A strong hoof is the foundation of a sound horse. When it comes to proper hoof care, it’s all about balance.

All horses need regular farrier care, and working with an experienced farrier is one of the best investments you can make in your horse’s soundness.

Maintaining correct hoof balance with regular trimming and shoeing by a qualified farrier prevents overloading structures in the limb and allows the hoof to function optimally.

A collaborative approach between your veterinarian, your equine nutritionist, and your farrier is the best way to optimize your horse’s hoof health.

This article will review everything horse owners need to know about proper farrier care for horses. We will also discuss how hoof balance, trimming, and shoeing influence your horse’s health and performance, as well as discuss the recent trend toward barefoot trimming.

Farrier Care for Horses

Farriers are highly skilled hoof care professionals who trim and balance hoofs and shoe horses.

These specialists can help identify, prevent and manage hoof health problems to protect your horse from lameness, joint issues and injuries.

Hoof Anatomy

Hooves are complex structures designed for optimal weight bearing and mobility. Healthy hooves expand to absorb shock and evenly distribute weight when they hit the ground. [1]

External hoof structures provide traction while protecting the sensitive internal soft tissues and bones. [2] These structures comprise the hoof capsule and include the hoof wall, sole, and frog.

The hoof wall is the hard, outermost layer of the hoof. When a horse’s foot is lifted, a white line is visible between the hoof wall and the sole. The frog is the triangular structure of elastic tissue pointing forward from the heels on the bottom of the hoof.

A robust and well-functioning hoof is critical for overall soundness and comfort.  While horses in the wild naturally wear their hooves down on rough terrain, domestic horses need farrier care to maintain their feet since hooves constantly grow, just like human fingernails.

Hoof Balance

Biomechanical efficiency is the guiding principle of all farrier care. Trimming and shoeing influence how the horse’s feet land and push off the ground in each stride. Horses need balanced hooves to ensure they move efficiently and don’t overstress specific structures.

Balanced hooves land slightly heel first or flat, with the lateral portions of the hoof wall meeting the ground in unison. Hooves should also leave the ground heel first and have minimal break over resistance. [11]

The break over point is the last point of the foot to leave the ground. Optimal break over occurs at or near the toe. Long toes stress the internal structures of the lower limb by acting like levers and delaying break over. [12]

Hoof Angles

Ideally, the front hoof wall angle should mirror the coffin bone angle. This angle is generally around 55 degrees relative to the ground. It can vary significantly between horses though, and x-rays are the only definitive way to measure it. [13]

Traditionally, these hoof angles should also match the pastern for optimal alignment. But matching these angles perfectly can come at the cost of removing too much wall or sole, which can damage hoof integrity. [14]

Center of Balance

Determining the central balance point can also help farriers determine how to shape the hoof for optimal balance. This point sits directly below the center of the coffin joint and corresponds to the broadest part of the sole.

Farriers aim to trim the hoof so that the distance from the central balance point to the toe is the same as the distance to the heels. [15]

Medial-Lateral Balance

Correct trimming also accounts for the proper side-to-side balance of the hoof wall. Good medial-lateral balance ensures an even distribution of weight across the internal structures of the horse’s hoof.

Most horses don’t have perfect conformation, so both sides of the hoof might not be equal in height. A balanced trim allows both sides to reach the ground simultaneously during movement. [11]

Identifying Balance Problems

Minor balance problems can distort the hoof capsule over time. Horse owners can identify these problems by examining their horse’s hooves. Flares at the toe or sides and vertical cracks at the toe or quarters indicate excess pressure on those areas. [16]

Both heels should be the same height. If one heel takes more weight, it gets pushed up, resulting in sheared heels. Underrun heels collapse forward due to low-heel, long-toe imbalance. If your horse puts excess weight on his toes, the heels will contract.

Heel abnormalities may also be a sign of navicular syndrome. [17]

A healthy hoof has a symmetrical sole and a plump frog. An asymmetrical, narrow frog with a deep fissure is another sign of imbalance. Thrush can occur in this fissure. [16]

Hoof growth rings should be parallel to the coronary band and evenly spaced. Prominent growth rings often appear after dietary changes. But asymmetrical or compact hoof rings can indicate slowed growth due to uneven weight bearing. [16]

Balance Radiographs

Balance radiographs are the best way to evaluate hoof balance accurately and compare the angles of the coffin, hoof wall, and pastern.

