The Farrier’s Role in Hoof Health and Beyond
You wouldn’t want a house with a crumbling foundation or a car with cracked tires. Likewise, the hoof is literally and figuratively the basis of the horse’s well-being and capacity for greatness in the show ring. The greater the demands on your horse during training and competing, the more impact and strain on their hooves and the higher the risk of hoof injury. Further, with uneven hoof alignment, poor “grip” when maneuvering, improper angle to the hoof, and thus poor distribution of energy with motion, horses can suffer joint, soft tissue, or muscle injuries that can affect the horse long-term or even permanently.
The most common trimming/shoeing cycle, as reported by American Farriers Journal, is every 5-6 weeks (American Farriers Journal, 2018). Contrasting this to the infrequency of veterinary visits for most horses and that most veterinary exams aren’t conducted until there is a notable problem with the horse, a farrier’s observations of your horse can be a relatively consistent – and for the most part impartial – view of your horse’s health and changes over time. Farriers have a unique combination of understanding biology of the horse, a vested interest in your horse’s behavior and willingness to be manipulated without reactivity, and often relatively in-depth knowledge of your horse’s management, training program, environment, and personality. Some farriers may even be privy to knowledge of your horse’s diet and health history, depending on interaction with owners and barn managers.
With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that horse owners seek out the opinion of their farriers around 65% of the time when facing decisions about their horse’s health and management, second only to seeking out their veterinarian around 80% of the time (APHIS Veterinary Services, 2017). Thus, regular farrier visits are not only to help maintain hoof health – farriers can be an invaluable tool as a source of knowledge and attention to your horse’s status and could possibly detect changes the owner hasn’t, helping you catch problems early on when treatment is more effective.
Let’s take a look at some of the recommendations discussed in the American Farriers Journal about hoof health, trimming, and shoeing practices to keep horses’ hoof health on tract and ways your farrier can be a core member of your horse health care team.
Trimming/Shoeing Schedule to Prevent Changes in Hoof Shape
Timing trimmings and shoeings perfectly is a bit of an art. Too little time between and not much hoof is removed, costs increase overall, and you feel like not much has been accomplished – which may lead to prolonging to the next visit. Too much time between visits and the risk of wall chips or breakage increases as the horse bares more weight on the hoof wall instead of the full hoof sole. Horses with more parallel hoof shape tend to grow “long toes” when not trimmed in a timely fashion, which can lead to heels also growing under, changes in weight distribution on the bulb and sole, and increased risk of clipping themselves with their rear hooves. Horse with more triangular shape to their hoof tend to flair outward when not trimmed soon enough, which changes weight baring to a more downward direction onto the sole and increases the risk of clipping between adjacent legs. Further, since more hoof has to be removed when there’s too much time between trimmings, the more drastic change in the hoof can leave the horse feeling imbalanced, alter the angle of joints and strain of soft tissue, suddenly increase sole impact with the ground, and leave the horse feeling sore after the visit. For the shod horse, too much time between shoeings also means higher risk of losing a shoe, which can lead to increased risk of instability, bruising, and lameness, along with higher risk of damaged hoof wall as the nails are twisted and pulled with shoe loss.
Thus, most farriers prefer to try to stay ahead of growth so that as little change in the shape and angles of the hoof as possible takes place with trimming. Trimming before the hoof starts to flair outward or toes grow long or walls break helps provide your horse with consistency of how their feet feel, which will translate to consistent movements, ground strikes, and responsiveness for both you and your horse during training and competition.
Factors that Influence Timing Between Trimmings
Many factors will influence when your horse needs to be re-trimmed to maintain their shape and reduce major changes in weight baring patterns. Your horse’s diet and overall nutritional level influences rate of growth, as discussed by Dr. Juliet Getty, independent equine nutritionist, in a 2018 article.
“Since a protein deficiency can lead to slower hoof growth, the right proteins must be fed in the proper amounts. The building blocks for proteins, amino acids that contain sulfur and methionine are the major ingredients needed for building hoof structure and hoof health. These amino acids are found in most hoof supplements. Both a horse’s hair and hooves contain keratin. To produce this protein, the first requirement is sulfur, which is present in a number of amino acids. The horse’s overall diet needs to be high in protein quality rather than quantity. If you get a hay analysis or read a feed tag and it lists the crude protein level, remember that this is not an indication of quality, but only a measurement of the nitrogen content present in that protein.”
