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Proper Hoof Loading

By Carole Herder

My friend had a vet recently visit as her horse seemed to be developing an abscess in his hind hoof. The vet commented on the fact that the horse was barefoot and started asking questions about his history. My friend said that he was a rescue horse and she was training him slowly but had started riding him and intended to keep him barefoot. As she really only had roads to ride on, she mentioned that she would continue to work him slowly and build up his hoof strength. The vet immediately jumped in and said she couldn’t possibly ride him on the road barefoot and she would have to get him shod.

Now, as my friend is rather a polite lady, she kept her mouth shut and didn’t speak her mind (unlike me!). But as she related the story to me later, it got me thinking about what really happens to the hooves when they are on hard ground. I know they don’t fall apart at the first sign of stony roads, but how to explain the workings of the hoof and horse to those of us who don’t understand, professional or otherwise!

I have mentioned before that horses’ hooves will only be as strong as the terrain that they live on so yes, if your horse lives on soft, muddy pasture 24/7 and you then take them out once a week on a twenty miler tarmac road, you may come across some problems! One of the main misconceptions is that the horse’s hoof wall will be worn away on the road. This idea makes the assumption that the horse’s hoof relies on the wall to take the full weight of the animal. However, when moving correctly, the horse should be weight-bearing on the back of its foot, using the heel, sole and frog primarily, while the wall is only for support – it is a protective structure and is not designed to bear the whole weight of the horse – similar to our own toe nails!

So yes, if the horse is loading incorrectly, the hoof wall will be worn away when worked on hard ground but if they load correctly, not only will hoof growth correlate with hoof wear, but the horse will be more balanced, have increased shock absorbency (by using the correct part of their hoof) and will perform better.

And don’t forget, if a horse is wearing shoes and they are used to load-bearing on the front of the hoof and around the rim (where the shoes are), they will continue to walk this way for a while when the shoes are removed. This is where hoof boots are invaluable, to ensure you can continue riding and to ensure your horse’s comfort and protection. So, there should be no such admonition as “that horse needs shoes to protect the hooves” – it simply isn’t true.

Needless to say, my friend won’t be calling that vet for assistance again!

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