From their large eyes to their swishing tails, horse anatomy is truly fascinating. Our equine friends are built for power, strength, and endurance. Their physical features are both beautiful and purposeful. But while most people focus on a horse's facial expressions, or even their well-muscled torso, horse feet are an important and interesting part of their anatomy. How often do you really think about your horses's feet? You know the farrier needs to come every few weeks, and you always pay attention when a hoof is poised to kick, but there's a lot about horse hooves that isn't common knowledge.
How much do you know about your horse’s feet? Here are five facts about your horse’s hooves that you might not yet know.
1. The Hoof Is Made of Keratin
The hard exterior of your horse’s hoof is made of keratin. This durable protein is the same stuff that makes up human fingernails and hair. And just like how you don't feel pain when you trim your fingernails or get a haircut, horses don't have feeling in this part of their hooves. There are no nerves, and that's why farriers can hammer horse shoes in without hurting the horse.
The keratin in a horse hoof is arranged in horizontal layers to make a strong foundation for the horse to stand on. This pattern also minimizes the damage if a hoof is ever chipped. Thanks to the keratin, horses can walk over rough terrain without feeling pain. They can step on (most) stones without wincing, and they're not as sensitive to hot surfaces. That doesn't mean, however, that horse hooves are invincible—if they were, horse shoes wouldn't exist.
2. The Frog Absorbs Shock
Here's a basic lesson in the structure of horse hooves: The frog is the squishy triangle part at the bottom of horse feet. It forms a "V" with the long pointed part extending to the center of the hoof. This part of the hoof is not made of keratin, and therefor it can feel pain. It's main job is to absorb shock every time your horse takes a step. Thanks to its flexible nature, the frog stops the impact from traveling up the horse's leg bones. Considering horses can weigh over one thousand pounds, the frog is an important part of every horse's anatomy. It helps them travel long distances without too much wear and tear on their bones and joints.
Additionally, the frog helps to pump blood throughout the leg with every step. It's technically a part of a horse's circulatory system, and an injured or unhealthy frog could mean parts of the body don't get the blood they need. Because of this function, it’s important to maximize turnout time for horses which are kept in stalls. Walking and moving improves the circulation to their legs.
3. The Hoof Flexes Naturally
Even though the keratin of your horse’s hoof is hard, did you know that the hoof flexes as your horse moves? This flexion helps absorb shock, especially at the faster gaits. According to Equidmed, the different sections of the hoof flex in different ways. The heel and top area of the hoof is usually more flexible than the hoof toe and bottom. It has to do with a horse's age and the moisture content of each hoof.
When we put shoes on a horse, the shoes actually restrict the hoof’s natural flexion. This can lead to reduced blood flow and increases the amount of shock that travels up the horse’s legs. However, some horses which are ridden on rough terrain need shoes to help protect their hooves. If you want to learn more about why some horses need shoes, click here.
4. Summer is Hard on Hooves
The summer months are particularly hard on hooves. The ground tends to dry out during the summer, so your horse may stand or be ridden across dry, hard-packed land. Flies only add to the trouble, as horses stomp their legs to get rid of flies. But at the same time, we tend to hose our horses off after most summertime rides, which saturates their hooves.
This back-and-forth cycle can have negative effects on your horse’s feet, like cracking, chipping, and loose shoes. Try sponging your horse off and using fly leg boots to reduce the summer’s effect on his hooves.
5. The Hoof Has Multiple Functions
Did you know that the hoof actually does a lot more than serve as a surface for your horse to stand on? Your horse's feet are obviously important, but they're important in ways a lot of people don't realize. For example, horse feet are built to give these thousand-pound animals necessary traction over varied surfaces. When a horse puts their full weight on their foot, the hoof expands. And as that weight is distributed to another foot, the hoof flexes and contracts to "grab" whatever surface they're standing on. This creates a gradual stop that allows the horse better control over their movements.
Besides traction, horse feet also absorb shock to protect joints and circulate blood all the way up a horse's long legs. With so many important jobs to do, horse hooves need regular care and attention.
Did you learn anything new and interesting about our equine friends? Share this article with other horse lovers that you know so that they can learn something, too.