There’s an old saying that goes, “No hoof, no horse”. This idiom may sound strange at first, but it is very true! Horse hoof problems can lead to pain and unsoundness and can be detrimental to the entire limb and the horse’s entire well-being. With pain and sensitivity, the horse is no longer able to perform at its best, restricting workload and work type. The hoof is a crucial structure that plays a few roles in the health and physiology of the horse as an athlete.
Firstly, knowing the basic anatomy of the horse hoof is important in order to be able to refer to specific structures on the hoof when there is an issue. Addressing the parts of the hoof and common issues will make it easier to understand how they can adversely affect other parts of the hoof as well.
The basic, superficial parts of the lower limb include the fetlock joint, pastern, coronary band, hoof wall, heel, and toe. Each performs in different ways and can have individual issues. Other structures that are located underneath the skin (aka deep) include the cannon bone, superficial digital flexor tendon, deep digital flexor tendon, check ligaments, proximal (fetlock) and distal (navicular) sesamoids, sensitive laminae and coffin bone.
There are several important structures that are found on the underside of hooves as well. The most important to point out would be the heel bulbs, collateral (where you mostly cleanout of with a hoof pick) and central sulcus, sole, white line (where the hoof wall and the sole meet), frog and bars.
The hoof wall is made out of a “horn material” protein called keratin, similar to what makes up our fingernails and hair. This protein provides good structure, yet allows for manipulation. Often with quickly changing environments from wet to dry and back, the hoof wall moisture content can be compromised. Topical products can be applied to encourage proper moisture content such as Carr & Day & Martin Cornucrescine Hoof Barrier and Hoof Moisturizer.
Dry hooves can often be paired with cracking as well. Cracking can compromise the integrity of the hoof wall and should be monitored closely by your farrier to prevent further damage. The coronary band is very similar to the cuticle of your nail; the place where new growth moves out from. Dry or damaged coronary bands can affect how the hoof grows in that area very easily. A simple daily massage of moisturizing ointment can prevent this and provide moisture-holding properties for repair.
Even though the hoof may feel like hard rock, it is actually complacent to weight application. Every time the hoof strikes the ground, the hoof wall allows for slight expansion and continues to contract when the hoof is lifted off of the ground. This is a very important mechanism for proper circulation for horses. When the hoof strikes the ground and the palmar region expands, blood and fluids are pushed encouraged back up the leg.
Whether to shod your horse or go barefoot is up to you and your farrier, which is a whole nother topic. Alternative options could be hoof boots. These are basically sneakers for horses that provide tread on abrasive surfaces and footing (as shoes do) and support for horses that need layups (as shoes can do). Hoof boots are easily put on and taken off and have drainage holes at the bottom to allow water to escape, so no creeks are off-limits on trail rides!
Here is a great article from Kentucky Equine Research on the anatomy and more info on the equine hoof: https://ker.com/equinews/the-horses-hoof/
The hoof is one of the most common areas for ailments for the equine, so take care of it, without it, you have no horse!
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