Another factor influencing growth rate includes ambient temperature, with slower growth in cold temperatures and faster growth in warmer temperatures. This is partly due to an overall slower metabolism in winter as horses conserve energy in colder temperatures, but this is also partly due to reduced blood flow to the extremities (which includes hooves!) in cold temperatures as the horse’s body redistributes blood flow to keep the core of the body and organs warm (Kellon, 2015).
Seasonal changes also often correspond to changes in forage quality, as often winter feeding includes aging hay and/or less nutritional grasses while spring/summer feeding often includes fresher/higher quality hay and more nutritional grasses. Also, in most cases, riding and training declines in winter, which also means less blood flow to hooves as a result of exercise.
Other factors that influence the trimming schedule is the age of the horse, as younger horses likely need trimmings more frequently than older horses. Younger horses have faster metabolisms and may have erratic growth patterns to their feet and bodies, so trimming more frequently can help them stay balanced as their skeleton and joints change relatively quickly. Particularly older horses may have slower growth rates, but they are also more prone to arthritic changes that require regular intervals of trimmings to help them stay comfortable and prevent unwelcome changes in the shape or weight distribution of their hoof that could cause pain, stiffness, or further reduced range of motion.
A basic trimming schedule to anticipate and discuss with your farrier is for horses to be trimmed every 7-8 weeks in winter and trimmed every 5-6 weeks in summer. In general, horses with shoes need them replaced more frequently to ensure the hoof wall doesn’t become damaged and make it difficult to re-shoe the horse, with shoeing every 6-7 weeks in winter and every 4-5 weeks in summer. Horses with chronic hoof problems, lameness, or who need corrective shoeing may need more frequent or variable schedules (Hoyer, 2013).
Common Causes of Lameness
A 2019 lameness study conducted by the American Farriers Journal reported the following as the 10 most common causes of lameness as ranked by farriers.
Options % of Farriers
Navicular disease 71%
White line disease 71%
Improper foot care 69%
Suspensory ligament injuries 60%
Degenerative joint disease (arthritis) in the hock 58%
Defective conformation, especially with the legs 58%
Degenerative joint disease (arthritis) in the knee 54%
Note: Of these top 10, laminitis/founder and navicular often have a dietary component, while the rest are typically correlated with footing (arena, stall, pasture, trails, etc.), training style/schedule, hoof management, and/or conformation. Of these, conformation is the only component predominantly out of your control! Even conformation can often be managed or attenuated as a source of lameness by including your veterinarian and farrier in decisions regarding your horse’s health and lifestyle. Working with your farrier, you can help both reduce lameness risk and improve your horse’s health by keeping these factors in mind as considerations for your horse’s daily management and training protocol.
Feeding for Hoof Growth and Hoof Supplements
Feeding to meet the needs of the hoof tissues is often just feeding solid nutrition for the horse, as a diet providing adequate energy, vitamins, minerals, and protein will meet the needs of many horses to develop adequate hoof tissues. Some horses, of course, seem to have naturally brittle, thin, soft, or inconsistent hoof growth. These horses should first have their diet analyzed for completion and balance by your Science Supplements nutritionist and considerations for their ability to consume, digest, and absorb nutrients should be assessed if they appear to have sufficient access to needed feed ingredients. From there, additional support in the form of a hoof supplement may be beneficial.
At the 2020 International Hoof Care Summit, 92% of attendees said they see hoof quality and growth improvements when foot care clients feed hoof supplements, which is probably why some 90% of full-time farriers recommend hoof supplement products, as found in a separate study by American Farriers Journal (American Farriers Journal, 2020). So what components of diet and supplements are part of the core needs for hoof health? Nicole Sicely discusses some of the dietary requirements for hooves in a 2020 article in American Farriers Journal.
“Protein. On a dry matter basis, the hoof wall is 90% protein. This doesn’t mean that a diet high in crude protein will cut it, though. A diet that is high in crude protein might still be lacking in specific amino acids (protein building blocks). Methionine and lysine might be the two most important amino acids for your horse’s hooves. They are necessary for the production of all protein types, including keratin. Supplementing 10g of lysine and 5g of methionine is reasonable.
