Domesticated horses require constant care and attention to keep them fit and healthy. Between regular trips to the farrier and almost daily cleaning of hooves, it is difficult to imagine how horses in the wild manage to keep their hooves in good shape.
Wild horses maintain their hooves by running and walking long distances daily over abrasive terrain. This wears their hooves down naturally, at the same rate that they grow, preventing overgrowing, splitting, or cracking. Thus, wild horses do not need to clean or trim their hooves.
Maintaining a horse’s hooves is costly and might seem unnecessary if wild horses can maintain their own hooves. However, due to the way domesticated horses are kept, they cannot wear down their hooves like their wild counterparts, and therefore, require more care from us. Barefooting horses – keeping them unshod – is a practice that is gaining popularity amongst horse owners. But even barefoot horses require some extra hoof care.
What are Horse Hooves Made Of?
Hooves are often compared to toenails, but this does not present an accurate idea of what horses’ hooves actually are and what function they serve. Hooves are made up of keratin – the same material that our nails are made of. This is the only thing that hooves and nails really have in common.
Hooves are thick layers of keratin that cover the ends of horses’ legs. They are connected to the tendons and ligaments of the leg and function to protect horses’ coffin bones from the shock of impact when they walk or run. Also known as the pedal bones, the coffin bones are the bottommost bones in a horse’s front and hind legs.
Survival of the Fittest Horse Hoofs
Some domestic horses require more frequent hoof trimming and special care because they are genetically predisposed to hoof issues. Shoeing can be used to control persistent hoof problems or even issues with a horse’s conformation.
In the wild, these horses would not naturally survive. Natural selection means that only the fittest, healthiest horses survive and pass on their genes.
Horses are naturally a prey species. Wild horses prone to hoof problems struggle with the long distances that their herd travels each day for grazing. They will not be able to run and escape from predators as well as others in the herd. If a horse cannot keep up with its herd, it will be killed by a predator long before it can mate.
In this way, the genes that predispose horses to hoof issues are not passed on to the next generation. Natural selection works to remove weak genes from wild populations. This is why few wild horses have problems maintaining their hooves.
Selective Breeding and Hoof Issues in Horses
Domesticated horses are selectively bred for certain characteristics. Breeders choose which features and traits are desirable instead of natural selection.
Often, horses prone to hoof issues or problems due to their conformation are still used for breeding because shoeing can correct or manage the problem. In this way, weak hoof genes are passed down to the next generation, and poor hoof quality becomes entrenched in a breed.
A Brief History of Hoof Care
For thousands of years, humans have been riding horses and using them for work. Since the Ancient Greeks (1500 BC to 300 BC), the importance of hoof care has been understood.
Although the Ancient Greeks did not shoe their horses, they had methods of strengthening horse’s hooves and feet. By adding a thick layer of hand-sized stones and pebbles to horses’ enclosures, they ensured that their hooves wore down naturally and the frogs of their feet hardened.
The first horseshoes were called “hippo sandals” and were invented by the Roman Legions (around 400 AD). They were removable shoes, similar to the hoof boots of today, that were designed to protect horses’ hooves from wearing down on the long roads they traveled.
Nailed-on horseshoes started to be used in the Middle Ages and became popular in Europe at about 1000 AD. At the same time, natural hoof care and barefoot trimming were also practiced.
To this day, many competitive and non-competitive horses are shod, but there is a growing trend of natural hoof care and barefooting.
The Importance of Hoof Care
Domesticated horses are kept under very unnatural conditions. Their stalls are filled with soft bedding, and their pastures are full of green grass. They do not travel the long daily distances that wild horses do. Therefore, their hooves are rarely in contact with abrasive surfaces that wear them down naturally.
Working horses or horses for recreational riding carry much heavier loads than horses in the wild. The extra weight on their backs results in more downward force and stress on their legs, feet, and hooves. It means that there is greater impact and wears on the hooves. Horses, therefore, need shoes to prevent injury to the soft tissue, cartilage, bones, ligaments, tendons, and joints in their legs.
When it rains, and pastures are flooded, horses must either be kept in their stall or stand in the muddy, wet field if they have no other turnout options. Fungal or bacterial infections can develop from having their hooves exposed to moisture for prolonged periods.
For the above reasons, horses need to have their hooves cleaned and trimmed regularly to prevent overgrowing, splitting, and infection.
As hooves get overgrown, they begin to twist, and horses must adjust how they stand and walk. As the angle of their legs gets more unnatural, it impedes the horses’ ability to walk properly and causes discomfort and pain. The soft tissues in their legs sustain an injury, and a horse may stop moving altogether. Without hoof care, domestic horses can suffer life-threatening illnesses.
Hoof Maintenance for Domesticated Horses
The amount and frequency of hoof maintenance that an individual horse requires are dictated primarily by the horse’s characteristics (weight, hoof quality, and conformation), the terrain (whether it is soft, hard, rocky, or abrasive), the quantity of work and their gait.
The following mainstream practices are used to maintain horses’ hooves:
- Horses are shod. When a horse is first mounted, they are shod for the first time and shoes are replaced every few months. Horseshoes reinforce and protect working horses’ hooves and feet. They limit the rate at which the hoof margin wears down, reducing the risk of injury to the soft, inner part of the hoof, called the frog.
