A strong hoof is the foundation of a sound horse. When it comes to proper hoof care, it’s all about balance.

All horses need regular farrier care, and working with an experienced farrier is one of the best investments you can make in your horse’s soundness.

Maintaining correct hoof balance with regular trimming and shoeing by a qualified farrier prevents overloading structures in the limb and allows the hoof to function optimally.

A collaborative approach between your veterinarian, your equine nutritionist, and your farrier is the best way to optimize your horse’s hoof health.

This article will review everything horse owners need to know about proper farrier care for horses. We will also discuss how hoof balance, trimming, and shoeing influence your horse’s health and performance, as well as discuss the recent trend toward barefoot trimming.

Farrier Care for Horses

Farriers are highly skilled hoof care professionals who trim and balance hoofs and shoe horses.

These specialists can help identify, prevent and manage hoof health problems to protect your horse from lameness, joint issues and injuries.

Hoof Anatomy

Hooves are complex structures designed for optimal weight bearing and mobility. Healthy hooves expand to absorb shock and evenly distribute weight when they hit the ground. [1]

External hoof structures provide traction while protecting the sensitive internal soft tissues and bones. [2] These structures comprise the hoof capsule and include the hoof wall, sole, and frog.

The hoof wall is the hard, outermost layer of the hoof. When a horse’s foot is lifted, a white line is visible between the hoof wall and the sole. The frog is the triangular structure of elastic tissue pointing forward from the heels on the bottom of the hoof.

A robust and well-functioning hoof is critical for overall soundness and comfort.  While horses in the wild naturally wear their hooves down on rough terrain, domestic horses need farrier care to maintain their feet since hooves constantly grow, just like human fingernails.

Hoof Balance

Biomechanical efficiency is the guiding principle of all farrier care. Trimming and shoeing influence how the horse’s feet land and push off the ground in each stride. Horses need balanced hooves to ensure they move efficiently and don’t overstress specific structures.

Balanced hooves land slightly heel first or flat, with the lateral portions of the hoof wall meeting the ground in unison. Hooves should also leave the ground heel first and have minimal break over resistance. [11]

The break over point is the last point of the foot to leave the ground. Optimal break over occurs at or near the toe. Long toes stress the internal structures of the lower limb by acting like levers and delaying break over. [12]

Hoof Angles

Ideally, the front hoof wall angle should mirror the coffin bone angle. This angle is generally around 55 degrees relative to the ground. It can vary significantly between horses though, and x-rays are the only definitive way to measure it. [13]

Traditionally, these hoof angles should also match the pastern for optimal alignment. But matching these angles perfectly can come at the cost of removing too much wall or sole, which can damage hoof integrity. [14]

Center of Balance

Determining the central balance point can also help farriers determine how to shape the hoof for optimal balance. This point sits directly below the center of the coffin joint and corresponds to the broadest part of the sole.

Farriers aim to trim the hoof so that the distance from the central balance point to the toe is the same as the distance to the heels. [15]

Medial-Lateral Balance

Correct trimming also accounts for the proper side-to-side balance of the hoof wall. Good medial-lateral balance ensures an even distribution of weight across the internal structures of the horse’s hoof.

Most horses don’t have perfect conformation, so both sides of the hoof might not be equal in height. A balanced trim allows both sides to reach the ground simultaneously during movement. [11]

Identifying Balance Problems

Minor balance problems can distort the hoof capsule over time. Horse owners can identify these problems by examining their horse’s hooves. Flares at the toe or sides and vertical cracks at the toe or quarters indicate excess pressure on those areas. [16]

Both heels should be the same height. If one heel takes more weight, it gets pushed up, resulting in sheared heels. Underrun heels collapse forward due to low-heel, long-toe imbalance. If your horse puts excess weight on his toes, the heels will contract.

Heel abnormalities may also be a sign of navicular syndrome. [17]

A healthy hoof has a symmetrical sole and a plump frog. An asymmetrical, narrow frog with a deep fissure is another sign of imbalance. Thrush can occur in this fissure. [16]

Hoof growth rings should be parallel to the coronary band and evenly spaced. Prominent growth rings often appear after dietary changes. But asymmetrical or compact hoof rings can indicate slowed growth due to uneven weight bearing. [16]

Balance Radiographs

Balance radiographs are the best way to evaluate hoof balance accurately and compare the angles of the coffin, hoof wall, and pastern.

These x-rays can also measure sole depth to help your farrier and veterinarian determine the best trimming and shoeing strategy for your horse. [18]

Many veterinarians recommend taking balance radiographs every six months to catch problems before they cause visible hoof distortions or injuries.

Trimming

Trimming preserves the integrity of the hoof’s structure by re-shaping the hoof and removing excess growth. Overgrown, unbalanced feet predispose the horse to injury by placing abnormal stresses on the internal structures. [3]

The hoof wall can chip or crack if the hoof grows too long. An elongated toe can also weaken the white line and increase the risk of bruising and hoof abscesses. Untrimmed feet may also develop flares as the hoof wall begins to separate. [2]

Your farrier will assess your horse’s conformation and hoof angle before trimming to maintain proper alignment. Farriers use hoof knives, nippers, and rasps to trim the hoof down to an ideal length.

The external structures of the hoof don’t have nerves or blood vessels, so correct trimming doesn’t hurt the horse.  Excessive trimming though, can be painful and cause complications, so leave it to an experienced professional farrier that you trust.

Mad About Horses
Join Dr. Chris Mortensen, PhD on an exciting adventure into the story of the horse and learn how we can make the world a better place for all equines.
Apple Podcasts Spotify Youtube
Mad Barn Equine Nutrition Consultants

Shoeing Horses

Shoeing provides additional protection and traction for the hooves. Historians believe men invented metal horseshoes to prevent working horses from becoming footsore while carrying heavy loads or travelling long distances. [4]

Today, wet environmental conditions and modern horse management practices that weaken hooves increase the need for shoes.

Increased time spent confined in stalls reduces hoof growth quality due to decreased circulation, while regular physical activity including carrying a rider subjects the horse’s feet to greater stress. [5] Performance horses wear shoes to protect the hoof wall from this excess wear.

Advances in shoeing now allow skilled farriers to use shoes to help correct conformational problems, assist injury rehabilitation, and even improve performance. Farriers may use different materials, uniquely shaped shoes, or hoof pads to accomplish specific goals.

Not all horse owners choose to shoe their horses. There is a growing trend towards keeping horses barefoot, which you can learn more about in our article on Barefoot Trimming for Horses: Benefits for the Hoof.

Horse Shoe Materials

Steel and aluminum are the most common materials used for horseshoes.

Forged steel iron shoes are the traditional option by most farriers for horses without advanced shoeing needs. Aluminum horseshoes are lighter-weight and often used for race horses.

Recent research evaluating alternative horseshoe materials, such as fibreglass composites, suggests that these shoes can reduce loading stress on the horse’s leg. Reduced loading stress could benefit horses wearing composite shoes during injury rehabilitation. [6]

Shoe Shape and Placement

Shoes are shaped to support the entire hoof wall and fit the horse’s trimmed hoof. An ideal fit sits the toe of the shoe directly below the front