These x-rays can also measure sole depth to help your farrier and veterinarian determine the best trimming and shoeing strategy for your horse. [18]

Many veterinarians recommend taking balance radiographs every six months to catch problems before they cause visible hoof distortions or injuries.

Trimming

Trimming preserves the integrity of the hoof’s structure by re-shaping the hoof and removing excess growth. Overgrown, unbalanced feet predispose the horse to injury by placing abnormal stresses on the internal structures. [3]

The hoof wall can chip or crack if the hoof grows too long. An elongated toe can also weaken the white line and increase the risk of bruising and hoof abscesses. Untrimmed feet may also develop flares as the hoof wall begins to separate. [2]

Your farrier will assess your horse’s conformation and hoof angle before trimming to maintain proper alignment. Farriers use hoof knives, nippers, and rasps to trim the hoof down to an ideal length.

The external structures of the hoof don’t have nerves or blood vessels, so correct trimming doesn’t hurt the horse.  Excessive trimming though, can be painful and cause complications, so leave it to an experienced professional farrier that you trust.

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Shoeing Horses

Shoeing provides additional protection and traction for the hooves. Historians believe men invented metal horseshoes to prevent working horses from becoming footsore while carrying heavy loads or travelling long distances. [4]

Today, wet environmental conditions and modern horse management practices that weaken hooves increase the need for shoes.

Increased time spent confined in stalls reduces hoof growth quality due to decreased circulation, while regular physical activity including carrying a rider subjects the horse’s feet to greater stress. [5] Performance horses wear shoes to protect the hoof wall from this excess wear.

Advances in shoeing now allow skilled farriers to use shoes to help correct conformational problems, assist injury rehabilitation, and even improve performance. Farriers may use different materials, uniquely shaped shoes, or hoof pads to accomplish specific goals.

Not all horse owners choose to shoe their horses. There is a growing trend towards keeping horses barefoot, which you can learn more about in our article on Barefoot Trimming for Horses: Benefits for the Hoof.

Horse Shoe Materials

Steel and aluminum are the most common materials used for horseshoes.

Forged steel iron shoes are the traditional option by most farriers for horses without advanced shoeing needs. Aluminum horseshoes are lighter-weight and often used for race horses.

Recent research evaluating alternative horseshoe materials, such as fibreglass composites, suggests that these shoes can reduce loading stress on the horse’s leg. Reduced loading stress could benefit horses wearing composite shoes during injury rehabilitation. [6]

Shoe Shape and Placement

Shoes are shaped to support the entire hoof wall and fit the horse’s trimmed hoof. An ideal fit sits the toe of the shoe directly below the front of the hoof wall.

The shoe should then widen slightly beyond the wall, following the contour of the hoof toward the heel.

This fit allows space for the heels to expand and the hoof to grow. A wider shoe may benefit horses with weaker hoof walls or low heels. [7]

Shoe design and placement can also improve biomechanics to support different goals. For example, shoes with a rocker or rolled toe can move the breakover point back when it’s impossible to trim hooves to an ideal balance. [8]

Corrective and therapeutic shoe designs address specific issues to optimize hoof balance, pressure distribution, and break over. Popular corrective shoes include:

  • Bar shoes
  • Collateral shoes
  • Suspensory shoes
  • Onion shoes

Hoof Pads

Farriers can also add pads to shoes to help address hoof problems.

Pads protect, cover, support, or elevate structures on the bottom of the hoof. They can also spread load bearing away from the hoof wall to the sole and frog.

There are many different types of pads with unique purposes. Common types of hoof pads used by farriers include:

  • Rim pads
  • Pour-in pads
  • Leather pads
  • Frog support pads
  • Wedge pads

For example, wedge pads can raise hoof angles to correct poor conformation or assist injury recovery. Leather and pour-in pads can aid shock absorption and protect the sole from bruising. [9]

Nails vs. Glue-on Shoes

Most horses do well in traditional nailed-on shoes. Farriers place nails in the hoof wall no farther back than the hoof’s widest point. Correctly set nails are smoothly cinched in a line parallel to the ground and should not cause any pain.

