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Cleaning Hoofs, Leads to a Healthier Horse

Last updated: April 3, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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It’s critical to routinely clean a horse’s hoofs; we recently went to the race track to watch our friend’s horse run its debut race; however, just before the race started, his horse was scratched because of an abscessed foot. This made me wonder if they are regularly cleaning their hoofs.

The anatomical structure of the bottom of a horse’s hoof has crevices that trap debris and moisture that lead to bacterial infections. A daily routine of picking a horse’s feet and inspecting for problems eliminates many hoof-related problems.

Many people buy a horse based on its color or general looks, but the foot is critical to a horse’s health. There is an old saying, “no foot, no horse.”

How to Clean a Horse’s Feet.

Cleaning your horse’s feet is an essential part of grooming that should be done regularly to prevent injury and infection. Here are the steps to follow:

Facing the horse’s rear, place your shoulder against the horse’s shoulder and run your hand nearest the horse gently down the shoulder to the fetlock. Say “feet,” or “lift,” or “give,” or even “come on,” and a well-trained horse should lift its foot.

A picture of a trainer cleaning the hoof of a racehorse.

If you don’t get a response, gently pinch the tendons with your thumb and fingers just above the fetlock. At the same time, press your shoulder more firmly against the horse’s shoulder, again giving the voice command.

Start at the heel and pick the inside of the shoe.

Be firm and patient; eventually, even the less well-educated horse will respond to the pressure. After he lifts his foot, hold the hoof and use the hoof pick, and, starting at the heel, pick around the inside of the shoe.

If the horse is unshod, pick along the rim of the foot. Remove all mud and other matter from the sole. (Click here to shop for a Horse Hoof Pick,) Then find the two valleys formed by the frog and, always working from the heel toward the toe, clean out these valleys, making sure that no stones remain.

Stroke away when cleaning the valleys formed by the frog.

By stroking away from you toward the toe, you avoid accidentally pushing any foreign matter into the heel of the frog, where it might become embedded.

When the frog grooves are clean, gently run the flat edge of the hoof and pick over the frog to check for lodged stones, cuts, or bruises and to remove excess mud.

Lightly tap the frog with the side of the hoof pick, and if the horse flinches or reacts, check carefully for reasons why. If the frog looks soft and somewhat mushy in texture, lean down and sniff.

Below is a YouTube video showing how to clean out a horse hoof.

YouTube video

If you notice a foul smell, your horse likely has thrush.

If the scent is acidic and foul, you are probably smelling the distinctive odor of thrush. You must take measures to cure it and prevent its recurrence. Before putting the foot down, check the shoe to be sure it is firmly attached to the hoof wall and that there are no loose or missing nails.

If a nail has worked its way loose, pull it free before it snaps off. If you don’t remove the nail, it could work its way from the wall of the hoof into the bone and cause severe damage.

Check the hoof wall for cracks.

Finally, look at the hoof wall. It should be solid, free of cracks, splits, chips, or rings, the last indicating founder or fever. If the hoof walls are dry, apply a hoof conditioner, and consult your farrier if they continue to worsen.

The entire process of cleaning a horse’s feet should take just minutes. During those minutes, however, experienced equestrians will also examine the foot to anticipate any problems. (You can check here for current prices from Amazon. Hoof Conditioner)

Excerpts from “The Whole Horse Catalog: The Complete Guide to Buying, Stabling and Stable Management, Equine Health, Tack, Rider Apparel, Equestrian Activities and …Else a Horse Owner and Rider Will Ever Need” December 1998.

Daily grooming must include cleaning the hoofs.

A good horseman will have an established daily grooming routine for their animal. During this routine grooming, thoroughly examine the horse and remove any clumps of dirt from the horse’s coat.

It is also essential to check the animal’s back, where a saddle sits, for any soreness. Next, examine the horse’s belly where the girth fits to ensure it’s clean and free of sores or bruises.

During daily brushing, be on the lookout for cuts or bruises that require attention and check for heat in the legs. Temperature can indicate tendon damage or fever; check for running eyes or nose and whether the eye has a bright and alert look.

Check the frog of the foot when cleaning hoofs.

Dull or cloudy eyes are indicative of a medical problem. While cleaning the horse’s feet, check the shoes fit firmly, the hoof is adequately trimmed, the frog is firm and pliant, and the hoofs are without cracks or splits.

A daily grooming routine helps you assess your horse’s overall health before saddling up. It also allows you to keep an eye on progressive changes that occur over some time.

If you catch a problem early, you can likely provide a remedy before it becomes a significant lameness issue for the animal. The anatomical shape of a hoof leads to the collection of moisture and debris, which can lead to problems in horses’ feet if not cleaned regularly.

When cleaning a horse’s foot, check it for thrush.

Thrush is a common bacterial infection that affects the hoof frog region. Horses develop thrush from standing in moist areas for prolonged periods.

Usually, when left in a stall that isn’t kept clean, it is indicated by an acidic smell and dark ooze. Horses with a high-rising cleft in their frog are the most susceptible to developing thrush.

Thrush caught early is easily treated.

If left unattended, it will generate a cheesy-type texture in the affected area of the frog. Thrush in the early stages can be successfully treated by applying a topical ointment and maintaining a clean, dry stall.

