Valentines Day is an appropriate time to discuss the eternal love affair between horse owners and their horse or horses, and the farrier is an integral part of this relationship. I am an Australian farrier and have been shoeing horses for 50 years, and my wife says quite firmly that I am more horse than human. I think she means it as a compliment.

During my own 50 year love affair with horses, I competed in every equine pursuit possible, was a respected colt breaker, was head farrier for one of Australia’s top racing stables for eight years, and nowadays I travel year round teaching people the importance of Hoof Care.

Whenever you think of Hoof Care, think of Valentines Day and that will make you think of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Sweetheart). Hoof Care is not rocket science, and there is absolutely no need to make it complex.

077- valentines dayThe main points to keep in mind if you expect your horse to perform and win are:

  • Know what you want from the horse

  • Communicate with the farrier what you need from the horse

  • Insist on as light a shoe as possible

  • Understand if the hoof is correctly balanced

  • Eliminate flares – they are the enemy of performance

  • For consistent performance, four weeks between shoeing is ideal.

  • All horses need a break from shoes.

Nowadays most horse riders and owners realise that they have information at their fingertips to seek answers on anything about horses that they could ever wish to know. This information can be very helpful in broadening their knowledge; however, there is so much information available and covering such a wide range of opinions and ideas that the horse owner can often end up more confused than ever in an effort to determine what is correct for their horse.

Hoof Care in particular can be a mine of misinformation. Many of the current fads including barefooting along with ‘quick fix’ horseshoes and other prosthetics, would never have arisen if the horses were performing to the best of their ability without lameness issues. There was only ever one correct way enhance the horse’s natural movement, and that is to correctly balance the feet.

Did you know that 90% of lameness in horses is hoof related? Most gait problems and back strain problems stem from incorrect trimming and incorrect shoeing that should have been corrected, simply by correctly balancing the hoof. My concern is that the basic principles of horseshoeing are being lost, that there are too many variables in horseshoeing standards and not enough is understood about how to achieve a correctly balanced hoof.

Every horse must be allowed to go barefoot at regular intervals, especially young horses. It is little wonder if horses end up unsound if they have been shod constantly for years.

The reality today is that we now expect the horse to sleep in a soft stable and live within a fenced off area, which effectively destroys nature’s ability to condition the hoof and make it tough, yet we still want the horse to be competitive and sound over all terrain. The only way to do this is to fit a shoe which is as light as possible to allow the horse to complete his task, and enhance his performance.

Perhaps it is an economic thing, and you may think that if you fit heavy shoes they will last longer and you will save money – that is wrong! Your horse will have to be reshod every four to six weeks regardless of what shoes are fitted, so that cost never alters. Sure, heavy horses need heavy shoes, but light horses with fine leg bones do not. Let common sense prevail – could you as a ballet dancer perform your best in heavy working boots? Fitting the correct weight shoes will lift your horse’s athletic ability dramatically, and will also reduce downtime from lameness and injury.

In my opinion the single most common cause of lameness in our equine industry is the presence of flares anywhere in the hoof. Can you recognize flares in the hoof? And does your horse have flares? The failure to understand and address this area in hoof maintenance programmes for many decades has led to a multitude of ongoing lameness problems, and has been the catalyst for so many bad trimming and shoeing outcomes for too many farriers and hoof carers.

Just for the exercise, go and have a look in that pile of old horse shoes behind the shed, you will find some of the most amazing shapes and creations, all man made alterations to cater to the distorted hoof shapes. Less than one percent of horses’ hooves have genuine hoof deformities and these are the result of accidents causing damage to the coronary band which results in permanent distortion to the new growth area and hoof wall shape.

Lack of understanding of what is the normal hoof shape is the biggest problem. Look at the hair line shape of the coronary band and realise that the bottom or ground surface of the hoof should be the same shape.

Consider this basic principle: the flight of a hoof will travel in the direction of its longest point. Long toes and low heels slow down the break-over or forward speed of the hoof and subsequently the horse. (To understand this put on a pair of long toed boots yourself and try running!) If you then add to those long toes and low heels a hoof which is longer on the outside wall, you then have a splay footed hoof, which causes the horse to paddle and slows down his movement sideways, and this is only the front half of the problem.

Viewing the horse from behind, if he is standing cow-hocked, his toes are pointing out, and the hoof will move forward on an inside arc, often hitting the opposite hind pastern causing pain and injury, and it will land with its toe pointing out, slowing down his movement sideways, as well as forward. It is also causing back soreness in the hip area. More importantly is what all this is doing to the mental attitude and confidence of these potentially brilliant horses, and their riders.

As a horse owner, you have a duty of care to your horse. To the horse owner who may feel intimidated at asking questions of the farrier –  don’t be shy, just remember that YOU are the expert when it comes to recogising a difference in the way the horse is working, or traveling, or the way it feels. The farrier only visits once every four to six weeks or so, making it difficult for him to assess these minor changes that you observe daily. It is your right to query these changes in the horse’s behaviour or in its working.

An educated owner or rider who understands hoof balance can and must feel free to discuss with the farrier how best to achieve the correct outcome for the horse – it is a team effort.

To help horse owners understand hoof balance, I have developed a very simple tool called ‘David Farmilo’s HOOF-LINE’ which allows the horse owner to check if the hoof is correctly balanced whether shod or barefoot. This method takes any guesswork out of hoof preparation.

Remember – your horse has five hearts, so if you truly love your horse, start at the feet first, where there are four hearts pumping and then work up to that big heart.