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A horse hoof is a complex of soft tissue and keratinized structures that make up the outside of the horse’s foot. This rigid structure covers the internal systems of the feet and bears all the weight of the animal.
There’s an old saying about horses: “no hoof, no horse.” So what are horse hooves, and why are they so important?
In this article, we take a look at what exactly a hoof is, why it’s important, how it works, and some care tips for your horse’s hooves.
How Do Horse Hooves Work?
You might not know just by looking at it, but the single-digit of a horse’s limb is highly complex. Several different parts with different functions make up the hoof and work in synchronicity to maintain the horse’s health.
As a horse walks and puts weight on its hoof, the pressure causes the feet to expand. This expansion causes the external hooves to move outwards and the underside to move downwards.
This movement causes the heel to press against the ‘digital cushion,’ which flattens and elongates against the lateral cartilages. As the foot lifts, it returns to its original position and shape.
What Are Horse Hooves Made Of?
The hoof of a horse has different external and internal structures.
The wall, white line, bars, frog, and sole make up the hoof capsule or external hoof. These are the weight-bearing structures of the foot that protect its internal structures.
For better understanding, let’s break down its structures and purposes.
The walls are the outer structure of the single-digit, composed of a hard keratinized material that continuously grows.
The walls can be further categorized into sections:
- The front of the horse’s feet where the wall is thickest is called the ‘toe.’
- The sides of feet where the wall is narrowest are called the ‘quarters.’
- The back of feet where the wall is more uniform is called the ‘heel.’
- The top of the external wall is the ‘coronet’ or ‘coronary band,’ which is the source of growth for the hoof wall.
The coronary band has two crucial functions: producing the tubules of the outer wall and acting as a band of support to the internal structures as the hoof changes during a stride.
The hoof walls are load-bearing structures that act as a shield protecting the sensitive internal structures of the hoof.
The White Line
The white line, unlike its name, is a yellowish substance located between the hoof wall and the sole. It is produced internally at the edge of the coffin bone, inside the walls.
It fills the void between the wall and the sole, acting as a bonding agent between the two structures. Additionally, farriers drive nails into the white line and exit via the hoof wall when putting on horseshoes.
The white line is a weight-bearing structure except in the area known as the ‘seat of corn.’ Also known as the ‘seat of the heel,’ this area isn’t a hoof structure but simply an area.
The bars are the inward folds located inside the heels of walls, angling out abruptly. The heel and the bar make up the strong structure called the ‘heel buttress.’
The bars help aid in shock absorption as the foot bears more weight. The process involves the walls expanding outward and the bars moving towards the ground.
It mainly controls the movement in the heel, adds strength to the back hoof area, and protects it from excess warping. It should have a pliable inner wall to ensure the correct movement of the heels.
The frog is a V-shaped structure located on the underside of the hoof. It forms about two-thirds of the sole. The widest part of the V making up the heel.
Unlike the wall, the frog is moist and pliable. It allows for independent movement at the heels, so a horse has flexibility when it lands on uneven ground. The frog also aids in protecting the structures beneath, providing traction, and absorbing shock.
In addition, the frog also helps with circulation by pumping the blood back to the heart. This pressure and circulation directly impact the digital cushion’s health.
Lastly, the frog contains many nerves, which allows for proprioception. This means that the horse can feel and be aware of what it’s standing on and where its feet are in relation to the rest of its body.
Located inside the white line, the sole covers the underside of the foot. It is a majority of the ground-bearing surface of the foot, excluding the bars and frog.
The sole is concave and thick enough to protect the coffin bone, blood supply, and other delicate structures above it. The outer perimeter of the sole in the toe also provides support, sharing the load of the horse with the hoof wall.
Generally, the sole is not considered load-bearing. Although, with barefoot horses, the sole will thicken to the extent that they may come in contact with the ground contact.
Inside the hoof capsule are the sensitive tissues and internal structures of the hooves. Below are the main structures that make this part of the hoof.
The bones in the horse’s foot include the pedal bone or coffin bone, the navicular bone, and the short pastern.
- The pedal bone is the large bone inside the hoof capsule. Its shape provides a framework for the form of the hoof capsule and provides stability.
- The navicular bone sits behind the pedal bone and lets the deep digital flexor tendon pass over it. It stops the joint of the pedal bone from over-extending. Also, it allows for additional tilt within the coffin joint when a horse navigates uneven surfaces.
- The short pastern bone sits on top of the pedal bone with only the lower end of the bone extending to the hoof capsule.
The Laminae is a multilayered structure containing insensitive laminae and sensitive laminae. They intermesh together to hold the hoof wall to the coffin bone and produce some of the intertubular horn of the hoof wall.
