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    Hoofcare for Horses

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    While the horse’s hoof is located at the bottom of his body, hoof care should rank tops on your horse keeping priority list. Whether you own a horse for companionship, recreational or competitive riding, it’s the hoof that keeps your horse sound and living his best life. As the old saying goes, “no hoof, no horse.”

    “You can save a lot of money on vet bills if you pay attention to farrier care and maintain your horse’s hooves on a regular basis,” said Mike Wildenstein, a farrier and former adjunct associate professor of Farrier Medicine and Surgery in the Department of Clinical Sciences of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University.

    Here’s what you need to know to keep your horse’s hooves healthy and strong.

    Parts of a horse hoof

    At first glance, the hoof is a seemingly simple structure. Like your fingernails, the horse’s foot is a hard gelatinous structure. Critical structures in the hoof and deep inside the horse’s leg are designed to absorb the concussion each time your horse takes a step. The basic parts of the foot include:

    • Hoof wall
    • Sole
    • Toe
    • Quarter
    • Heel
    • Frog 

    Hoof care best practices

    Basic hoof care best practices should be a routine part of your horse’s overall health care. Wildenstein recommends adopting these three strategies:

    • Pick the hooves daily and note any changes or abnormalities.
    • Provide sanitary living conditions.;

    Keeping stalls and paddocks clean and dry promote horse hoof health. Mother Nature can make it challenging to keep turnout areas, especially at certain times of the year or for horse owners in specific geographic regions. Improving drainage and bringing a horse in for his legs and hooves to dry is recommended. 

    • Schedule routine farrier visits.

    Typically, farriers schedule horses every four to eight weeks depending on the individual’s needs. Wildenstein says new research shows that four weeks is the ideal time for maintaining correct hoof angle alignment to limit stress on the horse’s legs and joints. 

    “There are a lot of changes to the soft tissues as the angle of the hoof changes,” he explained. “Studies show the hoof will have 4% more stress by week four, 8% at week five.”

    Horse hoof issues

    Good horse keeping skills that include providing the proper nutrition, a clean environment, and regular farrier visits keep most horse’s hooves healthy and problem free. However, it is possible—even in ideal situations—that your horse could develop a problem. These are the three most common hoof conditions you might experience.

    1: Abscesses occur when bacteria get into the hoof and form a pustule. Like a boil or blood blister on your hand, it creates pressure that causes pain. A veterinarian or farrier uses a hoof knife to “pop” the abscess allowing the infection to drain. Soaking the hoof in Epsom salts or using a poultice for several days may be recommended.

    2: Thrush is also caused by bacteria that get into the hoof. Typically, this occurs when horses stand in wet, dirty conditions for extended periods—that could be a muddy pasture or unkept stall. If you pick up your horse’s hoof with a potent rotten smell or it looks greasy along the frog, your horse likely has thrush.

    • Most often, thrush can be cleared up with routine trimming and improving the horse’s living conditions—though Mother Nature does not always cooperate. Topical horse hoof thrush treatments are also often used to treat the issue.

    3. Cracks can develop due to a multitude of reasons including extreme moisture changes, poor nutrition, conformation, and injuries, and are classified into three categories:

    • Vertical cracks start at the coronary band and extend to the toe are often linked to traumatic injuries.
    • Quarter cracks are found in the quarter region of the hoof wall.
    • Horizontal cracks can be found at any location on the hoof.

    Each creates opportunities for bacteria to enter the hoof and infect the soft tissue, creating a secondary issue. A farrier will use a combination of trimming, shoeing, and treatment methods to correct and prevent further cracks.

    What to feed a horse for a healthier hoof

    Nutrition is directly linked to hoof health. High-quality forage, often a mix of hay and grass, is the foundation of a good feeding regimen. Start with a hay analysis done to understand what minerals and vitamins are available and what might be lacking. Horses with higher nutritional needs like breeding stock, performance horses and hard keepers, often need horse feed too. 

    Supplements fill in any nutritional gaps. Biotin and methionine are two critical nutrients linked to hoof health. There are hundreds of horse hoof supplements to choose from; Wildenstein suggests doing your looking for products backed by research and follow the dosing guidelines on the label.

    “People tend to think that if a little is good, more is better. But, giving too much is worse than not having enough,” he said. “If you’re going to get supplements, you need to analyze everything in the horse’s diet-- the water, salt block, hay, and any other feeds you’re giving horses to learn the nutrients they are lacking in.”

    Follow animal husbandry best practices

    Basic animal husbandry skills go a long way in keeping your horse’s hooves healthy. That includes feeding a balanced diet, scheduling regular farrier visits, and keeping the horse’s living area clean. However, there may be times when, no matter how much care you provide, your horse may experience hoof problems—work closely with your veterinarian and farrier to develop a treatment plan that’s right for your horse.