Horse Grooming Tips For Your Horse’s Legs and Hooves
No hoof, no horse goes right along with no leg, no horse! If ever there was a place to concentrate on health while you are grooming – it’s the legs and hooves!
All of the good info here:
Horse leg care – Inspection, grooming, protection, and post-workout leg care
- This leg care list will seem like an unsurmountable (and tedious) list of things to do! But I promise it’s not. It’s just some things to keep in mind as you are getting your horse ready for riding and what to do when you get back to the barn.
- Adding these routines into your horse’s grooming process takes a bit of practice. After a bit, it becomes second nature.
Before you groom – the hoof inspection
- There’s nothing more important than your horse’s hooves. These seemingly rigid structures hold the entirety of a horse’s weight! I start every grooming session with a hoof inspection.
- Hoof issues are often a slow burn, and many horses will give you subtle signs that something is wrong early on. Catching hoof issues in their early stages saves heartache and money.
Start with taking your horse’s digital pulses.
- It’s fast and easy (video below) to check your horse’s digital pulse. This gives you a sneak peek inside the horse’s hoof. The primary problem with inflammation in the hoof is the swelling has nowhere to go – it’s inside a rigid wall. Inflammation in the hoof creates pain, lameness, and a strong or bounding digital pulse.
- Most horses have a faint or absent digital pulse. Know the normals, and you may catch abscess, laminitis, bruises, and other painful hoof ailments before too much damage happens.
- When there’s swelling inside the hoof, the tissues squeeze the blood vessels, making them smaller. The digital arteries going into the foot now have to pumper harder to get blood in – hence, the increased pulse that you will feel.
- Using your pointer and middle fingers, run them down the inside of your horse’s legs alongside the tendons. As the tendons move under and behind the fetlock, you may feel a squishy area. If you rub your fingers side to side, you will feel the digital artery. It feels kind of like a guitar string!
- Press down about halfway. That’s the spot to find a digital pulse. Because you are not timing the pulse, it’s lickety-split fast.
- It’s an emergency if the digital pulse is more substantial than usual. Call your vet for instructions!
Coronary band inspection
- The coronary band is the birthplace of your horse’s hoof!
- One of the inner layers of this area is the coronary corium. New hoof cells form in the corium and push outwards. The hoof wall is made of keratin and forms here.
- There are also long tubes of corium called papillae that move nutrients throughout the hoof wall.
- New hoof cells spend some time hardening under the periople. You can vaguely see this covering as it sits just below the coronary band. It serves to protect the newly minted hoof wall.
Keeping the coronary band clipped makes catching wounds and quarter cracks much easier.
The coronary band is also the birthplace of the dreaded quarter crack.
- Quarter cracks happen at the top of the hoof wall and travel down. Most are painful and require veterinary intervention. Some quarter cracks actively bleed.
- It could be bad luck, conformation, or injury that causes quarter cracks. Finding them in the coronary band before they travel down the length of the hoof is best. Quarter cracks damage the full thickness of the hoof wall and flex with every step your horse takes.
- When noticed early, you can hopefully bypass having the crack sewn shut or plated.
Other types of coronary band injuries to catch.
- Look for tiny nicks, ticks, and the beginnings of equine pastern dermatitis (more on EPD in a bit). Cuts, bugs, and skin infections love to hang out on lower legs!
- Abscesses, often known as gravel, can also pop out of the coronary band. You will see what looks like a wound, maybe with some drainage. As the hoof grows away from this gravel opening, you may end up with a horizontal crack in the hoof wall.
This is one example of EPD – it can start close to the hoof.
Hoof temperature – how do the hooves feel?
- While checking for hot hooves is mostly subjective, it’s still worth doing. Just as we feel foreheads if we suspect a fever, this gives us only part of the picture. The heat from the hooves means pain and inflammation on the inside. Or has your horse been lounging in the sun?
- Always pair checking for heat in the hoof with taking a digital pulse. Neither of these is definitively diagnostic! They are simply clues as to what’s happening in your horse.
Checking the horseshoe or hoof edges for the barefoot hoof.
- Take a few seconds to wiggle shoes, look at nail holes, and see if anything is wiggling loose.
