“No hooves, no horse!” Horses weigh between 850 and 2,200 pounds, and that weight lands squarely on their four feet. The health of the hoof is vital to the health of horses, who spend about 90% of their lives standing up. For anyone who is riding, taking care of, curious what is inside of a horse hoof and how to keep a horse healthy. Understanding the horse hooves is vital to holistic horse care.
Horse Hooves Anatomy
The hoof is comprised of outer and inner structures that work together to perform key functions that aid in keeping the horse healthy and sound from head to toe.
Horse Hooves: Inner structures
The part of the hoof that can be seen to the eye, surrounds the internal structures of the hoof. The inside of the hoof is comprised of three bones: coffin bone, navicular bone, and short pastern bone. These bones work together to aid in weight-bearing and flexibility as well as forming the optimal angle for the hoof. These bones are located at a very vulnerable external portion of the horse’s anatomy and are protected by the outer structures of the horse’s hoof.
The outermost structure of the hoof, the part visible on a standing horse, is the hoof wall. The hoof wall is made of layered keratin and provides a protective layer in order to safeguard the inner structures of the hoof. The layered keratin is important as it helps the hoof from cracking irreparably, which could compromise the internal structures and result in detrimental lameness to the horse. The hoof wall is made of an outer and inner wall that a joined by the white line.
White line integrity is key to the health of the hoof. Wellington, FL based farrier Lewis Plummer, a key resource for this article, says one key factor in hoof health is not to have an over-stretched white line, as this can compromise the weight-bearing abilities necessary of the hoof.
According to Plummer, one of the most important aspects of a healthy hoof is sole depth. “If a horse has no arch in the sole, he loses all the strength in his feet,” he says. The sole’s primary function is to protect the inner workings of the hoof, and a flat sole compromises this very necessary function. Mr. Plummer notes that the depth of the sole, or lack thereof, is due to four common factors: breeding, environment, working discipline, and care.
The frog is a triangle-shaped formation of tissue near the heel of the foot. It is the part of the hoof most young riders are very fearful to go near when learning how to pick hooves, and for good reason. The frog houses nerve endings as well as circulatory structures that help to deliver blood back up an equine’s lengthy legs. The frog also acts as a shock absorber, important to both working and non-working horses. It is an extraordinarily important function for working horses, who are bearing not only their own weight but the weight of a rider or carriage, not always on the optimal footing.
Horse Hooves Functions
The hoof’s major function is allowing a thousand pound animal to stand, walk, trot, canter, and gallop comfortably, both with and without a rider. Equines that encounter problems with even one hoof out of four, risk creating issues in other vital structures by compensating on other hooves when not able to bear weight comfortably on all four.
The hoof plays a vital role in protecting the structures, like bones and tendons, higher up in the leg. The strength of the hoof wall and the frog play key roles in absorbing shock from wreaking havoc on the delicate internal structures in the hoof and other vital bones and tendons higher up on the leg, like the suspensory ligament or deep digital flexor. Shock absorption applies to many disciplines, whether it be show jumping, western reining, or driving and is particularly important for these working horses bearing the extra weight.
The outer structures of the hoof aid in many aspects of equine well being. But most directly they serve to protect the internal structures. Also, the internal structures are difficult for humans to care for. Care for the outer structures is vitally important for the health of the entire hoof. Farrier Lewis Plummer is adamant that in order to care for the whole hoof, one must be conscientious of the environment the horse is in.
In dry climates, it is essential to condition the hoof to prevent it from breaking. In wet climates he suggests introducing a barrier. He recommends Kevin Bacon’s Hoof Oil, in order to eliminate the fungus and bacteria that like to grow in a wet climate.
He also would like to urge people to keep their horses on a strict schedule with their farrier (4-6 weeks between appointments). You may think your horse looks okay by sight. But preventative hoof care is always preferential (and much more cost effective) than reactionary hoof care.
Horse Hooves Facts
The hoof is a vital aspect of the holistic well-being of any horse or pony. “No Hoof, no Horse” is a fairly accurate adage. Internal structures of the horse are a vital part of its conformation and soundness. Also, they are fiercely protected by the outer structures of the hoof. Equine caretakers should take note of the environment their horse is kept in. Also, they take the following steps to ensure the health of their horses’ feet:
- In dry environments, use a hoof conditioner like Farnam Horseshoer’s Secret to prevent cracking
- In wet climates, use a barrier like Kevin Bacon’s Hoof Oil, to prevent overstretching, fungi, and bacteria
- For horses with weak soles, a paste of iodine and sugar can be applied to help strengthen the sole
- Always keep your horse to a strict schedule with their farrier
Happy, healthy hooves lead to a happy, healthy horse!