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Does my horse have healthy hooves?

The hooves are literally the foundation of your horse - but how good are they really?

We do know a little bit, right? The hooves must be good, they must be healthy and strong to carry a healthy and strong horse. Because the horses walk on them all day long and the hooves also determine the quality of the movements and thus the performance.

But how much the hooves affect the body is often underestimated.

And also what healthy hooves actually look like.

Whether you ride dressage or western, your horse has iron shoes or is already in the meadow with his pension. There are basic conditions and requirements that the hoof must meet in order to function properly.

Let's look at these conditions together.

Myths en fables
Common problems


The healthy hoof vs the unhealthy hoof

What does a healthy hoof look like? Unfortunately, they are less common than I would like. In practice we come across too many 'bad hooves' and the examples in the media are not a model that you actually want to aspire to.

Worse, in some disciplines, deformed hooves are wanted and promoted. This comes at the expense of the horse's long-term health - but brings short-term performance.

The decision to use irons is also taken too often in my opinion. It is an old-fashioned practice, appropriate to the requirements of the gone time. Nowadays, the conditions of horses have improved so much and hoof care and knowledge have grown and we can also let sport horses perform without irons for a lifetime. Because irons - whatever you think of them - are a strain on the hoof wall.

Irons can be a means of repairing, improving or preventing something in the short term - but they are not intended as standard maintenance for your horse's hooves.

If something goes wrong with the hooves, we now first look at housing and nutrition, before we plan invasive procedures in the hoof wall (and we have invented hoof boots, a fantastic non-invasive alternative!)

But more on that later.

A healthy hoof has straight lines and steep angles. The basic rules for a healthy hoof are:

  1. A straight coronet line (without waves or bulges) that extends approximately at an angle of 20º from the ground.

  2. A low heel (about 2.5 to 3.8 cm) and short toe (about 7.5 to 8.8 cm)

  3. A straight line from the pasterns to the ground (not broken from the coronary band)

  4. Straight vertical lines from coronary to ground (tubules)

  5. Straight horizontal lines around the hoof wall (growth rings)

  6. No flares on the toe or quarters

  7. A well-shaped and filled frog

  8. Round, smooth, even heel bulbs

  9. A flat central sulcus

  10. A round, even and solid white line

The unhealthy hoof, on the other hand, has crooked lines, deviated and different angles, long toes or heels, flares, cracking or chipping walls, waves in the growth rings or coronet, pudding-like frog, deep central grooves, a disturbed white line and collapsed frog and heel bulbs.

The problems of unhealthy hooves are unfortunately common problems and we will discuss them below - after the myths and fables.

Because some problems are not considered a problem and are therefore difficult to discuss in the horse world. Fortunately, in most cases, these can be remedied quickly if proper and regular care is arranged for the hooves. You can also read about this below in 'hoof care'.

Case study:

Soleados hooves

When I bought Soelado, I was already able to determine that his hooves are not yet in order. But also that this can still be repaired. Here you can see a photo of the beginning. See for yourself where you think you see problems and what the good qualities of his hooves are.

Plus point: straight line from pastern to ground, the hoof walls seem quite strong, the sole is thick enough and the cushions are well formed (no collapsed heel)

Minus points: Way too long heels and toe, a curved coronet and growth rings, under the hind hooves you saw too deep central grooves and a pudding frog.

What we could improve in the first weeks:

Lower heels and a shorter toe, a straighter coronet (pressure away from the quarters) and most importantly: we finally got under 2 layers of old frog to treat the thrush in the deep central sulcus.

Thrush is unfortunately common and persistent.

We'll talk about this in 'common problems'.

Myths and fables

Most problems arise because there is simply too little or too large intervals of trimming. It is therefore assumed that the next trimming is only necessary when the hooves are already too long and it is clearly visible. But then it is usually too late again - because the hoof cannot function optimally if it is too long. Unfortunately, even the farriers recommend an 8-12 week interval. This can only work well in some cases: if the hoof grows extremely slowly and the horse lives in a dry climate and with a lot of exercise. The reality for Dutch horses is different.

We have a wet climate here, the ground is soft and the horses don't move much on average (compared to the 40-60 km a horse travels during the day in the wild) but they do get the full portion of concentrated feed or hay with a high content of proteins and sugars.