- Notice any wear patterns on the horseshoe or hoof’s underside, and track them over time with photos. These might help your farrier with balancing the foot. Wear patterns can also give your vet and farrier clues as to how the hoof is loading.
Check the heel bulbs for nicks and signs of interference.
- Horses love to smack themselves! There are types of interference, and each is different. Brushing is when the legs rub side to side on the inside. Forging is the hind hoof hitting the underside of the front hoof. Overreaching is the hind hoof bonking the heel bulbs or higher.
- Sometimes interference leaves a sore or mark that looks like scratches or pastern dermatitis. Either way, look at the big picture to see what’s going on.
- If interference is the issue, you may be able to narrow down some of the causes. Conformation and your horse’s job play into the tendency to interfere, as do any injuries, fatigue, hoof angles, neurological issues, and even your horse’s personality.
- It’s a multi-step process to deal with interference issues. Narrow down some possible causes, ruling out lameness and neurological problems. Then work on correcting any conformation or performance issues. In the meantime, use the appropriate leg and hoof protection as needed.
Bell boots can protect coronary bands and heel bulbs.
Do you notice any cracks in the hoof wall?
- You might find horizontal or quarter cracks on the hoof. Look at the hoof edges, too. White line disease is a bacterial infection that can start in tiny cracks and work it’s way up. These cracks might also indicate something is off with the hoof’s balance, or it’s time for a trim!
- Treat these smaller cracks with thrush medication. Anaerobic bacteria cause thrush and white line disease. Sometimes, however, you need to switch up the type of thrush medication. It’s not a one-shot cure sort of deal. Efficacy depends on the potion’s effectiveness on that particular microbe.
- It’s never going to hurt to make a quick call to your vet about their preferred treatment for horses in your area. Both white line disease and thrush can get out of hand quickly. White line disease sometimes requires a more drastic removal of the hoof wall, and thrush can quickly eat away the frog.
This crack, filled with white line disease, has been opened by the farrier to allow oxygen to kill the anaerobic bacteria.
Horse grooming tips – the hooves
We all know the importance of picking out our horse’s hooves!
- Do it more often than you think is necessary. Quite a bit more often. Using a brush gets out every last bit of “stuff” from the hoof.
- Having a clean sole and frog also helps you notice any metal that might be stuck. Street nails are random bits of metal, wood, or anything that has punctured the hoof. Hoof punctures are an absolute emergency. You must call the vet. Do not pull anything out without first talking to your vet!
- Shod horses also benefit from a horseshoe inspection. Loose nails can escalate into loose shoes. Wiggle the horseshoe side to side, up and down, and look for any clinches that are wiggling.
Get your nose involved!
- You will usually detect thrush with your sniffer – not your eyes. That putrid stink needs to be addressed. If thrush has not cleared within about three days, loop in your vet for a new plan of attack.
Hoof products – conditioners, hardeners, shine makers.
- Using hoof polishes and products can do plenty of things – and also not do anything at all.
- Hoof “goops” fall into a few categories. Drying agents like alcohol and acetone dry the surface of the hoof. Lanolins and glycerin are more like a lotion. Oil-based ingredients such as pine tar and neatsfoot oil repel water.
- For the healthy hoof, the hoof wall itself won’t absorb moisture or other things, for that matter. The unhealthy hoof, however, can absorb ingredients, sometimes creating more damage! For any questionable hoof structure or health, talk to your vet and farrier about safe products for your particular horse.
- To combat a little of the wet-dry cycle that can create hoof damage, consider using a “waterproofing” hoof product. This can be handy around horseshoe nail openings.
- For cosmetic and decorative dressings, there are loads of options! Pick your favorite and go nuts. A little bit goes a long way. For horse shows, check with your association’s rules. Some organizations don’t allow colored hoof dressing in the show ring.
These are mushroom trays, BTW, to catch spills.
Bell boots and hoof protection
- The primary reason to use bell boots is to protect the heel bulbs and horseshoe. Knocking and interference can create wounds and make you leave your farrier a voice mail about tacking on a popped shoe.
