Since ancient Roman times, equestrians have understood the importance of maintaining healthy hooves for their horses. Unhealthy or unbalanced hooves cause strain on the leg joints and ligaments, which can lead to more severe problems.
Quality hoof care year-round is the foundation for keeping your horse sound and comfortable. Your farrier and vet are excellent resources for creating a hoof-care plan that best fits your horse, but you are responsible for the day-to-day implementation. These five easy steps will improve your horse’s hoof health and keep him sound.
Creating healthy hooves begins with understanding the interior and exterior anatomy and how these parts work together. Read more about hoof anatomy here.
Clean His Hooves
Healthy hooves start with daily maintenance and observation. Picking your horse’s hooves every day gives you the chance to monitor changes and fix little problems before they turn into big problems. Look for thrush, new cracks, or punctures. If he is shod, check his shoes for shifting (moving side to side) or springing (bent away from the hoof at the heel). Do his hooves have ripples or rings? This can be a sign of improper nutrition or too much riding on hard surfaces without adequate protection.
Check your horse’s digital pulse every day. If the pulse is stronger in one hoof than the other, your horse may have developed an abscess, especially if the hoof is warm to the touch. If the pulse is stronger than normal in both front hooves, your horse may be in the early stages of laminitis and you should call your vet immediately to prevent permanent damage. The simple act of picking your horse’s hooves gives you the opportunity to check this regularly.
Once you have a baseline for your horse’s hooves’ health, you know how you need to improve them. Consult with your farrier and your veterinarian before making significant changes.
Schedule the Farrier
As fall approaches and temperatures drop, you may need to adjust your horse’s shoeing schedule. Hooves grow slower in cooler weather but still need regular maintenance to prevent a balanced-unbalanced cycle. Work with your farrier to create a schedule that is best for your horse.
When I lived in Montana, I was terrible about keeping a regular farrier schedule, partly because of the weather, and partly because of the lack of available farriers. Most years my horses had their last trim in early November and then went out to pasture with their feet untouched until April – or whenever the snow was off the ground. This was very unhealthy for their hooves and their joints. Maintaining a regular farrier schedule even through the cold months, even if you are not riding, will benefit your horse long-term.
Moisturize and Protect
Over time, horses’ hooves adapt to their environment. Horses in damp climates tend to have larger, softer hooves than those from desert areas. No matter which climate they live in, horses’ hooves need consistency to stay healthy. Fall is hard on hoof health because the mornings are cool and damp while the afternoons are warm and dry. This change in moisture levels causes the hoof to expand during the damp part of the day and contract when the weather dries. If your horse is shod, this loosens the nails, making your horse prone to throwing shoes.
Maintaining the hoof moisture level requires a bit of work and a lot of attention to your horse’s environment. I use Rain Maker (buy it here) every day to keep hoof moisture level up because I live in a very dry climate. If you live in a moist climate, use Tuff Stuff (buy it here) to protect the hooves, avoiding the coronary band, and Venice Turpentine (buy it here) on the soles to harden them. If you live in an area where your climate varies from moist to dry as the seasons change, you may need to use moisturizer for part of the year, and hardener for the other part.
Healthy hooves start from the inside. Biotin is an essential element for healthy hooves, and many horses get enough of this from quality pasture or alfalfa. However, some benefit from a biotin supplement. Recommended dosage is 15 to 20 milligrams per day.
Biotin works best when combined with methionine, calcium, and zinc. For an extra boost, choose a supplement with lysine, copper, and Vitamin B6. Omega 3 fatty acids have also been linked to healthy hooves and enhances biotin’s effect.
Once you start supplementation, your horse’s hooves may not show improvement for nine months to one year. Biotin helps the hooves grow healthy new keratin from the coronary band down, and this growth is slow – only a quarter inch to a half inch per month. Once you start a supplement, commit to feeding it for at least a year to see results.
Farnam Horseshoer’s Secret (buy it here) and AniMed Hoof Medic (buy it here) are both good choices for adding more biotin to your horse’s diet. Both have a dosage large enough to be effective and combine biotin with other essential minerals. If you want an extra Omega-3 boost, add ground flax seed (buy it here) or fish oil (buy it here) to your horse’s grain. As a bonus, these supplements also improve your horse’s coat, mane, and tail.
Regular exercise, especially at a walk and trot, promotes circulation, which creates healthy hoof growth. It also increases your horse's metabolism, which helps him process his food better, extracting the nutrients that grow healthy hooves. In northern climates, fall is the end of riding season as the weather turns colder, but taking time to exercise your horse at a trot for at least 20 minutes any time the weather allows will help him grow healthy hooves over the winter.
No Hoof, No Horse
You cannot ignore regular hoof maintenance if you want your horse to stay sound and comfortable. Proper hoof maintenance requires daily attention and a good understanding of your horse’s environment. Work with your farrier and veterinarian to create a plan of supplementation and regular care to create the best hoof for your horse.
What do you do to help your horse grow healthy hooves? Let me know in the comments below!
Welcome! I've been a freelance writer since 2002 and have numerous horse-related articles published in print and online publications. I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Rocky Mountain College with a major in Equestrian Studies and a minor in Business Management. My current business ventures include High Plains Arena and real estate investing.