My Horse Won't Hold a Shoe
Horseback Magazine—Pete Ramey #1 3-10-2013
Q: “My horse’s hoof walls are very brittle, with multiple splits and sometimes they seem to peel apart in thin layers. We have tried shoes with clips, epoxy repairs and glue-ons, but the walls usually won’t hold a shoe for more than a month. My farrier suggested we pull her shoes for a while, but my horse is too lame to ride when she throws a shoe. Is there any help for us? Are some horses just born with such bad feet that there is no hope for them?”
A: Yes, some horses are just born with feet that cannot do their job. The good news is that such horses are so rare I have only seen a half-dozen in my entire career (spanning thousands of horses in 8 countries and most US states). What is, instead, very common are horses that have not had the opportunity to develop their hooves to their individual genetic potential. It is easy to blame a horse for having bad feet, but usually more accurate to blame ourselves—and more productive, too. When faced with hoof problems (or to prevent them), think of all the factors that can affect hoof quality and soundness. Try to optimize each factor and you can almost always improve hoof quality and performance. Here are some of the basics:
Although the subject of equine nutrition is complex, a majority of hoof problems and weaknesses are caused either by mineral deficiencies or by excess sugars in the diet—focusing on those two items can reap major benefits. Wall quality, frog quality and sole quality can usually be improved by finding ways to cut some of the sugar from the horse’s diet. Some time on green grass can be replaced with time in a dirt paddock eating hay, some of the grains can be replaced with higher-fiber feeds, and sweet treats (including apples and carrots) can be eliminated. It is also important to understand that you can almost never meet a horse’s basic nutritional needs by throwing a mineral block out in the pasture and giving a daily scoop of feed. Concentrated mineral supplements are important and generally make a huge difference.
To take it to the next level, hire an equine nutritionist (often worth their weight in cut-diamonds) to design a correct diet around your individual pasture and hay situation, or learn to do it yourself by studying the nutrition chapters in my book Care and Rehabilitation of the Equine Foot. Everyone’s hay and grass is different. In my home area, I have tested the hay and grass, and found that there is almost no copper or zinc present. So in my area, I only use supplements that are providing the full NRC (National Research Council) values of those two nutrients and the changes to hooves are dramatic. The soil, and thus the nutrients in grass, varies from place-to-place. You have to test your own forage to maximize your horse’s nutrition, because excess or imbalance can cause problems as well. This will not only help the hooves; the same nutrients needed for optimal hoof growth are also responsible for general health, performance, immunity and recovery—every aspect of the horse’s life, really.
Most horse owners already know that urine and manure can be destructive to the hoof walls, sole and frogs—routine barn and paddock cleanup is a must. An equally-important factor is the terrain the horse lives on. Horses that live on soft footing tend to develop soft hooves. This is a natural adaptation that helps horses maintain their own hooves in the wild, but does not do us any favors if we wish to produce hooves that perform well on hard terrain and with our added weight. Draining wet areas, adding fine gravel to high-traffic areas, and fencing horses out of those mushy areas can really help the hooves.
Cracked and flared hoof walls make shoeing difficult, rob performance and create a constant danger of more serious problems. These worries can usually be eliminated with improved nutrition, trimming and environment. Photo courtesy of P. Ramey, Care and Rehabilitation of the Equine Foot, Hoof Rehab Publishing, 2011.
Most horse owners recognize that a wide, healthy frog is a good thing—an indication of a healthy foot. Fewer horse owners realize that a sick frog can literally cause the rest of the foot to be unhealthy or even to be destroyed completely. If you have ever seen a horse with a deep central sulcus infection, think of how careful you have to be when picking out the resulting deep cleft in the center of the frog. The horse will flinch at the slightest scrape with the hoof pick, and may react violently if you try to insert the hoof pick inside the cleft. Now imagine how painful it would be moving over terrain impacting the ground heel-first. These horses usually compensate by shortening their stride and landing toe-first. This movement pattern over-stresses the laminae (connection of hoof wall to bone), leading to wall flares and thin soles at the toe. In my experience, most horses that have trouble holding a shoe are impacting the ground toe-first—it is a big deal.
