Hoof Care

Water and Hoof Health

by Tom Berningstall
What does water have to do with horse hooves?
We know how important drinking water is for horses.

Horses should drink between five to fifteen gallons of water a day depending on the weather and the horse’s workload. Cool weather—less water; hot weather—more water. No work—less water; hard work—more water. The horse’s age and condition will also play a part in how much water an individual horse drinks. A fat horse that sweats a lot will need more water than a thin fit horse that is doing the same work.

In the thirty two years that I was an active farrier I saw many watering troughs for horses that were full of green algae, slime, old grass and hay and even manure. For the life of me I can’t figure out why some horses back up to the watering trough and make a deposit of manure in their drinking water. I would often inform the horse owner of the importance of clean fresh drinking water for a healthy horse.

Sometimes the owner would look at the water trough and say something like, ‘they got water’. Then I’d ask “would you drink that water?” The most common answer would be “no that water is for the horses.”

If the water is not clean enough for you to drink then it’s not clean enough for the horses to drink.

Moldy and dusty hay, spoiled and moldy grain, poor pasture that has more weeds then grass and dirty water sickens more horses than any other cause. Be that as it may I’m just going to talk about water for healthy hooves.

The moisture balance in the hoof according to research is approximately 50% for the frog, 35% for the sole and 25% for the hoof wall. These percentages vary depending on the horse’s water intake, age, color of the hoof and the horse’s environment. The frog is more elastic then the sole and the hoof wall therefore the frog has higher moisture content. The hoof horn or wall is covered with a thin coating called the periople or hoof varnish, this coating is there to help retain moisture in the hoof wall. The periople is very thin and wears off the lower half of the hoof wall. When trimming the hoof the periople should be left alone.

The horse’s body moisture or systemic moisture content provides moisture to the hoof from the top of the hoof down through the blood and lymph circulation systems. The environmental moisture is transformed into hooves moisture through the bottom of the hoof wall via the tubule that makes up the hoof wall. To help you understand the construction of the hoof wall tubule a slice of the bottom hoof wall under a microscope looks like the end of a pack of drinking straws. (Note a dark colored hoof wall has smaller, more compact straws then a lighter colored hoof wall.)

In an ideal environment a horse will have a balance of both systemic and environmental moisture and in turn healthy hooves. Very few horses live, if any, live in an ideal environment.

Horses that don’t have a good balance diet or good clean water well not have the best of feet. Horses that live in a too dry area will have dry hooves. Horses that live in a too wet area will have feet that are too moist.

Dry hooves will not be as elastic as they should be and will restrict the flow of blood in the hoof making the hoof even dryer. Horses that are in a too wet environment will have soft elastic hooves that will spread and flare out. Making them susceptible to crack and bruising.

One of my customers that had mare with really bad feet the horse had multiple cracks in all four feet that came down from the hair line to the bottom of the hoof walls. I shod this mare with all types of shoe combinations known to man. The hooves would get better here or there but not all at once, this went on for years.

The owner gave the horse away to a young girl that wanted a horse. A year past without hearing from the new owner, then the call came I was told by the new owner that the horse had not had its hooves trimmed since they got the horse. I made an appointment.

All I could think of was that poor horse hadn’t had its feet trimmed in over a year, what mess would I find those hooves in?

When I pulled into the barn yard I saw the horse was turned out in a mud bog with the cattle. Mud up to the horse’s knees and the only grass in the field was knobs of saw grass poking up through the mud.

The mare was on the thin side too. I didn’t want to see the horse’s feet I did want to leave, just turn the truck around and go home. But I tough it up and got out of the truck as the young girl waded out in the mud to get her horse.

I got a mud rag out of my truck along with my tools I expected that under all that mud was a farrier’s nightmare. I made small talk to the girl and to the old mare, the mare seemed happy to see me. I dried down the first leg to the hoof and then the hoof, the hoof wall was grown out and long but to my surprise no cracks or splits but she had a few chips on the bottom of the hoof that could be trimmed off.

As I cleaned the other three hooves, I had to get another rag, all hooves were the same long but crack free. After I trimmed the hooves and got them back in shape I would have thought this mare had a hoof transplant. I never saw the horse and her four new feet again she moved on to a new owner.

I don’t know what helped that mare’s hooves, if was being turned out with cattle, the mud bog, the saw grass, the loss of weight or her feet being neglected for a year. So for that one horse a wet environment helped the quality of its feet. Remember this was just one horse out of the thousands of horse that I cared for over the years so if your horse has these types of hooves, I would not recommend you turn the horse out with cattle in a mud bog with poor grass and little care. You would likely kill your horse.

The health of your horse depends on quality hoof care, good food, good clean water and work most horse like to be worked be that work plowing a field, riding down the road or at a horse show. Enjoy the beauty of your horses and remember they depend on you.

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F. Thomas Breningstall was a columnist whose work appeared regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Summer 2010 issue.

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