Thoroughbreds are born to run. But to satisfy this need for speed, the horse must have a strong foundation on which to gallop—we're talking about his hooves.

South African farrier Robbie Miller, ASF, has decades of experience trimming and shoeing race- and sport horses. He shared his hoof care suggestions with industry members during the 2014 Cape Breeders Club seminar, held Jan. 27-28 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Starting with foal feet, he followed the horse's natural progression to the sales, races, and, ultimately, retirement from the track.

Foals

"This is the basis from where your racehorse or sport horse is going to kick off from," Miller said of the very early stages of hoof care.

He said farriers should trim foals' hooves every four weeks, starting at 4 weeks old, to keep pace with their fast hoof growth rate. They should avoid addressing any carpal (knee) or tarsal (hock) angular limb deviations until the foal is 12 weeks old, he said, at which point the distal third metacarpal (lower cannon bone), proximal P1 (upper long pastern bone), and proximal P2 (upper short pastern bone) growth plates will have closed.

"With the first three months, you just want to make sure the fetlock and pastern bones set and grow straight," Miller explained.

By 18 months of age, the foal's distal radial physeal (growth plate just above the knee) sets, and by 2 years his distal hind tibia sets. "This is your window for addressing angular limb deviations," he said, emphasizing that there is plenty of time to perform any necessary corrective farriery or surgery.

Yearlings/Sales Horses

Foals should continue on their four-week trim cycle past weaning, at which point many will begin preparing for yearling sales. "There is a lot of pressure and stress involved for the horse during this time," Miller said.

His goals when maintaining yearlings' feet include addressing flares, chipping, and thin walls all while trimming the hoof capsule into a "nice" shape through monthly hoof care.

Preceding and during the sales themselves, yearlings will be asked to do a lot of walking on hard surfaces. This causes hoof wear and tear, so many of these horses will need shoes applied at this time, Miller said.

"The hoof capsule is still growing, though, and the coffin bone and collateral cartilages are still developing, so you need to make sure the yearling is comfortable," he cautioned.

Racehorses

Miller advised trimming racehorses every three to four weeks because of the high speeds at which they work. He said his primary focus with these horses is maintenance trimming, as the longer the cycle between trims, the more out of balance the hoof becomes.

"Performance is directly related to the hooves," Miller explained. "We can't make the horse run faster, but we can help the horse perform to his optimum by keeping the hoof balanced. This, to a large degree, helps in preventing tendon, ligament, and skeletal injuries."

He said he also pays attention to the racehorse's heels: "You want to bring them back to the widest part of the frog. This is part of 'mapping the foot,' an aid in achieving hoof balance."

One thing Miller advised keeping in mind when caring for racehorses' hooves are the surfaces they're running on. When horses gallop on synthetic tracks, for instance, their feet don't slide upon hitting the ground as they would on dirt or turf. He said this can cause jarring injuries such as bone chips in the fetlock and carpal joints. Fortunately, he said, one farrier recently designed a shoe specifically for synthetic runners, allowing the foot to slide some upon impact. "Make sure shoeing protocols are correct if racing on this surface," Miller said.

Sport Horses

At the conclusion of their racing careers, many Thoroughbreds enter the private sector as sport horses. Miller said hoof care protocols and type of shoe used at this point will be specific to the horse's chosen sport, environment, and footing.

"Not being speed horses anymore, you can change the shoeing cycle to every five to six weeks," he said. "You have a little more leeway."

Miller then listed questions owners and farriers should consider when making hoof care decisions for their sport horses:

  • Does the horse works on sand or synthetic surfaces?
  • Will the horse need some form of traction device (e.g., studs for show jumping or eventing), support (palmar/plantar/medial/lateral), or a hunter or pleasure fit?
  • Are concave or flat shoes more suitable?
  • Will you choose aluminium or steel shoes?

"Take into account the new and different stresses of the sport," Miller said. "All of these are factors you’ll discuss with your farrier."

Take-Home Message

The Thoroughbred is a prime example of the consummate athlete, racing at top speeds starting when he's 2 or 3 years old and potentially continuing on to a show jumping, eventing, polo, or dressage career later in life. To help your Thoroughbred perform to his potential, tailor his hoof care to his specific age, needs, and job.

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

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