, you can provide turn out in a school with plenty of forage scattered so your horse can continue to graze.
Horses need plenty of turnout and socialisation with other horses for their wellbeing and health. Restricting turn out should be avoided as much as possible.
During the winter, when the ground freezes over it can create a painfully hard surface for horses. Exercise on frozen ground can lead to bruising of the sole. Be vigilant when deciding whether to exercise during freezing temperatures.
Another common problem in winter is ‘snowballing’. This is where snow becomes packed into your horse’s hoof, causing them to walk on an elevated solid, frozen mass. Snowballing can be uncomfortable for your horse, and can even cause injury.
Removing your horse’s shoes may help to prevent snowballing. You can also regularly apply petroleum jelly or hoof oil around the sole of their foot. This creates a barrier which may prevent the snow freezing in their hoof.
Regular farrier visits are vital to maintaining the health of your horse’s feet. They can balance, trim , shoe, address injuries and provide repairs or corrective shoeing. Your farrier will be able to advise you on the best plan for your horse.
Balancing the foot
Whether shod or unshod, your horse's feet will need to be balanced by the farrier. Balance is important as inaccuracy can lead to lameness, and even cause navicular syndrome and laminitis.
Regular trimming removes excess growth of the hoof wall. A farrier can use rasps and nippers to cut away the hoof material. Keeping the feet at a suitable size and shape can help the overall balance of the foot.
The frog can also be trimmed to remove loose edges or excess growth.
Shoes are not always needed. It depends on the amount and type of work your horse is doing. Sometimes only front shoes may be needed, but the farrier will be able to advise on the best option for your horse.
After the farrier has visited, you should check the following:
- Look at the balance of the feet. The angle should be around 45 to 50 degrees from the ground at the front, and 50 to 55 degrees from the ground at the back.
- The angle through the pastern, fetlock and hoof should be 45 degrees. When viewed from the heel with the foot raised, the sides of the foot should be level. With the foot on the ground both sides of the hoof should be of equal length.
- If shod, the shoe should fit the foot with no gaps between the shoe and the foot. The clenches should be about one third of the way up the hoof wall from the floor. They should be in a straight line and be flush with the hoof. The toe clips should also be flush with the hoof wall.
- The sole of the foot should not be touching the ground in unshod horses
- The sides of the frog should be trimmed. The frog should be level or slightly below the edge of the hoof wall.
After a visit from the farrier, your horse should be completely sound. If they are showing signs of lameness immediately after or a few days later, contact your farrier as soon as possible .
Where to find a farrier
All farriers in the UK must be registered under the Farriers Registration Act 1975. To find a registered farrier in your area, you can visit the Farrier Registration Council directory. Alternatively, you can ask your vet for recommendations.
• 1 November 2023
• 2 November 2026