The three things a horse hoof needs: Top farrier shares his secrets

Horses are not very efficient at maintaining a balanced foot when left to their own pedicure care. On a regular schedule, they are able to maintain better balance between trims. © Sean Elliott

Certified Journeyman Farrier Sean Elliott is passionate about his profession. “It will take me three lifetimes to learn everything I need to know,” he says. 

Sean Elliott

Elliott, from Grand Valley, Ontario, has shod horses in many different climates, conditions and disciplines at high levels of competition. He is also involved in farrier competitions, both as a competitor and organiser. He has also instructed vet/farrier short courses at Tuskeegee University in Alabama, and has been a guest speaker for Equine Guelph’s Functional Equine Anatomy course.

Elliot is also a big believer in teamwork when it comes to the farrier, vet and rider all working together as a healthcare team. Here, he shares some tips for promoting hoof health takes a look at common hoof issues and how to deal with them.


“If you go to the doctors and your fingernails are in a bad state, nutrition is the first thing they are going to address,” Elliott says. He certainly recommends working with an equine nutritionist to look at your program as a whole.

Elliott is a big fan of keeping it simple with good quality hay, clean water and a ration balancer and not supplementing blindly. He cautions against just picking supplements that make claims to improve hoof quality as they may not give you the results you are looking for. Horse people spend to excess on additives, with the greatest intentions, but there may be more than one thing the horse is deficient in and therefore cannot absorb what you are aiming to supplement. Having hay tested gives a clearer picture of how to balance a horse’s diet. Bloodwork can help determine what a horse is deficient in.

“Each horse needs to be treated as an individual.”

Good farrier work means keeping the hoof capsule underneath the limb of a horse with a correct trim every 4 – 6 weeks
Good farrier work means keeping the hoof capsule underneath the limb of a horse with a correct trim every 4 – 6 weeks. © Sean Elliott
Dry environment

“Horses were not meant to stand for extended periods of time in wet or muddy conditions,” Elliott says.

He goes on to dispel the myth of overflowing water troughs to add moisture to hooves. “Yes, the hooves will get wet, but consider why people put mud treatments on their faces – to remedy oily skin.”

As the mud dries, it draws out the oils, however, oils in the hoof are an essential component to its health. Even horses that get bathed daily in the summer can suffer the effects of poor quality hooves from the constant cycle of going from wet to dry. Elliott says he is not a big fan of hoof dressings and prefers to stay with the ‘KISS’ (keep it simple) philosophy, always trying to provide a dry environment.


“Good farrier work means keeping the hoof capsule underneath the limb of horse with a correct trim every 4 to 6 weeks,” Elliott says. “It is essential to keeping the hooves in balance.”

Routine trims address issues such as flares and long toes.

Farriers need to have a solid understanding of conformation and anatomy. They should understand the biomechanics of how the hoof handles concussion. Elliott cautions against trimming to get the ‘perfect hoof’.

“Horses rarely have two feet that look alike,” he says. “You need to trim each foot to be in balance and not trim to make them look the same or to a fit a specific measurement.”

Shoes are meant to be shaped to the foot, not the other way around.

Farriers need to have a solid understanding of conformation and anatomy. They should understand the biomechanics of how the hoof handles concussion. © Sean Elliott
Common Hoof Issues

When to worry about hoof cracks:

Some of the pitfalls that contribute to hoof cracks are toes that are too long, under-run heels and exposure to too much wet. Elliott relays one case he cracked (pardon the pun), when he discovered the horse had access to a water feature in the paddock.

Routine care and a proper trim that balances the foot correctly is essential.

Superficial cracks are not an issue, most of the time they can be sanded out. The time to be concerned with cracks is when they are all the way through or when they go all the way up to the hairline. Then a plan for intervention will need to be discussed with your farrier.

What causes contracted heels?

Contracted heels are caused by improper balance, in most cases.

Too much stress on any part of the hoof or an area bearing inadequate weight can affect proper blood flow and hoof expansion.

What predisposes a horse to frequently abscess?

Hoof abscesses can be extremely painful and are often accompanied by sudden lameness. An abscess starts with a bruise to an area of the internal structures of the foot. If the bruise is severe enough it can cause a pulsing pain. The analogy Elliott uses is, striking your fingernail with a hammer and not releasing the pressure through a small hole in the nail. After the pressure is released, the throbbing sensation stops, but there will still be some discomfort for a relatively short time period.

Elliott theorises genetics may predispose a horse to abscesses, along with thin soles. Generally speaking, an average healthy sole will have 7-10mm of what is referred to as live/waxy sole. This sole is able to bear weight and is designed to flex and bend without breaking or cracking. Hooves that have soles thinner than that are at a higher risk of bruising and then developing an abscess.

A hoof abscess can happen anytime but are most common during wet winter and spring months. Moisture can soften the foot and make it easier for the bruise to happen. As an aside, Elliot says that as well as travelling over rough terrain, frequently stomping caused by nuisance flies can also contribute to foot bruises.

In general, Elliott is not a fan of pads. “Imagine wearing rubber boots without socks and the state your feet would be in.”

You will want to work with your farrier and vet to locate and come up with the best treatment for a horse that has an abscess and then come up with prevention strategies.

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