- Hooves are trimmed. Every four to eight weeks, a horse owner or farrier must trim a horse’s hooves. Trimming removes excess growth and keeps the horse’s feet in the optimal position.
- Hooves are picked clean regularly. Keeping the hooves free of mud, mulch, and manure prevent thrush and other infections from developing.
- Dry pastures. In the wild, horse’s would never stand on muddy, flooded ground. By keeping their pastures dry, one can prevent moisture from weakening their hooves.
- Daily exercise. To promote good blood circulation to the hooves, and gently wear them down, horses should be allowed to walk a minimum of 5 miles (8 km) every day. Terrain should include hard surfaces or gravel.
These methods keep horses’ hooves in a healthy condition, optimize their performance, and help to avoid injuries.
Diet and Hoof Health
A horse’s diet has a direct impact on its hoof growth. Because domesticated horses eat a much higher quality diet than wild horses, their hooves tend to grow faster.
Consuming a diet that is too high in sugars and carbohydrates can cause laminitis – a disease that affects horses’ feet. Initially, laminitis causes pain in the feet, and as it progresses, horses will stop walking due to the severity of the pain. Late-stage laminitis results in the coffin bone sinking down and perforating the sole of the hoof. Sadly, horses have to be put down due to severe laminitis.
If a horse is prone to laminitis or other hoof issues, they benefit from natural hoof supplements. The amino acid, DL-Methionine, often found in D-Biotin supplements, has been found to help in managing hoof health by supporting the immune system.
Wild Horses Do Not Need to Maintain Their Hooves
Hoof maintenance is not something that wild horses consciously do. Their hooves naturally maintain a healthy length, getting worn down by the various surfaces they walk and run on.
Wild horses will routinely travel for 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32 km) per day to meet their grazing and water requirements. They pass over rough, rocky terrain that abrades their hooves. They can wear down their hooves at roughly the same rate at which they grow.
Horse hooves rarely become covered in mud or stay moist because wild horses instinctively move to higher ground when they see a storm approaching.
This is why wild horses do not need to trim, clean, or otherwise maintain their hooves.
The Barefoot Horse Movement
Internationally, there is a growing trend of keeping horses barefoot or unshod. This movement takes inspiration from the way that wild horses maintain their hooves and the horses of Mongolia and South America that are used for work but are never shod.
There are a number of benefits to keeping a horse barefoot:
- Less expensive than keeping a horse shod. Horseshoes and their maintenance can get pricey!
- Barefoot trims are easier to execute, so once a horse owner has learned how to trim, they do not need to get a farrier in to do it.
- Horses grow healthier, stronger hooves due to better blood circulation to their feet.
- It may reduce the risk of diseases like laminitis or navicular syndrome.
Due to the benefits of barefooting, even competitive horses in sports like dressage, showjumping, racing, endurance riding, and trail riding are now being kept barefoot.
Transitioning to Barefooting
It takes time and special care to transition a horse that has previously been shod to a barefoot lifestyle. After a long time of wearing horseshoes, the hoof soles are highly sensitive because they have not developed a thick callous.
Depending on a horse’s condition, it can take weeks, months or up to a year or more to get used to being barefoot. During the transition period, horses can wear hoof boots to protect their hoof soles.
Trimming Barefoot Horses’ Hooves
Horses that are barefoot still require regular hoof maintenance, including hoof trimming. However, the type of trimming is different from the conventional method. It is a more natural approach to hoof care and maintenance.
The aim of the barefoot trim is to mimic the way that wild horses wear down their hooves. The different styles of barefoot trim are:
- The natural trim, that aims to keep the hoof wall in contact with the ground at the back of the foot so that the frogs, bars, and the sole also support the horse’s feet when it moves over uneven ground.
- The 4-Point trim. A classic style of trim that is used on shod horses too.
- The Pete Ramey trim, which is similar to the natural trim, but the hoof wall is removed so that the horse has to walk on their hoof soles.
- The Strasser trim is the most controversial method because it aims to widen the frog by scooping out the horse’s sole and bars.
Domestic horses need a lot of care and maintenance due to the unnatural conditions in which we keep them. Wild horses, on the other hand, do not need to maintain their hooves because of their lifestyle.
Wild horses walk and run extensive distances every day over harsh, rocky terrain. This wears down their hooves naturally, preventing them from overgrowing, splitting, or cracking. Because domestic horses are generally kept in pastures and stables, their hooves are not exposed to as much abrasion from the surfaces they walk or run on. Hence, they need to be trimmed every four to eight weeks.
In the wild, horses that have hoof issues cannot keep up with their herd or run from predators, so they do not survive and therefore do not pass on their genes for weak hooves.
Horse hooves are made up of many layers of keratin that protect their coffin bones from the impact of running by absorbing the shock. Compared to wild horses, horses that are used for riding or working carry unnaturally heavy loads, and this increases the impact and stress on their feet and hooves. These horses are shod to protect their hooves.
Along with being shod, domesticated horses require regular hoof care to maintain them and keep their feet healthy. They should also be fed a diet that is low in sugar to prevent hoof diseases like laminitis.
There is a growing movement towards more natural approaches to hoof maintenance, like keeping horses barefoot. This has many benefits to the horse and the owner.