Answers to Horse Hoof Questions

[A farrier works on a horse's hoof]

Have you ever heard the saying “no hoof, no horse”? Have you ever wondered why horse owners and veterinarians say it?

Without healthy feet, horses can’t get around and do their jobs. And when it comes to caring for a horse’s hooves, farriers are the experts that owners need. Farriers will also work closely with veterinarians when there is a disease or problem within the hoof.

[Steve Sermersheim with a horse]

We recently caught up with Steve Sermersheim, a certified journeyman farrier with a therapeutic endorsement from the American Farrier’s Association who is also an Associate of Great Britain’s Worshipful Company of Farriers. Sermersheim is part of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, seeing horses at Midwest Equine near Farmer City and at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Why do horses wear shoes?

According to Sermersheim, there are three reasons to shoe a horse:

  • Protection: Some horses wear their hooves faster than they can grow them out depending on their job and environment.
  • Traction: Some horses need traction for performance as well as safety for the horse and rider depending on their discipline.
  • Correction: Some horses with lameness or limb problems need therapeutic shoes for comfort.

The correction part of shoeing horses is where farriers can work very closely with veterinarians to formulate and execute a plan. Injuries or disease processes to a horse hoof can take a long time to correct. With constant adjustments to treatment plans, it’s important to have owners, veterinarians, and farriers on the same page.

What should owners do keep their horse’s feet in shape?

Horses have to get their hooves trimmed or shod on a rotating basis. In addition to handling these maintenance routines, farriers will examine the hooves for various problems, including flares, cracks, thrush, white-line disease, seedy toe, and laminitis. They also watch for increased digital pulse, heat, and limping.

“Most horses should be trimmed or shod on average every six weeks. Some horses, depending on their discipline, age, environment, and soundness, get trimmed or shod on a shorter or longer schedule,” says Sermersheim. “I never recommend going beyond eight weeks between trimming or shoeing.”

Farriers may also talk about the “balance” of the horse’s foot. This term refers to how the horse hoof is trimmed in order to allow the horse to move properly and without problem. It can be hard to see what that looks like in your own horse, but farriers are a wealth of knowledge not just about horses’ hooves in general but your own horse.

“Talk to your farrier when they are trimming the horses and learn from the person who is regularly seeing the horse,” advises Sermersheim. “Your farrier sees and works on your horse’s hooves on a regular basis and knows that particular horse’s hoof better than anyone. Keep in mind that every hoof is different, even on the same horse.”

What is a barefoot trim vs. getting shod?

Barefoot trims are given to horses in order to maintain the shape of their current hoof when they have no issues or do not need shoes. It can be compared to filing your fingernails when you need them to be a bit shorter as they are growing but don’t need a full manicure.

“On a barefoot trim, we will round the hoof wall at the ground surface and leave the hoof a little longer than we do for shoeing,” says Sermersheim.

Even though a barefoot trim is one of the more simple tasks a farrier can do, there is still a lot involved. Farriers will evaluate the medial/lateral and dorsal/palmar-plantar balance and balance the frog, a structure at the back of the hoof that aids in shock absorption. Pare exfoliating sole. Trim excess hoof wall and round the edges of the ground surface of the hoof.

“Keep in mind that all horses are individuals and have different conformation,” says Sermersheim. “The farrier’s number one duty is to preserve the integrity of the hoof capsule the best they can.”

Why don’t horses in the wild need farrier care?

“Horses in the wild have developed strong hooves and bones over time due to their genetic makeup,” explains Sermersheim. “In other words, wild horses with poor genetic makeup have been eliminated by natural selection. Also, the environment that wild horses live in is favorable to naturally maintaining their hooves. If a wild horse becomes lame due to hoof problems, unfortunately, they do not survive.”

Domestic horses, on the other hand, need regular hoof care due to the way we care for them and utilize them. Most domestic horses are housed on farms with stalls, pastures, and paddocks, not on sandy rocky footing 24 hours a day.

Domestic horses are fed grain, hay, and supplements that support healthy hoof growth. They do not have the chance to self-maintain their hooves and most likely would not make it in the wild. Domestic horses are also ridden or driven, meaning they carry and pull more weight than a wild horse.

For more information about horse hoof health, contact your farrier or equine veterinarian.

By Reilee Juhl