Facing The Challenges Of ‘Thoroughbred Feet’

by | 09.30.2015 | 11:40am

Thoroughbreds are known for their speed, athleticism, and grace, but unfortunately they are also known for having less-than-durable hooves. Often you'll hear the terms, “thin-soled,” “brittle” or “shelly” describing the thin nature of the layers of keratin that make up the Thoroughbred hoof, and it's usually true. While some have more issues than others, Thoroughbreds just tend not to have the same durable hoof of other breeds.

“Thoroughbreds are bred with so many things in mind – speed, precocity, conformation. Unfortunately, good feet are pretty low on the list,” said farrier Dave Scheffel, who has been shoeing horses for more than 25 years. “Most modern-day Thoroughbreds' walls are thin, their feet tend to be on the brittle side, and many of them have a graduated heel, meaning one front hoof will grow heel more than the other during a shoeing cycle.”

Based in Central Kentucky, Scheffel's client base is about half Thoroughbred breeding stock and half riding horses, many of which are former racehorses.

The Importance of Regular Trimming

Scheffel estimates that about 50 percent of the Thoroughbreds he sees have a minor to moderate graduated heel, which means that one heel is more upright than the other, changing the angle of the hoof, similar (but less dramatic) to a club foot.

“Within a four- to six-week shoeing cycle, their feet will grow three to four degrees out of whack. They can be hard to match,” said Scheffel.

As with any horse, regular trimming is key in maintaining the soundness and overall health of the hoof, but it is especially important in Thoroughbreds. Scheffel likens it to a human wearing different shoes.

“Thoroughbreds are known for having two different front feet – they seldom match,” he said. “So, if they are left to grow unevenly and aren't balanced with regular trims, it's like you or me wearing a sneaker on one foot and a work boot on the other. You just couldn't jog evenly like that.”

Scheffel explains that shoeing a horse is a necessary evil, as shoes on a horse prevent a horse's heel from spreading naturally.

“Ideally, you would want a horse to be barefoot because it's how they were originally built to be,” said Scheffel. “Most Thoroughbreds need shoes in order to be worked on varying surfaces and stay sound because their soles and walls tend to be thin, but with shoeing, it also facilitates the process of the heel contracting and the toe migrating forward. That's why regular trimming and resetting the shoes is so important.”

Thin Walls and Soles

Often when a horse retires from racing, two of their shoes, or sometimes all four, will be pulled to accustom the horse to a turnout schedule. Nearly just as often, they will go through hoof bruising and abscesses.

“If you've been wearing tennis shoes and socks every day for five or six years of your life, and then you go try to walk barefoot down a gravel driveway, it's going to hurt and your feet are going to be sore. It's the same for a horse coming off of a racetrack,” said Melissa King, who handles retraining and rehabilitation for New Vocations Racehorse Adoption at the organization's Kentucky facility. “They are going to get bruises and abscesses if they do too much too soon, and some are going to get them regardless just because of how sensitive they are.”

King and Scheffel both believe the best way to transition a recently-retired racehorse is by pulling the back shoes first and converting the horse gradually to turnout, starting with an hour or two at a time in a small pen or paddock and working up from there.

“They're used to being in a stall nearly 24 hours a day both mentally and physically, so give them gradual leisure time. It's not fair to a horse who has been babied in terms of always walking and training on manicured, dry surfaces with shoes on all four feet and fed highly concentrated feed to be turned out barefoot in a pasture all at once,” said Scheffel.

King says for horses that have a harder time with the transition to turnout, she will paint their feet with turpentine in an effort to help them toughen up.

Moisture

One of the most common issues with Thoroughbreds, especially once off of the racetrack, is feet that have a hard time standing up to normal wear and tear.

Mud from rainMost Thoroughbreds' feet are sensitive to moisture. While one thinks of pasture turnout as the best thing for a Thoroughbred newly retired from racing, it can play havoc with their feet.

“Dewy grass can soak through your shoes and socks in no time, and that's the same things your horse is standing in all night,” explained Scheffel. “Their foot is at maximum saturation for at least 10 to 12 hours on a good day if they're on pasture turnout.”

Think about the transitions a horse's feet go through each day: his feet might start off wet in the pasture for 12 hours overnight, followed by a walk over gravel to come in. Then he may be ridden on a hard surface and hosed off, adding another one or two hours of his feet being wet before they air dry. Add to that being turned out during the day when the ground is hard and dry and the horse is stomping flies and there will be more concussive activity. That further weakens the hoof before the sun sets and the hooves stay wet for another 12 hours again.

“For a horse who is working on a surface harder than he or she is turned out on, shoes provide that barrier between their hoof and the harder surface they are being worked on,” said Scheffel.

Owners can help reduce the number of transitions for the foot by simply not hosing the horse more than once or twice a week, or keeping the horse in for part of the day or nighttime.

Takeaways

Thoroughbreds' hooves are like a piece of untreated porous wood. They are going to take on moisture when they come in contact with water and will shed that moisture when they are dry, but can become overly brittle. This constant battle of wet and dry can compromise the integrity of the hoof, much like it would a piece of wood, predisposing it to cracking and chipping and making it brittle.

“The best thing you can do for a horse with brittle feet is control the amount of time it is in contact with water,” said Scheffel.

“Yes, Thoroughbreds are known for not having the best feet, but most of their issues can be easily managed with good planning and proactive farrier work,” said Scheffel.

