Healthy vs unhealthy hooves

There’s a saying in the Health and Wellbeing world that many of us don’t realise how good our bodies could feel.  I think that in the Horse world the equivalent might be that most of us don’t know what a healthy hoof looks like.

The hoof on the left (below) is a healthy hoof: smooth wall, low heel, short toe.

The one on the right is an unhealthy hoof: the coronet band is at an unnatural angle indicating internal changes (see below) the wall is ridged, the heel is higher and the toe longer (even though it appears to have been trimmed).


hoof xray comparison

The xray on the left (above) shows how the pedal bone in a healthy foot is parallel to the wall of the hoof.  The pedal bone on the right has separated from the wall of the hoof and is now pressing painfully on the sole of the foot.

The photograph below compares the underside of healthy / unhealthy hooves.  For anyone who might be unfamiliar with the names of the parts of the hoof, here is a diagram showing the areas I’ll be referring to:

hoof anatomy

The hoof on the left (below) has a strong sole, wall and bars. Also the frog looks healthy and there’s a nice wide heel with a shallow sulcus.

The hoof on the right has a contracted heel with a deep sulcus which could allow infections such as thrush to grow. The frog and sole look very different from those of the other hoof and the wall appears to be crumbling. There are marks on the sole which could indicate infection or bruising.


These changes in the hooves, and the resulting lameness that often follows, can be very worrying.  In fact many horses are lost each year due to painful hoof conditions.  These are often diagnosed as ‘laminitis’ or ‘navicular’ however they are actually part of a whole-body dis-ease.

Domestic horses are often kept stabled for long periods of time.  This causes stress which results in chemical changes in their bodies and also lowers the effectiveness of their immune systems.  It also means that they can be left standing in their own waste and that they have restricted movement.  Many commercial feeds contain high levels of sugars (even those which say they are aimed at Insulin Resistant horses) and also chemicals such as pesticides, preservatives and mould inhibitors.  All these take their toll on the horse’s metabolism.

The AANHCP (Association for the Advancement of Natural Horsecare Practices) put out this statement:

 “We have long urged you to read the labels on feed products and avoid those with sweeteners, insecticides, mould inhibitors, petroleum by-products (mineral oil), sugar / molasses / other ‘hidden’ sweeteners, and agricultural waste products such as beet pulp, oatfeed & wheat middlings. Now, many hay growers – especially in humid, rainy areas – are using glyphosate weed killers, not only to kill weeds, but also to speed up the drying time on hay crops. 

According to Dr Debbie Carley of Thunderbrook Feeds in the U.K., these weedkiller residues are getting into feed in vast amounts ever since the patent on glyphosate (the main ingredient in most weedkillers) expired, which makes the toxic chemical much cheaper.

Sadly the alternative of turning your horse out on grass isn’t always the answer, particularly if the grass is rich pasture land originally intended for grazing cattle or sheep.  This grass was for fattening the livestock for market or for a high milk yield and is generally too rich for horses who have evolved to live off low nutrient vegetation.  Also, if a horse is surrounded by this tasty food there is no motivation for him to move far.

Contrast this with the lifestyle of wild horse herds.  They can roam distances of up to 30km in a day looking for food, and they are continuously browsing and foraging throughout the day.  The domesticated horse’s lifestyle is very different from that of their wild cousins and involves much less movement.  Just like us, this can lead to ill health.  However, in recognising this we can explore changes to improve the health, and quality of life, of the animals in our care.

Dr Sid Gustafson of The University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada says that we need to “provide the horse with abundant forage, friendship, and locomotion.”

In his blog article posted in April 2014 he goes on to say:

Locomotion is required not only for normal healing, but for normal digestion, respiration, hoof health, circulation, and all other physiologic functions of the horse. Stall rest is at the expense of many systems, especially the hoof and metabolic systems. Digestion and respiration are compromised by confinement and restriction of movement. Metabolic, digestive, circulatory, hoof health, musculoskeletal, and nervous, systems, as well as the all other systems and functions of the horse, are dependent upon adequate and appropriate locomotion for normal functioning and/or healing.

The wall of the hoof is made of keratin, just like our fingernails and in a healthy hoof it grows at the rate of about 1/4 to 3/8 inch per month.  Therefore, given the correct diet and lifestyle horses hooves can recover from the changes shown above, enabling them to have strong, sound feet again. It may take time, and the hoof will probably go through some weird shapes along the way, but your horse will be happier and healthier in the end.




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