To fix or prevent weakness or infection in the back of the foot, use the dietary and environmental advice already discussed. It is also very important to treat deep sulcus infections diligently—do not stop treating until you can see the entire frog i.e., there is no deep “crack” in the center, and no excess sensitivity. Most importantly, you have to put the frog and underlying tissues to work—overprotection leads to further weakness and increased sensitivity. Riding in hoof boots with padded insoles usually helps build strength in the frog area, and often eliminates the toe-first landing syndrome as well.
Same foot, one-year duration. When deep central sulcus infections are present in the frog, the horse cannot impact on the back of the foot. This can cause horses to throw shoes, wear the toes excessively, and predispose them to injuries to the foot and throughout the lower limbs. Diligent treatment by the horse owner cleared up this problem, creating a safer, happier situation for the horse. Photos courtesy of P. Ramey, Care and Rehabilitation of the Equine Foot, Hoof Rehab Publishing, 2011.
While most farriers would agree that a temporary barefoot period—while being routinely trimmed— can greatly improve hoof quality and function, this step is often eliminated because it interferes with the owner’s riding needs. Hoof boots are the great compromise that can allow the horse to benefit from barefoot turnout, while allowing the owner to carry on with their riding program. Riding in boots with padded insoles does a great job of developing the frog and internal foot as well—the more you ride, the more the foot tends to improve. Hoof boot development has come a long way in recent years. I tend to heat-fit the new Easyboot Glove, which is as light and almost as compact as a common horseshoe, with no buckles to interfere with movement.
The Microscopic Enemies
Fungi and bacteria are always at work feasting on your horse’s hooves. Their destruction contributes to cracks and tiny fissures in the walls, separation of the laminae, sensitivity and weakness in the frog, and can infect the coronet, soles and bars as well. The dietary and environmental factors already mentioned help remove some of these microbes from the horse and/or strengthen the hooves, giving them resistance. Antifungal/antibacterial soaks can be very beneficial as well, particularly if damage is already deep enough that you cannot see to the bottom of cracks and fissures. Many products and home remedies will work—here are my basic requirements for an acceptable soaking solution:
1) Kills both bacteria and fungi.
2) Does not harm living tissue (I half-jokingly tell clients they should be able to apply it to their own most-tender-parts, or it is probably not appropriate to put into a separation or deep sulcus on their horse’s foot).
3) Is not oily or greasy (such solutions may seal fungi into an anaerobic environment, increasing the destruction).
Routine Hoof Care
Routine trimming, at six-week (or less) intervals, is very important to overall hoof quality. When a hoof becomes overgrown, the laminae tend to separate and the walls tend to become shelly and split—weakness develops from the inside-out. I believe that this is just another adaptation that would allow the hoof to self-maintain (break away in chunks) if it became overgrown in the wild. The flip-side of this is that when the hooves are constantly maintained at a correct length, they tend to get tougher, thicker and stronger from the inside-out. Allowing your farrier to place the horse on a routine, automatic schedule year-round will yield a much-better hoof than if you call and schedule the farrier when it “looks like” the hooves need care. Remember that the new hoof growth produced during the “off-season” is what you will be competing on when it makes it to ground-level six months later.
You Are in Control
The most important thing you can understand is that hooves can be cultivated like a plant. You cannot stop hooves from constantly changing, but you can control whether this change is good or bad. Yes, every horse is bound by its individual genetic potential, but very few horses have had the chance to grow their best-possible hoof—whether your horse was blessed with nice feet or not, there is almost always room for improvement. It is worth the time, effort and money to do everything you can do develop the best hooves your horse can grow. The horse will not only perform better, but will also be less likely to become injured or fall victim to career-ending hoof disease—and in the end, you will probably spend less money on vet bills and specialty shoeing. Prevention is cheaper than cure and is a better deal for the horse as well.