Your Horse from the Ground Up - Part One - The Hoof
 By mosquito   •   13th May 2012   •   15,095 views   •   10 comments
Horse AnatomyUnderstanding your horse’s anatomy is important. It will help you understand how your horse moves, and how to train him effectively and prevent injuries. It will help you protect your horse from disease and illness, and keep him feeling his best. If you are shopping for a horse, a knowledge of anatomy will help you choose a horse with good conformation, or at least recognize which conformation problems matter for your discipline, and which may be less of a factor. What’s most interesting about anatomy though is how it reflects the evolution of the horse, and there’s a lot to learn about your horse’s psychology just from how he’s built. In this series, we’ll take your horse apart from the ground up, and see how all the bones, muscles, tendons and everything else work, and what that can tell you. Let’s start right at the bottom – the hoof.

No hoof no horse – it’s an old saying but it’s true. Your horse’s feet don’t just give him something to stand on, they are an essential part of his movement, his balance, and his metabolism. That’s why they are so important – if things go wrong with his feet, it can literally mean life or death for your horse.

First, let’s take a look at the parts of the hoof you can see.

Hoof ChipThe outside of the hoof, the hard gray (or pink) part, is called the wall. It’s a good name – the wall is everything a wall should be – it’s strong, rigid, and protective. It’s designed to support your horse’s weight, and protect all of the delicate parts of the foot inside. It may look rock solid, but it’s actually both flexible (it bends and flexes ever so slightly with your horse’s steps), and porous (meaning it has to allow moisture in when it needs it and keep it out when it doesn’t).

Helping your horse’s hoof wall to be strong enough to take weight but soft enough to absorb impact and allow that flexion means maintaining the perfect balance of moisture. If your horse has overly porous hooves, or spends a lot of time standing in wet conditions, then his hooves can become overly soft, allowing fungal infections and other diseases to weaken the wall. In overly dry conditions, or if your horse is consistently dehydrated or undernourished, the feet can become brittle, and crack and chip, sometimes leaving your horse in enormous pain and certainly making riding or other work uncomfortable.

Hoof Side AnatomyThe wall grows continually, like your fingernails, and so like you nails it needs to be managed. The wall grows very slowly, which means if you get a problem with it, you will have to wait a long time – 6 months or more if the damage is near the top of the hoof – for it to ‘grow out’. Regular trimming of your horse’s feet is essential, and if you ride on hard ground or in competitive events, you may need shoes or boots. A good, healthy wall is important if your horse needs shoes; the nails need to be able to pass through the wall (which is painless if done correctly), and find a secure grip on the other side without causing a chip or a crack. Genetics and a healthy diet are the biggest factors in good feet, although horses with problem feet may need a surface treatment. Fortunately, the importance of hooves means there has been a lot of research and development in this area, and there are a lot of interesting treatments dietary supplements, and protective equipment like boots available to help horses with hoof problems.

Horses in the wild will move around a lot, often of hard, dry surfaces, and keep their feet naturally trimmed. When we restrict our horse’s movement, such as by stabling or keeping in a pasture of that lovely soft grass he loves to eat, then we have to take on trimming his ever-growing feet! That’s where your farrier comes in – regular, at least once every 8 weeks or so – trimming is vital to prevent crack and chips in the wall, or overgrown, curved hoof walls.

At the top of the wall is the coronary band, the softer, lighter colored band below the hair. It may not look like much, but this is possibly the most important part of the hoof. It is actually part of a much larger structure inside the hoof (we’ll talk about inside the hoof in the next article), connecting bone and cartilage. It’s also like the cuticle of your fingernail - this is where the hoof wall grows, so a health coronary band is essential for good hoof growth. What you might not know is how it works in circulation. To understand how that works, let’s first take a look at what’s going on underneath.

Now let’s pick up the foot and take a look underneath. Around the edge of the wall you’ll see what’s called ‘the white line’, for obvious reasons. This is the soft, cartilage like lining that goes between the wall and the inside of the foot, all the way from the sole to the coronary band. It’s soft and supple like your earlobe, and equally sensitive. Get a horseshoe nail anywhere near this, and you’re asking for trouble. Much of the blood supply that nourishes the wall passes through this lining, and it is rich in nutrients and water making it an ideal place for an infection to grow. Get bacteria or a fungus in here, trapped between the inner structures of the hoof and the rigid wall, and your horse will experience extraordinary pain. Large abscesses can cause the hoof and the wall to separate, which if not treated quickly can lead to the end of your horse’s career, or worse. Riding without shoes on hard ground can also cause the wall to separate at the sole, allowing dirt and disease to enter the white line and cause trouble.

Hoof Anatomy SoleMost of the bottom of your horse’s foot is the sole; this is all the flat gray surface. The sole, like the wall, appears hard but is actually flexible and porous, allowing moisture to flow through as it flexes with your horse’s steps. The sole, like the wall, is very resilient, and can withstand a lot of trauma and pretty harsh conditions, but only to a point. Bruising of the sole from stepping on uneven surfaces or rocks can cause lameness, but thankfully bruised soles are usually a mild problem that goes away in a few days, much like any other bruise.

