The care of the equine hoof can be divided into two categories since the care significantly differs in each of them.
The care of the unshod hoof.
Taking care of the bare foot is much different than of the hoof that is shod. In most cases the care is minimal, depending on the surface and the movement on it. The bare foot is better off when left alone, except the trimming by the farrier if there is not sufficient (proper – regular) wearing off the hoof. Horses living outside all the time, especially on larger pastures (steppes, ranches) need no care at all, since the wearing off equals the growth. Example, I had the chance to trim a herd of non-working horses that were living outside all the time. The owner had them trimmed regularly by the farrier every six weeks as many writers in various publications preached it. I have suggested to her, that these horses can be “weaned” from the frequent trimming and that it would be better for them, not to mention her wallet, since she wasn’t rich. I was coming up regularly every three months and I was trimming only the horses that needed it. Eventually all horses adjusted their growth to their life style and two years later, their feet were perfect without any one of them being trimmed in the last year. This will work only if there is regularity of movement in open areas and it is very much relevant to the ground versus the nature of a particular breed of horse. Once when we introduce irregularities in movement, the hoof growth becomes irregular and the care by the farrier is thus essential.
Beside the farrier care, there is very little to do for the bare foot and it is better off left alone. In cases where the horse is living on gravel type like ground it will require some hoof care, mainly in cleaning of the imbedded small rocks in the white line, since they could damage the foot or cause even an abscess. It is not recommended to use various hoof ointments and conditioners, since the horse needs to respond to the environmental conditions to keep his hoof in good health. For example, the hoof dressing will destabilize the softening and the hardening of the hoof in respond to the ground, (see hoof nature). This again is very much relevant to the particular breed of horse, his nature versus the living conditions, mainly the ground.
The care of the shod hoof.
Since the shoe becomes the barrier between the nature and the horse, the hoof care differs greatly from the above. One of the most important factors is the moisture in the hoof (pertinent to blood circulation), especially when it comes directly to the shoe it self, since the shoe cannot expand or contract as the hoof does in reference to the moisture. It is therefore a primarily concern to keep steady and even moisture in the hoof, thus preventing the changes in sizes of the hoof in relevance to the shoe. Example, if the hoof is shod while too moist, the size of the perimeter of the shoe is bigger since the hoof expended on account of the water within. As the horse’s hoof dries out, the horn will contract as well as the size of the hoof, but the shoe of course will not. This usually results in cracked walls or clinches that are sticking out within a few days after shoeing. If the hoof is shod when too dry, it will expend with moisture later, thus it will spread over the shoe, not to mention the inward stress of the nails against the white line, often resulting in white line decay, times even an abscess. Unfortunately the farrier is blamed by the laics for most of these problems.
Many of the working horses that are shod are living outside; hence the hoof care is more complicated not only by the changes in the environment but also by the irregularities in their movement. On the other hand horses that train (move) regularly (evenly) while living in the stalls (like race horses) have less complications in hoof care.
Horses living outside on dry and hard surfaces need a special care for their feet, since the bottom of the hoof does not come in contact with the ground most of the time. The side effects vary, the most common is thrush and in wide footed horses sole protrusion. I have recommended to many owners to keep muddy ground near the water so the horses can pack their feet with mud in dry conditions. This will help to keep relatively even moisture in the hoof as well as it will promote the health of the entire hoof since it will be involved in carrying function in all its parts. However, there can be some negative effects if left uncared for, mostly when it comes to so-called balling-up with the mud. In such case, there is too much pressure on the horses sole, which can then concave, will get too thin and it will cause the horse to be very sensitive when stepping on rocks. It is therefore important that we clean the horses feet daily or see to it, that the mud is not too deep and only a little of it will stay packed in the hoofs. The balling up of the hoofs must be prevented in all cases by horses living outside, whether it is the snow or mud. The concaved sole can be often seen in the spring by these horses, which were not shod properly for the snowy conditions or on account of too much mud in the season. Once when the horses stop balling up, the concaved sole will try to repair itself and this will often lead to indentation in the sole (soft spots), which can cause some lameness in horses, especially when the sole comes in contact with the ground. Of course and again the farrier is usually victimized for such problems (thin sole – soft spots), even though he never touched the sole.
As mentioned above, the moisture plays a great role in caring for the shod hoof. Even if we manage to stabilize the moisture in the hoof, it does not mean that we have solved the moisture problems. Too much or too little moisture in the shod hoof will have negative effects depending on the structure of the hoof. Some examples; too moist wide hoof will spread more as against too dry contracted hoof will contract more not to mention that both of these factors will greatly influence the quality of the farrier’s work as well as the general health of the hoof. Hence, we cannot blame the farrier for anything if we do not provide him with healthy hoof to work with. Most of the problems in farriery today are not from the farriers but from the incompetent hoof care by those responsible for it. It is therefore very important that you will discuss this matter with your farrier who will then tell you in what condition your horse feet are. I assure you, he knows it better than anyone else since he is the one working on them.
