Part 1 of the Brainy Hoof Blog Series - by Christa Lesté-Lasserre
A healthy foot results in a whole-body positive experience
When you think about the purpose and design of the equine foot, that makes perfect sense. It evolved over millions of years to be streamlined into one long, swift-moving limb that’s capable of accepting and distributing massive forces concentrated initially over a tiny surface—a single toe tip—at full gallop.
The equine foot is hard but elastic, resistant yet malleable, seemingly inert yet fully alive. When it’s healthy, it does its job well, diffusing impact shock so as to protect the rest of the musculoskeletal system from damage.
The Iron Band-Aid
Mother Nature invented a brilliant system for equine locomotion. So why, exactly, have humans interfered with it by hammering in hard metal plates that alter force distribution and restrict the hoof’s natural elastic movements?
It’s easy to point to the metal shoe as the source of many hoof problems—but it’s not that simple. We have to remember that iron shoes were actually developed to fix hoof problems!
Back in Roman Empire days, horses galloped through war zones and pulled chariots of all sorts through countrysides and city streets without fixed shoes. (They occasionally used removable hipposandals somewhat akin to modern boots when conditions were particularly difficult.) Several hundred years later, though, horse feet just went bad. They were cracking and wearing low; horses were going lame; their owners were unable to work and travel. It’d be like us today having to constantly deal with a flat tire on our car or bicycle, again and again and again. The frustration must have been incredible.
So the invention of the shoe would certainly have been heralded as a great relief! Both horses and their owners benefited immensely from these metallic saviors. At the time and in that context, shoes were actually good for the health and the welfare of the horse. In a sense, they became a quick fix, a sort of “iron Band-Aid,” so to speak—treating a symptom and not the syndrome.
The Fall of the Healthy Hoof Empire (and the Rise of the Stable)
Several hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire, those beautiful Roman horse hooves began to disappear. What happened in that period that made horses’ feet go so bad as to require treatment with iron prosthetics?
It’s pretty simple, actually. They lost their shape. The shape of the foot no longer supported all the forces placed on it by movement anymore. The foot lost its mechanical function and became unhealthy, with an unhealthy shape that just got worse with use, in a vicious downward spiral.
Genetics probably had something to do with it. Quite possibly, breeders were selecting for important traits like strength, size, and even aesthetics and ease of training (mental factors), and they weren’t thinking of selecting for foot health because that had never been much of an issue.
But the most significant factor creating this pivotal shift in hoof shape, and thus hoof health, was in management. The period leading up to the Middle Ages signified the dawn of the horse stable. Villagers brought their horses out of the countryside and into urban stables for convenience, keeping the horses closer and cleaner. Noblemen brought their horses indoors to protect them from theft, but also to glorify them with immaculate housing they considered fit for kings’ horses. While the humans might have intended to pamper their horses, the result of such management was devastating for these beloved animals’ feet.
Lacking the natural environment and their natural movement, foot shapes adapted to the new challenge: standing still, often on soft ground, for hours and hours at a time. If they ended up standing in their own feces and especially urine, as most of them did, the chemical composition of the waste material would attack the integrity of the hoof components. Brittle, decaying, overgrown, underdeveloped, and even in some places atrophying, equine feet became unhealthy and took on a very unnatural shape. It’s no wonder those horses needed shoes to stay minimally sound!
The Natural Hoof: Nature is as Nature Does
Today, the goal is to learn from the mistakes of our well-meaning horse-loving ancestors to work towards an ideal hoof shape. We can’t just leave our horses barefoot and assume that “nature knows best” if we’re not letting nature do its full job. All that does it take us back a thousand years in time to having barefoot horses in immaculate royal stables and village centers—and we already know what happens next in that kind of story.
The horses need to be out—and not just at pasture, which is soft. They need varied terrain, with lots of hard and gritty ground like screening (stone dust) for a self-rasping effect as well as shallow muddy areas for moisture. They need hills and tree roots and pebbles that all stimulate circulation and create calluses. They need a wide variety of food choices—grasses but also shrubs and tree leaves and a large selection of healthy plants—to get the ingredients they need for good hoof structure and growth.
And this isn’t the sort of thing they just need a few hours a day. This is something they need all the time, starting from birth. If they’re going to build up the right structures, it’s a lifelong process of conditioning soft and hard tissues in the feet and legs, loading the bones during growth to strengthen them, training the tendons and ligaments, encouraging good vascularization throughout the foot, and forming a shape that allows the hoof to work all its natural magic in its full splendor.
The Quest for the Perfect Hoof Shape
So after all that, what’s the perfect equine hoof shape, then?
Quite simply, the perfect shape is the one that aligns perfectly with the shape of the horse itself. Essentially, there are as many perfect hoof shapes out there as there are perfect horse shapes. Each horse is an individual with his own morphology, and in a natural state, his hooves will also have their own individual morphology that’s designed to support the individual morphology of the body they’re supporting.
The best way to find your horse’s own perfect shape is to let him live a fully natural life from birth. Unfortunately, few domestic horses have that opportunity. Having your horse outdoors or even in a “Paddock Paradise” system can certainly encourage good hoof shape, but that still falls slightly short of a 100% free-roaming experience.
That’s where good farriery comes into play. Science-based farrier work follows along the lines of that natural shape to encourage as much natural mechanical and sensory function of the foot as possible. To compensate for the issues caused by domestic life—even in best-case scenarios—well-informed farriers shape bare feet to have straight walls that prevent flaring, and they’ll make sure the heel doesn’t overgrow. What’s more, they’ll preserve that precious toe callus that keeps barefoot horses surface-sound, especially on difficult terrains.
The ideal hoof shape is the shape that best supports each individual horse’s body. Smart farriery keeps the walls from flaring and the heel from overgrowing without letting it run too low, and it maintains the toe callus.
Boots: Giving Nature a Little Nudge
Very few domestic horses have the full-scale natural development from birth that allows them to be barefoot throughout the horse-human adventure. Some just don’t have the genetics for it—bad hoof genes didn’t get selected out over time, after all. Some didn’t get the right conditioning during the critical growth periods. Some still don’t have ideal management conditions due to various constraints that owners face in finding optimal housing for their horses. Many are in transition phases—which can last for months or years—coming off the steel shoe experience. And sometimes, just like in Roman days, our sport just goes slightly beyond a hoof’s natural limits—like jumping six-foot fences, traveling long distances, or working extended periods on asphalt.
For the multiple cases where horses need a little extra protection from the ground, well-designed boots seem to provide a healthy solution. Still allowing the foot to expand and do its mechanical job, removable boots give horse feet a “helping hoof” when the risk of wear exceeds natural growth and conditioning.
Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a Master's degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates.