Two of a horse's hoofs in snow - The horse's hoof

No Hoof, No Horse

There’s a well-known saying that states, “no hoof, no horse.”

As a horse owner or caregiver, being familiar with the horse’s hoof and what’s considered healthy is important. If a horse has unhealthy feet, it may not be possible for the horse to be ridden. The horse may also end up in pain.

When you consider a horse’s feet, it’s worth looking at them in pairs. Each horse carries around two-thirds of its body weight on its front feet.  This may help to explain why the front feet are rounder in shape than the hind feet, while the two hind feet have a more oval shape to them. That being said, both front feet should look the same and both hind feet should look the same as well.

Parts of the Horse’s Hoof

There are many parts to the horse’s hoof, and knowing where they are, what they’re called and how they function can help you more quickly identify issues. This knowledge may also help you out when you’re talking to a vet or farrier, or any other equine health care professional.

The parts of the hoof include:

  • the hoof wall
  • the toe
  • the white line
  • the sole
  • the bars
  • the frog
  • the heel

The outer part of the horse’s hoof is known as the hoof wall. This is a hard keratin surface that’s consistently growing, and It grows from the coronet (or coronary) band of the horse’s foot. The hoof wall is what’s trimmed back by a farrier, though they may also remove some of the sole and the frog.

The toe area of the hoof makes up the first third of the horse’s hoof. When a horse is resting their weight on the toe of the hoof, rather than on the whole foot, this can indicate an issue. A horse that needs a trim from a farrier may be referred to as “long in the toe.”

When you view the underside of the horse’s hoof and it’s free of dirt and stones, you should be able to see the white line. This is the point where the insensitive part of the horse’s hoof (hoof wall) and the sensitive structures meet. If there’s an infection here, a separation or even a stone lodged into the white line, this can cause the horse pain that will result in lameness.

The sole of the horse’s hoof is the main structure you can see when you lift up the hoof and look at it, and it’s a smooth area that’s generally concave in shape. If it appears to be more convex in shape, the horse may be walking on its sole rather than the hoof wall, and this can cause it to move unevenly.

There are two bars that are found on the underside of the horse’s hoof. They start at the heel of the hoof and run in diagonal lines on either side of the frog. Often, dirt and stones can accumulate between the bars and the frog, in a small indentation. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that this area is free of debris. If not, infections or even bruising can occur.

The frog is the triangular-shaped cushion that’s found in the middle of the horse’s hoof, towards the heel. It’s important that the frog is able to touch the ground when the horse stands and moves, as it acts as a shock absorber and aids with circulation. As the horse puts pressure on the frog, circulation is sent back up the horse’s leg.

An infection known as thrush can form around the frog when the hoof is left wet and muddy. Bacteria like moist, dark areas devoid of fresh air, so regularly cleaning out the hoof can help with the avoidance of bacterial issues like thrush.

The heel of the horse’s hoof is found at the back of the foot. It has two bulbs and is soft and spongy. The heel, like the frog, should be in contact with the ground when the horse is bearing its weight evenly.

The Inner Structures of the Horse’s Hoof

Within the hoof, there are sensitive laminae and a couple of bones. If issues arise with any of these parts, the horse will no doubt be lame. Often, obtaining a formal diagnosis will require an X-ray, especially if there’s an issue with either of the bones.

The pedal bone is one of those found within the horse’s hoof. In cases of pedal bone rotation, this bone can change its angle and even penetrate the hoof wall. Unfortunately, there’s limited help available for the horse if this occurs. It can happen on account of a bad case of laminitis, during which the sensitive laminae are inflamed and begin to separate from the hoof wall.

Behind the pedal bone is the coffin bone. If it gets infected and breaks down, this can also be detrimental to the horse.

On the whole, the hoof wall acts as a capsule to keep the horse’s internal hoof structures in place. Without it, great damage can occur, so keeping the horse’s foot in working order and the hoof wall strong and healthy is paramount.

Signs of Problems with the Horse’s Hoof

Issues can arise in one foot of the horse or in all four. Luckily, there are general signs to look out for that indicate a problem. These include:

  • heat
  • uneven weight-bearing
  • avoiding bearing weight at all
  • a foul smell
  • pus/discharge from the frog or coronet band

Issues tend to more commonly be found in one or both of the front feet of the horse. This could be attributed to the fact that they bear a greater amount of weight. A problem could be as simple as a stone that’s causing bruising, and if so, once it’s located and removed, the issue should resolve itself quickly.

If there are signs of heat and even swelling up the leg, and the horse is lame, then a thorough check of the affected foot should be carried out. A farrier may be needed, or a veterinarian. If you’re able to describe what is happening and where, this will help bring about a quicker diagnosis.

Quick Action is Essential

Hoof care is such an important aspect of owning and caring for horses. Regular farrier visits, a balanced diet, exercise and a keen eye are all vital to ensuring good horse health.

If you’re ever concerned about the health of your horses’ feet, keep an eye out for the signs listed above and contact your local veterinarian or farrier with details of what you’ve observed. Quick action will result in the best outcome for your horse—and you as its rider!
 

Christine Meunier is an equine author and educator with a Bachelor of Equine Science. Her passion is the thoroughbred breeding industry, in which she’s worked as a stud hand and foaling attendant. She has also taught horse breeding courses. As she’s particularly passionate about careers in the equine industry, she writes Equus Education at http://equus-blog.com/—sign up to receive the free booklet Choosing a Horse Career.
image: Pete Markham