“No foot, no horse” is the old saying. A horse is only as sound as his feet. Care and management of feet will depend on the individual horse, his conformation and hoof structure, environment (including climate), and use. Whether or not the horse needs to be shod will also hinge on these factors.
A shod horse should be reshod at regular intervals so the feet don’t get too long. It’s important to keep a barefoot horse’s feet tidy and not overlong, with no rough edges to split or chip.
Horse owners can do this themselves by rasping away superficial cracks and keeping the hoof edges smooth. White line disease and other types of hoof infections can’t get started if there are no openings to allow pathogens into the foot. Periodic rasping around the edges can prevent or eliminate cracks and flares, but the sole should usually be left alone. It needs a thick callous to prevent stone bruises. Leave the barefoot horse with a slightly longer hoof wall than a foot you’d put a shoe on, but keep it very smooth, rasping whenever it becomes ragged.
It’s not necessary to clean out the feet regularly if the horse is at pasture (rather than standing in a stall or muddy corral). Any dirt that packs into the feet helps provide foot support, to protect and cushion the foot. You should periodically look at the feet, however, to make sure there are no cracks or other early signs needing attention.
The material that packs into the foot will fly out when the horse exercises. Horses in the wild travel on abrasive terrain, which keeps their feet trimmed and smooth. No one cleans or trims their feet.
Environmental influences play a role in what’s needed for hoof care. A horse that lives in dry conditions will have healthier feet than a horse living in a marsh. Feet become hard when dry, soft when wet. Hard, dry, rocky footing is best for horses. If the horse has good hoof conformation and hard, dry feet, he won’t need shoes unless he is being ridden a lot in rocky terrain.
Some people put dressings on the hoof wall to try to correct too-dry feet, but if a horse’s feet are cracking it’s important to figure out why, rather than just trying to treat the symptom. Cracking may be due to inadequate diet. Horses on green pasture usually have healthy hoofs. Poor hoof walls can be due to too much (or not enough) selenium. There may be a trace mineral imbalance, or lack of physical balance, putting too much stress on one area of the foot.
Oral hoof supplements are often used, but the horse’s environment has more influence over the foot than anything we can put in the horse’s gut. If a horse has a well-balanced diet he won’t need hoof supplements. Most hoof supplements contain selenium, methionine and biotin. Evaluate the whole diet and make sure you aren’t doubling up selenium supplements in feeds, mineral-salt blocks, and vitamin-mineral products.
Keep them moving
Exercise is also important for healthy feet. Blood circulation in the foot is better if the horse is moving. When you confine a horse in a stall or small pen, his legs may stock up (swell) because of decreased circulation. The legs are gravity-fed by blood, and unless the horse is moving, to push blood back up to the heart, legs tend to swell. Ranch horses at pasture are generally healthier than horses in stalls. No matter how clean a stall is, the horse is still standing in ammonia and bacteria and not getting enough exercise.
Look at the whole picture to decide whether a certain horse needs a supplement, a topical hoof medication or shoes. There are no guidelines that fit every horse. You could have two horses of similar breeding, in the same environment, eating the same feed, doing the same work, and their feet may be different. Conformation and hoof structure may be different. Some have a longer pastern/shoulder angle, with different stresses on the toe. Some horses have harder or softer feet, or more brittle and prone to cracking.
There are no set rules about what to do about certain problems, because it’s variable with the individual horse. It’s often trial and error, to find how best to care for a certain horse’s feet.
Basic foot care consists of keeping things as simple as possible, however, keeping the horse in as natural an environment as possible and trying to think how Mother Nature took care of horses. Proper care involves natural feeds (grass and hay) and plenty of exercise. The most important thing is to look at the individual situation, the individual horse, and what works best for that horse.