David Nicholls wants to avoid the problems caused by nailing shoes to rotting hooves. "The enemy is water," says Nicholls, a farrier in rainy West Suffolk, England, "where you should wear waterproof clothing every day."
Horses there routinely face the risk of saturated hooves because, Nicholls says, "The feet are like sponges; they soak up all of the moisture from the environment they're in." So, he's well versed in the many problems of saturated hooves.
For example, when hot-fitting saturated feet, it is easy to scald the horses by forcing super-heated steam into their hooves, he says. This can make them lame for several weeks, he adds.
And he's familiar with a condition called mud founder, which seems to afflict mostly thin-walled and thin-soled Thoroughbred horses.
"If you remove their shoes, they will stand in one place and won't move," he says. "Their feet open to become much larger, and you couldn't possibly put the same sized shoes back on them. Most require the care of a veterinarian, possibly including sedation or nerve blocking of the feet. The cure is to put them into a dry environment, where their feet will contract back to a normal size."
Water Damage Lingers
Nicholls believes the switch from wet to dry conditions, or vice versa, can cause massive changes in hoof shape and size, which can lead to intermittent lameness during a 2-week period while the feet undergo such alterations. "I don't know if it's the horse settling into the new foot shape, but generally these horses are fine once that's happened," he says.
When hoof horn is saturated, it swells and is difficult to drive nails into. When these feet dry out, they tend to crack and fall apart, he says, and the problems are typically blamed on the feet becoming too dry. "In reality, it's the wetness that has done the damage. Most of the molecular change and the structural damage results from the water drying out of the horn too quickly," he adds.
To understand the lasting hoof damage caused by saturation, Nicholls says, it helps to imagine the hoof horn as a wall made up of blocks (keratin molecules) held together with cement (intermolecular bonds).
When the hoof takes in excess water, the water molecules force the blocks apart and stretch the cement, making the hoof weaker, according to Nicholls. When the hoof dries out too quickly, the "blocks" of keratin move partly back into place, but the "cement" is damaged and leaves gaps between the "blocks," he says.
The resulting lack of integrity of the molecular structure causes the hoof to crack and split under stress, he says.
After facing so many saturated hooves, Nicholls has developed a 6-week process for restoring the integrity of the hoof wall. He says the process has improved the hooves of every horse on which he and colleagues have used it. However, he stresses that horse owners must take responsibility and be committed to implementing his process.
"If you don't have that commitment, you'll fail," he warns. "And if the protocol is going to work, you can't compromise on it."
In his treatment program, Keratex Hoof Hardener is applied to the hoof wall every day for the entire 6 weeks. The hardener also should be put on the sole every day during the first week, every other day the second week, just twice the third week, only once during weeks four and five, then again every day during the sixth week.
During week six, bring the horse in to a clean, dry environment and keep it in for the full 7 days. Keep the bedding extremely dry, he cautions. "You can ride the horse out, but only if it's dry outside," he adds. Remember that on summer mornings the grass is full of dew that will quickly saturate the feet, he cautions.
Immediately after the last application of hoof hardener has dried, start applying Keratex Hoof Gel, he says. Make daily applications in wet weather or every third day in dry weather.
Keeping the horse in a dry environment the sixth week allows the hoof structure to dry out thoroughly and hopefully revert to a moisture content of around 25 percent, he says.
"Hoof horn is at its strongest and most durable when it has stabilized moisture content of about 25 percent," Nicholls says, though he believes most farriers consider that too dry and would want to soak the hooves in mud or water to soften them.
Glue And Go
Brent Brown of Sanford, Maine, also tackles saturated hooves regularly. About April each year, he and other farriers in the region start putting shoes back on horses who have been barefoot for the winter. At the same time, the owners are turning the horses out into the seasonally muddy fields in new shoes.
"By this time, their feet are like a sponge," he says. Driving nails can be difficult, he adds, and clinching the nails can break out the soft walls.
So Brown has turned to gluing on Sigafoos Series I horseshoes, and he dries out the feet with Keratex Hoof Hardener. The plastic shoes are kept on for about 6 weeks. "By that time the feet are dried out and as hard as they're ever going to get," he says. "Then we nail shoes on and go from there. If it stays dry, we can keep nailing them, but we get only a couple of months of dry weather."
Red Renchin, a Hall Of Fame farrier from Mequon, Wis., and technical editor for American Farriers Journal, agrees with the use of Keratex Hoof Hardener on wet feet. He also recommends the product Durasole for horses with moisture problems in their soles, especially horses who travel over stones.
Going a step further, he says, "The Cadillac of dryers is the Hoof Doc," a small mat on which a horse places its front or hind feet. A blower pushes warm air up through the mat onto the hooves. "You can train your customers to dry their horses' feet this way and it will solve an awful lot of foot problems. This is the way to go if you can convince your customers to spend the bucks," he says (For more information on the Hoof Doc, see Page 40).
Mind Your Tools
But Renchin spent most of his time talking about the trimming of dry feet.
Through experience, he has developed preferred methods for making the task easier. It begins with having and maintaining the proper tools. His toolbox includes 14-inch nippers and a smaller half-round nipper. He put the half-round into his toolbox a couple of years ago, thinking he wouldn't use it often, but, he says, "I found I use it on practically every horse."
He warns that farriers tend to get used to working with dull tools. Only after a cutting tool becomes so dull that it can no longer be used, forcing a farrier to repair or replace it, that the farrier realizes how much easier the job is with sharp tools.
