The Horse's Foot

The horse's foot is the most wonderful piece of work, and incites far more surprise and admiration than the feet of all other animals. So wonderful indeed, is it, that anyone who had not closely studied its structures and functions would scarcely believe the hard, insensible hoof could contain such a multiplicity of beautiful arrangements, all adapted to serve most important purposes, and to render this noble animal so useful to mankind.

The bones are constructed and placed with a view to speed, lightness and strength; ligaments of marvelous tenacity bind them together so firmly that disunion is all but impossible, while they are ingeniously disposed as not to hinder, in the slightest degree, the remarkable swift and easy movements of the bones upon each other; elastic pads and cartilage are situated in those parts of the foot where they are most required to protect it from jar, and serve to compensate for the absence of the toes which are seen and the feet of all other creatures except the horse species.

All these parts are covered with a living membrane, which envelops them like a sock, and is exquisitely sensitive, in addition to being everywhere covered by fine networks of blood vessels in the greatest profusion. The membrane endows the foot with the sense of touch, without which the horse could not be so sure footed, nor run with such astonishing speed, and it also furnishes the blood from which the hoof is formed.

The hoof, itself so rough, so insensible, and to all appearance scarcely worthy of observation, reveals a world of wonders after we have exhausted those to be found in its interior.

It is made of fibers, all growing in one direction - towards the ground, and that direction is the most favorable for sustaining strain. These fibers are extremely fine, and they are hardest and most resistant on the outer surface; each has a tube composed of thousands of minute cells, so arranged as to confer strength and durability, while the tubular form of the fiber ensures lightness.

Each part of the horse’s hoof has its own share of responsibility in protecting the living parts it contains.

The wall is a portion we see when the horse is standing firmly on the ground. It grows from the upper part of the foot, the coronet; and this growth is always going to counterbalance wear that is taking place at its lower border. Its outer surface is beautifully dense and smooth in its natural state; and although the wall is perfectly adapted to meet the wear that occurs when the horse is running at liberty in an unshod state, this is also the part on which the shoe rests, and through which the farrier drives the nails that attach it.

When the foot is lifted up backwards, we see the sole and frog. The sole is the part that lies within the wall; it is slightly hollow on a good foot, and is thick, strong and covered with flakes of loose horn in one which has not been pared by the farrier’s knife.

The frog is a soft triangular piece of horn in the middle of the sole, towards the heels. It is very elastic and serves a most important purpose as it acts as a cushion to prevent concussion, and also hinders a horse from slipping. The sole, frog and lower border of the wall will have all to come in contact with the ground and loose stones; therefore nature has furnished them with an abundance of horn to make them strong enough to bear the horses weight, without wear, and keep the delicate parts inside from injury.

So long as the horse is not compelled to work on hard roads, its hoofs are well-suited to all that is required of them; but our civilization demands that we should have paved and macadamized streets, and on these the hoofs would be quickly torn away, especially if the horse had to carry or draw heavy loads; consequently lameness would ensue. It is therefore necessary to prevent this mischief by shoeing the hoof with iron, as we shoe carriage wheels with tires, the ends of walking sticks with ferrules, etc. This horseshoeing has been a great boon to mankind, as it has rendered the horse a hundredfold more useful than it would otherwise be, and has made it independent of the kind of roads over which it has to travel.

The primitive idea was to protect the lower part of the hoof from undo wear; and no doubt for many ages this idea was adhered to, and a shoe was only applied when the horn was worn away so much as to endanger the horse's utility.

In time however the farrier began to improve upon nature as he thought. Cutting instruments were brought into free use; the horn that was so well adapted as a protection was cut away from the sole or frog to such a degree that the poor animal, if it chanced to put his foot suddenly upon a stone, either came down with a crash, or limped along from the pain caused by the injury to the sensitive parts, which has now been almost completely exposed.

In addition to this , and to compensate for robbing the foot of the horn, heavy wide-surfaced shoes were put on to cover the mutilated sole and frog; these require a large number of big nails to attach them securely, and these nails split the hoof and pressed upon the quick; so that what between the painfully tender sole and frog, the unwieldy, leg tiring, clumsy shoes, and the numerous nails that squeezed in upon the sensitive parts, we cannot wonder that the unfortunate horse suffered an amount of torture that makes one’s flesh creep to think of, and which soon crippled them, and prematurely ended his days.

In addition to this barbarous treatment, in order to make fine work, the outer surface of the wall – composed of the dense smooth fibers - was raised unmercifully away as high almost as the hair roots, and this exposed the soft immature fibers within; these shriveled up and broke, and being unable to sustain the nails the shoes frequently came off and not only was the foot still more damaged, but the “cast” or “lost shoe” was a source of inconvenience and annoyance. Nay, the lives of individuals, or the fate of kingdoms, may at times have been at stake through such an apparent and trivial misfortune as a horseshoe coming off owing to this improper treatment.

We all remember how Benjamin Franklin, earnestly solicitous of impressing upon us the great value of a tending to the smallest details of everyday life, in order sometimes to avoid great calamities, makes Poor Richard say – “A little neglect may breed great mischief. For want of a nail a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe a horse was lost; and for want of a horse a rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy; all for want of a little care about a horseshoe nail.”

The evils of poor farriery are as prevalent and destructive today as they were 50 years ago. The number of horses tortured and ruined by unreasonable pairing and rasping, in addition to the heavy shoes, too small for the feet, and badly formed, is beyond computation.

The frog and soul should never be paired; they flake off gradually when they have to come in contact with the irregularities of the ground, and with the loose sharp stones so frequently on its surface, is it not reasonable to argue that they should be allowed to retain their natural condition? Whoever pares, or causes to be pared, the horse's soles or frogs is guilty of cruelty to the horse whose feet are so mutilated.

The front of the wall should never be rasped. It destroys it, and makes it thin and brittle. It ought to be allowed to retain its close glossy, tough surface, so well adapted for resisting the weather and holding the nails. As the wall is always growing, and as the shoe prevents it from being worn down to a natural length, when the old shoe is taken off in the operation of shoeing, the lower end of this part of the hoof should be rasped down until the excess of length has been removed; nothing more.

The horseshoes should be as light as possible and fastened on with as small a number of nails as will retain them. They ought to be the full size of the circumference of the hoof; and the horse’s hoof should never be made to fit the shoe, but the shoe to fit the hoof.

A proper and rational mode of shoeing is a boon to the horse and its owner; an improper method, which destroys the integrity of the hoof and wearies the limbs, is a curse and torture to the one, and a loss and annoyance to the other.

When horses go to be shod at a forge care should be taken that they are not ill-treated or frightened, particularly young horses. By bad treatment, or unskillfulness in handling their legs and feet they are frequently made so timid and vicious that severe measures have to be resorted to in order to ensure safety to the farrier while he is shoeing them. A few kind words, a few pats on the neck, a few gentle strokings of the limbs, and a little persuasive coaxing, will prove 1000 times more effectual in inducing horses to be patient in shoeing then all the harsh, loud pitched words, hard knocks, twitches of the nose and other unmeaning and unhorseman-like proceedings can do.

A humane and intelligent farrier is a boon to every community; but one who is harsh, unobservant, and pays no attention to perfecting his most useful art is a torture; of animals and the destroyer of property.

Farriers, of all persons who have to do with horses, can confer upon these good creatures the greatest amount of relief and comfort by attending to the simple indications of nature and using their own common sense and judgment instead of adhering to stupid and blind routine, which never improves, but on the contrary, retrogrades. Every farrier and lover of the horse should see that the beauty of the hoof is not deformed, nor its utility marred.