Knowing Your Horse's Feet-- Inside and Out
"Farrier-Friendly" series By Bryan S. Farcus, BS, CF and Clyde H. Alloway, JR. DVM

Examining The Externals

As I reflect back on the years that I have spent learning and teaching, I admit that in the beginning, it would have been very easy to be mislead. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are virtually at the mercy of those "first impressions". In some respects, I have been lucky because my first teachers, and my current mentors, made sure that I approached my work with pride and diligence. I was often told, as we all are, that we should never dismiss the obvious and that many complex problems can be solved with the most basic approaches. When you examine and begin to learn about your horse's feet, I urge you to follow the same advice. In this article, I share these pages with my colleague, Clyde Alloway DVM, so that we might enhance your understanding of the external characteristics and the inner mechanism of a horse's hoof.

First let's discuss appearances. What should you see in a healthy hoof? These are a few fundamental observations:

  1. The term "foot" is used rather loosely. By its use, it infers a description of the entire hoof structure (inner, as well, as outer). The external appearance of a hoof is a reflection of its internal health.
  2. A hoof wall, that is healthy, will have an enamel or "shine". This is generated by a healthy periople (the human equivalent would be the cuticle of your finger or toe nail). The health of the periople is dependent upon the health of the horse's coronary band (horn-producing structure). When the coronary band is healthy, it provides the horse's hoof with the appropriate levels of moisture absorption or retention (repelling excess moisture). Hence, the appearance of a nice "shiny" hoof wall. If your horse is experiencing any stress, mechanically or metabolically, horizontal rings on the outer wall may become noticeable.
  3. The sole (bottom surface of the hoof), can appear in three forms:
    1. "concaved" or "cupped" sole- this form is generally the best because it allows the foot to have clearance from any rough or rocky terrain.
    2. "flat" sole- this conformation, though it is manageable, is not desired due to its direct contact with the ground. Often times, flat pads between the hoof and shoe are necessary to prevent bruising.
    3. "dropped" sole- this is a sure indication of internal hoof disease. In most cases, the sole becomes dropped when the horse's bone column rotates, or shifts. Terms commonly used to describe this condition are "laminitis" or "founder". Dropped soles are very painful for most horses.
  4. The hoof to pastern alignment or "natural angle" is also worth noticing. This alignment is a clue as to how much mechanical stress your horse's limbs may be under. If the pastern bones (bones resting directly above the hoof capsule) and the hoof capsule are not directly underneath each other, the horse's limb is said to be "overloaded". Simply stated, this means too much weight is burdening either the toe area or the heel area, instead of each bearing equal weight or "load".
  5. The length of the foot. As a general rule, limbs with longer pasterns will tend to have longer feet. Conversely, horses with shorter pasterns will , most generally, have shorter feet. The goal of a farrier should be to strive for evenness of toe lengths within a given pair. Barring any birth defects, or conformational developments, most horse's hooves will grow or wear rather evenly, when trimmed to their "natural angle".
  6. The "white line" is often overlooked because the name is somewhat misleading. Perhaps, if it were referred to as a "yellow" or "brown" line it would be easier to spot. On an untrimmed bottom surface of a hoof, it appears as a "brownish" groove that separates the inner edge of the hoof wall and the surface of the sole. When inspecting a recently trimmed hoof, it usually appears as a "yellowish" line. The "white line" is considered healthy if it bonds the wall to the sole without any deep penetrating cracks. As a rule of thumb, the horse's foot is said to be healthy if the hoof wall is approximately two times greater than the thickness of the adjoining white line. For most horses the white line is usually 1/8 inch or 3 mm in width.

An Internal Insight

As mentioned previously, in almost every instance, what you'll notice on the outside of your horse's feet is a reflection of those inner structures. Many farriers will say that "good feet must be grown to shape, not just cut to shape". As a practicing veterinarian over the past 28 years, I've had the opportunity to observe a variety of situations and have drawn the following conclusions:

  1. Protein is important for the proper development and maintenance of the hoof as well as other tissues in the body. Weanlings should receive 16-18% protein in the diet, active adults 12-14% , idle adults 10-12%.
  2. Some hooves are softer and tend to grumble (break) more easily at the end of the hoof wall. I have recommended the addition of dry, unflavored gelatin to the horses grain to help "toughen" them.
  3. Horses kept in constant high moisture areas tend to have increased problems with thrush. Supplementing the diet with iodine can help prevent this problem. In certain situations, I have recommended Ethyodide Powder. Also, remember that the "power of a hoof pick" should not be under-rated.
  4. Laminitis is a persistent threat to the horse. Many times this problem is subsequent in nature and can be prevented:
  • Never feed moldy feed stuffs to horses.
  • Always make sure horses are properly "cooled-out" before allowing them to drink water.
  • Change feed stuffs gradually. Mix new with old in ever increasing ratios over a period of 1-2 weeks, until the horse is on all new diet. This is especially true when changing from grass to legume hay. When changing to a grass pasture diet (especially to lush pasture), do so by starting with 10 minutes of eating time on day 1 and increasing by 10 minutes per day over a 1-2 week period.
  • Be aware of the type of stall bedding you choose. Shavings with the bark of black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) are highly toxic to the horse. Absorption of negative acids, through the pores of the hoof, will trigger laminitis within 24 hours after exposure.
  • Complications in the foaling process can cause prolonged retention of the placenta. Generally, it should be passed as early as 3 hours; no later than 8 hours. Regulated doses of oxytocin can help, but forceful "tugging" to expel the placenta can cause irreversible injury.

In closing, allow me to emphasize the importance of a daily health care routine for your horse. Most often the advice or treatments offered by your farrier or your veterinarian will only be as effective as the consistency of care that will follow. As a wise and dear, old friend once gave me his advice on the care of my horse, allow me to pass it on to you. He compared the importance of caring for a horse to that of a ship. If we are to rely on each to safely complete our journey for us, it is essential that we properly prepare them.

He stated:
"Do a little each day, rather than allowing a ship or a horse to unravel or fray. As we all know, a frantic row of your boat or a panicked 'whoa' of your horse is never as fruitful as being constant--for steady as they both shall go."

Additional Reading & Resources:

Farrier-Friendly Series, "General Horse Foot Care",1998
Farrier-Friendly Series, "Barefoot Facts",1999
The Merck Veterinary Manual, Seventh Edition, Merck & Co.,Inc., Rahway N.J. The Principles of Horseshoeing II, Butler Publishing, LaPorte CO


© 2000 Bryan Farcus. All rights reserved.
Bryan Farcus, certified farrier and head of the Department of Farrier Science at Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, has been combining the skills of horseshoeing, teaching and riding for the past ten years. He has also achieved a BS in Business Management. Bryan is the creator of "Farrier-Friendly"™ articles and products aimed at improving the general understanding of horseshoeing through horsemanship. For a complete collection of "Farrier-Friendly"™ articles click here.

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Updated: October 2005.