Lessons From The Wild Mustang Hoof

By Marissa Velazquez

Studies of the wild mustang hoof are being conducted by people interested in horse health and care. Domesticated equine hooves show some differences from those of feral horses, and experts are trying to determine the effects of genetics and of environment on foot structure. Some terms used and conclusions drawn are Greek to the average horse owner, but others can benefit all horsemen.

The relevant studies were done on horses in the high plateaus in the American West and the rocky, arid areas of Australia. These animals live on hard, abrasive surfaces and their hooves reflect that. Feral horses in gentler, more humid climates have somewhat different hooves.

The wear on hard ground keeps both toe and heel short. The frog need not be prominent, therefore, to achieve its function of promoting blood flow. The soles are thick, as are the walls of the foot. This short, round configuration seems to give superior soundness to these animals who never see a farrier. The coffin bone stays parallel to the ground, which is ideal.

Researchers feel that genetic factors are minimal in the development of the feral hoof, since horses born with defects seldom survive to pass them along. For example, club feet (upright and narrow) are seldom seen in mustangs, although they are becoming increasingly common in many domestic breeds.

It makes sense that a protected horse with a problem can pass it along to future generations if breeders are not very selective. Breed associations try to enforce conformation standards, but many purebred animals are developing this kind of problem. Confinement, repetitive training, and poor care contribute to the ills of domestic horses, and improper trimming and shoeing can compromise soundness.

Some things that horse owners should consider are that long toes in the horse is not natural or ideal. This can happen if the farrier does not cut off enough toe or if shoes are left on too long. Heels can also be allowed to grow too long, altering the angle of the hooves. The wall is important; it keeps the natural moisture inside the foot and strengthens the whole structure. Farriers who rasp the wall off above the nails of the shoe to give a 'finished' look cause problems that may become worse over time.

The bottom of an equine hoof is a miracle of design that should be interfered with as little as possible. The bars of the foot support the whole and should be left intact. Frogs should always be in contact with the ground, since this promotes blood flow to the whole foot and leg. The walls are part of the support system that should be left alone as much as possible after the foot is shortened and leveled.

The wild mustang hoof is durable and serviceable, allowing feral herds to thrive in harsh conditions. Learning from their success can mean better health and soundness for domesticated animals. Good care of a domestic horse involves correct trimming, and shoeing should be done only when necessary to keep the horse in work.

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