How to Keep Horses’ Hooves Strong Through Summer
Proper hoof health is hard to achieve any time of year, but during the hot summer months, a solid, healthy hoof is even more difficult to attain due to an increase in moisture in the environment. Each July, the American Farriers Journal dedicates a week of the calendar to recognize farriers for their dedicated commitment to delivering hoof care to horses. To honor our hoof care experts, we spoke with veterinarian and farrier Dr. Stephen O’Grady on how moisture contributes to a weaker hoof infrastructure and offers steps owners and managers can take to help keep moisture away and strengthen horses’ hooves.
Summer can bring scorching temperatures, so we tend to use more water to keep horses cool, both at competitions and at home. In many areas of the country, the humidity levels also increase during this time of year, adding moisture to the air and preventing hooves from drying as quickly. What happens to a hoof with excess water is similar to what would happen to a wooden plank that’s placed in a water trough: it becomes waterlogged, then softens and becomes weaker as a result.
Within a horse’s hoof, there is an exchange of fluids between the outer hoof wall and the inner section of the foot which consists of the bone, blood, and soft tissue structure. This fluid gradient helps keep the hoof wall healthy and promotes overall hoof health. When there is excessive moisture on the outside of the foot, the fluid gradient shifts toward the hoof wall and becomes overloaded with moisture, thus, the foot becomes saturated and the interchange of fluids is no longer effective, affecting a hoof’s mechanical properties.
The lack of flexibility caused by excess moisture creates a softer foot, which ultimately, as the weight of the horse presses down on the hoof, leads to issues such as flattening of the sole, flaring of the hoof wall and hoof wall cracks. A soft foot is also prone to losing shoes, due to its inability to hold nails well. The hoof structure was not designed to withstand as much water as we often subject it to during the summer months. However, there are ways to limit exposure to moisture, even in the hottest temperatures.
It is best to tackle issues that accompany moisture by going straight to the source and minimizing the amount of water that comes in contact with the hooves. This can be accomplished in several ways:
1. Give your horse fewer baths.
Cutting down on how many times per day a horse is hosed can be difficult with competition horses that need to stay clean and that may be exercised, ridden, or shown several times per day. Still, it is important to be strategic about using water, especially on the legs. At home, try to occasionally let your horse air dry in front of the fan if a bath isn’t entirely necessary. Body clipping will help your horse’s heat tolerance this time of year and you may not have to use the hose after every ride.
2. Avoid standing water
If you must bathe, be sure the horse isn’t standing in excess water that rises over the hoof capsule. Try to shower off the horse in a dry area so the surface underneath the horse does not contribute to the moisture level. After being bathed, move the horse to a dry surface so their hooves can thoroughly dry.
3. Use hoof shields to direct water away from the hoof.
A good preventative tool to use while hosing is tight-fitting bell boots that cover the hoof and prevent external water from running down onto the hoof. The same effect can be accomplished with a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. Simply cut the bottom of the bag, place the horse’s foot inside, and seal the bag just below the fetlock to prevent excess water from sliding down the hoof.
4. Stand the horse in sawdust.
Sawdust and similar materials have a drying effect on hooves. If hooves become saturated for any reason, let the horse stand in deep sawdust to extract the moisture. Shavings would work also, but sawdust is the most effective for absorbing moisture.
5. A shellac-type hoof dressing product can help prevent the hoof from absorbing too much water if applied before baths or turnout.
The majority of hoof dressings are intended for this purpose, however. Ask your farrier or veterinarian to recommend options that will do the job when used one to two times per week. Boric acid powder can also be applied to horses’ feet once or twice a week, serving as an astringent for the hoof.
6. Avoid turning out early in the morning.
When humidity is high, the grass at dawn will have a high dew level, meaning horses will be standing on wet surfaces during the first hours spent outside. Though temperatures are cooler as the sun is still rising, for overall hoof health it’s best to wait until the grass has dried.
7. Farriery may need to be changed during the summer months to compensate for the increase in moisture.
Open the lines of communication between veterinarian and farrier. Veterinarians and farriers often do not communicate regarding a particular horse. This is a crucial step to ultimate hoof care. Each professional has a reason behind their decisions, and if the two work together as a team, the horse has a much higher chance of achieving optimal hoof health than if they each operated on their own agenda.
Achieving a healthy hoof is not solely a farrier’s job; it is a whole team effort and requires dedication and attention. By implementing these recommendations into your horse care routine, you can play a role in how moisture affects your horse’s hooves. When considering the effects of excessive moisture on the hoof wall, it’s important to understand there are other factors involved, including the age of horse, breed, genetic makeup, foot conformation, and current farriery practices. With open communication and implementing these measures as a team, you are on the right track to achieving a stronger and overall healthier hoof.