- Find a style that protects without rubbing off the hair. There are endless choices! And despite fuzzy lined bells designed to protect the hair, some horses are sensitive to those fibers. Some horses love a rubber bell boot. Others might need something that’s designed not to spin.
- This is an excellent chance to go shopping and try lots of styles!
- These little loops of padding are ideal for sitting between the fetlock and the hoof. Some horses have a knack for smacking this area. They fit loosely and will help prevent damage from the neighboring hoof.
Pastern wraps are excellent for the horses that knock themselves.
Post-workout hoof care
- Pick and inspect those hooves again! The only time things get stuck in your horse’s hooves is when you least expect it.
- Bonking and forging might also loosen a horseshoe. No reason not to wiggle those shoes again!
Does your horse need his hooves iced after exercise?
- Ideally, yes! The hoof is a tiny structure, held together by folds of sensitive tissue, taking the brunt of your horse’s weight. That’s a lot to ask, and exercise can tax this precarious anatomy.
- There are three circumstances when icing hooves after exercise should be mandatory – a history of laminitis, hard or unforgiving footing, and lots of jumping.
- Any laminitic horse, recovered or otherwise, needs ice in his life. Ice is the best thing to do for the 72 hours of a laminitis attack! A horse with laminitis in his rear-view mirror also needs his hooves iced.
This isn’t the best way to do things, but it works in a pinch.
- Part of the problem with previous bouts of laminitis is the long-term damage. Soundness may return, but a prior case puts your horse at a higher risk for another round. Ice acts as a preventative measure!
- There is a type of laminitis caused by repeated concussion on hard ground. Known as road founder, it’s sometimes seen in horses that escape and go wild all over the place. It can happen after one incident or repeated outings over time. If you find your horse on questionable footing, do some icing!
- The horse’s jump also puts massive forces in the front hooves. Nothing says “inflammation go away” better than ice! As with icing the legs, about 20-30 minutes is good. Continual icing for laminitis is the exception.
- There are lots of ways to ice your horse’s hooves! Buckets are the most annoying, as horses can step out of them. Hoof boots, bags, and eventer-style full leg boots are options if your horse isn’t keen on buckets.
- As with icing legs, ice cubes or ice packs can work!
FOR MORE ON LAMINITIS, read these gems:
Before you groom – the leg inspection
- Just as you did with the hoof, take some time to inspect every inch of your horse’s legs.
How are the muscles and skin of the upper legs?
- You should feel everything, top to bottom. Don’t forget the crevices around elbows and stifles. Ticks love to end up there. So cozy in all of those wrinkles!
- The extra skin around the elbow area is famous for developing galls, also knows as girth sores. There’s a perfect storm of girth, sweat, excess skin, and motion that can remove hair and open up the skin. The first sign of any hair loss means that an open sore is right around the corner.
- As you work your way down the leg, notice any soreness in the upper leg muscles. This is a popular place for herd mates to deliver horseshoe-shaped blows. Even without a wound or hair loss, your horse will tell you if something hurts when you squish that area.
Every. Single. Day.
The lower leg
- While feeling and inspecting the lower leg’s tendons and ligaments, focus on differences from the day before. Notice warmth, swelling, tenderness, and any reactions from your horse.
- Don’t overlook the cannon bone! You might find dents, cuts, and even popped splints along this bone. Popped splints can be nothing at all, or a huge deal indeed. Even if your horse seems sound, a call to your vet is in order.
- Around the ergots and the pastern is a popular spot for equine pastern dermatitis (EPD) to land! EPD usually begins as regular-looking scabs, but it can quickly escalate to massive hair loss and scabbing up the leg. Your fingertips getting in there is the key to nipping this in the bud.
- The major problem with EPD is the myriad of reasons that your horse’s skin is scabbing up. Is it bacterial? Photosensitivity? An allergy? Get your vet involved quickly to find the source of the issue. Otherwise, you are wasting time chasing down “internet solutions” instead of targeting the real problem. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.
- Generally speaking, clean and dry legs with short or short-ish hair are best to deal with any skin problems or infections. There are loads of wonderful products on the market to help you keep things this way – from silver-impregnated fabric socks to waterproof leg covers.