One of the most forgotten parts in hoof care is the washing of the hoof, which is important to the hygiene and the general health of the shod hoof. People think that when they pick the horses feet, they cleaned them. I have seen these “hysterical” hoof “pickers” that kept digging in the hoof with metal picks till they damaged the sole. The washing of the hoof two or three times per week is of great importance, especially when it comes to white line decay and abscesses caused by imbedded bacteria. The foot should be scrubbed not only on the bottom but the entire walls all the way to the coronet, as well as the heels. How we will treat the hoof after the wash depends just how much moisture is in the hoof and the environment in which the horse is living. Dressing is usually applied one to four hours after the wash, to retain the moisture in the hoof. Just in case you didn’t know, the dressing is supposed to keep the moisture in and if applied to dry hoof it will do the opposite, it will prevent the moisture to get in. The most important parts of the hoof that should be treated by the hoof dressing are, the entire heel and the top third of the hoof including the coronet. I’ve seen folks completely ignoring the heel and the coronet, while they caked up the bottom of the wall and the sole. In case you didn’t know, only the top third of the hoof wall is “living” and will respond to the application. If you have cracked hoof on the bottom two thirds (one half), there is very little you can do about it, since it is about the same as split ends in hair. It is very important to keep the uper third of the hoof moist and thus expanded, which will then insure a healthy blood flow in the hoof. Using hoof dressing on dirty feet, especially the coronet can have some serious side effects; the most common is infection of the coronet laminae, which usually shows up later as a stress ring or so-called “rough wall”.
The earth has medicinal values for the equine hoof. I mean literally the earth, the non-polluted, rock-free soil (no river or swamp mud). It is very helpful to pack the horse feet with mud after a hard work, which will help the hooves to stay cool, hence better circulation. There is no need for some special mud like the “Bowie Mud”, but any dirt from unpolluted (no urine, feces) ground under the grass (roots) is excellent, because it has great health values to the hoof. That is why the bare feet do not suffer so much from thrush, white line decay etc. It is important to keep in mind when packing the feet to keep less mud in the hoof to prevent too much pressure as in the case of balling up. The packing of the feet is more complicated when standing on shavings as against when standing on straw, depending on the texture of the packing. The straw will tend to stick to the packing, while the pressure of the shavings (saw dust) will push it out. Using artificial hoof packing like the Forshner’s will not produce such good results nor it will have the same natural health effects on the sole of the hoof.
The hoof should be washed before any conditioners are applied. Not doing so, could be detrimental when applying hoof dressing to a dirty hoof.
The instruction on many hoof applications state that the hoof should be dry. That does not mean a dry hoof! They are talking about the surface of the hoof, hence it should be dried off with some towel in order for the dressing to stick to the hoof.
Note the difference between washed (and dried) and unwashed hoof, especially the coronet where it really matters! Many folks would apply the dressing to the right hoof without thinking anything of it.
The use of hand is a preferred way to apply the conditioner to the hoof. One can thus check (examine & feel) for damages to the hoof. There are good hoof dressings that are actually good for your hands (containing Aloe Vera and lanolin).
When using your bare hands, one can treat the back of the hoof without picking it up.
After trimming the sole remains very thin. In this case one could feel the tip of the coffin bone at the point of the frog.
As you can see there are many elements to be considered in hoof care, therefore it is not some mechanical by the book design, but one has to respond to various conditions, as well as, the particular nature of the horse/breed.
In this case a poultice is used for hoof packing after a hard day of competition. One can use just regular mud (earth) in the same manner. Packing the hoof is especially useful day before the farrier will work on the horse to soften the horse’s hooves, should they be too dry.
In conclusion one should remember that the hoof care depends greatly on the circumstances that are involved, hence each horse has semi-individual, specific hoof care. I recommend for hoof dressing any dressing that contains large amount of animal fats like lanolin. The petroleum products are not good for the hoof. There are various hoof-growth-stimulating products, which is another issue. These usually promote the blood circulation in the hoof via blistering type of values so use with caution. Get to know your horse and his feet and that should be the foundation of the care for them, rather than some article that you have read. Remember, that what works on one horse will not work on another. Try to keep things simple and there is no substitute for a genuine care for a horse that comes from the care-taker’s heart and demonstrate it self in constancy. If your horse is in good health and you provide decent care for his feet, there should be no need for any supplements to promote hoof growth. Reaching for supplements will disturb the nature of your horse and in time it will produce negative results.
A decent horseman knows how to work with nature as well as he is aware of any alternation of it, thus he has no need for any “scientific” information or products in care of his horse. The old saying of horsemen “If it is not simple it is more likely a bull”.
When frequently washing horses feet do not use soap, only clean water, possibly with few drops of iodine in it. Hosing the feet does not take care of the sole, nor it will scrub the hoof from debris, especially under the shoe. The urine and manure trapped under the shoe is greatly responsible for the white line decay associated with the shoeing process.
A healthy sole in horse’s hoof can be treated with the natures remedy, the rock free soil. Smear a little mud on the bottom of the hoof, especially around the shoe. This will not only have health advantages but it will also prevent the urine to get trapped under the shoe. Important! The packed mud should be concaved and not balling out, hence the texture should be more butter like rather than play dough like! The dry dirt (mud) should be removed, as it will have adverse effect when drawing back the moisture out of the hoof when dried out! The soles can be also treated with products like lanolin with iodine, which will help to promote the general health of the hoof, especially when in frequent contact in urine with shavings/sawdust. The acid level in the combination of hard wood sawdust and urine is greater and it will contribute very much to various decays of the hoof, specifically in the white line.