Hooves grow around 1 cm per month and are not naturally trimmed here by the soil or movement. Every inch too much disrupts the optimal functioning of the hooves and puts a strain on the ligaments and joints. An interval of 8-12 weeks therefore means 2-3 cm too long toes for a long period. It is best if the hoof is filed every 4 weeks, but a trimming interval of 6 weeks is realistic for most people.

In addition, irons are also introduced too quickly. As I said, in our reality our horses' hooves don't trim on their own. Even if you have a sport horse and ride a lot, this is not the case, because we ride on soft sand or grass and not for hours on asphalt and gravel. Why some horses are sensitive to walking usually has other causes and could therefore also be tackled differently than loading the hoof wall with irons. Irons are the quick solution to an underlying problem such as a too thin sole or too weak hoof wall. This does not solve the problem, only the symptom and you also end up in a vicious circle.

Fortunately, you see more and more horses in high sports performing without irons and the mindset of owners, riders and also farriers is slowly changing. And for a temporary solution for sensitive walking and for the recovery of the hooves, there are now very good hoof boots available in all shapes and colors - so also for every purpose.

Small ponies and retired horses also need healthy hooves. Because it is not only about appearance and performance, but also about the general health of the animal. The hooves are closely linked to the metabolism and processing system of the heart and intestines. Toxins, residues in the body and oxygen are partly sent through the hooves and their pumping movement. So what a horse ingests in terms of feed and minerals also goes through this complex system and will also show itself here. We know this connection between sugar and laminitis. It is precisely then that optimal care and functioning of the hoof is of great importance.

A fat pony with insulin resistance that gets too long toes will quickly get into trouble.

A long toe increases the risk that the white line becomes too wide and the lamellae in the hoof separate from the hoof wall, resulting in painful laminitis.

And, a deep central sulcus is not normal but really thrush. Read on to find out why we call deep grooves thrush.

Hoof health is horse health.

As owners, we have a responsibility to know as much about hooves as we know about horse behavior, training or dressage figures.

You must be able to recognize a healthy and unhealthy hoof and know what to do about it. Don't save on the trimmer and learn as much as you can yourself. The information is available everywhere.

Long toes, large flares, high heels, cracks and chipping, sourness and a sensitive gait are not typical of any breed or individual horse - but a symptom of deeper problems and lack of hoof care. Don't just take it "he just has long toes" - do something about it.

Common problems

We've already addressed most of the issues and I'll go into a little more detail here.

Long toes and heels are a mechanical problem that can be overcome with the right trim for the right angles and lines. Only then can the hoof work optimally.

If the hoof does not work optimally, you can also encounter these problems:

  1. A widened white line is often caused by a hoof wall that is too long. If the hoof wall 'sticks out' above the sole, the weight of the horse (and rider) is completely on the hoof wall. That is not natures intention and causes an enormous load on the hoof wall, causing it to flare out'. The laminae cannot become wider and sooner or later they detach from the wall. Then we speak of a mechanical laminitis. But even before that, the wide white line is susceptible to injury and the ingress of bacteria. This creates the white line disease, a persistent bacterial infection between the hoof wall and hoof capsule that can progress very deep into the hoof and cause a lot of pain.

  2. Heel pain, if the horse no longer hits the ground heel-first and can go lame from it. Heel pain can have several causes. This is because the heel is the most 'living' part of the hoof and must function optimally for shock absorption of the entire body. This is where most of the forces of the impact come together. If something goes wrong here, it will quickly become extremely painful for the horse. Nature has therefore devised the frog and the cushions to optimally dampen the shocks. They should be 'well filled', lively and round. The frog must always be able to touch the ground to do its job. If he cannot do this, for example due to too long heels, deep-lying problems arise. The heels then begin to 'squeeze' the frog and cushion and get very narrow. The frog and heel can also collapse completely, because it can no longer be supplied with nutrients by the pumping movement. This often goes hand in hand with thrush, a problem that many underestimate. Thrush is a bacterial infection in the central groove that can eat deep into the hoof. These bacteria like the moist, dark climate in the deep grooves. What many do not know is that there really shouldn't be a deep groove at all. A healthy groove is flat, like a small dent, and not a deep crevice. Does the heel have a 'butt crack', it also has thrush in it and this should be treated accordingly. Another cause of heel pain can also lie deeper in the joints and ligaments. But here, too, the problems arise due to the frog and heel cushions not working optimally. Too much shock and pressure on the heel can inflame the deep flexor tendon or the navicular bone, wear out the cartilage, create extra fluid or loosen tiny bone chips. We call all these problems 'palmar heel pain' because it is quite difficult to pinpoint exactly where the pain and the problem is. Fortunately, most problems can be recovered, only the real navicular bone disease, a bone disorder, are still difficult to treat but fortunately also do not occur as often as thought, thanks to new methods to determine the real cause of heel pain.