Fatty acids. The outer layer of the hoof wall contains fat. It helps create a permeable barrier to keep internal moisture in and external moisture from the environment out. Hooves with a fatty layer should have a shine to them.
It’s best to use a horse’s natural diet as a guideline for supplemental fats. Horses on pasture receive mostly omega-3 fatty acids and some omega-6 fatty acids. When your horse does not have access to quality pasture, supplement with flax or chia. Four ounces (by weight) is a reasonable amount to supplement.
Zinc and copper. Zinc and copper are essential for hoof quality. There is a high concentration of zinc present in the hoof. With inadequate levels, your horse can experience weak connections, thin walls or slow hoof growth. Deficiencies in copper include soft feet, cracks, abscesses and thrush. These two small but mighty minerals also work together.
Together, copper and zinc support the proper function of the enzyme superoxide dismutase. This is a free radical superhero that helps protect the fats from breaking down. This breakdown can leave the hoof venerable to outside organisms.
High levels of iron or manganese can interfere with the absorption of copper and zinc. Forage is high in iron, therefore supplemental copper and zinc are very important for hoof quality. Look for a supplement with a minimum 500 mg of zinc and 200 mg of copper. Some horses will need much more than this, depending on the iron level in their forage. Avoid supplements that contain additional iron. This can be hidden in the ingredient list under ferrous sulfate. If a company is not transparent with the amount of copper and zinc per serving — listing it in ppm rather than mg — call and ask about the amount of mg per serving.
Vitamin B. Horses produce B vitamins in the hindgut. Those on high forage diets should have enough B vitamins. However, horses prone to colic, ulcers, stress, antibiotics or digestive upset might not produce adequate amounts.
There are eight different vitamin Bs. Out of all of them, biotin has been studied the most. A sufficient amount of biotin is 20 to 30 mg. Save your money on products that state they provide more than this [per dose] since excess will simply be excreted in your horse’s urine.”
Farriers May Notice Joint Problems Before Owners
Joint problems often happen slowly over time, which can make it difficult for horse owners to notice the small, incremental decline in joint function, range of motion, or subtle pain cues the horse starts to give. Farriers, however, see horses at intervals that can make these changes more notable from each visit to next. Further, farriers may notice and recognize differences in the shape of the hooves or how they are wearing in different ways, which can indicate changes in gait or weight bearing patterns. Dr. Hoyt Cheramie of Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica discusses the responsibility of the farrier in this capacity and how a farrier can be such a valuable tool to recognize joint problems early on.
“Farriers see a horse frequently, but infrequently enough to detect the subtle changes. It’s the sweet spot to detect subtle changes so the owner can be proactive when it comes to joint health. With a trained eye, farriers often watch a horse move, detect differences in how the horse is standing, notice the horse’s response when picking up the limbs, and have the opportunity to run hands down the legs. You can feel the slightest heat or mild swellings. The opportunity to detect subtle joint inflammation lies in noticing the differences from one farrier appointment to the next.
The dialogue between the horse owner and the farrier can also help spot potential problems. Be deliberate about asking if there have been any changes in the horse’s movement, or if the horse has been off, and make notes. Just having those conversations can help spot subtle changes in horse health.
As you recognize changes in horse health, recommend to the horse owner or trainer to seek veterinary guidance or assistance. You’re already considering the changes in the hoof and leg from the last time you trimmed that horse, but consider the uniqueness of your frequency of seeing that horse. Take the time to communicate your findings about more than the foot to the horse owner or trainer.”
The Farrier’s Involvement in Helping Treat Arthritis
Farriers can and should also be involved in managing arthritis and joint disease, as trimming and shoeing techniques can be used to alleviate pain and prevent further damage. In an excerpt from 2015 article by Heather Thomas, the role of the farrier in optimizing joint comfort for arthritic horses was discussed:
Paul Goodness, chief of Farrier Services at Virginia Tech’s Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va., says there are many therapeutic farrier options that can be employed, as well as different types of shoes that might help if conformation of the hoof is not good.
“We may use bar shoes or pads to create a more mechanically advantageous situation,” he says. “We also have softer materials to use as shoes. There are synthetic shoes and pads available and it may take trial and error to find what works best for that particular horse. We may simply use an asymmetrical shoe with one side of the shoe wider than the other side.”
