Anatomy, hoof care, common diseases, and more
Have you ever heard the saying, “No hoof, No horse?” Not only do horse hooves support their body weight, hooves also play a big role in soundness. By educating yourself about hooves, you can effectively communicate your horse’s needs with your farrier and/or veterinarian.
Your horse’s hooves are the foundation to their soundness. Developing and a good relationship with your farrier is key to ensuring your horse’s hooves stay healthy.
Learning about hoof anatomy, common soundness problems, and proper angles, can help ensure your horse is set up for success from the bottom up. The more knowledgeable you are about the hoof, the better chance you have at catching a problem before it turns into something bigger.
In order to fully understand the care and upkeep your horse’s hooves require, it’s important to get a good grasp on the common anatomical terms. There’s nothing worse than having a conversation with your farrier and feeling completely lost about the subject matter.
Before we dig into terms, here is a helpful video about hoof anatomy:
Bars: Located along the sole of the hoof, bars run from the heel to the point of the frog. They help maintain the integrity of the hoof.
Breakover: During forward motion, the phase of the stride when the heel begins to lift.
Center of Rotation: The center of balance in the hoof.
Coffin Bone: Anatomically named the distal phalanx (or P3). This is the lowest bone of the limb and is encased within the hoof. Sometimes the coffin bone is referred to as the pedal bone.
Coffin Joint: The joint between the coffin bone, distal phalanx (short pastern bone), and the navicular bone.
Coronary Band: The portion of the hoof that joins into the limb; where hoof transitions to hair.
Distal: Away from the center of the body.
Frog: The “V” shaped pad located on the bottom of the hoof.
Laminae: The soft tissue between the hoof wall and the bones of the hoof capsule.
Lateral: Away from the midline.
Medial: Towards the midline.
Navicular Bone: A small, crescent moon-shaped bone that is located inside the hoof capsule. It aids with keeping the deep digital flexor tendon stable.
Quarters: Located on the sides of the hoof wall, quarters are the narrowest area of the hoof.
Sole: The bottom of the hoof. Protects the coffin bone from injury.
Wall: The outermost hard casing of the hoof.
White Line: The continuous line of laminae that joins the sole to the hoof wall.
Hoof health and the rest of the horse
Hoof health is everything! Without strong, healthy feet your horse is more likely to go lame or have soundness issues. Many compensatory lamenesses have root causes linked to hoof problems. Unbalanced angles, long toes, and under-run heels can all have dramatic effects on the angles of your horse’s leg bones.
What angles are important in your horse’s hoof?
Farriers will most likely tell you that the hoof angle should match the pastern angle. There are a few other angles, however, to consider as well. It’s important to note that the following are “ideal” measurements for the typical horse. Depending on your horse’s anatomy and hoof needs, they may or may not fall within these measurements.
Always consult with your farrier or vet if you have questions or concerns. In some cases, x-rays may need to be taken to get an accurate picture on what’s occurring inside the hoof.
- Coronet Angle: This angle can give you an approximate idea of where the coffin bone is sitting inside the hoof capsule. The ideal measurement for this angle falls into the range of 20-30 degrees. If your horse’s coronet angle is measuring less than 20 degrees, this means their heel is too high which will make the coffin bone tilt down towards the sole. If it measures greater than 30 degrees, the back of the coffin bone will be lower to the ground.
- Dorsal Angle: The measurement you are looking for should be approximately 50 degrees. The hoof wall on the dorsal side (front/toe side) should be parallel to the dorsal side of the coffin bone.
- Palmar Angle: The angle from the bottom of the coffin bone to the bottom of the ground. On average, the ideal measurement is between 2-7 degrees.
Hoof care can vary horse to horse depending on their individual needs. Most horses will do well with hoof trimming/shoeing every 5-8 weeks. This can vary based on time of year, workload, nutrition, and if the horse is shod or barefoot.
