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Hoof Sense: What Are Your Horse’s Hooves Telling You?

Use touch, sight, sound, and smell to “read” your horse’s hooves for signs of health or trouble

by Fran Jurga | Jul 31, 2018, 3:00 PM

Have you ever wished you could pick up your horse’s hoof and read it, the way a fortuneteller reads your palm? What if that hoof in your hand were a crystal ball, and it could foresee how sound and healthy your horse’s feet have been, are, and will be?

As it turns out, that’s not such a far-fetched idea. A horse’s hoof is a library of information, if you know how and where to look for information. Bring your hoof pick!

Your eyes, nose, and touch can all help spot trouble when you’re picking out your horse’s hooves.

Feel for Heat, Pulse, and Surface Condition

To collect information from a healthy hoof, you need to use your senses. Start with your sense of touch. Feel the hoof wall and the coronet. Does it feel warm or cool against your palm? Are all four the same?

When a hoof has an abscess, for instance, that foot may feel warmer than the others. The difference is that the abscess will generally heat up only one part of one hoof. Laminitis will usually heat multiple feet—it will often make both front hooves or even all four feet warmer than normal—and the heat may not be equal in all the feet. If you pay attention to your horse’s normal hoof temperature at rest, you will have an easier time recognizing heat signs in the future.

Next, put one hand on either side of the fetlock, and feel for the digital pulse. You may need to move your hands higher or lower, depending on the horse, but you should feel a faint and slow pulse between the fetlock and the coronet.

In a horse affected by inflammation caused by a foot abscess, laminitis, or even stinging soles from abrasive footing, the pulse will be faster and easier to find. Compare the limbs; an abscess would only quicken the pulse in one limb.

The final task for your sense of touch is to close your eyes and feel the hoof wall surface. Is it flat and smooth, or do you feel ridges?

Occasional ridges on the hoof wall are a normal fact of life for horses. When the seasons change the grass, a horse changes grains or supplements, or something disrupts overall health, the hoof may react by growing a ring. Ideally, you’ll see a ring midway down the hoof wall, with smooth growth above it. This means that recent growth is normal. If the hoof wall has ridges near the coronary band, the insult was recent and may even be continuing now. Ridges spaced farther apart at the toe and closer at the heels may indicate chronic laminitis.

The clinches of the horseshoe nails should be smooth and barely noticeable under your hand. If they aren’t, it may be time to call your farrier or check that the shoe is not loose.

Look at the Big Picture

Now, open your eyes wide and look at all of the horse’s feet, not just one. Most people look at one foot at a time, but Patrick Reilly, the chief of farrier services at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, recommends looking at the bigger picture. “Stand back and look for symmetry between pairs of feet,” he advised. “What’s the big picture? Do the front feet match?”

Reilly walks around the horse looking up and down, not just at the foot. “Look for growth distortions more than hoof ‘balance,’ which is a subjective term and varies as the hoof grows,” he said. “I’m more interested in how the hoof grows: compare size and shape.”

How does the horse stand? A horse in pain will alter the way he stands; it helps to take regular photographs of your horse without tack. If you square him up, will he go back into another position to make himself comfortable?

In spite of research to the contrary, some people still insist that white hooves are weaker than dark hooves. But white hooves will show you more information than a dark hoof can. Bruises of the wall and sole show up on a white foot—especially a clean one.

Listen for Differences

Listen to several horses, including yours, walk on a hard surface. Close your eyes and listen: does each horse sound different? Can you pick out the distinctive sound of your own horse’s hooves?

Farriers listen to a horse before they shoe it. They will watch it, too, of course, but they are listening to the timing and whether each hoof lands flat, with a single beat.

Veterinarians listen to a lot of lame horses, and they often recognize which limb a horse is favoring by sound.

If you close your eyes and listen to your horse regularly, you may pick up a change in that sound that will alert you to a problem, especially a loose shoe.

Sniff out Trouble

Horses’ hooves may never smell good, but a stinky foot is a red flag under your nose and a very good reason why people are reminded to clean their horses’ feet daily.

Thrush is the most common cause of a distinct odor. If you don’t know what it smells like, ask friends or fellow competitors if they have a horse with thrush. Chances are, you will smell the thrush as soon as you walk into the stall.

Thrush should be an easy problem to get rid of, but some horses—even ones that live in clean stalls and are rarely out in mud—are prone to it and need regular treatment.

It is rare, but you may smell a more putrid odor. That smell may be a warning of canker, an ugly growth of infected tissue, often around the frog and heel bulbs. If left untreated, canker can be very difficult to cure. Call your veterinarian!

Farriers develop a fine-tuned sense of smell around horses; if your farrier remarks on the smell of your horse’s feet, pay attention.

Making Sense of Hooves

Using multiple senses to make an appraisal of your horse’s feet makes you less dependent on your eyes and more aware of what is normal for your horse. Give your horse a checkup with your eyes, ears, nose, and hands on a regular basis so you’ll relax when everything is normal and investigate when something seems wrong.


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