General Horse Care

Caring For Your Horse

"A little neglect may breed mischief...for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; and for want of a horse, the rider was lost."

Benjamin Franklin

Hoof Care
More Care Topics
Medical Care


In their natural state, horses do not use energy unnecessarily. They move slowly from one feeding ground to the next and, as long as the area is large enough, they can exist solely on grasses and herbs. When the weather is cold and feed less plentiful, they naturally lose weight; and when the opposite climatic conditions prevail, they just as naturally put on weight.

Energy expenditure is very different for the domestic horse, who is expected to work under saddle or in harness, often at speeds and over distance. As a result, he expends great amounts of energy and, if he is not to lose condition dramatically, he must be fed foods other than those that are natural to him. These foods must be fed in balance and it may also be necessary to include vitamin and mineral supplements to maintain peak condition.

The basic feeding objectives are: 1. To maintain health at a level that encourages resistance to disease and reduces the severity of any illness, so allowing for a more rapid recovery. 2. To produce, in conjunction with exercise and grooming, a physical condition compatible with the work that the horse is required to do. 3. To feed so as to avoid mental stress at whatever the level of fitness. A diet that is too rich or one that is too high in protein can cause stress and result in behavioral problems.

The principles involved in feeding are: 1. Intake of food energy must equal energy output. Too much overloads the system, resulting in digestive and circulatory problems, and too little causes loss of energy and condition. 2. Feed little and often. A total of 4lb per concentrate feed is the limit. 3. After feeding, allow one hour for digestion before working. 4. Observe the ratio between bulk and concentrate. Bulk, which is primarily made up of hay, must form between 1/2 and 2/3 of the diet for the proper function of the digestive system. 5. Water must always be available to allow food to be fully utilized.

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Grooming is primarily carried out for appearance's sake, however, it has other objectives as well. Grooming cleans the skin so that it can work to maximum effect. Grooming and strapping, when the horse is rhythmically thumped with a pad on the shoulders, quarters and neck, also encourages muscle development and tone, and promotes circulation.

Stabled horses that are clipped, kept under artificial conditions, and fed quantities of heating food, create additional waste matter. Much of this waste is removed through an increased rate of breathing and through excrement, but much is also disposed of through the skin, the pores of which must be clean if the function is to be fulfilled.

In the case of the stabled horse, grooming is best carried out after morning exercise, when the horse is warm and its pores open. Strapping, sometimes called wisping, builds up muscle - both on horse and human - but it is better done toward the end of the day in order to maintain the rate of circulation during the night.

Horses kept out at pasture should not be overly groomed since you remove the waterproofing layer of grease from the coat. It is sufficient to brush off the worst of the mud before going for a ride.

Grooming is best carried out from front to rear, starting high up on the horse's head behind the ears. Stand away from the horse, the secret of grooming lies in getting one's whole weight behind the brush, which cannot be done when too close to the horse. The body brush can be used for cleaning the head but great care must be taken not to bang the bony projections with its hard edge. After every few strokes, clean the brush on the curry comb, which is held in the opposite hand. The stiff dandy brush is used for cleaning muddy legs, which usually are left unclipped as a protection against the cold. It is far too stiff and harsh to be used on the horse's body.

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The invention of the nailed horse shoe is attributed to the Celts of Gaul, the foremost ironworkers of the ancient world. The Celts were established in Britain by 450B.C., and it is possible that they were shoeing horses before the Roman invasion.

Shoeing was unnecessary for horses in the Middle East because of the dry conditions, which encouraged the formation of exceptionally strong, hard horns. In the wet conditions of Europe, however, hooves became soft and easily broken, leaving horses footsore and lame. The road systems created by the Romans and the damp atmosphere also contributed to excessive wear of the hooves.

The object of shoeing the hoof has not changed. The shoe protects the hoof of the working horse from being worn away more quickly than it could be replaced by natural growth, and it also improves the gripping property of the hoof.

The farrier's job is to preserve its natural function and the horse's natural action. He also seeks to remedy conformational defects resulting in faulty movement, and to counter the effect of disease. Corrective shoeing ensures that the horse remains sound, its working life is extended and its performance is improved.

The horn grows between 1/4" and 3/4" per month, therefore, the shoes need to be removed every four weeks so that the excess growth can be removed. A new set of shoes should be fitted if the old ones are unserviceable.

Before the farrier can fit each horse shoe, the hoof has to be prepared. This entails removing any surplus growth from the hoof until the surface is level. Hooves that turn in or out can be corrected by removing the overgrowth that usually causes these common faults.

