Just in time for winter--a time when many owners opt to pull their horses' shoes for the season--a team of researchers has released results from a study examining the effects of normal gaits on hoof wear in barefoot horses.

Six horses of varying ages and weights were exercised at a walk, trot, canter, and gallop on a treadmill for three exercise sessions a week for four weeks. Scientists measured the strain on the hoof walls using strain gauges and evaluated proximal hoof circumference and toe angle at various points in the exercise period.

Study author Maria Célia Ramos Bellenzani, PhD, a large animal surgery instructor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and colleagues, found that in most cases, the horses' front hooves landed with the outside edges on the ground first, and shift the weight toward the toe and inside of the foot. They noted that the hoof deformation pattern did not change between horses, conformation types, or gait. The amount of strain in the medial and lateral quarters increased with speed, which could indicate a redistribution of weight at quicker gaits from the toe to the quarters, they said.

Bellenzani noted that both changes in climate and exercise type can have an effect on the amount and degree of hoof and toe angle changes. She added that the amount of strain measured in the study are within physiological limits and not related to potential injuries to the normal hoof wall.

"We believe owners should keep their horses' hooves balanced albeit respecting individual hoof shape characteristics," Bellenzani explained. "Whenever changes in exercise type and/or intensity are introduced or the horses are exposed to different housing and/or climatic conditions hoof shape should be closely observed and possibly maintained, although naturally occurring hoof shape changes are unlikely to be harmful in healthy, nonlame horses."

The study, "Investigation of forelimb hoof wall strains and hoof shape in unshod horses exercised on a treadmill at various speeds and gaits," appeared in November in the American Journal of Veterinary Research. The abstract is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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