You said it wouldn’t happen again, but here you are: Your horse is confined and your checkbook is out, as you wait for your farrier to come and fix your horse’s ailing hooves. Meanwhile, you’re missing out on another weekend of team roping. Could this scenario be avoided? Yes. Organize your approach to horse hoof care, farriers say, and your riding time is more likely to be uninterrupted by emergencies, equipment failures, and last-minute fix-ups. Following are farriers’ top seven secrets to keeping your horse sound.
Secret #1: Check your horse’s hoof history.
Check back through your records and bills to see what problems your horse has had in the past. Did some keep coming back? Is your horse prone to infections or injuries such as bruising at certain times of the year? Ask your farrier and veterinarian what you can do this year to avoid those problems.
Secret #2: Plan ahead.
• Farriers have lives, too. Ask your farrier well ahead of time if he or she is on call during the year-round–or if you should have the name and number of an apprentice or colleague on hand just in case. Make sure that he or she knows your plans for the roping season. If you say, “I’ve been waiting for years to go to that roping and we’re leaving June 1st” your farrier will know how important the trip is to you. Your farrier might reply, “Too bad-I’ll be away the month of May, so I won’t be here to check him before you go.” If you know your farrier’s availability in advance, you’ll know when to prepare a backup plan, in the case of emergency. But if you find out at the last minute, this information can throw you into the panic zone.
• If you have a trip planned that’s much more ambitious than your normal schedule, ask your farrier for a checkup appointment the week before you plan to leave and another a few days after you return. Paying a small fee for a maintenance checkup is worth it, especially if your horse’s feet show a bruise or infection that might cause problems at the roping. Also, have your farrier check your horse when you return to make sure that no excessive damage or wear has put your horse at risk. A bonus: If your horse comes home sore or even lame, you’ll already be booked for a checkup. (Note: If your farrier suggests that you call your vet, heed the advice and reach for the phone.)
Secret #3: Know thy shoes.
• Ask your farrier to give you the specifics of your horse’s shoe size and style, and the manufacturer (for example, “St. Croix Toe-and-Heeled, Size 1”). Note whether your horse’s shoes are clipped (specifically side clips or toe clips) or unclipped and whether his hind shoes are squared at the toe. If you’re away from home or if your regular farrier is unavailable, a stand-in farrier will then know right away how to shoe your horse. And if you report that your horse wears, for example, “clipped aluminum GE egg bars with Impact gel pads and Equithane wall filler,” a potential farrier might ask that you find a more experienced farrier who’s accustomed to working with complex shoeing packages. Get information about both front and hind shoes: It’s not unusual for horses to wear different types and sizes of shoes on hind and front feet.
• Tip: If you haul long distances to ropings, consider paying your farrier to fit up spare shoes to take along, just in case.
“Organize your approach to hoof care and your roping time is less likely to be interrupted by emergencies, equipment failures, and
Secret #4: Check wear patterns.
• Ask your farrier if you can keep the old shoes the next time your horse is due for new shoes. (Ask that they are marked left or right, or you’ll be confused!) Study the shoes carefully. Where’s the most wear? Looking at a worn shoe will show you if your horse “breaks over” (brings his weight over) at the center of his toe, or to the outside or inside. Some horses will show excessive heel wear.
• Turn the shoes over and look at the foot surface; you may find abrasion marks where the heels “expand” across the steel or aluminum surface. Some wear it is normal, but excessive grooving may be a red flag to discuss with your farrier.
• Look at the nail holes–are they enlarged? Shoes with heavy wear will have deformed nail holes, caused by nail movement in the shoe (and hoof wall). This is often the result of long miles on the hard ground, but also can be caused by your horse repeatedly stomping at flies or kicking stall walls.
• Keep worn shoes in a plastic bag, or photograph them. As the summer goes on, compare your horse’s current wear pattern with the shoes you’ve labeled “normal.” Is the wear the same? Changes in wear patterns are subtle early warning signs that your horse is changing his gait or loading pattern (how he distributes his weight over his hooves as he moves). He may be swinging a leg out to avoid a bruise or swelling, or landing toe-first to avoid heel pain. Point out any changes to your farrier, and ask for his or her advice.
Secret #5: Check for worn-out shoes.
• An active roping season can make quick work of a horseshoe. You may be riding on pavement more often, or riding in rocky warm-up areas more than the soft terrain of an arena. Warn your farrier well in advance if your horse’s shoes look thin or if the clinches are weak. Be prepared to haul your horse to the farrier, if needed, but don’t ride on thin shoes held on by weak clinches.
• Consider investing in farrier tools, so that you can safely remove a loose shoe. I recommend a pair of pull-offs, creased nail pullers, and a rasp, available from a farrier supply store. (Two are Brighton Feed and Saddlery, www.brightonsaddlery.com, and Harry Patton Horseshoe Supply, www.harrypatton.com.) Your horse can become badly injured by stepping on a bent shoe or broken nails–but if you try to remove the shoe without the proper tools, you risk removing a chunk of hoof wall or bruising his hoof.
Secret #6: Protect your horse’s feet.
