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Thoroughbreds are famed for their poor feet and whilst there are factors that affect hoof conditions such as genetics, environment, nutrition, the work a horse is doing and the quality of farriery, in theory there is no need for this to be the case even though the soles and walls are generally thinner.

Thin walls reduce the weight bearing surface and are associated with flatter more tender soles more readily prone to bruising. Such horses are more prone to corns and tend to grow long toes with low heels which in turn reduces the shock absorption properties of the feet. With correct function impaired hoofs tend to be more brittle and prone to cracking.

Years and years of tactical breeding has led to many thoroughbred lines having relatively small feet in comparison to body size which in turn increases the risk of concussion. Add into the mix that racing life does not actually aid foot health many ex-racehorse owners report issues with their horse’s feet

When in training horses can see the farrier as little as every 3 weeks depending on how many times they run and what the general yard policy is. This increased shoeing can serve to further weaken the hoof wall and means there is very little, if any, hoof growth so a farrier can struggle to find somewhere to put the nails.

A good management programme

A foot that is in need of correct balancing. (Photo courtesy of Cecil Swan RSS Hons)

With a good management programme coupled with the correct diet, the health of the hoof can be considerably improved and of course work from your farrier to ensure the foot is correctly balanced.

The most common mistake is that owners think they are doing the right thing by leaving longer periods between shoeings to allow for hoof growth but this practise actually further compromises the hoof and correct foot function because as the horn grows the heel becomes crushed so the hoof/pastern axis is thrown out which compounds the situation and also causes stresses and strains further up the leg which can result in tendon and ligament issues. To improve your horse’s feet you need more regular trimmings to keep the balance. It is a misconception that the toe grows faster than any other part of the hoof; it just appears that way as the heel sinks down.

Nutrition and environment

Nutrition is extremely important as ultimately hoof health comes from within not what you apply to the horn; the quality of the horn is totally dependent on correct and balanced nutrition. Some specific amino acids – methionine and lysine – are absolutely essential in forming strong, healthy hooves as is zinc and copper as low levels of these impair the horse’s ability to lay down tissue. Biotin is probably the most well-known vitamin associated with hoof health. Studies have shown that biotin levels of around 15mg per day have positive effects on the hoof wall. However the most important thing to remember is that unless the balance of other trace minerals is correct none can work efficiently and you will not get positive results.

Good grazing on land that drains well is the perfect environment for helping to keep hooves healthy.

Research has also shown that alfalfa actually increases the quality and quantity of horn growth, this being attributed to the highly available calcium and essential amino acids which are naturally contained in alfalfa. Also important are the B-range of vitamins – these being important for energy metabolism as well as growth and development.

Good grazing on land that drains well is the perfect environment for helping to keep hooves healthy. With the diversity of the English weather this is not easy to maintain for much of the year so it may be worth considering a little less turnout at certain times if your horse’s feet start to suffer.

Extremes of moisture compromise hoof health as the hoof expands and contracts as it takes in or loses moisture. It is constant and/or rapid changes between wetter and drier conditions, such as in cases where a horse is on a dry bed all night and then in a muddy field all day which is the most damaging to overall hoof health. Apart from increasing the risks of such things as mud fever, standing out in muddy fields is more likely to contribute to poor hoof health than promote it.

Frog pressure

Frog pressure is important as it is the frog that literally is the heart of the foot pumping blood around and so providing the nutrients; however this must not be achieved by chopping the heels down as is sometimes seen! Plenty of walking on a firm roadway is the best way to stimulate the frog and stimulate growth or if a horse is confined to his stable, then a firm supportive bedding will help.

Much as your horse needs to be turned out, initially it may be necessary to restrict this to say a couple of hours a day rather than all day as the constant moving around causes the shoe and nails to move resulting in more cracking. Turn out in a small paddock would limit the risk of too much trotting and cantering about – walking is good. Thus why for horses with really bad feet, in-hand walking or turnout in a school is of so much benefit.


Natural balance shoes can be too heavy for some thoroughbreds and serve to weaken the horn you are trying to improve. Barefoot can possibly be an option but much further down the line as part of the process to going barefoot successfully is lots of walking exercise to do what is termed “conditioning the feet”. You should discuss feasible options with your farrier dependent upon general foot health and conformation and whether there are other considerations to be taken account of such as navicular syndrome.

It takes nine months for full hoof re-growth so you need to be patient but with perseverance you can do much to improve the so-called bad feet of your thoroughbred.

(Written by Fred and Rowena Cook,