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.
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.
Most 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.
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.
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