If the horse is stiff and stumbling, the shoe may need easy breakover to minimize tripping. “This can be adjusted in many different ways,” Goodness says. “The farrier can help by changing the mechanics of how the lower leg works, making a dramatic difference.”
Noting Changes in Body Shape and Body Condition
Similar to how subtle joint degeneration may be difficult for owners to notice, likewise it may be hard for owners to notice subtle changes in body shape or body condition – up or down – in their horses over time. Again, as farrier visits are typically every other month, they will be more likely to note a change in adipose, muscle content, topline, abdominal volume, or alterations also related to skeletal changes (sway back development, upright stance, neck curvature, etc.). These changes can be a result of diet, digestion, dental problems, metabolic issues, over- or under-training, joint disease, injury, or even pregnancy state (yes… it happens!). When these changes develop, they may be a sign the horse is in need of diet or management adjustment or veterinary attention, and again catching these changes early helps with intervention before problems get too advanced. Author Pat Tearney discussed the role of the farrier in detecting changes in body condition as indicators of disease with Dr. Katherine Williamson, senior veterinarian in equine technical solutions for Purina Animal Nutrition.
Monitoring a horse’s body condition can provide farriers with useful information, as well as providing warning signs of trouble. “Body condition can let you know about metabolic problems like Cushing’s disease,” Williamson says. “A horse can be skinny as a rail, but still have those fat deposits or cresty necks.” Williamson says any major change in body condition should be a red flag. A farrier who understands how to assess body condition can pass that information on to a horse owner and veterinarian in a language the vet will understand.
Hoof health is influenced by your choices in management, training, environment, and farrier influence. Diet and supplementation should be designed to ensure first basic needs of the horse are met and then focus on ingredients specific to hoof health, in the right ratios and amounts.
Your farrier has a unique perspective on your horse’s health and well-being, and the farrier’s visit represents an opportunity for a healthcare professional to assess your horse for changes that may otherwise go unrecognized by your daily horse care team. The performance horse in particular is under high levels of stress with a variety of factors affecting their success in the arena and beyond, but at the most basic level, hoof health can make or break everything from comfort at rest to getting through a training session to even the success of a competition season – if not a career. Be sure regular hoof trimming and attentive shoeing is part of your essential tools in your horse’s management, and take the opportunity to try to maximize the contribution your farrier can make to your equine healthcare team.
American Farriers Journal. Average Shoeing Cycles. Polls. 2018. https://www.123formbuilder.com/sfnew2.php?redirect=true&action=showreports&s=3945025&rid=68058
American Farriers Journal. 10 Major Causes of Lameness. Friday’s Farrier Facts & Figures. 2019. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/11545-major-causes-of-lameness-2020-equine-outlook
American Farriers Journal. How Many Farriers Recommend Products to Clients? Do Supplements Make a Difference? Friday’s Farrier Facts & Figures. 2020. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/11827-farriers-who-recommend-products-to-clients-do-supplements-make-a-difference
APHIS Veterinary Services. Information Sources for and Providers of Equine Health Care, 2015. 2017. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/equine/downloads/equine15/Equine15_is_InfmSources.pdf
Cheramie H. Picking Up On Equine Joint Disease. American Farriers Journal. 2018. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/10222-picking-up-on-equine-joint-disease
Getty J. How important is protein quality when it comes to having an impact on hoof growth and hoof quality? American Farriers Journal. 2018. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/10444-protein-quality-having-an-impact-on-hoof-growth-and-hoof-quality-afjho
Kellon E. Hoof Health In Winter. American Farriers Journal. 2015. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/7972-hoof-health-in-winter
Hoyer K. Scheduling your clients. American Farriers Journal. 2015. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/4354-qa-scheduling-your-clients
Sicely N. Hoof Quality: Is Biotin enough? American Farriers Journal. 2020. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/11745-hoof-quality-is-biotin-enough
Tearney P. Teeth And Body Condition Can Be Red Flags For Senior Horses. American Farriers Journal. 2017. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/9525-teeth-and-body-condition-can-be-red-flags-for-senior-horses
Thomas H. Optimize Joint Comfort For Arthritic Horses. American Farriers Journal. 2015. https://www.americanfarriers.com/articles/7634-optimize-joint-comfort-for-arthritic-horses?v=preview