Last Updated on March 10, 2023
How do wild horses trim their hooves? Our domesticated horses need a farrier trim regularly, so what do wild horses do? Well, it’s simpler than you’d think!
As any horse owner will tell you, horses are sensitive creatures requiring lots of hands-on care. But with wild and feral horses such as the BLM Mustangs gaining more media presence, many people wonder about equine maintenance in the wild. How do wild horses trim their hooves, and are overgrown wild horse hooves a problem? Let’s find out!
Horse Hoof Facts Explained
The hooves of a horse are thick coverings offering protection at the end of the leg and shock absorbency. They encapsulate the last two bones in the horse’s limbs, the pedal bone and coffin bone.
The hooves of a horse are often compared to human fingernails or toenails, but evolution has led to these two structures turning out very differently. While both contain keratin, the hooves of a horse are much tougher and can withstand considerable wear and tear.
Like our fingernails and toenails, hoof tissue continually grows, albeit at a very slow rate. Hoof growth is generated from the coronary band at the top of the hoof, slowly moving downwards as new hoof tissue grows above it. It can take up to 12 months for hoof tissue to move from the top to the bottom of the hoof.
A horse’s hooves are one of the most vital parts of its anatomy – weak hooves or hoof problems can be so severe that they are often life-threatening. Hence our reliance on and appreciation for a good farrier, and the famous saying “No hoof, no horse!”
Read more about Best Hoof Supplements For Horses
Why Do Horses Need Their Hooves Trimming?
For many reasons, domesticated horses have very different foot care needs to wild horses. One of these reasons is that selective breeding has led to changes in the hoof shape of horses, some of them not for the better.
In the wild, it is survival of the fittest – horses prone to hoof issues or improper growth will not survive. Horses are prey animals, and they need to be able to run, escape, and stay on their feet for extended periods for grazing. Survival of the fittest means horses with hoof issues are naturally culled as they will not be able to keep up with the herd. Only animals with strong characteristics that enable survival will go on to reproduce.
When we remove horses from the wild and control the breeding, we are choosing what traits and features get passed down depending on our requirements. Someone may have a horse with persistent hoof problems that are managed with corrective shoeing. Later on in life, at the end of its competitive career, this horse might be used for breeding.
So, we are breeding from horses that may not otherwise survive in the wild, passing on genetic traits that can lead to hoof problems. This means we need to provide regular hoof care to keep our horses sound and free from lameness.
Horses in captivity
The other problem with domesticated horses’ hooves is the way we care for and manage our horses. Horses by nature are not intended to be kept in stalls, turnouts, or even pastures. This goes against their very nature and can affect how well their hooves grow.
In the wild, a horse will travel on average 10-20 miles per day, just to meet food and water requirements! Slow, regular movement helps to maintain the blood supply to the hooves, resulting in strong hoof growth.
When human interference results in horses in captivity, problems arise that would not ordinarily exist. Cribbing, weaving, and other neurotic behaviors are a result of captivity and lack of stimulation.
Many questions are also asked about a wild horse’s ability to tolerate the cold. Again, in nature, horses can move freely. This means they can search out cover and wind blocks in nasty weather conditions. However, a horse in a pasture may not have shelter or even trees. Therefore, the owners may choose to blanket the horse in more severe weather. We remove their options for self-care when in captivity.
How Do Wild Horses Trim Their Hooves?
As cute as it would be to imagine wild horses visiting an equine nail bar, the answer is far simpler than this!
Wild horses do not need their hooves trimmed. With the extensive traveling wild horses do, combined with various terrains in their travels, hooves are naturally ground down to a suitable length. They may not look as neat or as smart as a hoof that has been trimmed by a farrier, but they are robust, hard-wearing, and will carry the horse for many miles each day with ease.
In contrast, our domesticated horses stand in stalls on soft bedding and get turned out onto lush grass pasture. This will barely wear down hooves at all, and they will quickly become overgrown if not trimmed by a farrier.
How do horses keep their hooves trimmed in the wild?
In the wild, horses are not confined and will travel for many miles every day in search of food, water, and shelter. This means they need tough, robust hooves, and the constant movement will wear them down accordingly.
The hooves of a wild horse will be worn down at the same rate at which they grow out, however, this may not always be that neat. It is not uncommon to see wild horses with chipped or cracked hooves, particularly those that have traveled over rough terrain. In addition to their daily wandering, wild horses frequently run to escape predators – the life of a prey animal!
Why don’t wild horses need shoes?
In domesticated horses, there are two reasons why we might put shoes on them – to reduce excessive wear and tear to the hoof, and to correct any foot problems such as an imbalance or cracked hooves. So, why don’t wild horses need shoes?
Well, the first reason is that wild horses travel over very different terrain to the sort of tracks we ride our horses on. Some surfaces, such as tarmac, will quickly wear down a horse’s hooves to the point that it becomes footsore and needs shoes. In the wild, horses can pick and choose their routes, helping them to avoid hard, abrasive surfaces.
Secondly, wild horses have not been subjected to the same selective breeding as domesticated horses, and their hooves tend to be naturally balanced with good conformation. This means they are unlikely to suffer from hoof problems that require corrective shoeings, such as collapsed heels, navicular syndrome, or poor hoof balance. If a horse in the wild had these issues, it would soon succumb to an attack from a predator, and would not survive long enough to breed.
How Do Horses in The Wild Maintain Their Hooves?
If you’ve ever cared for a horse, you will know that daily hoof care is the number one most important job on your list. The hooves need to be picked out and checked for stones daily, and your horse may need to see a farrier every 4-6 weeks for trimming or reshoeing.
Pasture-kept horses may be trapped in flooded or muddy pastures after rains, with no other turnout options. This moisture can wreak havoc on hooves, and invite bacterial and fungal infections such as thrush or hoof abscesses.
So, what happens in the wild? Horses in nature are free to move to whatever location they wish, meaning they will not be forced to stand in moist or wet environments. Wild horses always can move to higher ground, and will never be trapped in a stall that may be uncleaned or covered in urine-soaked shavings.
In nature, horses are not hauling heavy loads, made to ride on hard roads or cement, and do not suffer unnatural workloads brought on by human riding/working. Therefore, wild horses do not need shoes. Weak hooves, imbalances, or other issues that would require shoeing for the correct function would typically result in a horse being unable to keep up with the herd, and these horses are unlikely to successfully become part of a breeding herd.
Closing Thoughts – Wild Horse Hooves
As horse owners, it’s hard to imagine a “low maintenance” horse of any kind! But realistically, most of our responsibilities as horse owners come from putting these animals in captivity. This is why regular farrier visits and enrichment are so important to the modern domesticated horse.
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Equestrian, Marine Corps vet, and Morgan horse enthusiast.