Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.

In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.

Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.

Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.

* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.

Caring for your horse's feet

Foot problems are one of the most common causes of lameness in horses. However, the care of horse's feet is often overlooked by owners. Neglected feet can develop many conditions which, if left untreated, can result in severe lameness with loss of use of your horse. Maintaining your horse's feet in good condition is of primary importance. It is also necessary that you are aware of the conditions that can affect your horse and how to recognise them.

Why is the foot prone to so many problems?

Horses' feet are remarkable. They support the entire weight of your horse (on average, 500 kg) and yet are only in contact with ground over a very small area.

With the front feet taking 2/3rds of the horse's weight it is no wonder that the majority of lameness occur in the forelimbs. Most forelimb lameness is connected with either the suspensory ligament or common hoof capsule abscesses. The majority of hindlimb lameness is situated in and around the tarsus joint (hock).

For the foot to function effectively, it is vital that the hoof capsule is complete, free from irregularities and provides a secure platform for the horse to stand and to move freely from.

Basic structure of the hoof

The hoof wall
This is made of a horn-like substance similar to your fingernails. It grows from the coronary band at the top of the hoof capsule at the junction with the hairline. Growth from the coronary band is slow, only about 0.5 cm (¼ inch) per month. The hoof wall encases the soft tissues and bony structures of the foot.

When viewed from the side, the dorsal hoof wall should ideally, but not always, be parallel to a line drawn through the pastern.

The front pastern angle will usually be less than the equivalent angle in the hind pastern. When picked up, the front foot will show a rounder shape than the hind foot which will usually be more pointed towards the toe.

The sole
This is the under surface of the foot. It should be slightly concave at rest, but will flatten during movement. This flattening will, if excessive, cause discomfort if the ground is irregular, stony or hard. In the centre of the sole is the triangular mass called the frog. It is usually soft to the touch, but in dry conditions will be as hard as the other parts of the hoof capsule.

The frog
This is the raised triangular-shaped structure in the centre of the sole. The frog allows the hoof to flatten and spread during locomotion and in doing so allows the hoof wall to move outwards without damage, and when unloaded return to its normal shape.

The frog 'sheds' several times a year and this can give rise to the 'new frog' being sensitive until it hardens.

How should I care for my horse's feet?

There are very simple measures which you should take to help maintain your horse's feet in good condition. These include:

  • Clean the feet daily with a hoof pick. As well as being essential for the health of the feet this gives you an opportunity to check the feet and make note of any cracks, discomfort and the condition of the shoes (if shod).
  • Feed a well-balanced diet as this will ensure healthy hoof growth. If your horse suffers from 'weak' hooves you may wish to feed a hoof supplement - ask your vet, farrier or nutritionist for advice.
  • Ensure regular appointments are arranged with your farrier or hoofcare professional - as a general rule your horse's feet should be assessed every 4-8 weeks.
  • Contact your vet for advice at the first sign of lameness.
  • Ask your vet or farrier to show you how to take a digital pulse; this will help you evaluate any discomfort and relay that information to your vet or farrier.

Why are visits by a farrier or hoofcare professional so important?

As the hoof capsule grows it puts varying pressures on structures. To keep the structures with even constant loading is essential to keep the hoof in good condition, free from irregularities to the continuity of the hoof wall. In this way the hoof will be able to resist those forces placed upon it, and able to protect those structures within the hoof capsule without putting undue strain on other structures.

Farriers can obtain different levels of skill and craftsmanship which are recognised by qualifications issued by the Worshipful Company of Farriers and then placed on The Register of Farriers. Registered farriers (and vets by special provision in The Farrier Registration Act 1975) are the only hoofcare professionals allowed, by law, to apply shoes or permanent protection to the feet of horses in the UK.

Other hoofcare professionals who trim horse's fee can receive training under the UK Natural Hoofcare Practitioners (UKNHCP) and the Equine Podiatry Association (EPAUK).

These are entirely optional organisations that do not currently have legal status or requirement.

Which farrier/hoofcare professional should I use?

Finding a farrier or hoofcare professional for your horse in an important choice to make.

Get personal recommendations from other horse owners in your area and ask your friends. Word of mouth is often the best way of finding an experienced, reliable professional in your area.

If you are still unsure, visit the Farriers Registration Council website www.farrier-reg.gov.uk to search for registered farriers. To find a registered hoofcare professional, the UK Natural Hoofcare Practitioners (UKNHCP) www.uknhcp.org.uk and the Equine Podiatry Association (EPA) www.epauk.org are the best places to start.

Other useful websites

What does a farrier routinely do?

If your horse is shod, the feet will be prepared before fitting new shoes, appropriate shoes selected, and applied.

