Does it feel as though your horse is always losing shoes? Master farrier Ben Benson AWCF looks at the likely causes...
When you pay a farrier good money to help keep your horse on the road, it’s a huge nuisance to find the horse missing a shoe, but is your farrier actually at fault?
If this has happened a few times, you may start to question your farrier and think, “My horse’s shoes are too big and there’s too much metal sticking out — no wonder he’s pulling his shoes.” Surely, shortening the shoe must be the solution?
We shoe horses for grip, protection and support. The farrier aims to provide as much support as possible while the foot and limb is under load, when the horse is jumping or landing, or simply standing on his feet for 24 hours a day.
We’re not just looking at the horse’s foot when we shoe, but the conformation of the whole limb. We’re also trying to make sure the shoe is still as functional at the end of the shoeing cycle as it was at the start.
To understand the basic principles of foot balance, think of a traffic cone. Looking down on it, the centre of the point of the cone is in the middle of its base. It’s the same with a horse; his weight should fall into the centre of his footprint while under load.
Unbalanced foot conformation may require some medial (inside) or lateral (outside) support — in other words, those “sticking out” parts of the shoe.
The wide- and long-fitting shoe helps the horse’s foot to sit on top of a surface while in motion, a little like a snowshoe. This creates more limb stability on all surfaces and restores balance if the horse stands slightly unevenly. However, if a shoe is short and tight, the foot will drop down into the surface.
An unbalanced and unstable foot on a deep or soft surface, such as an arena, will create greater imbalance during loading. This may result in repetitive strain injuries and deeper joint problems. Maybe a couple of lost shoes are worth it, for the stability provided by supportive shoeing.
Finding a balance
Other factors can contribute to shoe loss. A horse with poor conformation, especially behind, will never move as freely and correctly as one that is well put together. Lost shoes are more likely if he is short-coupled, for example, has straight hocks or low heels, or overtracks or forges.
Bone spavin, stifle or sacroiliac injuries or fusion of the tarsal bones in the hock will all reduce hock flexion and create a compensatory rotation of the hindlimb when in motion. The limb is then more likely to interfere with a foreleg and pull a shoe.
A team effort between farrier, physio and vet will help such horses to move as correctly and as comfortably as possible. Shoe loss should then be less likely, although a sudden and frequent spate of pulled shoes may indicate that your horse needs to see the vet or physio once again. While we can try to improve a horse’s posture and gait, however, no farrier can change how he is put together.
Instability can cause a horse to misplace a leg, on occasion, so a young, spooky or unbalanced horse is likely to pull a shoe more often than an older, steadier type. If your horse is unshod behind and a serial shoe puller, shoeing the hindfeet can help. Not only will this shorten the hind-toe a little, but it will provide some stability for him to carry more weight behind and lighten his forehand.
Riding style also plays a part. If you allow your horse to plod along on the buckle end of the rein, the resulting lack of balance may cause him to stumble or take an odd stride and pull a shoe.
A horse carrying too much weight may struggle to stride out evenly, stepping on his shoe edges as he compensates. And a rider who misses a stride before a fence or lands clumsily in the saddle may put the horse in a situation where he can’t help but tread on his own feet.
We can’t always control the minds of our horses, nor plan their next move, but it pays to keep them calm. As herd animals, they can become upset if left in a paddock without their friends. A gallop around, accompanied by a buck and squeal, typically results in a flying shoe. If you ask a friend to help you catch the last two remaining horses together, it’s more likely they’ll come in with their shoes attached firmly to their feet.
The challenges of mud and moisture
We know that our hands get soft when repeatedly wet, and that leather yard boots fall apart after relentless soakings. Hoof horn is modified skin and it, too, must be given a consistent and regulated level of moisture if it is not to lose strength or break down.
The horn and the areas directly under the shoes can become a haven for bacteria and fungi, especially when horses are left standing in their own muck or on wet rubber mats. This can result in a fungal infection called seedy toe, or disease of the white line (the flexible junction between the sole and hoof wall).
Rather than driving nails into a strong, solid hoof wall, your farrier will be working with sodden horn with the consistency of wet cardboard — making shoe loss more likely.
The new copper-coated nails can help prevent the build-up of bacteria during the shoeing period. I’ve definitely seen less bacterial infection in my practice since using them.
Very hot weather can also cause problems, as parched ground will prevent uptake of moisture by the hooves. Dry, brittle horn is prone to cracks and splits, again making nailing more difficult.
Managing the feet during extremes of weather is vital for healthy horn. Keep stables clean, to reduce the chance of infection, and pick the feet out regularly. Try to keep hooves dry, applying an antibacterial solution during the wettest part of the year and oiling them regularly during hotter months.
Diet undoubtedly plays a part in the quality, growth rate and consistency of the horn tubules that make up the hoof wall. Seek advice from a vet or qualified nutritionist to achieve the correct nutritional balance, and bear in mind that you won’t see improvement for at least three months.
A regular shoeing cycle, coupled with daily cleaning and care, will have the greatest effect on horn quality to help keep nails strong and shoes intact.
The shoeing cycle – how long?
The length between shoeing sessions should reflect the work the horse is doing and the amount of hoof he grows.
A five- to seven-week cycle is the norm, but some horses grow hoof wall quick enough to necessitate shoeing every four weeks. I have many an eventer on a four- to five-week cycle. The feet look neat, they’re never under stress from being overdue for shoeing and I don’t have to “fix” or re-address issues every time.
A study by Dr Renate Weller at the Royal Veterinary College revealed that every 1cm of excess length at the toe equates to 50kg of intrinsic weight on a horse’s back. Within a six-week shoeing cycle, 2cm of horn growth is feasible — which equates to more than doubling a rider’s weight on landing over a fence.
The more weight on a horse, the more pressure on his feet, which will have a long-term effect on hoof wall quality and his ability to retain shoes. Keeping hooves shorter is also beneficial for horses with conformational issues, reducing the risk of re-injury.
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