Bad Hooves: Genetic or Anthropogenic?
I consider myself a student of the horse. Every day I learn more–whether it be related to nutrition, hooves, or just overall health. In the last few years, hooves have come to the forefront of my attention, though. I’ve done quite a bit of research on common hoof problems– how they come about and how they can be corrected–and I’ve worked to apply what I’ve learned when caring for my own horses’ feet. This has led me to examine a perhaps very controversial idea: are ‘bad hooves’ genetic or anthropogenic (caused by humans)? I strongly believe the latter to be true.
I’ve heard many a horse person say, ‘my horse just has bad hooves’ or ‘we’ve bred the good feet off our horses.’ While I would agree that occasionally, horses are born with hoof defects, I would not categorize these horses alongside horses with flat feet, chipping, cracking, or flared hoof walls, or thrushy frogs. Diseased and dysfunctional hooves have become the norm it seems, but I don’t believe faulty genetics are at work here. Although it’s easier to blame the horse–I believe that for the most part, we have created these problems ourselves.
Of course, I’m not saying people intentionally go out of their way to harm their horse’s hooves–the majority of these issues are borne out of a lack of understanding of the horse and his needs.
Knowledge of what causes hooves to become ‘bad’ is the only key to positive change for the horse. If we continue to blame genetics and ‘cover up’ the problems as best we can, they will never go away. It’s as simple as that.
In my opinion, here are the top five reasons why horses have ‘bad hooves’:
Improper Diet: Many horse owners simply do not understand the nutritional needs of the horse. We feed many of our horses to death, literally. Lush pastures, high carbohydrate feeds, diets composed primarily of alfalfa or other legume hays–these are not appropriate for the horse. Mineral and/or vitamin deficiencies are a common culprit as well. Diet will show up in the health of the hoof in every circumstance.
So what kind of diet does the horse need? I think the key is balance. I believe some green grass is okay and necessary for omega 3’s and vitamins, but too much green grass can easily create problems. Many horses do well on a diet comprised primarily of grass hay with a good vitamin/ mineral supplement.
Lack of Movement: Many horses do not get enough movement. And this is usually because of how we keep them. If they stand in a stall or small pen all the time and don’t get much exercise, they will likely have weak hooves. Most of us have heard the saying, ‘use it or lose it”. This is certainly true of hooves.
We set many horses up for problems when they’re young as well. Lack of trimming and/or lack of movement (or applying shoes to young horses) inhibits digital cushion development. If the digital cushion doesn’t fully develop, the horse may display signs of heel pain for years to come.
Bad, Unnatural, or Infrequent Trimming: Horses who live on rocky terrain and get plenty of movement will naturally wear their hooves into ideal condition. Horses kept on soft ground who don’t get lots of movement on this type of terrain depend on us to keep their feet in check. Natural trimming will mimic natural wear of the hoof.
Unfortunately, not everyone who claims to be a ‘natural trimmer’ really is though. A local farrier once told my husband (also a former farrier) that he tells his clients he does a ‘natural trim’ because that’s what they want to hear these days. Many people wouldn’t know the difference between a natural trim and a pasture trim–so farriers can get away with this. A pasture trim does not set the hoof up for proper functioning though.
There are also people who claim to be ‘natural trimmers’, but don’t have an understanding of what natural trimming is all about. I’ve heard horror stories (and seen the pictures to go with them) of natural trimming gone wrong. This is also extremely unfortunate because it can give the credible natural trimmers a bad name. A horse should never be lame after a natural trim.
Another thing to note here is the importance of trimming frequency. If we only have a trimmer out every few months to do the ‘natural trim’ and the hoof wall continually overgrows, there’s nothing ‘natural’ about that.
Wet/ Unsanitary Environment: If horses are kept in muddy pens or are made to stand around in their own urine and manure, their hooves will pay a price. When I was in college, I boarded my horse at a local stable and I’ll never forget how one horse, who incidentally was owned by a veterinary student, had to live. This mare’s stall and pen were piled high in manure and she was seldom let out. It was a sad sight and I can guarantee you that this mare did not have healthy feet.
Horse Shoes: I’ll save the most controversial for last! There was a time when I saw shoes as necessary in many cases. That was before I understood the hoof. My husband was my farrier for many years, but oddly enough, he always tried to convince me that my horses didn’t need shoes. I was a stubborn barrel racer then and was convinced that my horses did need shoes for protection and traction though.
My husband and I have discussed hooves extensively now that I have learned to trim. He recently told me that the man who ran the farrier school he attended once told him, “the worst thing you can do to a hoof is a horse shoe”. Another odd thing for a farrier to say, huh? It’s just a hunch I have, but I think many farriers might secretly believe this very same thing. They just don’t know what to do about it. Horse shoes create a perpetual cycle of unsoundness, thus seemingly creating the need for them.
As I stated earlier, the word, anthropogenic means ’caused by humans’, and in the case of ‘bad hooves’, I would say this term is fitting most of the time. I believe that we are to blame for many of the common problems that we see in horses’ feet. For the most part, lack of concavity, weak hoof walls, stretched white lines, thrush, white line disease, navicular, and other hoof problems are all caused by the unnatural ways in which we manage and feed our horses.
But I do have good news as well. We have the power to change things for the horse and his hooves. We can undo the bad that has been done. If we arm ourselves with knowledge, listen to our gut instincts, and put the horse’s needs before our own selfish motives, we can give our horses back they healthy hooves the deserve. I have accepted full responsibility for my own horses’ hoof problems (and am working to change things)–can you do the same?
For further reading, I suggest these articles: