As a horse owner, you are the person responsible for the health and welfare of your horse and daily care.
Even though your farrier may come trim/shoe every 5 to 8 weeks or so—the frequency depending on your horse’s specific needs, how quickly his feet grow, and whether he is being reshod or just trimmed—the horse depends on you to monitor and care for his feet in between visits, and to know when you might need to call the farrier for additional care if something happens that needs professional attention.
If you are riding, training or handling the horse daily, this provides opportunity to examine his feet. Regular grooming is good for your horse’s hair coat, and regular hoof care is good for his feet. They should be picked up and checked each time you do anything with the horse.
As you clean the horse's hooves out, you can assess the health of the frog and sole. A hoof continually packed with mud/manure is more likely to develop thrush, caused by microbes that thrive in a moist, dark, airless environment. If you detect beginnings of thrush (black grime along the edges of the frog, and bad odor) you can treat it with a product recommended by your farrier—and halt the infection early.
Picking up and cleaning feet regularly is not only good for training and developing good manners—keeping the horse comfortable and cooperative about having his feet handled—but also gives you a chance to feel them, to know if there is any heat in the hoof or any heat and/or swelling above the hoof.
If the horse has a serious problem he will be lame. Sometimes, however, a problem starts out mild and you won’t detect it early unless you are paying attention to the feet. Feeling the feet to see if one hoof is hotter than the others or the lower leg is swollen can give an early warning clue.
Morning is the best time to feel the hooves because they are generally cool that time of day, and it’s easier to tell if one foot is warmer than the others.
If you pick up each foot you’ll also know if there are any rocks or sharp gravel stuck into the bottom of the hoof. Just as you would never saddle a horse without first brushing his back to remove any matted hair/mud or dirt/debris, you should remove any rocks and debris from the bottom of his feet before you ride him.
If you are monitoring the feet you will also know if they are becoming dry and brittle and vulnerable to cracking, or too soft. Hooves in a dry climate may get brittle and crack, but this can also happen if you bathe a horse too often, with water running down over his feet.
Being continually wet and dry, wet and dry can deplete the natural oils in the hoof wall and lead to dryness and cracking, just as a person gets cracked, chapped hands when they are in and out of water continually.
If you live in a wet climate and the horse is standing in mud or walking around in a wet pasture his hooves may become soft and weak. If the integrity of your horse’s feet is compromised by environmental conditions, ask your farrier about hoof products you could use in between farrier visits, to try to protect the feet from these extremes.
If you are riding the horse and he’s shod, check each foot before you ride—not only to make sure the bottom of the foot is clean, but also that the shoe is tight and no nails are working loose. At the end of every ride, before you put the horse away in his stall or pasture, check the feet and shoes again.
A rock jammed into the shoe might not be obvious until you look. It might not make him lame immediately, but if he has to walk on it for a few more hours (or days!) it might create a bruise.
If you are checking the feet before and after every ride, you will also know if a shoe starts to come loose (or is lost out on the trail!) and can make an emergency appointment with your farrier to come reset or replace that shoe.
If the shoe is hanging on by a few nails and has shifted out of proper position it needs to be immediately removed before it creates a more serious problem. He may step on the loose shoe with another foot and jerk it off forcefully, tearing away part of the hoof wall with it, or may injure the opposite leg by hitting it with the loose shoe.
Even if your horse is out at pasture and not being ridden, or has some days off, don’t ignore him. It pays to do periodic checking to make sure he is healthy and sound—and this includes his feet.
Unless you check, you won’t know if he has an injury, a stone bruise, a rock or stick jammed into the bottom of the foot, a shoe coming loose, or feet that are beginning to crack and chip if he’s barefoot.
There is no substitute for “the eye of the master” when it comes to taking care of horses. If you notice a problem early, you can take care if it immediately if it’s something you can handle, or be able to call your farrier and have him/her come sooner than the next scheduled appointment.