This article is intended as a primer for the individual considering trimming their horse’s hooves on their own. It is not an exhaustive “how to” manual, but highlights details anyone that undertakes this task needs to know.
How Many Hearts Does A Horse Have?
No, I didn’t suddenly change the topic, but before we get started I want to discuss the hoof and what an amazing structure it is. My question in the subtitle, “How many hearts does a horse have?” is one I used to ask at all my clinics to bring attention to the hoof and how it is involved in the overall health and function of the horse.
If you answered “Duh…the horse has one heart Joe” your technically right but the heart has four little helpers that most people aren’t aware of. Inside each hoof capsule is a capillary sac surrounding the inner hoof structure called the Venous Plexus. Each time the hoof strikes the ground the Venous Plexus acts like a pump and shoots blood up into the lower leg where it is picked up by the heart and carried back through the circulatory system replenishing the hoof with fresh blood and assisting the heart in pumping blood through the massive body of the horse, in effect acting like four smaller hearts assisting the main heart in its job.
This amazing structure is self-regulated, when the horse is at rest its assistance is minimal and when the horse is at work it is also at work flushing the lower leg with blood and resupplying the hoof with fresh blood at a rapid rate.
Tools Of The Trade
Before you get started with hoof care you will need to invest in some basic tools.
A hoof pick
A hoof knife
A set of hoof nippers
And a stand
Without these basics you will only struggle and not have the desired outcome.
Where To Begin
Where you should begin is by preparing your horse to have his hooves worked with (that’s for another article), but for the sake of this article we will assume your horse will stand quietly to be trimmed.
Let’s start with a front hoof. First you will want to clean the hoof thoroughly with your hoof pick/brush. After you have cleaned the hoof and while you are still holding the hoof allow it to relax so that the toe is pointing down and the heel is up.
As you look across the hoof you want to observe the heel, the distance from the hairline to the heel should be even or balanced. You also want to observe the alignment of the heels with the back of the frog (the triangular structure in the middle of the sole of the hoof, see illustration). After trimming, you want the heels and the back of the frog to align, seeking this alignment is what guides you in how much heel to remove in the trimming process, but don’t start trimming just yet, you are simply observing this for now and making mental notes or a mental map to follow once the trimming begins.
Now as you examine the rest of the hoof from the bottom look at the point of the frog. If you were to follow the point of the frog on an imaginary plane through the hoof wall at the center of the toe this would be your guide as to how much toe you could remove with the nippers without exposing any of the sensitive laminae (this is where you would see blood and begin to see the inner structure of the hoof).
With these mental notes taken and your mental map laid out you are just about ready to trim your first hoof. Before you begin though here are a couple notes. If I was going to shoe the horse after trimming I would take the hoof down very close to the plane at the point of the frog, but when trimming and leaving the horse unshod I would determine my depth and then back off of that depth a bit and leave more of the retained hoof wall and sole thus providing the natural protection of the hoof from striking the ground. In other words, you should never remove as much hoof for a horse that goes unshod as you would for a horse that will be shod.
The other point here is that the observations of the hoof I directed you to make
along with your mental map you will follow in trimming and dressing the hoof are associated with the balance of the hoof. It is imperative that the heels are balanced with the frog and the distance from the hairline above the bulb of the heels to the bottom of the heels is the same on both sides (see illustration).
This observation and procedure should be carried out on each hoof prior to trimming.
Trimming The Hoof
Prepare the hoof for trimming by using your hoof knife to pare away old retained sole material exposing the edge of the outer hoof wall. Remember, less is more (particularly with a horse that will not be shod) when it comes to how much sole you remove prior to nipping the wall. The idea is to basically clean off the dirty retained surface and create an edge along the inside of the hoof wall to allow you to remove the predetermined amount of wall with your nippers with a view to level and balance the hoof (see illustration).
So now with our prior preparation done we are prepared to trim our horse’s hooves. Pick up the hoof and place it in the cradle position between your legs for a front hoof and on the stand for a back hoof (see illustration). Starting at the center of the toe take the nippers and with the nippers opened and parallel with the point of the frog and slightly above it, close the nippers over the hoof wall, cutting through the wall.
Now following your imaginary plane from the toe to the heel remove the amount of hoof needed going both directions, first one way and then, starting back at the toe, the other way. Be careful not to remove too much material on either side of the toe in the area known as “the quarter”. This is probably one of the biggest mistakes new farriers make when shoeing a horse and it makes it very difficult to level the hoof if this happens. It is better to be conservative when first learning how to use your nippers, you can use your rasp to take more hoof if need be after the initial nipping stage is done, but putting foot back if you take too much with the nippers is impossible.
The final step after nipping is to level the hoof with the rasp, making sure the foot is balanced at the heels and the rest of the hoof is visually on a smooth plane. As you reexamine the hoof as you did in the beginning you should see a hoof surface that is flat from heel to toe. You can check for this by using your rasp as a straight edge, any gaps you see between the rasp and the hoof wall indicate high spots, carefully remove these and you’re good to go.
Now place the hoof on the stand and dress the hoof with the less aggressive
side of your rasp being careful not to remove too much hoof wall creating weakness. If the hoof has a lot of flare due to lack of prior care you would be wise to not try to remove all the flare in one trimming, remove a percentage of it and as the hoof grows you can continue to remove more flare with later trimming eventually having a nice balanced looking hoof.
Should You Trim Your Horses Hooves?
Look, there will definitely be those that think my putting this article out for consumption is a bad idea for obvious reasons. And you must understand the saying “A horse makes his living on his feet.”, no feet…..no horse! So yes this is not to be taken lightly and if you have the slightest doubt about your ability to do this acceptably then DON’T!
But, if you have been working with horses awhile, have a good basic understanding of the hoof and its structure AND you have both horse handling skills and skills with tools then I think with a little help and understanding this article clearly you could learn how to properly trim your horse’s hooves. No you won’t do it perfectly the first few times, but your horse won’t likely go lame or worse either if you have just a little common sense. With all the information out there today you can definitely fill in the blanks and look at this article as an inspiration to learn and NOT a “how to”.
Thanks for reading and if you have questions or concerns feel free to leave your comments. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe is a lifetime horseman and student of the horse. He spent years as a trainer and as a horsemanship clinician. He is also a real estate professional and a former contractor specializing in residential construction.