The digital cushion is a fatty-fibrous mass that helps with the formation of the horse’s heels, acting as a primary shock absorber for the foot.
The digital cushion sits above the frog, just behind the pedal bone. The shape and health of it influence the angle of the toe. For example, flat-footed horses often have severely atrophied digital cushions.
The lateral cartilages are located around the coronary band, extending around the front, the sides, and back of the hoof. Below the band, they extend out over the digital cushion and attach to the back of the pedal bone.
These cartilages provide resistance during load-bearing by controlling the pressure on the coriums. Also, they contribute to the correct suspension of the pedal bone and help store and release energy during locomotion.
Corium is a vascular structure that manufactures the materials of the hoof horns. For instance, the coronary band contains a corium that produces wall’s the tubules, and intertubular.
Moreover, the solar corium makes the sole, and the frog corium makes the frog.
What Are They Used For?
Considering the weight and size of a horse relative, the hooves of a horse’s single digits play a key role in its ability to survive and function. Without solid feet, a horse wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone run.
Because horses use their hooves to run and carry heavyweight, thick healthy ones help protect their legs and absorb shock. They do this by redirecting vertical load forces into lateral ones when they shift their weight as they move.
Plus, the movement of the hooves acts as a pump, moving blood up and down the hoof and the heart. When there is weight on the foot, the digital cushion changes shape and, with the frog, compresses the veins within. When the weight is gone, the compression is alleviated, and blood flows back.
What Do They Look Like?
From the outside, the hooves look like a round horny structure. But underneath, the feet are more complex. On the underside, the hooves are light with a fortune cookie or PAC-man shape. The wall, sole, and frog are easy to tell apart because they are different colors.
Do Horse Hooves Grow?
Hooves are a keratinized coverings that are produced continuously and must be worn off or trimmed off. The hoof walls grow about one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch a month from the coronary band.
How Do They Grow?
The wall of the hoof is keratin, which is a type of protein that makes up the tissue in human nails and hair. Like nails and hair, the hooves grow from the coronary band as the cell layers divide.
The thick soles are like having calluses on our feet. Similar to human skin, they constantly produce within the hoof capsule and self exfoliate. They become more solid from continuous work or exercise.
A horse that gets a lot of exercise will get thick, strong soles. However, genetic factors determine sole thickness, meaning your horse might need help if it is predisposed to thin soles.
Can They Grow Long?
Like nails, they can grow as long as they are not used or left untrimmed. However, this is horrible for the horse’s wellbeing and can cause hoof problems and lameness. A horse with untrimmed hooves can experience strains on its feet or even cracks in its hooves.
Is A Horse Hoof A Nail?
Technically, yes. The wall of the horse’s foot is similar in composition and function to the human fingernail. Both are made of keratin and are constantly growing.
Why Do Horses Have Hooves?
Unlike humans, and other mammals, who have multiple toes. Horses only have single-toed hooves. It’s speculated that over millions of years, many horse species lost their side toes. Eventually, the middle toe evolved into the single large foot we see today. In contrast, the other toes became smaller and vestigial.
The need to run farther and faster on the open prairie was the reason for the evolution of the hooves and long legs. This development helped horses escape their predators and find fresh grass for grazing.
A horse’s hooves, therefore, were and are essential for the animal’s function and survival.
Do Horses Feel Pain In Their Hooves?
The hoof wall and white line do not contain blood vessels or nerves, so a horse doesn’t feel any pain when farriers nail horseshoes. However, the sensitive tissues inside the outer hooves can feel pain, especially if a horse’s hooves aren’t well cared for.
Horses can feel pain when their hooves are too long, too short, imbalanced, or dry.
The hard material of the hoof wall prevents moisture from escaping. In an unhealthy horse, the hoof wall might become dry, causing excessive flaking and cracking.
The length of the hoof also affects the horse’s health and causes pain. For example, having a long toe can strain flexor tendons and the navicular bone. Conversely, short toes can cause trauma to the coffin bone and joint, while imbalanced hooves can cause stress on supporting ligaments and joints.
Lastly, horse’s feet could painfully blister if their soles are too thin. Similar to an uncalloused human foot walking on an abrasive surface or stepping on a sharp foreign object.
A horse’s hooves are an essential part of its function and ability. It’s what essentially makes them horses!
Because they are so vital, it’s important to give your horse proper hoof care. You can do this with regular exercise, a good diet, and a regular trim.
It’s essential to get your horse’s hooves trimmed frequently, about every two to eight weeks depending on the hoof growth rate, the activities of your horse, and the season or time of year.
In the summer, hooves grow faster as opposed to the winter when they grow slower. Also, a constantly active and running horse will have more robust and thicker soles, while a pasture horse might have softer soles.
Whatever the case, take good care of your horse companion, especially their hooves!