Hooves

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TO SHOE OR NOT TO SHOE?

‘No foot no horse’ 

This saying has been around since the first horse was ridden - but it is as true then as it is today.

The reality is that if your horse does not have well balanced, well maintained hooves – because of the physical stress we put on him - he will end up paying the ultimate price. 

For many years horse owners have been happy to go along with having their horses feet looked after by the farrier every 6 weeks or so and didn’t give it much thought after that.  Gratefully this is slowly changing with people becoming more aware of the implications of having your horse shod and the benefits of keeping horses barefoot. 

This modern theory of hoof function states the barehoof as having: 

  • good circulation
  • normal metabolism
  • normal temperature
  • good quality and quantity of horn growth
  • good shock absorption
  • healthy tissues 
  • good excretion of waste protein as horn
  • ability to effectively pump blood back up the legs
  • advanced support & traction 

One of the most shocking statistics I have ever read was directly from the World Farrier’s Association president, Walt Taylor (in an editorial by Frank Lessiter, American Farriers Journal, Nov. 2000).  This stated that ninety percent of domestic horses in the world are either lame and unusable, or lame and usable. But wild or feral horses around the world stay healthy and live longer, despite not having the benefits of human care, including shoes.

I think we need to ask the question 'Why?'. 

Luca Bein at the University of Zurich in 1983 presented a study which proved that a shod hoof with a normal metal shoe lacks 60-80% of its natural shock absorption. "A shod foot moving on asphalt at a walk receives three times the impact force as an unshod foot moving on asphalt at a trot."

In 1993, Chris Pollit of Australia published a video study of circulation comparing a shod and unshod hoof. He clearly showed that the circulation was impaired in the shod hoof even with pads.

From' Hoof Shoeing, Hoof Problems' by H. D. Koerber published in 1997. "Shoeing reduces horn growth." Along with the reduction in circulation, reduced metabolism and temperature within the hoof.   

So hooves shod with metal horse shoes have: 

  • reduced circulation
  • reduced metabolism
  • reduced temperature
  • reduced quality and quantity of horn growth
  • increased shock
  • increased necrotic (dead) tissue due to damage
  • increased hoof contraction 

Although I personally believe that, if possible, a horse should be kept barefoot this process of going from a shod hoof to barefoot is not simple.  It is also not always the answer. As most horses have their first shoes at the age of 3 or 4, some even earlier, the formation and health of the hoof might have been compromised for many years.  Just taking off the shoes and expecting your horse to cope is definately not the answer.  Each individual situation needs to be monitored.  The horses' age, breed, sport and current health & hoof situation all impact this process.  Some horses will never beable to go completely without foot protection.

There is no 'quick fix' in this situation.  The process takes time and no one can tell you at the beginning of the process how long your horse, in his specific situation, will need. If you are not prepared to allow him all the time he needs to adjust don't start the process.  Please be aware that you will need an experienced and sympathetic farrier who understands the transition to barefoot, and who can support you and your horse during this time. It doesn’t happen overnight! 

skeleton_anglesWHAT IS A BALANCED HOOF? 

Once again we are in a 'hotly contented opinion' area.  Most farriers or vets will choose a specific thought or genre relating to balance and implement this idea.

It is difficult to get an overview as a horse owner, and find what will be the best for your horse. 

In my opinion good sense rules in this instance. When talking about balance you have to take the hoof capsule (that which we see) and the bony structures of the foot, limb and body into consideration.  

Therefore every balanced hoof looks as it should look - for the horse in question – having taken his conformation into consideration.   

To get technical - the angle of the hoof capsule and the coffin bone should be parallel to the angle of the pastern and the shoulder.  A balanced horse stands on a perfectly shaped hoof capsule and a bony column that is perfectly aligned to the rest of his conformation. 

A balanced hoof allows your horse’s feet, legs and body to function at top efficiency.  It is able to absorb shock and concussion. The balanced hooves distribute the enormous pressures generated by your horse’s movement in such a way as to minimize stress and injury. 

THE HOOF TELLS THE STORY 

One of the ways the horse accommodates imbalance is by deforming his hoof capsule. Traditional balancing technique looks at the ground surface of the hoof. Unfortunately, the ground surface of the hoof can be flat and apparently “balanced” while completely ignoring the early signs of hoof deformation and imbalance taking place above. Just looking at the shape, angle and condition of the hoof can tell you all you need to know.  Without getting too complicated and technical the following 3 points are easy to identify:

The Hairline Story

The hairline along the coronet of the hoof should be even and smooth with a gradual angle towards the back of the hoof.  If it looks in anyway distorted or uneven - bumps or dips and rises of the hairline - this oftens points to excessive pressure from an unbalanced hoof.

Wall Cracks

Wall cracks in the toe, coronet or quarter area also point to excessive pressure - meaning unbalance in the hoof.

Ridges and Bumps

This can be an indication of the horses' health as well as pressure problems.  If a horse has had laminitis expect to find these ridges.  This can be an indication that the hoof needs special care and rehabilitation as it has been compromised in quality due to illness.

Note that no information given on this website should be considered a substitute for consulting your veterinarian, farrier or relevant professional.