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.

When the hoof wall is thin, pieces of horn readily break away which usually goes hand-in-hand with a horse that keeps losing a shoe.

When the hoof wall is thin, pieces of horn readily break away which usually goes hand-in-hand with a horse that keeps losing a shoe.

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.

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.

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.

The not-so-perfectly shod foot.

The not-so-perfectly shod foot. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Hill AWCF)

The perfectly shod foot.

The perfectly shod foot. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Hill AWCF)


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, www.equinetraining.co.uk)

Farriery FAQs

Do all former racehorses have poor feet?

It is assumed and indeed believed by a large number of people that thoroughbreds have poor feet; we have all heard people saying that their horse has weak, crumbling feet that never grow, that their horse is flat-footed and weak heeled. Whilst it cannot be denied there are many horses in training and out of training with feet that leave a lot to be desired, this is not actually anything to do with being a thoroughbred per say; at the risk of being shouted down it is more to do with management of youngstock! Read on:

The horse’s foot is an amazing piece of engineering; it is an incredibly sensitive structure yet it can withstand the huge forces which are placed upon it. The structure and workings of the foot is very complex and warrants a book let alone the limited very simplistic explanation we can provide here but hopefully we can say enough to make sense!

Horses are not born flat-footed; if this was the case surely the pedal (coffin) bone would be flat too but it is not; it is a concave structure. So does a horse become flat-footed with age? In a word, “no” so what happens? Just as with ourselves, the horse’s foot has an arch to it, the arch being formed by the pedal bone (at the front of the foot) – and a collection of soft, but strong tissues to the rear, the digital cushion. If these tissues become weak, they collapse resulting in the normally slightly tilted angle of the pedal bone to change ie. lose the tilt. This is exacerbated if the heels are left too long. The foot is designed to land heel first hence nature designed the hoof to have no bone at the back which could easily be jarred; instead the tissue structure was put in place to cope with impact – a shock absorbing mechanism. It is only logical that if the arch falls, this workings of this mechanism is impaired which leads to lameness issues and the possible development of sidebone, ringbone, navicular,, etc. So keeping these tissues healthy is paramount. But how do we do this?

The digital cushion does not have a very good blood supply but the frog acts like a pump forcing valuable nutrients into it. However, the frog needs contact with the ground to be able to do this but it too needs stimulating – by movement of the horse.

As said, foals are not born with flat feet. In the wild foals and youngsters would move around on all manner of terrain, movement on hard ground helping to develop strong shock absorbers. Initially the digital cushion is like a soft pad of fat, but as the foal develops and grows it gradually becomes fibrous and hence strong. Now domesticated, non-thoroughbred youngstock gets to spend 2-3 years out in the fields, naturally building strong digital cushions but in contrast young thoroughbreds are raised in level paddocks with good ground cover so as to protect their limbs and this is where the problem of flat feet actually starts because before the youngster even commences his race training, the development of his feet is already, albeit unknowingly, impaired.

The young thoroughbred then finds himself going into [flat] training at around 20 months of age and what happens – he invariably gets shod, in front anyway, but his feet have not properly matured. Shoeing lifts the frog off the ground a little which further interferes with foot development, blood supply, etc. Shoeing also reduces the amount by which the back of the foot flexes as it strikes the ground and that too slows the development of the digital cushion. Thus as the young thoroughbred grows and matures, his feet get stuck in a time warp of non-development. As an adult the digital cushion is not just sufficiently strong to provide support to the arch, particularly under the stresses of race training, so it collapses and we have flat feet.

With flat feet and collapsed heels the workings of the foot is impaired so it does not get properly nourished which in turn affects horn quality and growth, and of course the sole as it too stops growing; indeed it actually becomes compressed so instead of being a healthy 15mm thick it can become as little at 4mm. Couple this with frequent changes of shoes to racing plates, a tendency to leave toes too long and the foot becomes a weakened, crumbling structure with a horse that is prone to being foot sore and even lame.

The good news is that with remedial farriery to restore correct angles and re-balance the foot, sound nutrition and correct management the digital cushion can repair and replenish. Consistent moisture levels is important; the hoof must not be allowed to dry out but similarly it does not want to be over moist; in both instances this leads to cracking. Do not use hoof oil – this is purely a cosmetic exercise. Plenty of fibre in the diet with good quality protein is important. It does take time to improve the condition of the feet but with patience it can be done. Your former racehorse need not live with poor feet.

Why is my former racehorse not keen on having his hind feet picked up?

In training racehorses will have been used to having their hind feet picked out.  If their feet were not picked out prior to exercise, this would most certainly be done during evening stables, evening stables being the time when all horses are thoroughly groomed and checked over for any signs of injury etc; and attention to the feet is all part of the routine. The trainer inspects every horse so no stable lad or lass can get away with not doing their job properly! That a horse did not have shoes on behind would not mean his feet were not attended to on a daily basis. .

When there is difficulty lifting one or both hind legs, it usually is a sign that the horse is in discomfort either in his hind limb/limbs or in his back. The leg being lifted may hurt in one or more of the joints, or the action of lifting may cause discomfort in the back; and of course when a leg is lifted bodyweight is then thrown on to the other hind leg and this can similarly exacerbate discomfort in any or all of the joints of that leg or, again, across the back.

That a horse can be more difficult with the farrier is because a farrier lifts the leg that much higher than I done when just picking the feet out and also because the lifted leg remains lifted for longer periods of time. That farriers then have the tendency to hang onto a leg when a horse pulls back can cause more discomfort. Granted a young horse has to learn that he cannot snatch his leg away at random when he feels like it, but if a horse repeatedly does so suggests discomfort and this should be eliminated before training progresses.

Of course sometimes a horse is not stood correctly with one hind leg too far under the body so when the other hind leg is lifted he is thrown off balance. Thus you should always make sure that your horse is stood reasonably squarely before asking for a hind leg pick up.

There are instances that if a horse has sustained a leg or foot injury that has warranted regular and prolonged treatment he can become problematic to lift that leg, but once healed normal service is usually resumed without too much difficulty.

One thing to remember is that in racing it is common practise to remain on the nearside of the horse even when picking up on the off-side feet in a sequence of near fore, off fore, near hind, off hind, thus with the fresh out of training horse you may have to familiarise him with picking up his feet in a slightly different way.

If your horse is a bit of a fidget when being held for the farrier, tie him up instead as this is what he is used to from his life in training. You will find that he is much better behaved!