Cleaning a Horse’s Feet


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How to Clean a Horse’s Feet

Foot care is essential for horse health and soundness. Some lameness that impairs the movement of a horse can be prevented by proper foot care and reasonable management.

Foot care should be as routine as feeding and watering. It should include:

  • Routine cleaning.
  • Periodic trimming.
  • Corrections of minor imperfections.
  • Treatment of foot diseases and injuries.

Most foot care practices can be done by the average horse owner. However, it is important to know when to seek the help of a professional, such as a farrier or veterinarian, especially for trimming, shoeing and disease treatment and control.

STRUCTURE OF THE FOOT 

To understand proper care of a horse’s feet, first study and understand the structure of the foot and the functions of its various parts. The major parts of a horse’s foot are the hoof wall, coronet, sole, frog and the internal structures such as the bones, cartilage, tendons and connective tissue.

DO YOU KNOW enough about horse handling and training to safely demonstrate how to care for a horse’s feet? If you are new to horses or inexperienced, work with a professional trainer or experienced adult to learn this horse handling skill. Always wear a helmet when riding a horse.

Hoof Wall

The hoof wall should be dense, straight, and free from rings (ridges) and cracks. Viewed from the side, the wall at the toe should be a continuation of the slope of the pastern.

The main functions of the wall are to:

  • Provide a weight-bearing surface not easily worn away.
  • Protect the internal structure of the foot.
  • Maintain moisture in the foot.

Usually, the hoof wall is thicker at the toe than at the quarter, located on the sides of the hoof wall and heel. The hoof wall is protected by the periople, a varnish-like coating that also holds moisture in the hoof.

Coronet

The coronet, or coronary band, is the source of growth for the hoof wall. It is directly above the hoof wall and is protected by a thick layer of skin and dense hair. A healthy foot will grow about a centimetre per month. A change in the rate of growth of the hoof can be caused by a change in the amount of exercise, the ration, illness, general health and season of the year. 

Sole

The sole of the foot protects the sensitive inner portions of the foot. It should be firm, slightly concave and of uniform texture. The horse has no feeling at the exterior sole surface.

A flat-footed horse, or a horse that has flat compared to concave hooves, tends to receive more bruises and injuries to the sole. Also, horses that have experienced founder and have developed a dropped sole are more easily bruised at the sole.

Frog

The frog, located at the heel of the foot, forms a “V” into the centre of the sole. The frog is a spongy, flexible pad and is also a weight-bearing surface. It functions to move blood back out of the foot when pressure is applied to it. The condition of the frog generally is a good indication of the health of the foot. 

Internal Foot Structure

Some of the important internal parts of the foot and their functions include the following:

  • Coffin bone: provides the shape of the foot and the rigidity needed to bear weight.
  • Plantar cushion: expands and contracts to absorb shock and pumps blood from the foot back toward the heart.
  • Navicular bone: serves as a fulcrum and bearing surface for the deep flexor tendon, which is responsible for flexion, or bending, of the foot as it progresses through a stride.
  • Sensitive laminae: serve as a means of attachment for the hoof wall and the coffin bone and also as the main area of blood circulation within the foot.

Routine Foot Care

Clean environments are essential for appropriate foot care. Horses kept in a stall or small pen should have their feet picked or cleaned daily to reduce the risk of thrush. If untreated, serious lameness can result and extensive treatment will be necessary.

Routine daily foot care means regular use of the hoof pick to clean the horse’s feet. A fine-bristled wire brush is also useful for cleaning the sole, frog and hoof wall.

Thrush is the condition that results from bacterial penetration into the frog and surrounding area. The bacteria produce a foul odour and cause the frog to become soft and mushy.

A horse’s feet should be cleaned daily. Clean the foot with a hoof pick.

Foot cleaning

When picking the foot, clean from the heel toward the toe, being especially careful to clean the bars on each side of the frog. 

Before and after riding, clean the sole and check for small stones or other foreign objects that could be lodged in the natural depressions of the foot. A nail, stone, stick or other objects can work into the white line and cause lameness. This will result in infection of the white line that usually breaks open and releases pus just above the coronary band. This is called an abscess.

Maintain moisture in feet.

  • Moisture in the horse’s feet helps to maintain flexibility and prevent cracking. Extremely wet conditions such as a muddy lot or wet stall promote rapid drying of the feet; the natural oils and protective films of the foot are eroded from constant contact with external moisture.

Trimming maintains foot balance.

  • Trimming the feet is important, although not as frequently needed as cleaning. Trimming should be done at 5-8 week intervals on horses that are regularly ridden or shown. 
  • The main goal in trimming is to retain the proper shape and length of the foot.
Information adapted with permission from Wayne Loch, "Care of Your Horse’s Feet". Department of Animal Sciences, University of Michigan Extension. 

A farrier is a specialist who provides care of horses’ hooves, including trimming and shoeing. Recommendations for hoof moisturizers or treatments and all trimming and shoeing should be provided by professional farriers and/or veterinarians.

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about hoof care?

No foot no horse – regular hoof care is essential towards achieving overall horse health and longevity through hoof and leg soundness. All horses need regular hoof care but not all horses will need shoeing. Shoes are necessary when wear exceeds growth, or for correction of conformation or gait. Horse boots are a potential alternative to shoeing. Trimming to correct leg and hoof deviations is most effective when done as early as possible in the foal’s life. All hoof and leg deviations worsen with neglect and excess growth. 

Cleaning the foot is important, particularly to prevent thrush and to inspect the foot for any foreign materials that may cause injury. Thrush is an infection caused by bacterial and fungal yeast-type organisms. Signs of thrush include a foul odour and a black putty-like appearance of the frog. Regular cleaning of the hoof prevents thrush from developing by aerating the exposed area. 

Strategies to maintain the hoof health of horses: 

  • Keep hooves free of defects through regular trimming and/or shoeing by a farrier.
  • Keep environments clean, dry and free from mud.
  • Provide adequate nutrition and exercise.
  • Clean out hooves regularly, ideally on a daily basis, and before and after exercise or riding.
  • Use hoof moisturizers or hoof hardeners as needed.

The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice: 

Hooves must be trimmed and/or shod as often as is necessary to maintain hooves in functional condition.

Whether shod or unshod, hooves must not be allowed to grow to excessive lengths causing injury or discomfort to the horse.

These recommended practices are also identified in the Code of Practice:

  1. Ensure the farrier or other personnel is skilled and uses recognized techniques (exercise due diligence researching the qualifications/experience of farriers, ask for references and continuing education practices). 
  2. Train horses to stand for trimming and shoeing.
  3. Provide the farrier with a clean, safe and well-lit area.
  4. Ensure the first hoof examination for foals takes place within the first month of life and regularly monitor the foal’s feet for deviations. 
  5. Ensure proper trimming or shoeing (which includes trimming and resetting) is done every 5-8 weeks or as may be needed for individual horses (depending on factors such as age, activity level, nutrition, and breed).
  6. Consult a farrier or veterinarian for advice on how to control thrush.
Excerpts from the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (©2013) have been used with permission, Equine Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. The process for the development of Codes can be accessed through the National Farm Animal Care Council.

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