Genetics, conformation, the excellence of your farrier, your own excellent hoof care – we know that all these things play decisive roles in the quality of your horse’s feet. But is there anything you can do around the farm to create a better hoof care environment?
The short answer is yes. Environmental conditions are huge factors that can affect the quality of hoof your horse grows. Let’s look at what makes for ideal conditions for horse hooves and then go through some things you can do to improve conditions for your horse if you happen to live in an area that presents challenges. As almost all of us do.
Ideal Conditions for Your Horse’s Hooves
Ideal conditions for feet are largely a question of balance. Hooves need enough moisture to stay pliable without becoming soft and enough resistance from the ground to provide the concussion they need to pump blood back up the legs without that ground being so hard the hoof structures can’t absorb the shock effectively.
They need the ground to be firm in order to keep the sole tough but it can’t be so hard that the feet become bruised. They need enough traction to wear new growth down gently but it can’t be so craggy that the feet wear unevenly. The weather should be warm enough to encourage normal hoof growth and dry enough to limit the sole’s exposure to bacteria. And that’s where it crosses over into the ridiculous.
Balance might be what the horse hoof ideally needs, but balance is not the defining climatic feature of any geographical region that I know of. In the wild, of course, horses encounter all kinds of less than ideal conditions, but their wide-ranging nomadic lifestyles give them opportunities for finding the most optimal conditions, even in brutal environments. Our equine friends, who are not permitted to roam the county freely, need someone to optimize conditions for them.
Create a Better Hoof Care Environment
Building on higher ground, managing drainage and structuring paddock space to include some higher ground for your horses to stand on are the best ways to get out in front of any problems. Those who aren’t starting a farm from scratch (and most of us aren’t) can take heart, though. If moisture and climatic changes are an issue, there are still plenty of things you can do to create a better hoof care environment.
In the Barn
At least in the barn you have more control over the environment. You can lay down stall mats if your horse’s feet are prone to soreness. You can choose bedding that’s soft and dry and you can clean that bedding to minimize the amount of bacteria your horse’s hooves are exposed to.
If you bed with straw, and you notice that your horse has a tendency to develop thrush, you can switch to shavings to absorb extra moisture. If you’re already on shavings, you can find a stall-drying product.
When it’s very wet outside, some farriers recommend keeping stall bedding more on the moist side to avoid the hoof stress that comes from shifting from dry to wet to dry conditions. Finally, a reason to slack a bit in your housekeeping.
In the Paddocks and Fields
You might not be able to build berms or divert water in any major way, but keeping your paddock grass healthy and rotating your fields are time-tested ways to manage moisture and keep mud at bay. Investing in trees and hedgerows or planting a rain garden in areas where moisture accumulates can be an immense help with excess water.
You can limit turnout time in soaked or muddy paddocks (if your horses will tolerate that) or turn out in an arena or sand ring (if you have one). You could also turn out around the weather’s schedule – after heavy dews are gone in the morning, for example.
Mud, of course, is another environmental condition that plays havoc with a horse’s feet. Not only does it work like a vacuum, sucking shoes down into the briny depths, but it’s the perfect environment for thrush to thrive. Farriers will usually appreciate if horses aren’t turned out in deep mud at all.
If you have to turn out in it, try to make sure there’s at least one high spot where your animals can get a break. Gates and run-in sheds are usually the places where a paddock turns into a sinkhole. You can consider laying down grid mats, gravel, sand or woodchips in places that get especially deep.
On the other hand, very dry paddocks can also create issues. When moisture is pulled out of the hoof by dry conditions, the result can be cracks, chips and brittle feet. The ground will typically also be harder, which can lead to bruising and soreness. If moisture loss is a challenge, keeping a healthy level of drought-tolerant grasses, planting trees and creating opportunities for shade can help your property retain moisture. Scattering hay and varying feeding locations is an easy way to minimize soil compaction and erosion.
In the Ring
Keeping your rings flat, level and free of stones goes without saying. You also already know that the depth of your footing is crucial to your horse’s soundness in general – too low and you risk concussive injuries, too deep and you risk soft tissue strains and sprains. The moisture levels and depth of your footing impacts your horse’s feet in the same way that turnout conditions do.
Arena issues can be difficult and expensive to fix – if you notice moisture issues, keep a careful eye on drainage and build a long-term plan to manage it rather than just adding additional footing. That won’t fix the underlying issue and it’s very expensive for a band-aid solution.
Finally, regularly cleaning rings, barns and paddocks is something everyone can do to give their horse’s hooves a leg up. So to speak. Managing the perfect hoof care environment is an investment, but it’s an investment worth making if it keeps your horseshoes on and your vet bills down.
feature image: Tim Savage; image 1: TheOther Kev