Hoof With Puncture WoundMore serious are punctures of the sole, such as from stepping on a nail or another sharp object. In a puncture, the object carries germs deep into the hoof, or in severe cases becomes embedded itself inside of the hoof. The sole heals quickly, and will close up after a puncture, trapping the bacteria inside in an oxygen and nutrient-rich environment perfect for infection. Worst of all, as the infection grows, it is trapped behind the sole and the wall with nowhere for painful inflammation or an abscess to escape. Horses with punctured soles will show all the signs of extreme pain, such as sweating, rapid breathing, and a fast heart rate. Opening an abscess form a punctured sole is a job for your vet, but one that will give immediate relief to your horse although it starts a long and complex process of healing that will take up a lot of your time!

In the middle of the sole is a v-shaped spot called the frog. This soft, fleshy part is a wonder of equine anatomy. Like the sole, it is sensitive to bruising, and because it is softer it is more prone to cuts and punctures than the sole, but it is thick and tough and remarkably able to withstand problems. It is soft and fleshy though, and if your horse spends a lot of time in wet or dirty conditions, it becomes a great home for fungal infections – another reason to keep your horse’s feet clean and dry!

Why is it there and what makes it special? Well, next to your horse’s heart it’s the most important part of your horse’s metabolism and circulation. There are no muscles in the horse’s leg below the knee and hock, so there is no way for the blood travelling down the arteries into the legs to find its way back up. If it was just the pressure of the heart beats that moved the blood, it would put an extraordinary strain on the horse’s heart, so instead, the heart shares the job of pushing blood back up the legs with the frog.

Each time your horse takes a step, the frog compresses against the ground, increasing pressure in the hoof, and forcing blood back up the legs. It’s like a second heartbeat.

Remember the coronary band? Well the coronary band and the frog work together to make this work. The structures inside the hoof connected to the coronary band flex and expand as the horse moves – as the pastern comes down at the end of a step, the coronary band closes of the blood supply like a tourniquet, increasing the pressure so that as the horse lifts it’s hoof again, the pressure is released from the blood trapped between the compressed frog and the closed coronary band, and is forced back up the leg with extraordinary energy – all of which makes your horse more efficient, and takes some of the burden off his heart!

Now, this matters to you as horse owner because of the frog can’t do its job, your horse’s heart won’t be very efficient. If your horse has to stand for long periods of time, such as stabled or travelling, there won’t be the opportunities for it to move around, take steps, and let the frog do what it needs to do. That’s why stabled horses are prone to ‘stocking up’, or their legs filling with fluid, and also why a good warm up of just walking is important when you take a stabled horse out for exercise. If you normally start your stabled horse out with a trot, you’re raising its heart rate before the frog has had a fair chance to get things moving again – this means your horse starts out by exerting its heart heavily, and pushing a lot of ‘stale (oxygen depleted) blood to muscles that are quickly gasping for more. Take some time just to walk your stabled horse when you start out!

If your horse wears shoes that are so thick they prevent the frog making contact with the ground, be aware that your horse’s heart is going to be doing extra work. That’s another reason why racehorses appreciate flat shoes, and endurance riders often prefer hoof booties over shoes. Either side of the frog are the ‘bars’, a thicker part of the sole that frames the frog and takes a bit of the weight, and protects the frog from bruising. The bars also prevent ‘undercompression’ of the frog – if your horse has flat feet, and poorly developed bars, then not only will he be prone to sole bruises, but there will be less room for the frog to expand and compress – since it sits on the ground pretty much all of the time and will flatten out just like the sole.

The heel is made up of the two bulbous parts at the back of the hoof. These also work to help with circulation, but to understand that we’ll need to know a bit about the anatomy inside the hoof. Next time we’ll get inside the hoof and see what’s going on underneath. The hoof may look simple, but there’s a lot of stuff in there, each one with a job of its own, but all working together. It’s fascinating stuff!
I really loved this article, I never actually knew the frog worked as a second heartbeat, I just thought it was a shock absorber. And the coronary band thing, I ought to have clicked something about it being linked to the heart sooner.
Thank you so much for sharing, I'll definitely look forward to the other articles.
  May 13, 2012  •  14,934 views
Wow, this is really interesting! Learn something new everyday!
I look forward to reading more of your articles. ^^
  May 14, 2012  •  14,924 views
Great article. Extremely informative - I hope you continue this series. The hoof is an incredibly complex part of the horses anatomy - so much more could be said for it - but this is a great cursory introduction.
  May 14, 2012  •  14,963 views
Sapphire Flames  
Great article! Thanks for writing this! :)
  May 14, 2012  •  14,921 views
RoyalCrownEstates  MOD 
Great article. Extremely informative
  May 15, 2012  •  14,946 views
That was actually a lot more interseting thn I thought it would be. Thanks!
  May 20, 2012  •  14,946 views
wow awesome artical, this taught me a lot tooo!
  May 28, 2012  •  14,947 views
Double Spur Ranch  
Great article!
  Jun 1, 2012  •  14,933 views
Doodles Forever  
Great article!
  Jun 2, 2012  •  14,933 views
Let It Ride  
Very well written especially for younger less experienced horse people
  Jun 11, 2012  •  14,935 views
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