Tricks of the Trade: Keeping Hooves Healthy in All Conditions

Todd Allen, CJF explains some easy ways to keep horses' hooves comfortable at home and on the road.
barrel racer walking

As the old saying goes, if there’s no foot, there’s no horse—and barrel horses at the highest levels aren’t even immune from the dangers of their feet breaking down on the road and at home.

Todd Allen is a Certified Journeyman Farrier with a longstanding reputation in the Northeastern United States and beyond, and he’s familiar with the stress that hauling to rodeos, futurities or jackpots can put on hooves. Here’s some of his best tips for keeping feet healthy and strong in all conditions.

“A dry foot is a healthy foot. Moisture is the biggest enemy that we see harm and damage the feet.”

Todd Allen

No. 1: Keep it Dry

“Mother Nature is hard on feet,” Allen said. “The variation in the environment—going from wet to dry, or dry to wet—causes a lot of problems. I’m in Pennsylvania, and in the East we struggle a lot with variance in the summer. You have to work to keep the feet consistent.

When they’re damp, the foot expands. When the feet are dry, they contract. If you don’t have a healthy foot, this is when they can crack. It helps to get oil on them to protect them. The most important thing is to only put oil on the hoof when it’s completely dry, so that it can repel the moisture away and not trap any in the foot. Use a thin oil on the outside hoof wall, making sure to get the entirety of the hoof wall fully covered. It’s important that it’s thin, because the product needs to be able to get anywhere that water can seep into.”

Horses can fall prey to abscesses and thrush when dealing with varying conditions, especially at moist and humid times of year.

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No. 2: Stay clean

“The acidity in urine actually breaks down feet,” Allen said. “And manure doesn’t dry out quickly, like bedding or dirt will. When I see a horse standing in urine in his stall and know he’s doing that frequently, I can almost guarantee they’re going to have some type of thrush in the foot.”

One of the cheapest solutions to protecting your horse in the barn or on the trail is to frequently clean up their horses’ excretions. Not only will it help with flies, respiratory health and a slew of other functions, it can protect the feet and help your horse stay comfortable.

No. 3: Kill the buzz

“The environment can cause so many problems with the feet,” Allen said. “And in the summertime, these horses are stomping flies. Combine that with an environmental change and the feet will start falling apart. It’s the repetitive concussion that’s going to make things harder on the feet and legs.”

People are bathing their horses because they’re sweating a lot in the summer, and you take those wet feet and put them on hard ground, now you’re in for even more issues. We’ve seen some lameness problems in horses just from having soft feet on harder ground, so imagine adding in flies.”

Keeping the inside of trailers cleaned out will not only help with moisture, it helps with bug control, too. Keeping the area around the trailer clean while at events will also help. Other accessories like fly boots and fly spray are also a worthwhile investment to help protect hooves.

No. 4: Pack it up

Allen recommends taking extra measures to protect hooves while traveling. For horses without pads on their feet, his go-to solution is to lightly line the bottom of the foot with Magic Cushion hoof packing on the road.

Magic Cushion has been around for a long time, it was the first good hoof packing on the market,” Allen said. “It’s a soft product and therefore, doesn’t put too much pressure on the frog and sole when you pack it in the foot. If you’re worried about wrapping it correctly, a Soft-Ride boot can help to hold it on the foot and provide extra support so all the gaps are filled. If you’re a fan of those types of boots and use them regularly, Magic Cushion can also help prevent condensation inside the boot when the owner does this.”

Furthermore, Magic Cushion can assist with keeping the feet healthy in varying conditions. It helps to balance out the moisture content in the foot, drying and toughening when excess moisture is present, but encouraging flexibility when things get too brittle and dry.

“That product will help toughen the foot, and provides a moisture barrier so nothing can sneak into the frog or sole,” Allen said. “It’s an oil-based product and has natural antibacterial properties. You’re so much less likely to see fungal or bacterial infections with this product, giving you an overall healthier foot.”

Allen noted that an old school approach can be equally effective if applied correctly. He often combines a Magic Cushion or clay poultice packing with a diaper around the hoof, then wraps the foot well with many strips of heavy-duty gorilla or duct tape, creating a homemade boot that can protect the foot. He said the method is safe, and a layer of vet-wrap lightly applied before the strong tape of your choosing can help ensure you don’t accidentally get tape on your horse’s hair, which can cause irritation and sores.

If your horse requires full pads on their feet, Allen recommends working with your farrier to ensure they are using a hoof packing of their choosing underneath the pad at the time of shoeing to protect the feet and keep debris out from underneath the pad.

Note: When using traveling boots like Soft-Ride Equine Comfort Boots, Allen noted that it is important to use a product to avoid condensation in the boot, even when not packing hooves. A quick dusting of baby powder, for example, can provide plenty of protection.

No. 5: Pick ’em out

picking out a horse hoof

Allen’s simplest and arguably most effective advice: just pick your horse’s feet out, the right way.

“Abscesses, thrush and other problems with hooves can be caused by just not picking the feet out enough, or not doing it correctly,” Allen said. “The biggest thing that’s overlooked is the central sulcus of the foot. Each foot has three sulci: the lateral (outside) medial (inside) and central (middle). The central sulcus is right between the bulbs, near the back of the frog in the middle of the foot. Stuff can get wedged down in there if you have an unhealthy frog.”

Allen’s rule of thumb for determining if the area isn’t healthy is that if he can get his finger into the central sulcus area or find a gap, there’s a problem.

Allen recommends in severe cases, applying copper sulfate, covered with a product like Groom’s Hand to the area can help dry the foot out more rapidly before an infection worsens. A poultice can be applied if an abscess is suspected to help draw it out.

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