Direct glue-on shoes use a unique epoxy adhesive to secure the shoe rather than using nails. These shoes reduce pressure on the lamina.

Horses with brittle walls, thin soles, or painful conditions such as laminitis may benefit from glue-on shoes. [10]

Soreness After Shoeing or Trimming

No matter what type of shoes your horse wears, contact your farrier immediately if your horse is sore after shoeing.

Your horse could have a hot nail, which the farrier can pull. Horses can also feel sore temporarily if the farrier trims a significant amount of foot.

Packing the foot can help reduce inflammation. However, if your horse is routinely sore after shoeing or trimming, call your veterinarian.

How to Prevent Pulled Shoes

Correctly applied shoes won’t fall off healthy hooves on their own. But it only takes one unlucky step to pull off a shoe. Some horses are more likely to overstep and pull front shoes due to short back conformation and a long stride.

Bell boots can help protect the back of the feet and reduce pulled shoes. Controlled turnout and dry footing also increase the likelihood of keeping shoes on.

The best way to prevent pulled shoes is to keep your horse on an appropriate trimming and shoeing schedule to ensure that the shoes don’t become too loose. Loose shoes and nails can damage the hoof wall or sensitive areas if they don’t come off completely.

If your horse does manage to lose a shoe, you should pack and wrap the foot immediately to minimize damage to the foot until the farrier can tack it back on.

Trimming and Shoeing Intervals

Most farriers recommend scheduling trimming or shoeing appointments every four to six weeks. Research supports these recommendations and suggests intervals longer than six weeks may increase the risk of injury. [20]

Some horse owners maintain their horses’ feet on a six to eight-week schedule, but recent studies have connected an eight-week interval with significant changes in hoof balance. [19]

One study found that eight-week intervals led to increased coffin joint extension and loading of the deep digital flexor tendon. [19]

There are still observable changes in hoof balance in horses at four to six-week intervals. But research shows that this interval promotes a consistent hoof pastern axis, which helps prevent soft tissue injuries caused by excessive loading. [20]

Still, every horse is different. Your horse’s hooves grow at different rates throughout the year, depending on exercise, season, footing, and climate.

Retired horses may do fine on longer intervals, while performance horses with conformation problems may need a strict four-week schedule. Talk to your farrier to determine the best program for your horse.

Does My Horse Need Shoes?

Not all horses need shoes. Whether or not your horse needs shoes depends on his conformation, workload, environment, and medical conditions.

Hard ground can cause bruising or soreness, and shoes can help keep horses comfortable on rough terrain. Performance horses with heavier workloads that experience increased foot concussion can also benefit from the extra support of shoes.

For some leisure horses with naturally strong feet, the hoof provides all the support a horse needs.

Horses barefoot for a prolonged period can build up natural protection from a thickened sole. Barefoot hooves also develop a natural concavity that provides traction when packed with dirt. [21]

But remaining barefoot might not be appropriate for horses with weakened hooves, conformational defects, or medical conditions. Shoes can alleviate stress on compromised structures and help counteract physical defects that cause the hoof to wear unevenly. [7]

Some research suggests barefoot trimming can help treat underrun heels and optimize coffin bone angle. [21]

Many studies have observed considerable morphological and functional differences between barefoot and shod hooves. One study found that barefoot horses had wider heels, larger frogs, and steeper heel angles than shod horses. [22]

Consult your farrier and veterinarian to determine which option is best for your horse.

The Horse Owner’s Responsibility

Optimal hoof health requires a team approach between the owner, farrier, veterinarian, and equine nutritionist. Owners can support healthy hooves between farrier visits by picking them daily and inspecting feet for common hoof problems.

Moisture management to prevent mud formation, regular exercise, and proper nutrition can also support hoof growth and integrity.

Nutrition for Hoof Health

A balanced diet provides the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals your horse needs to build strong hooves. Read more about feeding for hoof growth here.

Horses with hoof problems should be fed a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement that provides 20 mg of biotin per day. This B-vitamin supports the production of keratin, the primary structural protein in the hoof.

Research has shown that horses supplemented with 20mg of biotin daily had less sensitive soles and faster hoof growth. [23] You can learn more about the research behind biotin in our article, 7 Science-Backed Benefits of Biotin for Horses.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a complete vitamin and mineral supplement that provides all of the key nutrients required by the horse to grow strong, robust hooves.

