By Shari Michaelis
We’ve all heard the saying “no hoof, no horse,” and I would go as far as to say, “no legs, no horse”. Whether you do showjumping, dressage, eventing, endurance, or anything in between, your horse’s future depends mainly on how his legs and hooves stand up to whatever task you expect him to do. Therefore, our understanding of leg and hoof care as riders and horse owners significantly impacts our horse’s current and future soundness.
Soundness is precious. And no horse is immune to leg and hoof issues, no matter what his breed or use. My horses have taught me how important the owner’s role is in preventing and managing leg and hoof issues.
Starting with the basics, cleaning your horse’s feet is vital in ensuring their soundness. Cleaning your horse’s hooves removes rocks or other hard objects that could cause damage and lead to more significant issues. Daily cleaning also removes manure and other fungus and bacteria-harbouring debris that could lead to thrush.
Safe living conditions and the area and footing that your horse spends most of his time on also play one of the most prominent roles in his soundness. Most experts would agree that a more natural lifestyle, with your horse being loose in a paddock, is better for a horse’s mental and physical health. A horse that can freely move around has better circulation in his legs and hooves, which helps keep these structures healthy.
Then, as most of our horses sleep in a stable at night, the flooring in the stable needs to be kept clean and dry. My horses have rubber ‘mattresses’ in their stables with shavings on top, but rubber mats also work well with straw bedding. It doesn’t matter which you choose, provided they are kept clean and dry. I highly recommend rubber flooring under the bedding as concrete can cause terrible injuries to horse’s legs.
Nutrition and supplements
Nutrition and supplements also play a role in our horses’ hoof and leg health. Healthy legs and hooves require quality feed and a balanced diet. If a horse is not fed correctly or fed poor quality feed, he won’t produce adequate proteins for healthy hooves, bones, tendons, and muscles. There are many different supplements on the market today and we are spoilt for choice when it comes to these. My horses are on a multi-vitamin supplement as well as a hoof supplement. Biotin and zinc are two of the most common ingredients in hoof supplements, and they are intended to create more robust and healthier hooves. If you are not sure what supplements your horse needs, speak to your vet and farrier, and they will be able to guide you in the right direction to avoid wasting money or providing your horse with an overabundance of certain supplements that they do not need.
Arena footing/Exercise footing
Arena footing and general exercise footing is a critical topic, and I personally believe this is one of the most important elements in keeping your horse sound and injury-free. Arena footing must provide cushion and appropriate traction. We have all walked in deep sand and know-how strenuous this is on our joints and muscles. It is therefore unreasonable to expect our horses to work, let alone jump, in deep sand. Furthermore, footing that is too deep can cause injury to soft tissues, such as the tendons and ligaments. On the other hand, however, footing that is too shallow or hard-packed increases concussion on your horse’s hooves and legs. Arenas should also be level and even throughout, which requires maintenance.
Other types of exercise also involve different kinds of footing. For example, hacking out on grass or tar roads. I feel strongly about making your horse work on different ground types and uneven ground as this makes his hooves, legs, tendons, and joints more robust and more able to adapt to different situations. However, this does not mean you should attempt hard exercise, jumping, or strenuous schooling on uneven footing. A walk out on this type of ground, or even trotting up hills where the ground is good, can benefit your horse from time to time but it should by no means be a daily part of your regime.
Farriery and shoeing/barefoot:
Finding and keeping a good farrier is the best thing you can do for your horse’s hooves and his soundness. Your farrier should be aware of the work that your horse performs and on what type of footing he lives and works on so he can decide on the best option for your horse. If your horse is shod, most horses will need new shoes every 4-6 weeks. And just like shod horses, barefoot ones will need a trim every 4-5 weeks to maintain their balance.
Deciding between shoeing your horse or keeping him barefoot is primarily an individual decision. It depends on what kind of exercise your horse does and what his regular footing conditions are like. The “barefoot movement” has been gaining momentum over the past couple of years. However, horses that need to perform certain types of work and horses with hoof or soundness problems can benefit from shoes. It is all up to your preference and what your horse’s health and lifestyle are like.
Boots and bandages:
Boots and bandages are beneficial to protect and support your horse’s legs. However, you must ensure that they are correctly fitted, as if they are not, they can do more harm than good. The primary use of boots and bandages is to protect your horse from interference injuries, such as when one hoof strikes another leg. These incidents can cause terrible injuries and damage to tendons and ligaments. Most showjumpers use tendon or brushing boots on the horse’s front legs and then fetlock boots on their hind legs, while dressage riders tend to prefer exercise bandages. Overreach boots are also great if your horse is prone to overreaching or is a regular shoe loser! There are hundreds of boots available today so do your research to decide what suits your horse best for the exercise he will be performing.
Bandaging is also helpful. However, it needs practice and careful attention to be done correctly. You get many types of bandages such as exercise bandages, stable bandages, cooling bandages, travel bandages and first aid bandages. Here we discuss some of these bandages:
- Applying an exercise bandage aims to protect the horse’s legs from any cuts, scrapes, and bruises he could get while exercising. You can also bandage a horse’s legs for exercise to support tendons and ligaments, especially if your horse has had an injury previously. The way exercise bandages are applied can make a big difference to a horse’s health and safety, as they should not restrict the legs movements or create any pressure points as this could reduce circulation and lead to swelling or injury.
- Stable bandages are used to protect your horse’s legs against swelling or ‘filling’ while the horse is stabled and standing still. They can also be used in cases of injury to hold a wound dressing or poultice in place or to keep an injured area clean. Stable bandages are usually used over a bandage pad.
- Cooling bandages contain a specific type of cooling gel that draws heat away from the horse’s legs and reduces the risk of inflammation. Apart from cooling bandages, you could also immerse your horse’s legs in ice water or use a hydrotherapy spa, as this brings down the temperature of the legs rapidly and can improve your horse’s comfort and hoof tenderness.
- Travel bandages or boots are very useful when your horse is going in a truck or a horsebox and will protect your horse’s legs against bumps, knocks and bruises as well as other horse’s hooves that may be standing next to your horse. These types of boots are generally longer and run from either above the horse’s knee or hock and all the way down to the hoof.
- First aid bandages are used when your horse has a wound, and a bandage needs to be applied to keep the area clean and aid in healing. Wound bandages need to be changed regularly but this all depends on what type of injury your horse has sustained.
Take home message
There are so many other topics related to hooves and leg care, such as the different joint and bone diseases, tendon and ligament injuries, fractures, laminitis and various types of hoof ailments, but these will have to be covered in another article!
As an owner or rider, the best thing that you can do for your horse is to be aware and mindful of his legs and hoof health and do your very best to keep him happy and comfortable in the work that you require of him. Learn to understand his legs and hooves and the muscles and joints that make them up; learn care strategies to maximise the health of his legs and hooves; learn to recognise leg and hoof problems early on before they become big problems; and through doing all of this you will keep your equine partner happy and sound so you can enjoy each other and your pursuits together for many years to come.