• You might think that going shoeless is the ideal state for your horse–and your budget. Most of the time, that’s right. But an active roping schedule can put too much stress on some horses’ bare hooves. Ask your farrier whether your horse might need shoes for the heavy roping season.
• Don’t abuse your horse to show off how tough his feet are. If his feet are tender, the walls have worn lower than the sole, or you notice him “dancing in place” and shifting weight from one front foot to the other, stand him in an ice bath or cold running stream while you call your vet.
• Invest in an EDSS First Alert Kit (www.hopeforsoundness.com). This kit contains Styrofoam pads you apply with duct tape to protect your horse’s sore feet until your vet arrives. Don’t ride a hurting horse.
KEEP HIM SOUND
Here’s the good news: Riding doesn’t necessarily stress your horse’s hooves, in fact, the opposite is probably true. Too little exercise limits circulation to your horse’s feet and curtails horn growth, particularly if he lives in a confined space, and/or is overweight. If his hooves are properly cared for before, during and after a ride and if your riding schedule is consistent and reasonable to ensure that your horse’s fitness matches his schedule you both should sail through roping season. Here are some bonus tips to keep him sound.
Pre- and post-ride checklist
Clean your horse’s feet with a hoof pick to remove any irritating rocks and packed dirt/manure.
As you clean your horse’s feet, run your hand around the nail clinches in the hoof wall. The wall should be smooth. If you feel a rough bit of metal, a clinch is “raised” or “popped,” and the shoe may be loose. A horse can also cut himself on a ragged clinch.
Check the shoe heels. If you find one that isn’t directly under your horse’s heel, he may have a “sprung heel.” That is, his heel is hitting the shoe’s edge as it expands and contracts. Your farrier will need to remove, re-level, and reshape the shoe, and then nail it back on. Riding on a sprung heel can cause corns or more severe hoof injury.
Run your hand around your horse’s coronets at the hairline, and feel for bumps, swelling and/or heat. (If you’ve clipped your horse’s pasterns, consider applying bell boots to protect his coronets.)
Run your hands down each of your horse’s legs, feeling for heat, swelling and/or tenderness,
especially on the inside.
Check old injury sites/hoof cracks, and make a mental note of their condition before you ride, for comparison when you return.
When not to ride:
Don’t ride if your normally obedient horse resists when you try to pick up a foot, seems tender to your touch, you see swelling or redness at his coronet, or you see red marks on his hoof sole. Don’t ride if you see any signs of a loose shoe. Don’t ride on an injured or cracked hoof.
When to turn back:
Stop at the first sign of lameness, altered gait, or repeated stumbling. Dismount, loosen the cinch/girth and get your horse home.
Photograph your horse at different times through the year. You’ll notice how his body shape changes as his haircoat and fitness level change his feet will show changes, too. Take close-up photos of each foot and shoes. You may be surprised to notice how his hoof shape and hairline junction contours change. A jammed heel may come down, or a bump in the hairline over a wall flare may subside or worsen, a warning sign of unequal pressure on the wall, or abnormal footfall. Photos of such changes will be valuable if he ever suffers a serious hoof injury or contracts a serious hoof disease, such as laminitis. Your farrier needs to know what’s normal for your horse, so he or she can better judge abnormalities. For instance, it’ll be helpful to know that your horse’s right front foot was always a bit steeper than his left one, or that his heel bulbs had been prominent before the injury or disease.
Secret #7: Become equipment savvy.
• Clean all your tack, boots, wraps, and trailering gear well and often. Horses change shape with fitness level and age, so don’t assume that tack will or should fit the same from year to year. Make any replacements or adjustments in advance of the heavy roping season. Dirty, ill-fitting, uncomfortable tack can cause your horse to change his gait and/or loading patterns, which, in turn, can create hoof problems.
• Avoid attending a competitive roping in new tack, support boots, and other gear. Take the time to gradually break in new equipment for an optimal fit. Be especially gradual with martingales and tie-downs, as your horse may need extra time to adjust to their feel. Start in the practice pen, and let your horse tell you what feels right and what doesn’t.
• During breaks, loosen the cinch/girth and other strapped tack, and check for irritation. Carry a spare, so you can switch at the first sign of a welt or rash. Even if your new cinch/girth technically fits your horse, it can irritate him if it’s left on too long on a hot summer day. To avoid discomfort, your horse may shuffle at the jog or widen out his front end. This can lead to early fatigue, stumbling, abnormal head carriage, or interference (his hind or diagonal legs may overreach, causing him to strike a front hoof with a hind one, which can cause an injury).
• If you sense your horse trotting unevenly or resisting the canter, dismount and check all your gear. You may be amazed to find that removing a martingale or tie-down will improve your horse’s energy, gait, and even soundness.
• Check your horse’s legs and inside boots and straps. Neoprene sports-medicine boots can create heat against your horse’s skin, and sand particles trapped under boots and wraps can be irritating.
• Fit your boots to your horse, don’t borrow someone else’s horse boots, and trim any excess from straps. Keep hook-and-loop fasteners clean so straps lay flat. Flapping straps from brushing boots or even an ill-fitting bell boot meant to protect your horse from interfering can backfire, causing your horse to widen his stance behind or shorten a stride, leading to early fatigue or stumbling.