  3. A toe that is too long in combination with low heels (or underrun heels). The combination of long toe and short heel disrupts the movement mechanism of the hoof and leg and puts enormous strain on the surrounding weights and ligaments (which can also end in heel pain, see navicular disease). If we look at the movement of the hooves in slow motion, we can see that there comes a moment where the toe rolls off the ground. The longer the toe is, the longer it takes for the hoof to completely lift off the ground and for the 'break over' to take place. So it is also clear to see that the leg has to put in more effort to reach the breakover - meaning more stress on bones, joints and ligaments. To avoid tendon injuries or worse, it is therefore in everyone's interest to keep the toe short and to file a rounding in the toe to support this mechanism.

Of course there are dozens of problems and diseases that can arise in or through the hooves, and there is also much more to say about the problems mentioned.

This will only be a broad overview for the most common and daily problems that you as an owner can encounter without mentioning extreme examples (I would have to write a separate article for that).

Case Study:

Soleados hooves and thrush

As described above, Soldado had so overgrown and neglected hooves that his frog was folded double on top. I couldn't even recognise that there were also deep central grooves. This was after the first trim left and right front:

Like this, the frog and bulbs appear well-shaped and have a soft groove. But the left side of the frog is not the left side of the frog at all....

Due to the correct trim, more life came back in the frog and in the heel and the frog started to let go of old material itself and eventually this appeared:

You can clearly see on both hind and front hooves how the groove extends all the way to the heel. This really shouldn't be and can cause major problems! You also see holes and flaps - there are bacteria underneath that eat into the frog. It's time to treat the hoof against thrush.

On the right photos, the front hooves, you can also see that the central groove is not even central - it is shifted to the left on both sides. That means the frog has collapsed on this side. It does not bear the full weight and no longer supports the heel and that will have consequences on the joints and tendons. Why this has happened can have several causes and also has to do with balance. Therefore, proper training is also important for recovery and maintenance, as well as nutrition and housing.

Hoof care

We assume that our horses have reasonably healthy hooves or only small to medium problems, which we can solve ourselves (and with the help of a good trimmer). What can we do to take good care of the hooves of our horses?

As with many things, we must remember that the body is a complex system.

Health therefore starts with diet and exercise.

A horse should at all times have access to quality forage, such as dry hay with a low sugar content. A malfunction due to poor feed, too much starch and sugar or too long eating breaks have a negative effect on the body and also on the quality of the hooves.

A horse must be able to move freely at all times. A stable of 4x4 meters is not free. The movement of a slow step is necessary for the operation of the pumping mechanism in the hooves. Standing still for too long shuts down the supply of minerals and oxygen to the hooves and hinders the blood flow (against gravity, towards the heart). Liquids and waste materials also literally get stuck and we can see this for example as stable legs.

A horse must be able to stand partially dry and clean so that the dirt can fall out of the hooves and not settle in the grooves - which would be a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.

A horse must also be able to walk on hard and varied ground. Just standing in the wet meadow also deteriorates the pump mechanism - because not enough resistance can be built up.

Varied soil such as sand, gravel, grass, but also part pavement help to strengthen the hooves and naturally wear them down.

The hooves should be regularly maintained and cleaned. Hoof care belongs to owning a horse, just like brushing, saddling and riding.

By the way, remedies and oils to smear on the outside of the hoof wall are not care. It is precisely oil that stops the hoof wall from absorbing moisture and ultimately makes the hooves drier. It is therefore not a prevention of cracks, but rather a promotion. Cracks are in most cases also a symptom of a disturbed balance in the hoof wall (for example due to too long quarters) and can therefore only be remedied by good trimming.

It is best to feed minerals for the hooves in the form of a balancer - but only if you really know you need them.

Do you have a horse that unfortunately seems to have more serious problems with its hooves?

Then make sure you read and educate yourself in hoof care and trimming.

I can wholeheartedly recommend the book "The essential hoof book", here you will find all the basic knowledge you need with its own chapters about the most common diseases and problems.

Do you have any questions about something specific or do you want someone to take a look?

Then don't hesitate to get in touch!

Would you like to know more about Soleados hoof repair? Then follow me on Social Media!

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