The shoe is fixed to the hoof either by hot or cold shoeing. Hot shoeing involves heating the shoe until it is red hot. It is then placed on the hoof for a few seconds, burning a brown rim where it touches. The object is to check the fit and to ensure the whole shoe is in perfect contact. If the brown rim is incomplete, the hoof must be rasped again until the surface is level. A well-made shoe follows the rim of the hoof wall and is neither too wide, too long nor too short. Hot shoeing allows the farrier to make adjustments to the shape of the shoe more easily and it should ensure a perfect fit. Cold shoeing is when the completed shoe is nailed to the prepared hoof without first being heated, and it is not thought to be as satisfactory. Once the fit has been perfected, the shoe is nailed to the hoof wall. The number of nails used should be as few as possible to avoid weakening the hoof. Generally, six nails per shoe is considered ideal, but as many as eight may be used,if necessary.

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Hoof Care

Picking Out the Hooves

The basic tools for cleaning your horse's hooves are a high-quality hoof dressing, hoof sealer and a hoof pick.

Begin by holding the hoof in a comfortable position, with the hoof well supported by one hand. Holding the hoof pick in your other hand, loosen the mud, manure, and bedding by inserting the point of the hoof pick near the bulbs of the heels. Often you will be able to pop off a large disk of mud and manure with this technique. Next, make downward swipes with the hoof pick in the clefts of the frog. With practice, you will know exactly where the clefts are even if they are covered with mud. Now do a more thorough job of scraping all debris from around the inside edge of the shoe or hoof. Be sure to get any mud or material that has become lodged under the heels of the shoes near the opening of the clefts of the frog.

To apply a sealer, the hoof must be very clean and dry. With the dauber wet but not dripping with sealer, start just below the coronary band and work back and forth across the hoof wall. Start at the toe and get the center area of the hoof, from coronary band to the ground. Then dip the dauber into the sealer and do the same for the inside quarter, then the outside quarter. Let the sealer dry before exposing the hooves to dirt or bedding. Hoof dressing should not be overused. In fact, there are only a few instances when a hoof dressing is necessary or desirable. When the heels of a horse's hoof have become dry and cracked, they can be softened with a daily application of a dressing, such as a fish-oil based dressing. It shoud be applied discriminately and rubbed in thoroughly.

Performing a Hoof Check

Run your fingertips over the clinches (the folded over ends of horseshoe nails on the outside of your horse's hooves) to determine if they are smooth or rough. Feel the clinches right after your horse is freshly shod so you know what your farrier's newly set clinches normally feel like. A rough clinch could be a loose clinch and indicates the shoe might be shifting on the horse's hoof and might possibly come off. If the clinches are very rough and loose, your farrier will need to come and tighten them or perhaps reshoe your horse.

Look at the bottom of your horse's hooves to see if the hoof has grown over the shoe. Sometimes this will happen rather quickly in wet weather because the hoof tissue expands. But usually this occurs because the horse's shoes have been on too long, longer that 6 or 8 weeks, and the shoes need to be reset. You should not see any part of the hoof along the outside edge of the shoe.

While your are looking at the bottom of your horse's hooves, be sure to note any foreign objects such as a rock, which could get caught under the heel of the shoe and put pressure on the horse's hoof. Painful bruises often form from such pressure.

Some horses shed their frogs and soles about twice a year, so a ragged frog might indicate that the horse's frog needs a good trim during the next farrier visit. Or it could mean that there is an unfriendly organism at work destroying the hoof structures. If you are suspicious, confer with your veterinarian or farrier.

If your horse is barefoot, he will still need farrier attention. The hoof wall may grow long enough so that if it isn't trimmed, it will begin breaking.

Keep an eye and nose out for signs of thrush, a black, foul-smelling decay of hoof tissues. If you see something like this, it is past the time to get your veterinarian or farrier involved. The hoof will have to be pared down to healthy tissue and treated with a special thrush disinfectanct. Whichever product your farrier recommends, be sure you apply it deep into the clefts of the clean, pared frog. A very effective home remedy is sugar-dyne. Mix ordinary sugar with Betadine 10% Stock Solution until the resulting consistency is like thick honey. Using a small brush, paint the clefts with sugar-dyne as directed by your farrier or veterinarian.

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References: The Ultimate Horse Book, Elwyn Hartley Edwards; Horse Health Care, Cherry Hill


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