Just as coat condition serves as an indication of health status in horses — sheen and dapples suggest vitality, whereas dull, rough, or half-shed coats imply unthriftiness or disease — changes in hooves may provide clues to a horse’s historical well-being.
The hoof wall is subject to any number of imperfections, and it is commonplace for horses to be beset with shallow or deep cracks, chipped toes, or flares, especially if they are not under the scheduled care of a professional farrier. These flaws are obvious. More subtle changes in the hoof wall, including horizontal rings and ridges, tell more about a horse’s health than the regularity of hoof care.
Hoof rings and ridges sound synonymous, but they are not. In fact, one is a normal feature of even the best-managed hooves; the other, though, is a sign of pathology and potential toxicity.
Hoof rings, also called growth rings, occur in healthy hooves and are typically the result of variations in diet from season to season, especially in horses whose diets are composed of primarily forages. As the nutrient content of grass swells in the growing season, shifts in cellular production often cause distinct changes in hoof wall, most notably slight color variations. The wall remains smooth with little or no palpable change in texture.
Hoof ridges, on the other hand, are usually indicative of a body-wide health insult, particularly one that causes fever, such as a bout with laminitis or nutrient toxicity. Like hoof rings, ridges are plainly visible, but one important difference is the formation of well-defined bumps or ledges on the wall. Horses with chronic laminitis may have repeated disturbances in hoof wall growth, causing these ridges to take on a V-like appearance toward the toe.
“Without question, a competent farrier is the go-to professional for hoof care, and a veterinarian for disease processes that could incite certain hoof problems,” says Catherine Whitehouse, a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research, “but laminitis-prone horses benefit from specialized nutrition, and a nutritionist can design diets that will help horses sidestep this disease.”
Article courtesy of Kentucky Equine Research. Visit equinews.com/newsletters to subscribe to The Weekly Feed, KER's award-winning equine nutrition newsletter.