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How Hooves Work

Though not a veterinarian, due to my recent ordeal with Bandito (see article entitled "A Way to Treat Laminitis?"), I've learned a lot more about a horse's hoof structure and function. Having had to immerse myself into the details over the last few weeks, it strikes me that many horse owners likely misunderstand what the hoof fundamentally does for the horse, and why so many horses come to grief through that misunderstanding. So, I felt it would have value to share what I've learned with others.

Essentially, a horse's hoof is similar to the human fingernail in composition and made from a material called keratin, which is a fibrous structural protein that grows from skin. Though it protects the outside of the horse's foot, the bottom of the foot is not solely made of hoof. It also has a fleshy V-shaped portion called the "frog" in the sole of the foot. The frog has several functions, one of which is to act as a pump that helps the horse circulate blood back up the legs. Another function is to help cushion the horse's foot falls by absorbing some shock and that is what compresses the frog and pumps blood up the legs.

Because the foot itself is not closed at the back or heel of the horse, it expands and contracts upon concussion with the ground. Given all of the above, it's easy to see why a horseshoe, as necessary as it may be for a horse working on hard, stony ground, still fails to keep a horse sound over the long haul. A shoe can prevent the horse from using the frog of his foot as a pump. It also prevents the foot from expanding and contracting as the horse moves and with changes in heat and cold across seasons and time of day.

In addition, installing the horseshoe itself causes damage to the exterior of the hoof as the nails that affix it are driven in and removed over time. Shoes that are glued on do not have the nail issue, but they'll still prevent expansion and contraction of the foot and can additionally prevent the horse from using his frog properly. Because good circulation is essential to equine foot health, poor shoeing, over use of shoeing, or poor hoof trimming practices, can all really affect the horse's foot health over the long term. I know several farriers who swear that thrush is not just a very stinky, black, fungal ailment attacking the hoof, it's also an indicator of a foot that doesn't have proper sole concussion and frog impact upon the ground.

Further, a barefoot horse is similar to that of a barefoot human: newly unshod, both creatures are "ouchy" until they get used to the impact. But both horses and humans can get used to walking barefoot, and when we do, our feet get tougher and tougher in response. And unlike humans, horse feet do not suffer from the cold the way humans do. In fact, a cold foot for a horse is healthier than a foot showing heat or subject to heat. As long as the horse's foot can help its circulation, the horse himself doesn't mind standing in ice and snow.

I don't propose that all horse shoeing is harmful. In fact, a good farrier is worth his weight in gold (remember, "no hoof, no horse"). But I've also learned that horses benefit from time off from their shoes, and that trying to keep them shod year round, year in and year out, is not good for the horse, no matter how skilled the farrier.

The "How-to Horse Guy" tells me that what's really needed is for someone to invent a horseshoe and a glue to affix it solidly that both have the same "coefficient of expansion" as the hoof material. That would allow the shoe and glue to expand and contract at the same rate as the hoof itself and would act like a "horse sneaker". Nike for horses, in other words — now that would be something!

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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