by Casie Bazay

The ins and outs of horse hoof growth and development

The ins and outs of horse hoof growth and development

Published: March 2021 | Updated: July 2023

Many people may not be overly concerned about their young horse’s hoof health until it comes time to start training and riding them, but proper hoof care from the start can affect how a horse will move for the rest of his life. In fact, a horse is never too young to have his feet evaluated by a professional, especially if he’s expected to be a performance horse in the future.  

Let’s hear from Rood and Riddle’s equine podiatrist, Dr. Scott Fleming

How Do Horses Grow and Develop? 

When a foal is born, the hooves are soft, which makes for an easier and safer delivery. However, within hours after birth, the hoof hardens as it dries out. In the wild, it’s important that a foal not only be able to stand shortly after birth, but also be able to run in order to keep up with the herd. 

As far as the shape goes, a foal’s hooves don’t look like those of an adult horse. Instead, they’re conical with more of a pointed toe. For the first month or so, most of the weight-bearing is toward the front of the foot. However, with movement and trimming, the weight-bearing is transferred to the back of the hoof where it should be. 

Dr. Fleming frequently evaluates foals’ feet and says what he and his team first need to ensure is that the foal is capable of standing and nursing. He also checks for flexural deformities to see if any type of intervention will be needed. 

Fleming says that hoof conformation is a reflection of the limb above it and how it is loaded. He and his team take time to carefully evaluate each foal they see in order to offer help during that critical time period. 

By four or five months of age, the growth plates on the fetlocks begin to close, and Fleming notes that the ability to correct problems also slows around this time. 

Early Horse Hoof Problems 

If there are problems with the foal’s feet or limbs, the earlier the intervention the better, in most instances. Common problems in foals include angular deformities (such as “knock knees”), flexural deformities (contracted tendons), and flexor tendon flaccidity. However, these problems can be corrected most of the time.

“Maybe they were a little bit over at the knee when they were born or a little bit upright, or especially fetlock varus or valgus,” says Fleming. “In those cases of angular limb deformities, we're going to start trimming the foot, or maybe even put a shoe on it, to help assist with proper joint development before the growth plates close.” 

In situations such as these, the foal will need to be monitored closely to ensure things are progressing as they should be.

“At two months, we're making the decisions on the things that we've done--are we where we want to be, or do we need to discuss surgical intervention to have this animal as correct as we can?” says Fleming. “Because there are implications for conformational issues.”

Fleming also notes that it is the joints closest to the foot that are often corrected the most. 

“You can end up shooting yourself in the foot by trying to correct something farther up the limb while the growth plates are still open distally or farther down at the fetlock. It's important to pick your battles and aim for the best timing so you're not sacrificing one thing anatomically for the benefit of something else.” 

The Importance of Movement for Horse Hoof Conformation

Movement and concussion are critical for healthy horse hoof and bone development, and the feet need stimulation from the environment in order to grow and function correctly. Horses who are kept stalled part or full time simply aren’t getting enough movement in most cases. 

“We know that the bone develops and adapts in accordance with the stresses that are put upon it,” says FullBucket’s Dr. Keith Latson. “So a horse that's out running around in the pasture is developing bone in response to running around in the pasture versus the horse that's standing in the stall and not experiencing that natural concussion.”

Since the back of the hoof is the part that should be bearing the majority of a horse’s weight, proper development in this area can mean the difference between a sound horse and one with chronic lameness issues. 

“The motor of the back of the foot is the digital cushion and it's basically just a fibrous pad that has a lot of blood vessels and cartilage and collagen and all these other structures,” notes Fleming. “It's the shock absorber, and it's what allows the back of the foot to function normally.”

Flemings stresses that the back of the foot must be nourished and stimulated properly. Otherwise, it will deteriorate over time.  

“Once it's gone, it's gone,” he says. 

The Horse Hoof Care Triad

When it comes to hoof care for the young horse, especially one needing any kind of intervention, it should be a team effort; ideally, the farrier, the veterinarian, and the owner should all work together to help resolve the issue. 

The owner is obviously in charge of making appointments and getting the horse evaluated by the professionals, and finding a farrier and a veterinarian who can work together can be extremely helpful. If an equine podiatrist can be involved as well, even better. 

It’s also important to remember that every horse is unique in conformation, and some horses may not be naturally equipped to participate in certain disciplines. Great hoof care can help, but it may not solve every problem for the horse. 

“I think that mutual respect and understanding the limitations of an animal is important,” says Fleming.

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