Happy Feet, Part 1

Anna O'Brien, DVM
Written by:
Published: March 15, 2013
Happy Feet, Part 1

With a popular saying that goes, “90 percent of equine lameness is in the foot,” it’s no wonder large animal veterinarians frequently deal with foot problems in their patients. Although this particular quote refers to horses, cattle, sheep, and goats have their share of foot issues as well.

This double series will take a look at hoof care in the large animal species; this week starting with the horse.

The outside of the hoof of all farm mammals is made of keratin, the same tough tissue that makes up our nails. And like our nails, hooves grow continuously. For this reason, horses need hoof trims regularly; the general rule of thumb is every six to eight weeks. This number does vary depending on the horse (some horses’ hooves grow faster than others) and use.

Trimming horse hooves is a fairly specialized trade. If care isn’t taken, you can “quick” the horse’s foot, meaning to cut into the sensitive tissue underneath the hoof. Blacksmiths, also called farriers, are typically called out to do this job.

Most people are familiar with the fact that horses typically wear shoes. Metal U-shaped structures nailed to the bottom of a horse’s feet, horseshoes are meant to provide support to the horse’s foot.

This leads to the logical question: Horses in the wild don’t wear shoes, so why do domestic horses need them? And the answer is: Many domestic horses can go barefoot. It’s all about what the horse is used for and how healthy its feet are. Let’s take a closer look at this topic.

Traditionally, domesticated horses were ridden or driven with a carriage, cart, or plough. Some still are. This repetitive work on hard ground that sometimes includes paved roads, cobblestone, and rocky terrain is particularly stressful on the hoof structure, resulting in excessive wear, damage such as cracks, and even lameness if a horse has a particularly sensitive sole. Shoes were historically made of iron, but now are made of a variety of materials, usually differing grades of steel. Specialty shoes can be made from aluminum (light weight for race horses), and even certain plastics.

So, the question remains: If you have a horse, does it need shoes? Of course the answer is: It depends on the horse.

In the past decade or so, the movement has been to get back to the “barefoot” mentality and leave horses shoe-free. This works for many horses, especially those ridden infrequently. In fact, a majority of my equine patients do not wear shoes, as most are companion horses that are kept mainly as pets, or for the occasional trail ride. However, if the horse has poor hoof structure where a shoe can help with support, if the horse is prone to bruising on the sole and has sensitive feet, or if the horse is being asked to perform at very high levels, shoes may be the way to go.

Alternatively, horse owners will put shoes on the front feet and leave the back feet bare. This is sort of a compromise in the barefoot debate. Since 60 percent of a horse’s weight is distributed on the front legs, these hooves see more wear and tear than the back feet. Many trail horses will have this sort of set up.

One cautionary comment to end on: No one should ever use shoes alone to “fix” a foot problem. If hooves are unhealthy (brittle, crack easily, thin), the horse’s overall health and diet should be checked out first. Also, shoes can’t “fix” a major conformational fault. If a horse genetically has extremely poor hooves, then perhaps he just isn’t the best contender for what the rider originally planned for him.

There is so much truth behind the often-overused axiom, no hoof, no horse.

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Makarova Viktoria / via Shutterstock

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