Seven Secrets to Hoof Health

Follow these farrier-tested tips to avoid midsummer hoof blues.
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Follow these farrier-tested tips to avoid midsummer hoof blues.

You said it wouldn't happen again, but here you are: Your horse is confined, and your checkbook is out, as you wait for your farrier to come and fix your horse's ailing hooves. Meanwhile, you're missing out on another weekend of trail riding.

Could this scenario be avoided? Yes. Organize your approach to hoof care, farriers say, and your riding time is more likely to be uninterrupted by emergencies, equipment failures, and last-minute fix-ups.

Following are farriers' top seven secrets to keeping your horse sound all summer long.

Secret #1: Check your horse's hoof history. Check back through your records and bills to see what problems your horse has had in the past. Did some keep coming back? Is your horse prone to infections or injuries-such as bruising-at certain times of the year? Ask your farrier and veterinarian what you can do this year to avoid those problems. 

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Secret #2: Plan ahead. Farriers have lives, too. Ask your farrier well ahead of time whether he or she is on call during the summer-or whether you should have the name and number of an apprentice or colleague on hand just in case. Make sure that he or she knows your plans for the summer. If you say, "I've been waiting for years to go on that ride and we're booked for the 4th of July!" your farrier will know how important the ride is to you. Your farrier might reply, "Well, we'd better get the snow pads off early." Or, "Too bad-I'll be away the month of June, so I won't be here to check him before you go." If you know a farrier's availability in advance, you'll know when to prepare a backup plan, in case of emergency. But if you find out at the last minute, this information can throw you into the panic zone! If you have a ride planned that's much more ambitious than your normal schedule, ask your farrier for a checkup appointment the week before you plan to leave-and another a few days after you return. Paying a small fee for a maintenance checkup is worth it, especially if your horse's feet show a bruise or infection that might cause problems on the trail. Also, have your farrier check your horse when you return to make sure that no excessive damage or wear has put your horse at risk. A bonus: If your horse comes home sore or even lame, you'll already be booked for a checkup. (Note: If your farrier suggests that you call your vet, heed the advice, and reach for the phone!)

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Secret #3: Know thy shoes.Ask your farrier to give you the specifics of your horse's shoe size style, and the manufacturer (for example, "St. Croix Toe-and-Heeled, Size 1"). Note whether your horse's shoes are clipped (specify side clips or toe clips) or unclipped, and whether his hind shoes are squared at the toe. Get information about both front and hind shoes: It's not unusual for horses to wear different types and sizes of shoes on hind and front feet. Then, if you're away from home or if your regular farrier is unavailable, a stand-in farrier will know right away how to shoe your horse. And if you report that your horse wears, for example, "clipped aluminum GE egg bars with Impact gel pads and Equithane wall filler," a potential farrier might ask that you find a more experienced farrier who's accustomed to working with complex shoeing packages. Tip: If you haul long distances to trail ride, consider paying your farrier to fit up spare shoes to take along, just in case.

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Secret #4: Check wear patterns.Ask your farrier if you can keep the old shoes the next time your horse is due for new ones. (Ask that they be marked left or right, or you'll be confused!) Study the shoes carefully. Where's the most wear? Looking at a worn shoe will show you if your horse "breaks over" (brings his weight over) at the center of his toe, or to the outside or inside. Some horses will show excessive heel wear. Turn the shoes over, and look at the foot surface; you may find abrasion marks where the heels "expand" across the steel or aluminum surface. Some wear there is normal, but excessive grooving may be a red flag to discuss with your farrier. 

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Secret #5: Check for worn-out shoes. An active summer can make quick work of a horseshoe. You may be riding on pavement more often, or riding over rockier ground than the soft terrain of a wet spring. Warn your farrier well in advance if your horse's shoes look thin or if the clinches are weak. Be prepared to haul your horse to your farrier, if needed, but don't ride on thin shoes held on by weak clinches! Consider investing in farrier tools, so that you can safely remove a loose shoe. I recommend a pair of pull-offs, creased nail pullers, and a rasp, available from a farrier-supply store. (Two are Brighton Feed and Saddlery, www. Brightonsaddlery.com, and Harry Patton Horseshoe supply, www.harrypatton.com.) Your horse can become badly injured by stepping on a bent shoe or broken nails-but if you try to remove the shoe without proper tools, you risk removing a chunk of hoof wall or bruising his hoof. Invest in form-fitting hoof boots, such as Easyboots or Boa Horse Boots (www.easycareinc.com), in case your horse loses a shoe at home or on the trail. Learn how to use them, and keep them on hand. 

