Performance Hoof Care - Tim C Mockford, Independent Hoof Care Specialist
No Hoof - No Horse 
 
The phrase ‘no hoof, no horse’ is one we hear all the time and yet do we really understand it’s true meaning ? The ‘assumption’ is that it refers to a ‘healthy’ hoof and this is where I think we have a disjoint between perception and reality 
 
The more horses that I see and the more owners that I speak to, the more I am convinced that what is accepted as a ‘healthy hoof’ is in fact what we have become accustomed to seeing i.e. not what is ‘correct’, but what is the ‘norm’. All too often I see horses with very similar problems: under-run & contracted heels, long toes, flaring, dumping of the toe, etc and yet, these are accepted as the norm because a) over time we have become used to seeing feet in this condition and b) we do not have a true frame of reference with which to compare them 
 
It does not help that the majority of hooves we see in trade magazines and journals also display these same problems (ironically more often than not in adverts for hoof related products !)
 
Before I became an Applied Equine Podiatrist, I know that I was content to leave the care of my own horse’s hooves to my farrier, who would surely tell me if there was anything that I needed to be concerned about… wouldn’t they ? Well, yes to a certain extent that was true, but looking back at how my own horses’ hooves deteriorated over the time they were shod, the feedback that I was getting certainly left a lot to be desired. This seems to be quite a common situation and the following illustration shows a fairly typical pattern of deterioration which can unfortunately happen over a relatively short period of time   
 
If you were to take a pen and paper and draw what you perceive to be a ‘healthy hoof’ I have no doubt that most of you would come up with a picture very similar to Fig. 1, yet if you were to compare this picture with your own horse or those of the horses on your yard would you have a match ? Or is it more likely that they would more closely resemble Fig. 3 of 4 ? 
 
So, what constitutes a ‘healthy hoof’ ? In this article we hope to give you a simple guide to enable you to assess the health of your horse’s hoof so that you can then work with your farrier or hoof care practitioner to help your horse develop the best hooves possible 
 
Before we look at what constitutes a ‘healthy hoof’ it is worth considering what the actual function of the hoof is, if we do not have an understanding of anatomical function we cannot appreciate the impact that damage to the hoof capsule can have 
 
‘The hoof capsule itself is a relatively simple structure (a matrix of tubules and inter-tubular horn that is produced at the coronary band and the valleys of the sensitive lamellae) and yet it is of vital importance to the horse, acting as it does to a) protect the dermal layer of the foot from trauma, prevent the ingress of bacteria and the egress of moisture and b) act as a ‘spring’ which stores and releases the potential or kinetic energy that is created during the stride phases of locomotion’ 
 
So now we can begin to build up a picture of what a ‘healthy hoof’ actually looks like
 
Hoof Wall Angle 
 
If you view the hoof capsule from the front and side, you should observe a straight wall from the coronary band down to the ground with the wall showing approximately the same angle all of the way around from one heel, across the quarters, the toe, the opposite quarters and the opposite heel, see Fig. 5 & 6. The angle of the wall at the toe should ‘approximately’ match the angle of the pastern (Note: in some horses you will see a slight difference in the angle of the wall at the quarters as it is not uncommon for the lateral or outside wall to be a few degrees less acute than the medial side)  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Flare 
 
Any distortion such as flaring or significant growth rings, or any damage to the wall such as cracking or chipping will inhibit the hoofs ability to function as it was designed to do. Any loss of function will ultimately lead to a deterioration in performance so you can see that the health of the hoof is of vital importance. In Fig. 7 & 8 you can clearly see the flare or deviation of the hoof capsule where the wall is no longer following the correct angle of growth   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Under-run Heels
 
Another very common condition is where the heels have become under-run and the toe allowed to become too long, this is where we see the hoof capsule actually migrating forward, out from underneath the horse. This level of imbalance can be extremely detrimental to the horse as not only can the hoof not function correctly but will also lead to a dramatic increase in the stresses and strains that are placed on the suspensory and navicular apparatus  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
If we compare the angle of the wall in Fig. 9 & 10 at both the heel and the toe, we can clearly see the forward migration of the hoof capsule itself 
 
Solar Symmetry 
 
We have looked at the hoof from the side and from the front but what about from underneath ? This is another simple way of gauging the health of your hoof (although not so easy if your horse has a shoe on) When we look at the solar aspect of the hoof we are looking for ‘symmetry’. Draw an imaginary line down the centre of the hoof, does the hoof look the same on both the lateral and medial sides ? Fig.11 & 12 show the difference between a non symmetrical  and a symmetrical foot 
 
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
In Fig.11 we can see a marked loss of symmetry to the hoof on the lateral side (outside of the foot) This is clearly a distorted hoof but it should be noted that on a lot of horses you will see a slightly more rounded profile to the hoof on the lateral side, this is quite normal as it provides the horse with a more stable base, much like the profile of our own feet !. However, do not confuse what is normal with what is clearly distortion 
 
Contracted Heels  
 
Another very common problem is a contraction of the heels. The hoof is designed to resist expansion (a spring by any other name) so if it is not allowed to distort naturally it will over time become more and more contracted. Fig. 13 & 14 show the difference between a contracted hoof and a healthy one 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In Fig. 13 you can clearly see the contraction of the hoof (and a very narrow and weak frog mass) you can also see where the heels have become under-run and have started to migrate forward of their ideal position 
 
The Hoof Wall ‘Matrix’ 
 
Well we have talked about the general conformation of the hoof but we have not actually looked at the individual components of the hoof wall itself. The wall itself is composed of both outer wall and inner wall, the hard outer wall that resists cracking and loss of moisture, providing protection to the inner wall which dissipates shock and allows for distortion. Fig. 15 shows a cross section of a healthy hoof 
 
The outer wall will be thickest at the toe and the inner wall thickest at the heels. Obviously this will be hard for you to see if your horse is shod so it may be worth you asking your farrier to show you when he next shoes your horse.  
 
Front to Back 
 
We have now looked in detail at what constitutes a ‘healthy hoof’ but one thing that we haven’t touched upon is the difference between the confirmation of the hooves on the forelimbs and those of the hind limbs. Here nature follows the powerful rule of ‘form follows function’. If we understand the difference in the function of the different limbs, we can then understand why their forms differ The front limbs are the main apparatus for balance and support, as such the hooves themselves will be rounder in profile thereby providing the horse with a more stable base (also, because the fore limb has no bone attachment to the body, the horse when turning is able to roll over this ‘wider’ hoof without difficulty due to the elastic musco-skeletal attachment of the scapula)  
 
The hinds on the other hand, are responsible for generating the majority of locomotion so in form are narrower and marginally longer so that the lever arm that transfers energy back up the leg at break-over is more effective (also, because the hinds limb does have a bone attachment to the body, the hooves have to be narrower so when turning, the horse is able to roll over this hoof without causing any compression or trauma to the joints higher up the leg) Fig. 16 & 17 show a typical front and hind hoof, note the more rounded profile in the front and the more elongated oval profile of the hind 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Summary 
 
Hopefully this article will have given you a more realistic ‘picture’ of what a ‘healthy hoof’ looks like and has given you the information necessary to look at your own horses hooves and get a more accurate picture of how healthy they really are 
 
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