A Word on Hoof Care by Charles Wilhelm
Reprinted from the Valley Equestrian Newspaper, May 2011
Hoof care is an important element in the care of a horse. With a young horse it is important to start foot care early. Handle the feet as soon as a foal will allow it. You can prevent a lot of conformation problems by trimming early. Sometimes a hoof grows upright and boxy instead of at an angle like a normal hoof. This is called a clubfoot. My horse Jaz was out in pasture for a year and apparently nothing was done to her feet during that time. She developed a club foot and she had to have corrective trimming. The feet have come along just fine, however, it would have been easier if her feet had been trimmed earlier and checked to make sure that the hoof angles were correct. If you start correcting this condition while the horse is young, depending on the degree of the problem, by the time you get ready to start riding, you will hardly be able to tell the horse had a clubfoot.
Every horse, including a foal, needs to accept a farrier. For a young horse, it is important for the initial visit to go well. Horses have very good situational memories, so a bad first experience with the farrier can be hard to overcome. Whether you are getting ready for the first visit or overcoming problems with work done earlier, the foundation steps are the same, the only difference may be the time you have to spend on each lesson.
Your primary goals are straightforward. Your horse needs to accept being touched everywhere and to have that contact made by a stranger. These requirements represent significant pressure, especially to a young horse. These are cornerstones to your horse’s training and must be approached with careful planning, patience and consistency. Groom, pet and touch your horse everywhere. Encourage your friends and family members to groom and pet your horse. If your horse is at a facility where the vet and farrier visit regularly, ask them to stop by and briefly visit with your horse. Ask them to stroke, pet and give verbal praise to help get your horse comfortable with them when he is not being worked on.
There are two common mistakes people make when working with a horse’s feet. First, they ask the horse to pick up his feet too high and for too long a time. Second, they rush through this part of the horse’s training. Horses are prey animals with strong flight instincts. When they give you their feet, they are giving up their ability to run, and that is asking for a lot of trust. Start by asking for the feet to be up only an inch or so off the ground and only for a few seconds. When you can do that with all four feet, ask for a few seconds longer, still keeping the hoof low. Over time you can bring the foot higher. Try not to release the foot if the horse is resisting. You want to release only when the horse is giving the hoof and is relaxed.
Once the horse is comfortable with having the feet held up higher and longer than a farrier will want, get yourself a rasp and practice moving it across the hoof wall. Run the rasp back and forth to get the horse used to the feel and sound around his feet. In order to get the horse used to the extreme limits of the experience, tap the hooves and make more noise and contact than a farrier would.
I am often also asked about bare feet versus shod feet. I have a couple of horses at the ranch whose feet are like iron. When they are ridden up and down the trail, their feet hold up just great. However, the majority of horses’ hooves, in my opinion about 75 percent, don’t hold up this well. This may be because of poor conformation of the feet due to breeding or neglect, and those horses need shoes. Bare feet are popular right now and you may want to try this if your horse is at home and not being worked. If your horse is in training or being worked, shoes are a must.
Each breed has certain hoof problems. For example, racehorses have a tendency to grow a lot of toe and have low-slung heels. A lot of Quarter horses used as halter horses in the show world are bred to have small feet. Work with your farrier to determine if your horse requires shoes.
The general rule is to have trimming done every six to eight weeks, with eight weeks being the longest a horse should go between trims. Through experience I have learned that the bigger the shoe you can put on your horse, the better. Sometimes farriers want to put on a smaller shoe because it is less likely to be pulled off. I call this cowboy shoeing. On a large ranch when a cowboy is out riding, doing ranch work with his horse, he can’t afford to have a shoe come off. I have had farriers tell me a larger shoe will not cause a hoof to grow. This is true, a larger shoe won’t cause a hoof to grow, but when the hoof grows naturally, a larger shoe will allow the hoof to expand.
It really behooves you to be well informed about hoof care. If you think your horse has hoof problems, I recommend that you check with your vet and see that the farrier does what the vet recommends. The two of them should work together as a team. If the farrier is not communicating with you about what he is seeing with the hooves and what he is doing about it, consider getting a different farrier. You are the boss; the horse belongs to you. You have invested a lot of time and money and you want your horse healthy and sound.