Severe thrush can cause lameness.

However, thrush will eventually lead to lameness and permanent hoof damage if left unattended. If you are concerned that your horse may have thrush, ask your farrier to check for you.

Thrush Buster powder is what we have used over the years to successfully treat thrush in our horses. You can check Amazon for current prices by clicking here.

Picture of a bay horse on a walker.

Look for signs of an abscess when cleaning the hoof.

If you notice your horse’s foot warmer than usual and feel throbbing in the sole, there is likely an abscess in the animal’s foot. Knowing your horse’s baseline is critical to determine if the foot is warmer than usual. When I feel heat in a horse’s foot, I take the handle of my hoof pick and apply pressure in different areas to try and locate the issue.

Abscesses can be caused by a puncture from a misplaced nail in the hoof, or a stone bruise, really anything that allows bacteria into the foot. An abscess develops from bacteria entering the hoof wall, leading to inflammation.

Abscesses can rupture through the top of a horse’s hoof.

Horse hooves are incredibly strong and designed to protect the sensitive tissue within. However, hooves can become damaged or infected, leading to the formation of an abscess.

An abscess is a pocket of pus that forms when the body’s immune system responds to an infection. If left untreated, abscesses can grow larger and eventually rupture through the top of the hoof.

While this may seem alarming, it is a good thing because it allows the abscess to drain and begin healing. However, it is important to have a veterinarian check the hoof afterward to ensure the infection has been completely cleared.

Always check for hoof cracks when cleaning the hoofs.

Most cracks in a horse’s hooves are cosmetic and do not cause any health issues. However, there are times when a hoof crack can be a severe problem and lead to soundness concerns, such as deep cracks and persistent, recurring cracks in the same area.

If you are unsure about a break in your horse’s hoof, have the animal checked by a farrier. Knowing the difference between these cracks could save you a lot of time and money.

The location of a hoof crack is critical.

Where the crack is located on the hoof is essential in determining the associated health issue. If the break starts at the bottom edge of the hoof wall and migrates upward, then it is likely only a cosmetic issue that will likely grow out.

Cracks that start at the coronary band and travel downward are more concerning, especially if they’re deep, because they will disrupt the coronary band. Some breeds, like Thoroughbreds, typically have weak hoof walls and are more susceptible to hoof cracks than other breeds.

There are commercial products available to help keep the hoof more pliable and prevent cracking. (You can check here for current prices from Amazon.  Horseshoer’s Penetrating Hoof Conditioner )

You may find a puncture wound when cleaning a horse’s hoof.

Picture of hoof picks used to clean horses' hooves.
Hoof Picks

Puncture Wounds in the sole of the horse’s foot are often caused by the misplacement of shoeing nails, wires, or construction nails picked up around the barn during turn-out time.

The puncture location is vital; if the perforation occurs near the hoof wall, it likely hasn’t damaged any structure. These simple types of punctures will result in bruising and abscess.

Puncture wounds can damage the horse’s pedal bone.

However, if the wound is more towards the center of the foot, it is at a higher risk of damaging the pedal bone. The most severe puncture wounds occur in the rear area of the foot, usually in or through the frog.

Penetration in this area could lead to infections causing damage to the coffin joint, tendons, and navicular bone. This type of puncture wound needs to be treated urgently. Contact a horse care veterinarian immediately.

Treat a simple puncture wound with a poultice.

When you first notice a foreign object in your horse’s foot, pull it out and try to mark the spot. Leaving it in will only cause more damage as he walks on it. You could treat the injury if you determined that it is a simple puncture wound.

First, clean the sole and wall of the hoof thoroughly and apply a poultice. (Click this link to learn more about puncture wounds and treatment

Contact your vet if you notice any signs of lameness.

If your horse shows signs of becoming lame within 24-48 hours, call your veterinarian because this may be a more severe puncture wound than you initially thought. To learn more about the signs of lameness, click the link.

If your horse has a puncture wound to the frog or rear half of the foot, apply a clean, dry bandage and call the veterinarian immediately. (To check the price and availability for poultices from Amazon, click this link Animalintex Poultices)

Establish a routine to clean your horse’s hoofs.

Horses like routine, even when it comes to cleaning their feet. If one person has handled the horse, then watch to see how he approaches the animal. Most handlers start cleaning the feet by asking for the near (or left) foreleg, then moving to the left rear leg, then to the right foreleg, and ending up with the right hind leg.

Some horses couldn’t care less about which leg you start, while high-strung types may insist you follow the procedure to the letter. So after you’ve determined how to start on the right foot, here is the method to follow.

Picture of a horse walking


Does cleaning a horse’s hoof hurt?

Cleaning your horse’s hoof doesn’t hurt them and often gives them relief from pain. All you need is the right tool, patience, good communication skills, and knowledge on safely holding the horse’s foot while cleaning them out.

Do horses feel pain in their hooves?

Horses don’t feel pain in their hooves. There are no nerve endings in the outer section of a horse’s hoof, so they don’t feel any pain when you’re nailing on those shoes! Horses’ hooves are made out of a tough protein called keratin, the same protein found in humans’ fingers and toenails.