  • Racing Fan

    Farriers who leave no heel on a horse should be stripped of their farrier license. A big reason “thoroughbreds are are known for not having the best feet” is because of the people trimming them. This practice is rampant in thoroughbred race horses. This same mindset is the same as people who used to put quarter horse grabs on all four feet. Get with the times people.

    • I hadn’t realised that TBs were “not known for having the best feet”. Many of them have very good [quality] feet, but bad quality horn can be indicative of systemic illness. Long toes and collapsed or underrun heels are the result of poor practice. Unequal growth, often a turned in foot growing faster on the inside, may be the ironic result of very common correction for juvenile spraddling. I have often thought hat the problems caused by the hoof being unable to flex might be lessened if the horses were shod like an ox – but no-one showed any interest. If we still had any horses then I might try reducing the grinding of the heels with the “open toe” shoe which has recently appeared – although I’m not sure what prompted its development as a toe lameness remedy; toe problems [other than seedy toe] are very uncommon.

      • AngelaFromAbilene

        My farrier got me started with Natural Balance shoes several years ago when my pony horse developed ring bone. We’ve been using them on everything ever since. Are you familiar with them?

        • Ryan

          No trainer wants low heels and long toes. The reason it’s common in race horses is because many trainers don’t keep up with farrier work. If you let a horse go 60 or more days between shoeing, the toe will grow long and the shoe will follow, leaving the heal unsupported.

          • SteveG

            If no trainer wants low heels & long toes, then why would many, as you claim, neglect farrier work which results in the very condition no one wants? Doesn’t speak very highly for smarts, does it?

          • Ahaa!

          • Two dollar bettor

            Cheapness and living for the now. With big purses many of these horses change hands regularly via the claim box. Trainers may only keep the horse for a few weeks and it will be routinely claimed. Let it be the next persons problem and expense.

          • What about the ones they claim as replacements – does the blacksmith suddenly change his ways?

          • Chancey Gardner

            That simply is not true – the horses at the track are shod quicker than any other place I’ve worked (sport horses , etc.) THREE weeks is not uncommon for a new set of shoes. And yes, there is a traditional belief that a longer heel makes the stride longer – it may well do that, but it interrupts the break over, so what, really do you gain? A potential soft tissue injury is the answer to that question.

          • pat diletto

            AMEN

          • olemissmom

            Are there any supplements that would be beneficial for TBs hooves, since there are so many different options available now for the many other issues horses can have?

          • I still think that poor horn is often symptomatic of a deeper problem. “Different options” are a very big business in the horse world!

          • Chancey Gardner

            Plenty – biotin being the big ingredient.

          • And/or mild stimulation of coronary band, or poulticing. Both with care!

          • olemissmom

            thanks, i know i use it for my hair and nails, just didn’t know what was appropriate for horses

          • pat diletto

            Biotin can help, but give more than the recommend dose. I brought one home from thr track last year who’s feet were terrible. I hoped time and good trims would do it, but finally now on biotin…she is much improved. I proved it on myself. I lost a lot of hair. I though from being sick a few years back. Dr. said the biopsy came back “female pattern baldness” I started taking 10,000 mg of biotin and my hair is back and my nails never looked so good

          • pat diletto

            I disagree. I hear from the trainers that they think they get a longer stride this way..if it does make it longer, but unbalanced, you’ve eventually got a lame one…was it worth it. My farrier has also told me he has watched track farriers do feet in 20 minutes. They just rip off the old and slap on the new

        • Yes Master

          I am and Yes they are a lifesaver for young horses or older horses with changes. And I really like the way they fit to a horse.

        • Yes. But I’m more interested in the [deep] grooves that [many] horses carve in the foot surface of the plate at the heel. Pressure severe enough to grind out the metal must be uncomfortable: would being shod in two halves avoid it by letting the foot and the heel of the shoe move together? No blacksmiths [or vets] seem at all interested in investigating this – but we’ve been down the “I’m the professional” route before,lots of times, I’m afraid.

    • AngelaFromAbilene

      It’s not the farriers as much as it is the trainers wanting long toe-low heal.

      • Ryan

        Yy

  • AngelaFromAbilene

    I had “no hoof, no horse” drilled into me from a very young age. Regular and proper use of Forshner’s, fish oil and turpentine along with an extreme aversion to long toe-low heel will keep a hoof healthy.

    • Angela, I was brought up on fish oil and horse fat [if you see what I mean!], but we eventually dropped all dressings on the basis that they stop the foot from “breathing”. After I stopped training we kept a TB as a pony for the 2yo HITs, and he went for about 9 years barefoot with only getting his feet hosed when he was muddy or sweating. His feet were so hard that you could hardly make an impression with a new rasp, and his toes were kept just under 3″. Gave him to the Apprentice school and within 6 months his [shod] tfeet looked like a duck – but that’s another story of where the game is going.

  • Michael Castellano

    Just seems like good sense to make foot care a top priority. One wonders how many horses might not run as fast as they could because of an unrecognized foot issue? It very roughly compares to spending top dollar for a car body and engine when racing, and then using the cheapest tires. I’m sure car racers know the importance of having good tires. Same seems obvious if you are a horse trainer. Good article, BTW.

  • Chancey Gardner

    TBs have notoriously bad feet compared to other breeds and I believe it may be due to the inbreeding.

    • On the other hand breeds with notoriously Good Feet are probably equally if not more inbred. Nurture rather than Nature plays a big part in TB feet. Why has no-one responded to the systemic disease aspect of poor quality horn?

    • pat diletto

      again, I say, not so true. My home raised TB show horses have great feet

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