Those marks in the soles of your horse's bare feet—the lines, divots and discolorations, as well as the chips, cracks and rings in his hoof wall—contain a wealth of information. By learning to "read" them, you'll be able to see how old injuries are healing, what new problems may be brewing and how, in general, his feet are coping with the ground he travels over.
As your horse's feet get trimmed and shod, you can perform your own hoof-health assessment, ask questions, and get an understanding of how your farrier is handling any problems. To start training your eye, we'll look at two feet (in this case, the front feet of a Thoroughbred event horse). I'll point out what I see, giving you a few things to start looking for in your own horse's feet. We'll do more columns like this in future to refine your "reading" ability.
1. A white foot is a good place to start because bruises and discolorations show up more clearly than they do on a dark foot (one reason that people mistakenly believe white feet are weaker). Against this lightly pigmented background, the arcing red line at the toe is obvious. It's bruising caused by hemorrhaging in the laminae. The ground had been hard for several months when this picture was taken; because the horse wasn't able to get his toe into the ground, he had to break over the tip of his foot with each stride. The repeated pressure of breaking over was slowly pulling the toe away from the foot, tearing the laminae. (Imagine how your own fingernail could bend backward and pull away from the skin if you ran your hand into a wall.)
2. In comparison to the overall size of this foot, the frog is big and healthy. It looks ragged because it's beginning to shed, as most horses' frogs do a couple of times a year. Some farriers would carve the frog to neaten its appearance, but I prefer to just trim off little hanging flaps that aren't doing anything and leave in place as much of that shock-absorbing surface as possible. It may not look as nice, but it's better for the horse.
3. The dark cracks curving along the quarters (sides) of the foot are signs of separation, but they aren't as alarming as they appear. If this horse lived barefoot, those quarters would break out and wear away naturally, so the fact that his foot is showing signs of those natural tendencies is normal. To test the depth of such separations, I carve into the cracks or use a probe. These particular cracks aren't much deeper than what we see on the surface, so they're no problem. If they were deeper, I might cut away some of the horn to prevent further cracking or tearing of the laminae.
4. This horse has a typical Thoroughbred heel, prone to becoming underrun. To prevent that from happening, I've kept it cut back, which keeps the weight-bearing surface at the widest part of the frog and the bulbs of the heel, even as the foot grows forward and down.
5. Not all discolorations indicate bruising. These spots and smudges are simply dirt that's worked its way into rough spots in the sole: tough to differentiate from bruises in a photograph, but easy to tell if you could actually run your hand over this foot.
1. This toe has been damaged by the hard ground, shown by signs of tearing and the crack. I'm not concerned about this small crack; if it were larger, I'd take stress off the toe by shortening it, setting the shoe back inside the white line, and rounding the toe so the horse could break over more easily.
2. This heel appears taller than the one on the white foot because this foot is more upright; probably the horse favors the other foot and carries more weight on it. The deep cleft running up the center of the frog into the squished-together bulbs of the heels shows that he has slightly contracted heels. The contraction isn't bad; it likely won't get any better, but I don't want it to get worse. I'll fill his foot with Equipak to distribute his weight evenly over the foot's surface, taking some of the pressure off the heels.
3. Part of the reason the clefts on either side of the frog appear deeper in this foot is that the foot is more upright. The particularly deep spot on the lateral (outer) side of the frog, however, is a place I carved to clean out some deep thrush.
4. The chip in the medial (inside) wall happened when this horse pulled a shoe and lost the chunk of wall that a quarter clip was attached to. It looks ugly, but the chip itself is irrelevant; it's low enough that I have plenty of wall to nail into above it, so it'll grow out without causing further problems. The larger problem is genetics: Typical of his breed, this horse has very thin, weak hoof walls. Luckily, he has very thick soles, which will help support his weight.
5. Separation in this location is most likely spurred by nails being driven into feet already weakened from a wet environment—in this case, heavy morning dew. As in the first foot, this separation isn't very deep, so it isn't a problem right now, but I'll keep an eye on it.
Farrier Vance Glenn is one of four partners in Chester County Farriers Associates, based in Unionville, Pennsylvania. One of the largest farrier associations in the country, CCFA provides state-of-the-art services and products to sporthorse owners from Pennsylvania to Florida. Vance is an American Farrier Association-certified journeyman farrier specializing in shoeing three-day-event horses, show-jumpers, hunters, and dressage horses.
This article originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of Practical Horseman. To read more from Vance Glenn, see "Here's How" in the May 2011 issue.