These Silver Whinny’s by Sox for Horses are amazing at helping EPD. And they can get wet and muddy!
Horse grooming tips – the legs
Grooming routine for the legs.
- Groom your horse’s legs the way that you would the rest of his body!
- Any mud and muck need to come off the legs. Not just for the prevention of skin diseases, but to put boots on without grit and dirt sandwiched in there.
- Weather depending, you might hose the wet mud away. Otherwise, it needs to dry before you groom it away.
- Start with some style of curry comb or grooming glove. Without muscle or fat covering the lower legs, so your choice of tool and technique matters. Gloves are nice because you can vary the pressure, and your fingertips can get into the nitty-gritty. Or, opt for a jelly curry comb or mitt to wrap around the legs.
- Follow up with stain removal, then brush all of the dander and stray hair away. You might choose a softer brush here, too.
- After most of the mud dust is gone, lift any remaining dirt with a no-rinse shampoo like Easy Out. Easy Out is helpful for stains, mud residue, and mystery odors that horses accumulate.
Keep the lower leg hair trimmed or clipped (maybe).
- Tidy lower legs, all year long, provide less surface area for mud to attach itself. It’s easier to see and feel scabs and sores, and medication delivery is more manageable, too.
- Trimming up the leg hair also helps things dry faster. Excessive leg hair traps moisture, dirt, sweat, and mystery poop remnants against your horse’s skin. Less moisture means there is less chance of the mystery poop-stained dirt creating an issue.
- Show horses typically have their lower legs fully clipped close to the skin. In the summer, this is mostly fine. You do need to address bug control and sunscreen with fly boots.
- It’s also dandy to tidy up the lower legs without going all the way to the skin!
Or don’t clip the lower leg.
- Do what you want! Just as clipped legs need some bug and sunscreen help, unclipped legs need extra attention regarding mud, moisture, and tangled feathers.
- There is a happy compromise of taking off the bulky leg hair when you need to, without clipping to the skin.
Boots and wraps for your horse’s legs
- Using wraps or sports boots is an enormous topic by itself. There are reasons to use them and to skip them.
- Boots and wraps for exercise are lovely at a few things! They complete the turnout look of your horse.
- Leg protection is also good at protecting your horse if he knocks himself, knocks a jump, or hits any other obstacle. The impact of the knock goes down when boots or wraps take some of the smash’s force. Polo wraps are not wildly good at this, but hi-tech sport boots might be.
The science of using boots and leg protection.
- We know two things – there’s an abundance of marketing out there claiming that horse boots “support.” Do we have the science and research to back this up? NO. Do we have the science and research to dispute this? MEH.
Do boots and wraps “support”?
- Here’s what we know. A cantering horse puts 2,000 lbs of force on the soft tissues in the lower leg. This includes the superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT), the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT), and the suspensory ligament.
- That’s 2,000 lbs of strain force, even before your horse pops over a jump or has a spaz attack. Can fabric or a boot protect the inside of the lower leg’s soft tissues from stretching too far? Likely not.
- Most soft tissue injuries are overuse injuries, aka repetitive motion injuries! It’s more likely your horse might suffer damage because of repeating his job, not that he wasn’t wearing boots.
These sport boots are lightweight!
Consider the temperature of your horse’s lower legs while wearing boots or wraps.
- We do have some knowledge about the relationship between temperature and soft tissue damage.
- In laboratory settings, tendon cells have a much smaller chance of survival when exposed to extreme temperatures, about 118ºF. It’s also known that the core tendon temperature of a horse’s legs while running can reach 113º.
- We also understand that boots and wraps can increase those temps by up to 30%. It’s assumed the fabrics trap the heat inside. This makes sense if you have ever noticed how much neoprene makes up boots and if you have ever been in a wetsuit. If you have not, the simple statement is that neoprene is HOT HOT.
- Back to science. Researchers in Austria discovered that exercising a horse without leg protection barely increased leg temperatures! While working with boots increases the temperatures significantly!
In summary…. about boots and leg wraps…
- WHAT THE HECK SHOULD WE THINK ABOUT ALL OF THIS?