Formulated with enhanced vitamin levels, organic trace minerals, 20 mg of biotin, yeast and digestive enzymes, Omneity is an all-in-one supplement to balance the diet and support your horse’s health from the inside out.

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Summary

  • The hoof capsule is a complex structure designed to support the weight of the horse’s body and protect internal tissues.
  • Optimal hoof balance ensures efficient weight distribution, shock absorption, and biomechanics.
  • The hoof wall continuously grows and requires regular trimming by a qualified farrier to maintain balance.
  • Shoes provide extra support and protection for working horses, but not all horses need them.
  • A frequent trimming schedule and collaborative approach between the owner, farrier, and veterinarian are essential for hoof health.

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References

  1. Dyhre-Pulsen, P. et al. Equine Hoof function investigated by pressure transducers inside the hoof and accelerometers mounted on the first phalanx. Equine Vet J. 1994. View Summary
  2. Pollitt, C. Anatomy and physiology of the inner hoof wall. Clin Tech Equine Pract. 2004.
  3. Van Heel, M. et al. Dynamic pressure measurements for the detailed study of hoof balance: the effect of trimming. Equine Vet J. 2010. View Summary
  4. Karle, A. et al. Horseshoeing: An Overview. Veterinary World. 2010.
  5. Faramarzi, B. et al. Changes in growth of the hoof wall and hoof morphology in response to regular periods of trotting exercise in Standardbreds. Am J Vet Res. 2009. View Summary
  6. Siregar, R. et al. Static simulation to horse shoes alternative materials based basic polymeric foam reinforced fiberglass with ANSYS software. J Phys Conf. 2018.
  7. Huppert, M. et al. Modifying the Surface of Horseshoes: Effects of Eggbar, Heartbar, Open Toe, and Wide Toe Shoes on the Phalangeal Alignment, Pressure Distribution, and the Footing Pattern. J Equine Vet Sci. 2016.
  8. Van Heel, M. et al. Shoeing sound Warmblood horses with a rolled toe optimizes hoof-unrollment and lowers peak loading during breakover. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  9. Clayton, H. et al. Effects of a Heel Wedges in Horses with Superficial Digital Flexor Tendinitis. Vet Comp Orthopaed Traumat. 2000.
  10. Cheramie, H. et al. Hoof repair and glue-on shoe adhesive technology. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2003.
  11. Oosterlink, M. et al. Pressure plate analysis of toe–heel and medio-lateral hoof balance at the walk and trot in sound sport horses. The Vet J. 2013.View Summary
  12. Page, B. et al. Breakover of the hoof and its effect on structures and forces within the foot. J Equine Vet Sci. 2002.
  13. Dyson, S. et al. An investigation of the relationships between angles and shapes of the hoof capsule and the distal phalanx. Equine Vet J. 2011. View Summary
  14. Rooney, J. The angulation of the forefoot and pastern of the horse. J Equine Vet Sci. 1984.
  15. Hagen, J. et al. The F-Balance – A novel concept of hoof trimming. Pferdeheilkunde. 2012.
  16. Redden, R. Hoof capsule distortion: understanding the mechanisms as a basis for rational management. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2003.
  17. Pool, R. et al. Pathophysiology of Navicular Syndrome. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 1989. View Summary
  18. Tachhio, G. et al. A radiographic technique to assess the longitudinal balance in front hooves. Equine Vet J. 2010. View Summary
  19. Moleman, M. et al. Hoof growth between two shoeing sessions leads to a substantial increase in the moment about the distal, but not the proximal, interphalangeal joint. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  20. Lesniak, K. et al. Does a 4–6 Week Shoeing Interval Promote Optimal Foot Balance in the Working Equine? Appl Ethol Welf Anim. 2017.
  21. Clayton, H. et al. Effects of barefoot trimming on hoof morphology. Austral Vet J. 2011. View Summary
  22. De Klerk, N. Difference in hoof conformation between shod and barefoot-managed hooves. bioRxiv. 2021.
  23. Josseck, H. et al. Hoof horn abnormalities in Lipizzaner horses and the effect of dietary on macroscopic aspects of hoof horn quality. Equine Vet J. 1995.View Summary