Rural Heritage Village Smithy

Hoof Trimming Tools and How to Use Them
by F. Thomas Breningstall

Proper hoof trimming is the most important part of horse foot care, but first you need the tools necessary to do a proper trim—not just tools you can get by with, but tools to do the best job you are able to do for your horse. The tools you need, and how to use them, are:

Apron or chaps. You need chaps to protect your legs from the horse's hoof and legs. Chaps also help you hold the hoof firmly between your knees.

Hoof pick. A hoof pick is used to clean debris from the bottom of the hoof, along the grooves on the sides of the frog, and from the sole area. This debris, if not removed, will dull your hand tools and may hide injuries to the hoof.

Hoof knife. A hoof knife is for trimming away loose dried-out sole. Do not cut into live flesh or the sole will be sore and may bleed—not a good thing. The hoof knife is also used to trim off loose and ragged frog.

Do not trim live frog.

Nippers. Nippers are used to trim the outgrowth of hoof wall from the hoof. Although toe length varies with the horse's size and breed, in general a full-grown horse of average size should have between 3" and about 3-3/4" of hoof wall at the toe. Toe length is measured from the top of the hoof wall to the bottom, or ground, at the center of the toe of the hoof wall.

If you are trimming a front foot, hold the hoof between your knees; if you are trimming a rear foot, hold the hoof across your lap with the hock under your arm. Keep the nippers' cutting blades parallel to the bottom of the horse's foot. With one handle in each hand, hold the handles perpendicular to the bottom of the foot, not at the angle of the hoof wall.

Start at one heel and trim off the hoof wall to the toe, then stop and go to the other heel and trim to the toe. For a nice even trim, make each cut with the nippers only one-half the width of the nippers' cutting blades. With practice you should be able to trim from heel to heel and get an even cut.

One of the biggest trimming errors is digging out the quarters, which happens when the person doing the trimming cuts the hoof wall too short at the quarters. Instead of following a straight line from heels to toe, the person follows the line of the sole. The sole cups at the quarters; be careful not to cut the hoof wall to the sole at the cupped quarters.

Popular practice is to trim the heels to the widest part of the frog. In general this practice is okay, but if you're not sure leave a little more heel. Do not cut into the sole with the nippers—it's that blood thing again.

Rasp. A rasp used correctly can be your best tool, but used wrong can be your worst tool. Rasps have been known to take out hands, knuckles, fingers, lots of skin, and sometimes hoof wall; that could be your blood dripping on your boot.

After trimming with the nippers, use the rasp to level the bottom of the hoof wall, remove burrs, and smooth and round the outside edge of the hoof wall. Pull the rasp with one hand and push with the other hand, using equal downward pressure from both hands.

Do not move the rasp until you have it flat to the hoof and making contact with both sides of the hoof wall at the same time. Do not cut across the hoof from side to side at the quarters, which again will dig out the quarters. To avoid digging out the quarters use the rasp from heel to toe and then from toe to heel. Check your work after every few strokes. A rasp cuts so fast that before you notice, you can have an uneven hoof or get into the blood.

To check the bottom of the hoof for levelness, hold the horse's leg by the cannon bone and let the hoof relax. Look across the hoof from the heel. The bottom of the hoof wall should be flat, without dips or high spots. The bottom of the hoof and the back of the leg up to the knee should form a T.

When you're happy with the bottom of the hoof trim, move the horse's leg and hoof to the front and put the foot on a hoof stand or on your knee and use the rasp to round off the bottom edge of the hoof wall. Now's the time to remove any flares or dishes in the hoof wall. When removing flares and dishes, do not rasp the wall thinner than one-half the thickness of good wall. Do not rasp the hoof wall up to the hair line, which would remove the hoof's protective covering (periople).

Calipers. Use calipers to measure the hoof's length at the center of the toe. Most of the time the two front feet will be the same length at the toe and the two hind feet will be the same length at the toe, but all four feet may not be the same length.

To make this measurement, find the top center of the hoof wall--not the hair line, but the place where the hard hoof wall meets the soft coronary band. Put one leg of the calipers at the top and the other leg of the calipers at the bottom, or ground side, of the hoof wall.

Before you start trimming the opposite foot use the calipers to mark the amount of hoof wall you need to remove to make a matched pair. After you have trimmed the hoof, measure the toe length again. Some people use calipers to measure heel length, but this measurement tends to be inconclusive.

Hoof gauge. The hoof gauge is used to match pairs of feet in their angle to the ground. The angles of the horse's shoulder, pastern, and hoof wall at the toe should be relative to each other. The front hoof angle in a full-grown average horse is generally between 50 and 58 degrees. In most cases the rear hoof angle is about 2 degrees higher or steeper than the front hoof angle. As a rule the front pair should match and the rear pair should match.

Horse with four feet. The horse must be trained to stand quietly while you work on its feet. Horse wrestling and hoof trimming are not compatible activities; you can get hurt. The feet should be trimmed on a schedule from four weeks to 10 weeks, depending on the horse's needs. Don't let the hooves grow out too long before cutting them back; the feet should never get more than 1" longer than normal.

As for that bleeding thing, if you happen to make a bad cut and the horse bleeds, protect the wound as best you can and call the veterinarian. Without exception, call the vet.


F. Thomas Breningstall is a full-time farrier living in Fowlerville, Michigan, and a regular columnist for Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Summer 2000 issue.

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15 April 12012 last revision