Hoof cleaning is a routine part of horse care, and a valuable one at that. A thorough clean and brief inspection before a ride is a tool in your horsemanship toolbox that is priceless. By clearing material trapped in the hooves, you can check frog and sole health, shoe stability (if your hose is shod), and feel for any warm or hot spots, that may indicate a pending medical issue.
There are only two hard and fast rules about hoof handling (and horse handling in general) in my barn:
1. The handler must be safe at all times, by exhibiting proper body positioning and working in a safe area
2. The horse must be safe at all times, whether they are being calm and compliant, or fidgety and upset.
Safety of all parties is non-negotiable.
The tools you will need are fairly simple, a well-fitting halter, a soft lead rope that is over 7’ long, and a quality hoof pick. (Personally, I prefer a pick with a longer handle and brushes on one side.) Sturdy footwear for the handler is strongly suggested, also.
Work in an area that is debris free, with no potential hazard areas where you or your horse may sustain an injury, should the worst happen and the horse spook drastically.
To tie, or not to tie?
There are times when having the horse tied is incredibly valuable, and is a major skill to learn. That being said, I tend to hesitate to tie for hoof handling procedures, as I have seen many small incidents become big and dangerous incidents when the horse realizes his escape is completely removed from the equation. For now, I suggest erring on the side of caution and holding the lead as you handle the hooves.
Is there a pattern to follow?
Begin at the heel, and work your pick forward, along with the side of the frog, to the toe. Use gentle pressure, but avoid hard digging and aggressive probing until you can see more of the sole and frog exposed. Make sure to clear away all loose dirt and material around the frog.
What am I looking for?
Look at the frog- is it dry and tough, or somewhat wet and stinkier than normal? Are there cracks in the central sulcus (the middle of the frog, running from the heel towards the toe)? Are there any flaps coming away from the body of the frog that can trap muck and mud? Your hoof care provider can help you determine how to handle exfoliating frog, and point out potential dangers areas for thrush to occur.
Any abnormalities are worth paying attention to and planning potential treatment options. (A case of thrush, for example, is something to treat swiftly, so that it does not develop into deep tissue thrush.)
Next, take a look at the sole. Are there any red areas? Use your hands to feel for warm spots. A warm or hot spot is an indicator of health issues and is something to take note of. If your horse is shod, are all the nail heads present and accounted for? Are any of them sticking out farther than the others? Do they all appear and feel snug, or is there a loose spot? Is the shoe centered on the hoof still, or has it shifted to one side? You can also use your thumbs, and gently press on the sole. You should feel a firm surface, that does not give with the pressure you can exert. A softer spot can be an indicator of a potential abscess or a possible laminitic event.
As you are cleaning, your support hand should be in contact with the outer wall of the hoof. Take this time to feel for temperature changes- if there are, is the heat only in one spot, or is it widespread around the entire wall? Where, if the heat is in one spot, is it located? Towards the hairline, or down closer to the ground? (Tip- if you feel a hot spot in one location, a permanent marker is a great tool to mark the spot for further observation.)
If you feel heat in the sole and the wall, a call to your vet is in order to treat a potential case of laminitis.
Localized heat in either the sole or wall might indicate a potential abscess. A good plan of action is a soak in warm water and epsom salts, possibly followed up by packing in drawing salve or one of the now commercially available poultices designed for hoof abscess. (Tip- baby diapers and duct tape make invaluable hoof boots for packing poultices and treatments.)
Tip: if your horse begins to fidget, gripping the toe of the hoof will give you a bit more leverage, and at times (depending on the horse,) allow them a moment to calm down and feel less restricted. Maintain a calm demeanor, stay close to the horse’s body, and be firm in your intention to maintain control of the hoof. Setting the hoof (NOT DROPPING IT) down is perfectly acceptable—but make sure YOU make the decision to place it back on the ground, and not the horse deciding the misbehave and snatch it rudely away from you.
Should he snatch his hoof from your grasp, take a deep breath and repeat picking the hoof up. Hold briefly until the horse is still, and place the hoof back on the ground. By allowing the horse to decide when the hoof needs to go back to Earth, you are setting a dangerous precedent that is likely to escalate over time to the point where your horse refuses to allow his hooves handled. Staying calm and persistent and requesting the horse move his feet in a controlled manner goes a long way to convince him that it’s much easier to be good and have clean hooves than it is to be a stinker and have to work a bit.
As always, stay safe and happy horsing!
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