Ask a Farrier: What Effect Does a Horse's Immune System Have on Their Feet?

horse walking in from paddock - ask a farrier - what effect does a horse's immune system have on their feet

A horse's immune system works exactly the same as it does in most animals, humans included. It helps protect our bodies from disease, bacteria, viruses and other harmful pathogens. The main factors that could affect, or weaken a horse's immune system are age, nutrition and stress. All three will also affect healthy hoof growth.

A newborn foal will get some antibodies to fight off infection from its mother's milk, but like human babies and puppies, they may need other vaccines and regular deworming. Also, just like us, our immune systems get stronger with age, a good diet and a healthy environment.

Hoof growth usually slows down as horses get older. My horses are twenty something and get trimmed three times a year. I have a couple of clients with horses in their thirties. I haven't trimmed them since September, and still didn't need to trim them when I looked at them the other day.

Hooves and a Healthy Immune System

A healthy diet and exercise are not only essential for horses' hooves and immune systems, but for overall health. Horses that are overweight or lack important vitamins and minerals in their diet probably have weaker immune systems and hooves. 

Essential amino acids and trace amounts of zinc will strengthen both the immune system and hooves. Vitamins C, B and K will also help strengthen the immune system, and vitamins A, D and E will help keep horses hooves healthy. Most of these vitamins can be found in good quality hay and from simply being outside in the fresh air and sunshine. 

If you're concerned that your horse might be lacking something in their diet, there are lots of extra supplements available. It's always a good idea to talk to your vet about it. They will help you decide which supplements, if any, will work best for your horse. When you start your horse on extra supplements, it'll take a while to see any changes in the hooves. You'll notice their coat, mane and tail getting shinier and healthier first.

Horses are flight animals and they like routine. Even the slightest change can cause stress. This can be anything from changing their hay or feed times to moving your horse to a new location, bringing a new horse into your herd or having a scary plastic bag blow through their field. If you're moving your horse or trailering them to a competition where they will be around other horses, it's a good idea to protect their immune system and stay up to date on all their vaccinations and deworming.

Learn to Read Your Horse's Feet

Have you ever noticed the horizontal lines around your horse's hooves? I don't just mean the line in foals that separates the baby and adult hoof, or the line that drops down at the heels on horses who have laminitis. Some call them growth rings, others refer to them as stress lines, but most horses have them.

The lines that are indented deeper than the others are a good way to tell when something drastically changed or caused stress in that horse. If you look at the hoof wall in between the lines, you can tell if the change was better or worse for that horse. Is one side dull with tiny cracks and the other side a little shinier? Has the gap between the lines gotten bigger or are the lines closer together? Keep in mind, when you see the lines, a few months have probably passed, depending on the horse's age and the quality of hay and extra supplements you're feeding them. It usually takes about a year for the hoof to grow from the coronary band, or hair line, down to the ground. 

As a farrier, it's good to note all the lines, as well as the quality and shape of each hoof every visit. This way, you'll notice any changes and can trim or shoe accordingly, or possibly suggest that your client talk to their vet about extra supplements. 

If you're not a farrier and just concerned about your own horses, write down when you switched from hay to grass in the spring, grass back to hay in the winter, when your shows or competitions were, when you started your herd on extra supplements or changed anything in their daily routine. Within a couple months, you will see the start of a line just below the hair line, but now you'll know what caused it.

This is our monthly feature, “Ask a Farrier,” a Q and A with farrier Karen McMann. Karen has been a full-time farrier for 18 years. She graduated in 2002 from the Canadian School of Horseshoeing, where she studied under Pat Cullen. She serves on the Advisory Board of Equi-Health Canada and Equi-First Aid USA as a Farrier/Hoof Health Support specialist. Karen lives and works outside of Okotoks, Alberta.

If you have a question you’d like to ask a farrier (about horseshoeing, farriery, hoof and horse health, blacksmith tools, working as a farrier, etc.), email or leave it in the comments below. Every month, we’ll pick one question to answer in our feature.

Image credit: Jacob Jolibois


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