Your farrier will discuss:

  • The use of the horse during the shoeing period (4-6 weeks)
  • The surface on which the horse will perform
  • Any lameness issues
  • The condition of the hoof wall into which they will be nailing

Your farrier will then advise on the most appropriate type of shoes for your horse, and also on the time for the next appointment to ensure the feet are kept in good condition.

What warning signs should I look out for?

The following information describes the more common conditions that affect your horse's feet:

Hoof wall cracks
These usually start as small cracks on the edge of the hoof wall ('grass cracks'), but some can appear at the coronary band or further up the heel ('sand cracks'). They can be horizontal or vertical. They can cause lameness and, if left untreated, can worsen and become infected causing further pain to your horse. Cracks can be caused by trauma, injury, sudden mechanical overloading, nutrient deficiencies, and poor foot maintenance. They require prompt veterinary and farriery treatment.

Subsolar bruising
Bruising will not be immediately evident unless the sole is pared away. Bruising results in inflammation and pain resulting in lameness. It is usually the result of overwork, trauma to the foot, thin/flat soles. Treatment involves veterinary attention and rest, and possible protection to the affected area.

Subsolar abscesses ('pus in the foot')
This condition is extremely painful and often your horse will be reluctant to bear any weight on the affected leg. It is quite frightening to see your horse trying to walk on three legs and it is not uncommon for owners to think their horse has broken its leg! However, the pain is due to a build-up of pressure inside the hoof wall and as soon as the pressure is relieved your horse will be much more comfortable. This condition is potentially very serious so you should contact your vet immediately. If the infection is left untreated it can spread to the bones and sensitive areas of the foot. The abscess may burst around the coronet with evidence of draining pus - the lower limb may also be seen to be hot and swollen; this requires veterinary attention.

Penetration injuries
Puncture wounds of the foot are quite common. If a sharp, penetrating object, such as a nail, is trodden on, it is very important to establish what part of the sole was injured and how far the object penetrated. This is because if the underlying bone (pedal bone or navicular bone) or joints (coffin joint or navicular bursa) are penetrated the outlook can be very poor unless immediate veterinary treatment is given.

In cases where an object, eg nail, is seen protruding from the foot, DO NOT REMOVE IT; CALL YOUR VET IMMEDIATELY. Your vet will perform and x-ray which will determine what structures are involved.

Nail bind/nail prick
Nail bind occurs when the nail of the shoe is placed too close to, but not into, the sensitive laminae of the foot, resulting in inflammation and lameness. Nail prick on the other hand is where the nail penetrates the sensitive laminae of the foot, which can cause infection and abscess which will require veterinary attention.

Corns result from pressure on the sensitive tissues at the angle formed by the wall of the foot and the bar. They are most commonly found on the inner angle of the front feet. Corns require veterinary attention and rest.

This is a bacterial (Fusobacterium necrophorum) infection of the central and lateral clefts (sulcus) of the frog. It produces a foul-smelling greeny-black substance particularly in the crevice between the frog and the sole.

It is most commonly seen in horses kept on water-logged ground or wet bedding, or caused by infrequent picking out of the feet. Thrush may require treatment from your vet, but ensuring the feet are thoroughly cleaned and are kept clean and dry will help.

Canker can be mistaken for thrush in early stages, but it's much more serious. It is usually seen in large draught type horses kept in wet tropical climates, which means the condition isn't seen very often. Canker is a severe bacterial/fungal infection that generally originates in the frog, and affects the heels, horn and underlying structures of the hoof. The results are the development of pus (with characteristic foul odour) and bleeding around the frog, the diseased horn within the hoof starts growing out from the frog which resembles a cauliflower-like growth. Horses may stamp their feet due to the discomfort and severe cases may show lameness, swollen lower limbs and even a reluctance to stand.

Canker is difficult to treat, and can take many months to resolve, so if you suspect your horse is suffering from canker, call your vet immediately.

The signs of this less common condition are an open wound with a blood/pus discharge at or above the coronet on the inside or outside edge. It can be caused by a wound or trauma, eg being stood on by another horse.

Quittor needs prompt attention by your vet as surgical treatment may be required.

This is a very painful condition of the feet resulting from the disruption of the normal blood flow to the foot. The signs of laminitis are:

  • Lameness - most commonly in the front feet
  • Increased digital pulse
  • 'Heel before toe' gait
  • Characteristic stance - weight is shifted to the hindlimbs with the forelimbs stretched out in front
  • Rings in the hoof wall
  • Bruising of the soles
  • Widening white line with abscesses

Laminitis is a medical emergency. and you should contact your vet immediately if your horse has more than one of these symptoms.