Horse Anatomy: Hoof

The hoof of a horse is the total weight-bearing structure carrying a 900-1500 pound horse. It’s care and soundness are paramount to the ability of a horse to function.

The Walls: It is comprised of a hard outer shell (wall) with a soft-tissue “living” center. The upper limit of the hoof is called the coronet band from which the walls of the outer portion descend. The walls are very strong and elastic and devoted to dissipating the energy of concussion. The wall supports the brunt of the weight of the horse and is like a fingernail in that it is comprised of dead cells that cannot “heal”. As the walls of a barefoot horse grow, they will self-trim by breaking or chipping off to keep the hoof in proper shape. However, horses kept with shoes or in artificial confinement must have their feet trimmed to maintain the optimum shape.

The front of the hoof is the toe, the sides are called the quarters (from which the term “quarter crack” is derived), and the back of the hoof is called the heel. Beneath the wall is the hoof horn, which is attached to the laminae which are attached to the coffin bone. If the laminae is damaged or the hoof wall is separated (such as damaged from an improperly trimmed foot), fungus and bacteria take the opportunity to invade the crack and get a foot-hold (pun intended) and cause damage by “digesting” the tissues. See Equine Thrush

healthy horse hoof

The mustang hoof, through natural selection, is one of the strongest hooves of all breeds. Thoroughbred hooves are some of the weakest, probably due to man’s selection of horses who can run without regard to hoof structure beyond just adequate. (see barefoot discussion)

The frog is a part of the rear underside of a horse’s hoof . It functions as a shock absorber and part of the horse’s circulatory system. It is triangular in shape, the base of the triangle located at the heel and the top pointing toward the toe of the hoof.

It should cover about 25% or more of the bottom of the hoof and be in contact with the ground in order to cushion the force of impact to the navicular bone, coffin bone, and deep digital flexor tendon of the leg. Care of the feet should encourage keeping the frog as large, ground covering, and cushioning as possible.
healthy horse hoof

Blood located in the digital cushion of the hoof just above the frog is compressed with each step and pumped back up the leg, actually aiding the heart in moving blood. A horse whose frog is healthy is less likely to experience leg problems and lameness. (see barefoot discussion)

The sole of the hoof is the layer of tissue surrounding the frog. When it maintains good contact with the ground, it is a deep cushion layer with a smooth surface. When seen on a shod horse whose sole does not touch the ground it can appear crumbly and unhealthy.

The bars are the inward folds of the wall originating from the heels following the frog’s outer edge at an abrupt angle in the middle of the hoof. When overgrown, they bend outwards, away from the frog and cover the surface of the sole.

bars of a horse hoof

Front and rear hooves are identical in the foal but markedly different in the adult horse due to variation of use. At first both front and rear are round. As walking and movement increase, the rear hooves generally take on a more oval shape.

newborn horse hoof

The spongy, mossy, feathery growth on the bottom of this newborn’s hoof will disappear in a couple of days of walking. It is nature’s way of protecting the mother’s womb from sharp baby hooves before birth.

Slow changes in hoof shape occur under any consistent change in a horse’s movement patterns. That is why it is so critical to keep the hooves in good shape and to keep the horse’s movement as natural as possible.

Sore or improperly tended feet can change a horse’s movement patterns and result in pathological hoof changes that could persist throughout life. (See Barefoot)

break in horse hoof“Quarter Cracks” are cracks in the wall of a hoof. Like a split in a fingernail, they can be benign such as a small surface crack. Or they can be very damaging, penetrating the soft tissue and causing irreparable damage. They are most often caused by dry hooves, poorly trimmed or shod feet, or an injury to the coronet that results in a weak spot that grows abnormally.

Horses with inherently poor hoof conformation such as thoroughbreds frequently suffer from quarter cracks.

If found, a quarter crack should be tended to immediately, as leaving it to erode further can lead to severe damage. Cases that threaten to penetrate into the soft tissues will take considerable expertise to add stabilization to the hoof so that the new wall tissue can grow out intact.

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