- Here are some facts. It’s up to you to decide what works for your horse.
- There must be more research done about this.
- Boots and wraps mitigate knocks and impact injuries to soft tissues.
- We also know that boots and wraps create a hot leg, with hot tendons inside.
- Laboratory findings tell us that hot tendons are not ideal.
- There is no straight line between boots and tendon injuries, both in terms of support and causing damage from heat.
- One more thought – there is a precise way to bring down the temperature of your horse’s legs – ICE.
What type of leg protection should your horse wear, and when?
- Phew – now that we have covered that, here are some basic guidelines for picking leg protection. Factors to consider when choosing leg protection for your horse:
- Go by what your discipline dictates! Or, you can buck the system at any time and do what you want.
- What will you be doing with your horse on a particular day? Jumpers might wear open fronts, hunters might wear polos for flatting, reiners might wear brushing boots for hacking out.
- Where will you be riding? Pick something that can handle getting wet, with a shell that won’t attract burrs to head out into the wilderness. For schooling in a perfectly groomed arena, you have more options.
- What your horse’s tendencies are. Does your horse forge and need bell boots? Or only interfere when working laterally?
- How heavy are the boots or wraps?
- What color scheme are you going for today?
Some general booting and wrapping guidelines:
- Use polo wraps for honor rounds at horse shows, schooling, or dressage clinics. Do not use polo wraps if there’s any chance of getting them wet.
- Use fuzzy-lined sport boots for schooling and everyday riding. Keep them dry!
- Use sleek cross country boots for bad weather, water crossings, and lots of brushy situations.
- For jumpers and reining horses, there are sport-specific boots. Reiners need skid plates for some maneuvers, and jumpers often wear open-front boots.
- Or go with naked legs.
Post-workout leg and tendon care for your horse
- It starts with a leg inspection again! Goodness knows if they picked anything up while you were out and about.
Ice those legs and hooves!
- Tendons and ligaments need to cool down, especially if you used boots or wraps!
- There are lots of ways to cool the legs and hooves down. Some are better than others. There’s no horse-based science about this, but 20-30 minutes seems to be the consensus about how long this should take.
- Cold hosing is good! But it’s time-consuming and uses a lot of water. Hooves that crack easily in a wet-dry cycle won’t benefit from this, either.
- Ice boots are better! These are re-usable, and you can clean tack while your horse is marinating.
- You can improvise. Even fly boots packed with ice cubes will provide some ice therapy. Shoo-Fly boots taper like an ice cream cone, which makes loading them with ice cubes easy. Everything drains out the bottom.
- Use frozen polo wraps. Soak them, freeze them, wrap them.
There are TONS of styles of ice boots for horses!
There are other ways to treat the legs and joints after work.
- A horse poultice is a sticky clay that you slather on and use standing wraps over. Poultice will not cool as well as ice, but ice before poultice can be beneficial.
- Sweats typically heat the area. Use sweats with your vet’s directions.
- Liniments are convenient, as you spray and go! Some are cooling, and others are warming. There’s also the possibility that the ingredients will create a positive drug test at horse shows. Some horses may be irritated by the ingredients, too!
Take care of your horse’s legs, and they will take care of you! Good horse grooming comes from the bottom up!
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Shoofly fly boots
Ichthammol 20% Ointment (14 oz) (Drawing Salve) – for your first aid kit and hoof care
These ice packs are moldable and last for hours.
Fill these super tall boots with ice or ice packs. They do not cover include the hoof.
These are affordable boots for adding ice or ice packs. These do contain the hoof.
For trimming up lower legs and coronary bands.
If I’m going to use sport boots, it’s going to be these.
This is for the other set of legs, they come in fronts and backs!
A handy pastern wrap!
Hock boots for icing sore joints!
This hoof gel helps prevent that wet and dry nonsense from messing with the hoof.
Hoof hardener for toughening up soles.
Sore No More Liniment Bottle – pick your size
Professionals Choice Equine Ballistic Hoof Overreach Bell Boot, Pair – these are the “no-turn” variety of bell boot.
CENTAUR PVC Ribbed Double Hook and Loop Bell Boots – simple and easy to wash.