In my practice I see many horses suffering from the ill effects of hoof flares, especially the barefoot horse. In fact, with the barefoot movement becoming so popular, I see more horses than ever who have improperly trimmed hooves, sometimes with serious side effects. I’ve seen many performance horses with health and soundness issues directly relating to hoof flares. That’s why this article focuses on both the causes of hoof flares and the ways to prevent them.
Hoof flares are caused by a weakening of the attachments (laminae) of the hoof wall to the coffin bone inside the foot. In wild horses the separation that occurs at the lower part of the wall allows that portion of wall to break off so that their hooves don’t grow too long in soft footing. Horses in the wild live on rocky soil and rarely have hoof flares because constant travel over rough ground (up to 25 miles a day) keeps the hoof worn off at the correct length. Most domesticated horses don’t live on such rocky soil but, even so, there is no reason that, with proper trimming and management, the barefoot horse should suffer from hoof flares.
To determine if your horse has hoof flares run a straight edge from the coronary band to the ground surface of the foot and move this edge all the way around the hoof. There should never be any space between the straight edge and the hoof wall. Does your barefoot horse have hoof flares? If so, you might want to consider the conditions that allow them to form, including both mechanical causes, nutritional causes, and hoof wall infections.
** Mechanical Causes **
Obesity: An overweight horse or a horse with a large body but small feet will tend to have trouble with hoof flares because of the excess weight that has to be carried over such a small area. In a barefoot horse, the overtaxed laminae weaken and stretch, causing flares. Dieting and increased exercise are the obvious answers for the overweight horse but the small-footed horse will have to be managed with greater care. If you have a small-footed horse you will need to pay close attention to his diet and be sure that hoof flares are trimmed off at each trimming.
Too Long Between Trims: In the wild hoof flares are nature’s way of breaking off excessive hoof wall. In other words, the hoof wall is weaker where the hoof flares and tends to break off as the horse travels over hard, rocky soil. Without this mechanism the wild horse would end up extremely long flared hooves and would not be able to run from predators. Fortunately, wild horses constantly wear their hooves down with lengthy daily travel. The domestic barefoot horse is not as fortunate. Since most domestic horses live on soft ground and don’t travel as much as wild horses, they don’t have a chance to wear their hooves down daily, a little at a time. Instead, the domesticated horse’s hooves grow flares, which then break off in large chunks. This uneven wear makes it hard to shoe the horse or balance the hoof for even weight-bearing. The best way to avoid flares caused by hoof overgrowth is to trim your horse at regular intervals and be sure to keep a roll on the edge of the hoof wall to allow for easy breakover.
** Nutritional Causes **
Deficiencies or Imbalances: Horses need adequate minerals in the correct balance to have healthy hooves. Sulfur is especially important because it is a disulfide bond that holds the hoof laminae to the coffin bone. If your barefoot horse suffers from poor hoof quality it is important to analyze the nutritional content of your hay before adding expensive supplements. If analyzing your hay is not an option then consider giving your horse a food-based supplement such as Simplexity Health’s blue-green algae, which provides a very broad range of trace minerals in a balanced form that your horse can easily assimilate. Biotin is another nutrient that is important for hoof health but if your horse has plenty of beneficial bacteria in his gut, these bacteria produce will produce sufficient biotin. It is better to support your horse’s good gut bacteria by feeding probiotics than feeding biotin because the healthy bacteria does so much more for your horse, including keeping his immune system strong. Simplexity Health also offers high potency probiotics.
Overfeeding: Besides making your horse fat, giving your horse too much feed that is high in starch will cause a shift in the bacterial population in your horse’s hindgut (or cecum). Normally the cecum is designed to digest only fiber but if undigested starch makes it past the small intestine into the hindgut, the fiber-digesting bacteria that live in the cecum die off and the starch-digesting bacteria take over. This shift can be devastating to your horse because it causes toxins to be released into his bloodstream that, in turn, cause an enzyme to be released that breaks down the laminae in the hoof wall. Well-known hoof expert Pete Ramey believes that this is nature’s way of allowing excessively long hoof walls to break off easily if the wild horse happens to move into a grazing situation with high sugar content forage. In the wild horse this bounty would be a temporary situation but with the barefoot domestic horse long-term high starch or sugar diets can cause chronic hoof problems that may eventually progress to laminitis.
** Hoof Wall Infections **
Many types of fungus and bacteria have been blamed for hoof wall separation or “white line” disease but in reality these pathogens are probably simply taking advantage of the environment created in the foot when the hoof wall attachments become weak from another cause. Once the pathogen is in place, however, to promote healthy hoof growth in your barefoot horse you may need to treat your horse’s hooves even after the underlying cause has been corrected. Very minor hoof wall infections respond to a topical mix of 1 ounce tea tree oil diluted in 16 ounces of apple cider vinegar. Deeper infections must be treated more aggressively. The best product I have found for persistent white line infections is White Lightning. This product is applied under a wrap or within an airtight soaking boot and it releases a chlorine gas that penetrates deep into the hoof tissue. It does not affect healthy tissue and the treatment should be done once a week until healthy hoof attachments have grown all the way down and there is no separation or stretching showing in the white line. Horses that don’t respond to treatment for hoof infections and careful management may have a weak immune system and treatment will need to be focused there to see results.
How to Trim Hoof Flares
If you barefoot horse does have hoof flares, I recommend trimming them aggressively. When I trim a horse with hoof flares, I rasp from the front of the hoof wall until I no longer have any space showing when I run my straight edge around the hoof. This may remove enough wall that shoeing will not be possible and the horse may need boots or pea gravel footing to be comfortable. Some trimmers are not going to want to do this but I feel it is the fastest way to grow out a healthy hoof as any flare that is left in place will tend to drag the new hoof growing down away from the bone. The best plan is to avoid hoof flares and with proper management of the hoof, diet, and immune system they should never be a problem.
For more information on managing the barefoot horse or for one-stop shopping for holistic horsekeeping products such as those mentioned in this article, be sure to click the resource box below.
Madalyn Ward, DVM, is a recognized author and veterinarian in the field of holistic horsekeeping. For free tips on horse health, horse personality types, and horse nutrition, plus one-stop shopping on holistic horse products, visit http://www.BuyHolisticHorse.com