1. Pick out your horse's feet. This may sound pretty basic, but it's the single most important thing you can do for his hooves--and I encounter a surprising number of owners who think picking out the feet is the farrier's job. Your horse gets a head start on healthy hooves, and (as I'll explain) you get a chance to take early action on many common hoof problems, if you pick out his feet...
- before each ride, to remove any stones or small objects lodged in his feet before you add your weight to the situation, and to check on the condition of his shoes (more on that soon)
- after you untack him, in case something has gotten stuck in his feet during the ride
- when you bring him in at night, to check for objects in his feet, or for turnout injuries
- before turnout the next morning, to check for heat and pulse (see below), remove manure, and check for signs of thrush (more details on that below).
Each time you clean your horse's hooves, take an extra couple of minutes after you've pried out any packed debris to gently clear the crevice of the frog, and scrape any remaining bits of matter off the sole, with the tip of the pick. You want to be able to see the sole's entire surface, so finish the job with a stiff brush. Some hoof picks come with brush attached, or you can buy a brush separately and inexpensively.
2. Establish what's normal. While handling your horse's feet to pick them out, notice their temperature; when everything's OK, they'll feel very slightly warm (more soon on what the variations can mean). Take a moment to locate the digital pulse with two fingers pressed against the back of his pastern; you're interested not in the rate of the pulse, but in its strength under normal conditions. Check the frog, which has about the texture and firmness of a new rubber eraser when it's healthy. Don't be alarmed, though, if everything else looks OK but the frog appears to be peeling off--most horses shed the frog at least twice a year, sometimes more often. Your farrier's regular trimming of the frog may have prevented you from noticing this natural process before.
3. When picking out the feet, look for signs of...
- Thrush. The first clue to this bacterial condition (usually caused by prolonged standing in manure, mud, or other wet, filthy conditions, or even by prolonged use of pads) is a foul smell and dark ooze from the cleft of the frog. Later, the frog becomes cheesy in texture. Although thrush can eventually cause lameness and significant hoof damage, its early stage is simple to treat. Use an over-the-counter remedy recommended by your farrier or veterinarian--follow directions carefully--and make sure your horse's stall is clean and dry. If you normally bed with straw, consider a change to much more absorbent shavings. Some horses--especially those with upright, narrow feet with deep clefts that tend to trap more dirt, debris, and manure--are predisposed to thrush even when well cared for. If you think your horse has an early case, ask your farrier to check.
- Puncture. If a nail or other object pierces your horse's sole and then falls out, the entry wound will probably be invisible by the time you pick his feet and you'll be unaware of it until it causes an abscess (below). But in some cases the object remains in place, to be discovered when you brush the last bits of dirt from the sole. DON'T PULL IT OUT. Put your horse in his stall (protect the punctured foot, and help the foreign object stay put, with wrapping and duct tape, or with a slip-on medication boot), and call your veterinarian right away. An X-ray of the foot can show how far the object has penetrated and which structures are involved. (If you pick your horse's feet out regularly, you'll find the problem within a few hours of its occurrence.) Then your veterinarian can remove the object and advise a course of treatment.
- Cracks. Some cracks are superficial; others can worsen, involving sensitive hoof structures, without appropriate shoeing. (One cause of a crack is a hoof abscess--see below--which breaks out through the coronet band at the top of the hoof, creating a weak spot in the hoof wall that must be attended to as it grows out.) If you notice a crack in your horse's hoof, call your farrier and describe its location and size so he can decide whether it needs attention now or can wait until the next regular shoeing.
- Abscess. If your horse's digital pulse feels stronger than usual and/or is foot is warmer than normal to the touch, the cause could be an abscess inside the hoof from a badly placed shoeing nail, a bruise, or an overlooked sole puncture. Your routine check can alert you to the problem and get your veterinarian or farrier involved before your horse--probably at least slightly lame already on the abscessed foot, which throbs from the pressure of increased blood flow to the infected area--is in even greater pain. (If you find increased heat and a stronger-than-usual digital pulse in both front feet, and if he's shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, call your veterinarian immediately. These are signs of laminitis, an inflammatory condition that can cause severe hoof damage--and, if not treated promptly, can even be fatal.)