Last updated: January 10, 2024
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Our friend’s racehorse was scratched from its debut race for the second time. The horse has a hoof ailment, prompting my wife to ask if Thoroughbreds have bad feet. As a long-time racehorse owner, I can assure you that foot issues are common in Thoroughbreds.
Thoroughbreds typically have bad feet. Their feet are weaker and less durable than most horse breeds. Thoroughbreds’ feet are typically flat-soled, long-toed, with thin, shelly walls, all conditions that make them susceptible to injury and disease, often leading to lameness.
It’s not uncommon for a Thoroughbred to be scratched from a race because of foot issues. In horse racing, there is an old saying, “no foot, no horse.” Understanding a horse’s foot is critical to keeping it healthy. Join me as I deep dive into the Thoroughbred foot.
A horse foot in a nutshell
A horse’s foot is made up of a wall, sole, and frog. The wall is the part of the hoof that can be seen when the horse is standing. The wall is referred to by section, the toe (front), quarters (sides), and heel.
The bottom of the foot is composed of four parts: the sole, the frog, the bars of the wall, and collateral grooves. The weight-bearing parts of a horse’s hoof are the wall, bars, and frog. The sole of an adequately formed foot should not touch the ground when standing still.
A horse’s hoof expands and contracts on impact and acts like a mechanical pump for all blood flow below the knee/hock joints and throughout the foot. The hoof wall protects the internal structures, the frog provides traction and sensory information, and the sole protects the bottom of the hoof. Click here to read a study on hoof function.
Thoroughbreds are bred for speed, not hardy feet
Genetics is the primary factor in the creation of good hooves. Years and years of breeding for speed without caring about the horse’s foot conformation is the reason Thoroughbreds have bad feet. One only has to look at their small feet compared to their overall size to see a problem.
The relatively high instances of foot issues in Thoroughbreds are indicative of the breed. However, it could also relate to the care and training of racehorses. Staying in shoes, hard pounding on the track, and standing in a stall 22 hours a day is not suitable for the health of a horse’s feet.
Proper stall management, keeping the foot properly balanced, and a proper diet can improve the health of a horse’s hoof.
Thoroughbreds have bad feet.
The rate at which racehorses sustain foot lameness raises a couple of issues: Do all Thoroughbreds have foot problems, and is there anything you can do to reduce the risk of foot injuries?
Thoroughbred’s hoof walls are thin.
Thoroughbreds have notoriously thin hoof walls that make them more susceptible to trauma, injury, and hoof capsule distortion. Hoof capsule distortion refers to misshapen hooves such as flares, cracks, underrun, and collapsed and sheared heels. Distortions affect the horse’s function and have been related to musculoskeletal injuries and lameness.
Thin walls reduce the weight-bearing surface and lead to flatter, more tender soles that are prone to bruising. They are also more prone to grow long toes with low heels, which reduces the shock absorption properties of the feet.
Thoroughbreds’ hooves take on moisture when they come in contact with water and shed that moisture when they dry but can become overly brittle. This constant wet and dryness compromises the integrity of the hoof, predisposing it to become brittle and crack and chip.
Sometimes, horses in extremely dry or wet conditions may benefit from commercial solvents designed to protect hooves from drying out. Farnam sells a popular hoof conditioner; you can click the link to check prices and read some information about their product. I know many trainers that use this conditioner.
The hoof wall is made of keratin.
The hoof wall is composed of a sturdy material called keratin that is produced continuously and must either be trimmed or worn off. It has three layers: the outer periople, a middle layer, and an inner layer.
The outer layer protects the coronary band where the skin and hoof meet. It is tough and similar in consistency to the frog. The periople also gives the hoof its shiny appearance and seal in moisture.
The middle layer provides the strength and rigidity of the hoof. The inner layer of the hoof covers the pedal bone and firmly attaches it to the wall of the hoof.
Hoof walls don’t contain nerves or blood vessels, and it’s used to nail a shoe to a horse’s foot. The toe of the front hooves is the thickest part of the hoof wall. The back hoofs are almost uniform in thickness.
The primary function of the entire hoof wall is to support a horse’s weight. But it also has other purposes: the back of the hoof is for shock absorption, energy dispersion, and vertical support, while the front is primarily designed for protection, traction, and propulsion.
Thoroughbred hoof bars are frail.