Consistent daily maintenance is also important to monitor hoof condition and check for any soreness, cracking, loose shoes, or rocks stuck in the frog.
Do horses need shoes?
Ah yes, this is an age old question. You’ll find that there are drastically different schools of thought on whether or not to shoe your horse. Some people believe that the hoof is naturally designed to go barefoot and should not be altered. Others believe shoes help provide support and strength to the hoof wall.
Your farrier can help you decide what is right for your horse based on their conformation, workload, and if any corrections need to be made.
Some horses have sensitive feet and absolutely need shoes—left barefoot, they will go lame. Other horses may need front shoes but be able to go barefoot on the hind hooves. Horses carry about 60% of their weight on their front end, so front hooves tend to see more wear/tear than hind.
Like any other structure of the body, there are common hoof diseases. These can range from problems stemming from too much moisture and unclean conditions, to nutritional issues and improper hoof angles.
An abscess: An abscess occurs when bacteria is trapped inside the horse’s hoof, producing pus and pressure. Abscesses are extremely painful for the horse. Many times horses will be perfectly sound one day, and then they will be dead lame the next.
The most common causes of abscesses are punctures into the hoof, nails that have been hammered too deeply, or poor hoof quality.
Once the abscess has either been opened by a vet or farrier, or bursts on its own, the horse’s pain level lessens quite rapidly. The most common treatment is soaking the affected hoof in Epsom salt which helps draw out the infection and allows the abscess to heal.
Laminitis: Laminitis is the weakening of the laminae inside the hoof. It is most commonly caused by overload (a non weight bearing limb), inflammatory (consuming too much sugar) or a metabolic condition (hypothyroidism or Cushing’s syndrome).
This internal hoof disease is also the precursor to founder, which makes it critical that you notify your vet as soon as possible if you suspect laminitis.
Thrush: Thrush is an infection of the frog. It causes a black discharge that comes from your horse’s frog and is usually first recognized by its smelly and unpleasant odor.
Thrush is most commonly caused by excessive moisture, such as standing in a muddy paddock or in a dirty stall for too long. Regularly picking your horses hooves is extremely important—if caught early, thrush is relatively easy to treat.
Thrush can be managed with the use of various medicated hoof liquids that are easily purchased at your local feed store. No prescription required!
If you find your horse getting chronic thrush it’s a good idea to have your veterinarian or farrier take a look. Even a mild case of thrush can wreak havoc on a hoof and cause lameness and discomfort for your horse.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What are good supplements for hoof health?
Since the hoof wall is made up of keratin, some of the most common supplements for strong, healthy hooves are Lysine, Biotin, Methionine, Zinc, and Omega-3s.
Q: How do you find a good farrier?
Farriers play a huge role in your horse’s health and soundness. It can take time to find a good farrier that works for you and your horse.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to seek out hoof care professionals that specialize in your specific discipline. Into western performance? Find a farrier that has experience working on reining and working cow horses. Seeking a barefoot trimmer? Look for someone that specializes in natural hoof care!
Q: How often should you pick out your horse’s feet?
Cleaning your horses hooves should be a regular action item during your grooming routine, pre and post ride. Not only does picking your horses feet remove manure and dirt from their hoof, it is also a great time to check for bent or loose shoes, lodged rocks, or other common hoof problems.
Q: Why is it called the frog?
It doesn’t quite look like a frog, does it? There are various theories and urban legends on how this structure within the hoof got its name. One reason is that the frog forms a “V” shape in the center of the sole of the hoof.
Theory states that this shape reminded early railroad men of the triangular area where 2 tracks met, also called a “frog”. Others believe the frog forms the shape of a frog’s pelvis.
Providing adequate care for your horses’ hooves will ensure your horse is comfortable from the ground up. Learn the basics, clean out and check your horse’s hooves regularly, and stay on top of hoof trimming and shoeing.
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Hoof Care for Horses by Henry Heymering, C.J.F, R.M.F