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Secret #6: Protect your horse's feet.You might think that going shoeless is the ideal state for your horse-and your budget. Most of the time, that's right. But an active trail-riding schedule-especially if you ride on pavement or rocky ground-can put too much stress on some horses' bare hooves. Ask your farrier whether your horse might need shoes for the heavy riding season. Ask your farrier whether your horse might be a ggod candidate for a high-tech hoof boot, such as Old Macs from Australia (www.oldmacs.com), or the new Mrquis Boots from Germany (www.strideequus.com). Such boots can cost even more than shoes, but they should last much longer. Hoof boots will help your horse only if they fit properly. For best results, ask your farrier to get the correct size boots and to adjust them for you. After you've ridden your horse in his hoof boots, schedule a checkup to make sure his heel bulbs or coronary band aren't being pinched or scraped. For further fir and use tips, check out hoof boot manufacturer's Web sites, such as the ones listed left. Depending on your riding surface, dust, sand, and other debris can get inside the boots, irritating your horse's skin or hoof wall. (Sand can actually grind down hoof walls like sandpapet.) To help prevent this, place large tube socks on your horse's hooves before you apply the boots. Or invest in Marguis Boots, which come with Teflon socks to protect against chafing. Don't abuse your horse to show off how tough his feet are. If his feet are tender, the walls have worn lower than the sole, or you notice him "dancing in place" and shifting weight from one front foot to the other, stand him in an ice bath or cold running stream while you call your vet. Invest in an EDSS First Alert Kit (www.hopeforsoundness.com). This kit contains Styrofoam pads you apply with duct tape to protect your horse's sore feet until your vet arrives. Don't ride a hurting horse!

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Secret #7: Become equipment savvy.

Clean all your tack, boots, wraps, and trailering gear well.

Fran Jurga of Gloucester, Massachusetts, is the editor and publisher of Hoofcare Lameness: Journal of Equine Foot Science. She also owns and writes The Hoof Blog (www.hoofblog.com). For more of her helpful articles for horse owners, go to www.hoofcare.com.

KEEP HIM SOUND

Here's the good news: Riding doesn't necessarily stress your horse's hooves-in fact, the opposite is probably true. Too little exercise limits circulation to your horse's feet and curtails horn growth, particularly if he lives in a confined space, and/or is overweight.

If you properly care for your horse's hooves before, during, and after a ride-and if your riding schedule is consistent and reasonable to ensure that your horse's fitness matches his schedule-you both should sail through summer, down any trail you choose. Here are some bonus tips to help keep him sound.

Pre- and post-ride checklist: Walk your horse without the saddle. Make sure he walks freely and willingly.

Look your horse over from head to tail-and down to all four toes. Note any cuts or scrapes that might cause soreness or irritation.

Clean your horse's feet with a hoof pick to remove any irritating rocks and packed dirt/manure.

As you clean your horse's feet, run your hand around the nail clinches in the hoof wall. The wall should be smooth. If you feel a rough bit of metal, a clinch is "raised" or "popped," and the shoe may be loose. A horse can also cut himself on a ragged clinch.

Check the shoe heels. If you find one that isn't directly under your horse's heel, he may have a "sprung heel." That is, his heel is hitting the shoe's edge as it expands and contracts. Your farrier will need to remove, re-level, and reshape the shoe, then nail it back on. Riding on a sprung heel can cause corns or more severe hoof injury.

Run your hand around your horse's coronary band (the part of the lower leg where the hair stops and hoof growth begins) at the hairline, and feel for bumps, swelling, and/or heat. (If you've clipped your horse's pasterns, consider applying bell boots to protect his coronets.)

Run your hands down each of your horse's legs, feeling for heat, swelling, and/or tenderness, especially on the inside.

Check old injury sites/hoof cracks, and make a mental note of their condition before you ride, for comparison when you return.

When not to ride: Don't ride if your normally obedient horse resists when you try to pick up a foot, seems tender to your touch, you see swelling or redness at his coronet, or you see red marks on his hoof sole. Don't ride if you see any signs of a loose shoe. Don't ride on an injured or cracked hoof.

When to turn back: Turn back at the first sign of lameness, altered gait, or repeated stumbling. Dismount, loosen the cinch/girth, and walk your horse home, or use your cell phone to call someone with a trailer to pick you up.

Expert tip: Photograph your horse at different times through the year. You'll notice how his body shape changes as his haircoat and fitness level change-his feet will show changes, too. Take close-up photos of each foot and shoes. You may be surprised to notice how his hoof shape and hairline junction contours change. A jammed heel may come down, or a bump in the hairline over a wall flare may subside-or worsen, a warning sign of unequal pressure on the wall, or abnormal footfall. Photos of such changes will be valuable if he ever suffers a serious hoof injury or contracts a serious hoof disease, such as laminitis. Your farrier needs to know what's normal for your horse, so he or she can better judge-and trim or shoe for abnormalities.

For instance, it'll be helpful to know that your horse's right front foot was always a bit steeper than his left one, or that his heel bulbs had been prominent before the injury or disease.

Look at the nail holes-are they enlarged? Shoes with heavy wear will have deformed nail holes caused by nail movement in the shoe and hoof wall. This type of wear is often the result of long miles on hard ground, but also can be caused by your horse repeatedly stomping at flies or kicking stall walls.

Keep worn shoes in a plastic bag, or photograph them. As the summer goes on, compare your horse's current wear pattern with the shoes you've labeled "normal." Is the wear the same? Changes in wear patterns are subtle early warning signs that your horse is changing his gait or loading pattern (how he distributes his weight over his hooves as he moves). He may be swinging a leg out to avoid a bruise or swelling, or landing toe-first to avoid heel pain. Point out any changes to your farrier, and ask for his or her advice.