Thoroughbreds with weak, thin hoof walls often tend to have hoof bars that are also frail. Horses with fragile hoofs wall typically create excessive weight on the bars, so much so that the bars can collapse. Bars that don’t wear properly and continue to grow will eventually grow over the sole and could adversely impact sole growth and cause abscesses.
Hoof Bars provide support and movement for the hoof
Bars appear at the back underside of the foot as white lines. They provide support and movement for the hoof and are an extension of the hoof wall. They are the transition in the solid hoof wall cylinder that allows for flexibility.
Hoof bars support the back of the hoof, enabling it to expand and disperse energy and ensure the foot stops descending. Hoof bars typically grow faster than the rest of the hoof wall and should be checked regularly for trimming. A healthy hoof will rarely need to have the bars trimmed.
Thoroughbreds have thin soles.
Genetics hasn’t been kind when it comes to the sole thickness in Thoroughbreds. Soles that are too thin often result in a hoof with wall flares, distortions, and imbalance because they don’t have the strength to support the structures above them.
Thin soles can’t be fixed, but they can be managed. Try the following tips to care for your thin-soled horse:
- Padding: A support pad can assist the foot so it has normal weight-bearing pressure, assist blood flow in the foot, and help to grow more soles;
- Topicals: A spray or brush-on topical solution can be used to protect the sole. This will not encourage growth but can protect tender feet. Iodine regularly sprayed on the sole will dry and toughen the surface.
- Trimming: Do not remove too much of your horse’s sole.
- Shoeing: Proper shoeing can encourage sole growth in some horses. Using shoes in conjunction with a pad can help protect the sole and prevent excessive wear.
The sole of a horse foot
The sole is the bottom of the hoof is made up of nearly 33% water and is softer than the wall. The sole protects the sensitive structures in the horse’s foot. It should not regularly hit the ground and is susceptible to bruising, tenderness, and even navicular diseases.
A healthy sole is thick, with large calloused areas, and helps bear weight similar to a hoof wall. A horse’s sole protects the underside of a horse’s foot, similar to the way a shoe protects a human’s feet.
The thickness of your horse’s sole can be determined by measuring from the frog’s lateral groove to the top of the sole. The proper depth should be about half an inch.
A Thoroughbred’s frog is susceptible to infection.
The most common condition associated with the frog is thrush. Thrush is an infection created by the bacterial attack on the softened tissues of the frog, causing it to rot away.
Thrush typically results when horses are confined in unsanitary conditions. A horse who stands in urine-soaked bedding for most of the day is a prime candidate to develop abscesses and thrush.
Also, horses with narrow concaves around the frog, extended heel conformation, contracted hooves, and one wearing hoof pads and those who get little exercise are also more susceptible to the condition.
Thoroughbreds don’t seem to be more susceptible to developing thrush than other breeds. However, horses with narrow concaves around the frog or long heel conformation are more prone to the development of thrush.
With proper hoof maintenance, exercise, and regular turnout in a dry paddock or pasture, thrush can be prevented. A good farrier is essential to the health of a racehorse’s foot. To learn about shoeing racehorses click the link to read our article.
The frog of a horse foot
The frog is located on the underside on the underside of a horse’s hoof. It’s triangular and extends midway from the heels toward the toe. It covers approximately 25% of the bottom of the foot. The frog is made of rubbery and highly elastic material that is 50% moisture.
The frog serves multiple purposes: It acts as a shock absorber, assists blood flow, provides protection and traction, and allows the horse to sense the ground surface for better coordination.
Below is YouTube video showing how to shoe a horse with thin soles and in severe pain.
Can thoroughbreds go barefoot?
Thoroughbreds can go barefoot, and it’s a good practice for many horses retired from the race track to remove their shoes and turn them out in a pasture.
But before you start riding your horse barefoot, their feet need time to become accustomed to being without shoes. You can learn more about riding a horse barefoot here: Can You Ride a Barefoot Horse on the Road? 10 Tips
Do Quarter horses have bad feet?
Quarter horses generally have good, hardy feet. However, some racing bloodlines have poor feet for the same reasons as Thoroughbreds. You can read more about quarter horses here: Are Quarter Horses the World’s Best Horse Breed?
- Pour-In Pad Material: How to guide for using pour-in pad material.
- Thoroughbred Racehorse Foot: An in-depth look at foot problems associated with horse racing.
- Functional Anatomy of the Horse Foot: Study by the University of Missouri
Meet Miles Henry
An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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