As you can imagine, I talk to an awful lot of people in my line of work. It never fails that sooner or later in each conversation the topic of foot care rears its ugly head.
Foot care is a critical component in the care of a horse, any horse, regardless of that horse's occupation.
Horses are the evolutionary descendent of a much smaller animal, 55 million years ago, that had a short face like a dog and feet with three toes. (http://chem.tufts.edu/science/evolution/horseevolution.htm) Since that time, the three toes melded into one and the toenails grew downward to protect the foot from rough terrain. The modern day draft horse also has something called an ergot, the vestiges of a dew claw, that should also be trimmed periodically.
So a horse's hoof is nothing more than a giant morphed toenail. The difference is that if you do not cut your toenails, they will break, tear, and perhaps in grow, but a horse's very nature requires him to stand, run, graze, and stand on those toenails constantly. Failure to groom hooves leads to conditions that can kill the horse. He simply lays down and dies due to the pain. These run from minor abscesses, which all horses get, to major abscesses, thrush (foot rot) and founder, where the hoof separates from the bone of the foot.
There is, of course, an obvious question. What about wild horses? You don't see a little man in a leather apron running around after them do you? The truth is that wild horses have a wide array of foot abnormalities, with laminitis (founder) being the most common. (http://www.horsetalk.co.nz/news/2010/11/187.shtml#axzz4YUtztmmC) These conditions become part of the overall mortality of the wild horse and are part of its shorter life span in the wild. Since domestic horses generally have monetary and emotional value, care of their feet leads them to a longer, more comfortable and more productive lifespan.
There are two functions important to the care of equine feet: the farrier and the blacksmith. Most of the people I meet who are uninitiated in the horse world automatically jump to the job of blacksmith when they talk of feet. But in fact, a true blacksmith has only a narrow function in this regard. Blacksmiths work in iron and were called blacksmiths because of one of the side effects of their calling. They tended to be sooty. And they worked with a smithy, a super hot fire with a bellows. I mean, there is often no smithy today but a heating unit in the back of a trailer.
A farrier is a very different cat. Trained at a handful of community colleges around the world, The farrier learns about the healthy growth of the frog (inside the hoof under the foot), the stance of the horse and what it indicates about the feet, and the various maladies to which they are prone. As pictured above, when working a foot, the farrier starts by trimming the underside of the foot, breaking open any abscesses, looking for bruises, etc. He cuts away any thrush infected hoof and ensures that enough growth is left to ensure the strength of the hoof wall. He then works from the front of foot to shorten the toe, and to correct any breaks etc.
There is another misconception out there that I would like to correct. It is simply this: not all horses wear shoes, nor should they.
Iron shoes (or the fibreglass removable ones currently advertised all over facebook) are meant to protect the hoof from wear and tear from rocks. Not big ones. Little ones. Gravel sized ones. The greatest enemy to horses' hooves in our modern world is the nasty little gravel put down on either side of our roads to help eliminate erosion of the road structure. Duke's hoof hits the gravel with over 100 psi of pressure, that's per square inch. (visions of what happens to my toes). Imagine the force with which those little stones are driven up in to the foot! A horse exposed only to grass, sand, or pavement (it's sort of cushiony) does not need shoes at all. Most wedding venues, for example, have no gravel.
On the advice of our farrier we left the horses barefoot last summer, that is, without shoes. The idea is to stay off the gravel as much as possible and stay on the pavement, especially as we have absolute right of way on the roads in Ontario (highway traffic act of Ontario, see my earlier blog). Despite conscientious application of this advice, we still had numerous little abscesses all summer, enough that poor Shannon was very nervous about our last visit and literally jumped over the farrier in anticipation of the pain of having them popped again (there were none). There is one small spot where there is still gravel and to which they have access, and so we will bury it in sand in the spring to protect their feet while they push their velvet noses against the shop window to watch the antics of the cats.
But I digress. Although we do not shoe the horses at the moment, we have done so in the past, just with Duke during our first summer. Every weekend we walked into Almonte and gave tours of town and buildings, and so his feet saw a great deal of wear and tear, The farrier used a technique called hot shoeing, and thus became both farrier and blacksmith. A prefabricated shoe (size eight, otherwise known as huge) was heated up to red hot and then pressed against the hoof. By examining the impression on the hoof, the farrier/blacksmith could see exactly what modification to make to the shoe. Once the modifications are made, the process is repeated until the fit is perfect and the the shoe is nailed to the outer edge of the hoof, through the sidewall and folded down to ensure it does not come off. Prevailing wisdom is that the horse feels no pain through this process, but the sounds (sizzling) and smells (hoof smoke) can be a little disturbing to both horse and owner. Duke tells me he really doesn't like it.
I'm not really sure why a person becomes a farrier. I mean, love of horses always plays into it, and the very gifted ones almost seem to have a psychic link with the animals. Horses will lean on the farrier as he (they are almost all "he" because the job is so physical) trims their feet. A 900 lb little mustang is not nearly so heavy a lean as a 1400 lb draft, and so some refuse to deal with drafts. They seem universally to have back problems. But you know what? I go out to the barn and stand between Duke and Suzy for their evening meal, and they are happy and content, and Shannon sidles up to me and puts her face near mine, and I think "Oh yeah". Maybe I do have some inkling of why he does it.