"That's something you want to keep in mind, especially when dealing with dry feet," he says, pointing to hoof knives, rasps and nippers in particular. "It's really false economy to use anything that is less than sharp," he says.
To keep his knives sharp, he uses an FPD system, including a grinder with a hard sharpening wheel and a buffing wheel. He usually sharpens his knives once in the morning and once in the afternoon. "It's made a tremendous difference in the wear and tear in my wrists and hands," he says.
His work-saving recommendations include methods to be used after picking up a foot.
For a typical trim on a moderately dry hoof, Renchin starts by trimming the sulcuses because that gives him an idea of how much sole is on the foot, he says. Then he uses the half-round to nip the corner from each side of the frog. Doing this avoids the need to make a twisting movement with a frog knife.
"On a hard, dry foot, that is a very dangerous operation," Renchin says. "Even with a sharp knife, when you start pushing with a lot of pressure, you don't have much control, especially with a dull knife."
Several years ago, one of his shoeing associates broke a hoof knife this way. The broken knife pierced his arm and severed an artery. "It was a pretty nasty cut," Renchin recalls.
After nipping the frog, Renchin runs the flame of a small propane torch back and forth across the sole until the surface turns a light brown, which softens the sole about 1/8-inch deep. He occasionally repeats the process if hard sole remains. With the hard sole softened, "Then it's just a normal trim," he says.
He does caution that it's necessary to be extremely cautious with the torch and says it's not something for an inexperience shoer to try.
On a second horse with more foot, the sole was hard with a 1/4-inch thick callous "with the consistency of good cement," he says. He deals with this type of foot by using the half-round to make small scallops all the way around the sole to remove the callous. Then he washes the sole with the small propane torch and comes back with a knife to finish the trimming.
In a third example, Renchin notes that horses develop a very hard sole during cold Wisconsin winters in which there is little snow. "You want to leave that sole on the foot until spring, otherwise they get a bit uncomfortable," he advises. In this example, Renchin uses a hoof pick to determine that the sole was 3/4-inch thick. He opens up around the frog with the half-round and finds that the frog has recessed into the foot, with about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch of sole sticking above the frog.
Spare The Knife
Starting at the sides of the bars, he gently works the half-round around the entire bottom of the foot, attempting to break the whole callous loose at one time. "It's my goal to get it all removed in one piece. It will separate from the foot nice and cleanly," he says. With the callus removed, he completes the trim as he did in the previous examples.
The half-round nippers prove their worth in these examples, Renchin says. "What you want to do is eliminate a lot of the knife work. That will make a lot of difference on your wrists," he adds, noting, "I usually spend no more than 2 minutes trimming any foot."
But the half-round is not Renchin's only secret weapon. He doesn't see many cases of neglected horses with extremely overgrown, extended hooves, but in his two most recent cases, he used a small, portable band saw with good results.
"This tool works like a charm," he says. He took off about half of the badly overgrown toe wall with the initial cut of the band saw. From that point, he could continue to remove the toe in 1/8-inch slices.
"You still have to use your nipper on the bottom of the foot, but the band saw will save the farrier a ton of work," he says. He sets the foot on a wooden block for cutting with the band saw. Because horses with neglected hooves are used to not going anywhere quickly, he says, the two he has worked on have been totally cooperative.
As a farrier in the Yucaipa, Calif., climate, Porter Green also has plenty of experience with dry feet. Dry hooves might be hard hooves, he says, "but they're brittle. We want them tough."
Hard feet create nailing problems, Green says. They tend to fracture and split, he says, and bent nails can be hard to drive through a hoof. Using a light or slim-shanked nail helps minimize damage to the hoof wall, he says. He sometimes waxes nails so they create less drag going through the horn, and he says spray lubricants can be used for the same purpose.
"Good, bold nailing also helps," he says. "I nail high, but not too high, and deep, but not too deep. Shallow, thin nailing is never your friend — with wet or dry hooves."
He will sometimes begin with a rasp when starting to trim a hard, dry foot. "It will be hard for a few passes, but after you break through the crusty layer, you can get in with nippers and peel out sole and gain access to the wall to do your knife work," he says.
Turning out a horse with dry hooves into a wet, grassy pasture can help soften the hooves, Green says. However, he says the hooves will dry out in about the same amount of time that the horse spent in a wet environment. For example, if a horse is turned out in a wet pasture for 10 minutes, the hooves are likely to dry out in 10 minutes, he says.
Green encourages many horse owners in his area to overflow their water troughs. "Make the horses stand in mud and moisture to drink. That means they will fairly regularly moisten their feet from the outside in. That's a tool we can also use," he says.
Bathing horses also can put moisture into the feet, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on an area's prevailing conditions, he notes. "In my area, horses that are bathed quite often tend to have feet that are not as dry and are easier for me to work on," he says.
Grease and oils have little or no effect on putting moisture into the foot or keeping it in, Green says. But if horse owners ask him about the practice, he encourages them to apply the materials to the hooves, figuring that an owner's involvement with the feet is good for both the farrier and the horse in the long run.
Farriers can choose to apply hoof-packing materials beneath a pad to help hold in moisture, even on feet they're not trying to protect, Green says.
If dry, hard frogs are left long enough to grow lower than the hoof wall, it's as if the horse is walking on a rock all the time, Green says. The frog needs to be trimmed to the plane of the heels, he adds.