If a horse doesn’t have solid feet, then you don’t really have a horse. It’s an old saying that has a ring of truth to it. When a horse is uncomfortable on their feet, then they don’t want to move. They won’t train or work. Sore feet can even create unwanted behaviors that could be dangerous to the horse, the herd, or the handlers.
Knowing what horse hooves are made of makes it easier to understand how to care for the feet of the horse. There are several different components of which one should be aware.
#1. Hoof Wall
The hoof wall is similar to a human fingernail in that it is always growing. Over the course of 12 months, the average horse will be able to grow an entire new hoof. That is why a good farrier is worth their weight in gold.
The hoof wall is comprised of keratin. Keratin is a fibrous structure, composed of proteins, and it is very insoluble. Even human skin contains high levels of keratin to help it form a strong, tough external layer of protection.
Because keratin has a low moisture content, it feels rough and very hard. Some breeds have an extremely low moisture content in their keratin, which provides a superior level of hardness for all-weather and all-terrain movement.
There are 3 layers within the hoof wall.
- The outer wall, which is called the periople.
- The middle wall.
- The inner wall.
Each layer does a specific job to help protect the foot and leg of the horse during movement. When shaped correctly, the horse should be able to bear all of its weight on the hoof wall. To support this weight or lend more movement to the horse, shoes can be attached to the hoof wall.
#2. White Line
This portion of the foot can be found where the sole and the hoof wall form a junction. It has been given this name because it is the guide used for nailing a horseshoe to the hoof wall. If the nails are placed closer to the sole, then the horse may experience discomfort.
It is important to inspect the white line on occasion because the keratin in the hoof can split at this junction. Should that happen, an infection occurs and this creates a condition that is referred to as “seedy toe.”
The sole of the foot on a horse is the undersurface of the hoof itself. For this part of the horse hoof, the materials are one-third water, so it is softer than other portions of the hoof wall. The structures of the sole, however, are very similar to what can be found on the actual wall.
Because the sole is softer, it is more prone to injury. If consistent pressure is placed on this structure, it may bruise or tear, which would cause lameness to the horse.
What is unique about the sole of a horse is that it varies in thickness. At the white line junction, the sole tends to be at its thickest point. As it moves inward, it begins to thin out somewhat.
The sole tends to have a concave shape to it as well, which helps to further protect the hoof from injury. The rear feet tend to have more of a curvature in most breeds when compared to the front feet.
The frog of the horse is a very elastic material that is made from half-water. It acts as the shock absorber for the foot, helping to distribute the weight of the horse along the entire hoof wall. It is also designed to help the horse experience better traction in slick conditions so the risks of slipping are minimized.
When the frog is healthy, it aids in localized blood circulation. Its design encourages heel expansion as well.
Unlike other portions of the hoof, the frog of a horse should never be trimmed. Beyond cleaning, only portions of the frog that have flaked off or become loose should be removed to maintain good hoof health.
The bars of the hoof are the parts of the wall that turn inward from the heel. The structural design allows the bars to surround and support the frog. That means the only function of this hoof structure is to help support the weight of the horse during movement.
#6. Coronary Band
This is the part of the hoof that provides nutrients to the hoof wall. It is what allows the keratin to continue accumulating so the hoof can grow. If this part of the hoof structure should be injured in any way, it can affect the shape and quality of the hoof. Injuries to the coronary band will often create permanent defects in the hoof wall.
#7. Solar Corium
This part of the horse hoof is sometimes called the “sensitive sole.” It is filled with blood vessels from laminae mesh that help to support the frog. It is paired with the laminar corium, or “sensitive laminae,” which attach to the pedal bone of the horse and together they work to ensure the hoof wall remains healthy. The bonds formed by these hoof structures become disrupted whenever a horse is suffering from laminitis.
#8. Digital Cushion
This part of the hoof is made up of fatty substances that create a tough, but still flexible, support mechanism that sits on top of the frog, but behind the pedal. Its placement allows the horse to experience a reduced level of concussion with every footfall. It also works to encourage blood circulation up and down the foot and leg of the horse.
#9. Hoof Bones
There are two bones that can be found within the hoof of a horse. The distal phalanx, sometimes called the “coffin bone,” is the pedal bone of the horse. It is the largest bone and is shaped like the hoof itself. There is also the navicular bone, which is closer to the heel and adjacent to the pedal bone, that acts as a support mechanism for the horse. Like most bones, this portion of the hoof is primarily composed of calcium.
#10. Lateral Cartilage
The lateral cartilage of the hoof slopes upward from the pedal bone, reaching to the placement of the coronary band. When weight is placed on the cartilage, it becomes compressed and forces circulation from the veins of the hoof back toward the heart. When that compression is released, more blood then enters the veins found in this part of the hoof structure. There is a condition called “sidebone” that occurs when the lateral cartilage transforms itself into bone.
Horse hooves are complex structures that require knowledge and experience to care for them properly. By keeping the keratin healthy and encouraging good hydration, the hoof of a horse can be one of its best assets.