March 27, 2012 – Nature, not the farrier, shapes the feet of feral horses. A school of “natural” hoofcare holds these feet up as a model of health, and followers try to replicate the shape in domestic horses. But the model may not be all it’s cracked up to be, says a report from Australia.

The short-walled hoof of feral desert horses is often used as the model for natural hoofcare in domestic horses. | © Dr Brian Hampson/Hoofcare Publishing

The report summarizes 14 studies backed by Australia’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, a government agency. Researchers looked at genetics, travel profiles, nutrition, foot shape and structure, and foot health in a large number of feral horses from different environments. Here are three key findings:

There’s more than one model. Researchers who looked at feral horses from six environments identified six different foot models?because environment changes foot shape. The distance feral horses travel to find food and water and the type of surface they travel on determine hoof structure. The short-walled hoof usually considered the natural model is a desert foot, shaped by long-distance travel over hard, dry ground. On softer footing, with food and water close at hand, hoof growth exceeds wear and feet grow long and flared.

Change may be good or bad. The fact that the horse’s feet respond to the environment doesn’t mean that they always adapt in ways that help the horse. Long, flared feet are prone to cracking and injury, and some desert feet show excessive wear.

Natural doesn’t mean healthy. The researchers discovered high rates of foot problems in the feral horses. A study that examined the left forefeet of 100 horses found 377 significant abnormalities; only three feet had no problems. A combination of high travel and hard ground was linked to more serious foot problems.

Although feral horse feet often appear healthy and at first glance seem an ideal model for domestic horses, the researchers say that the model should be reconsidered. “Best practice in hoof care should evolve from passed-on knowledge, new research, clinical practice and practice review. Knowledge of wild horse and feral horse feet provides useful supportive information, but a feral horse foot model should not form the basis for the foot care of the domestic horse,” the report concludes. You can download the full report online at

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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