The Effect of Environment on Horses’ Hooves by Andrew Bowe

The biggest variable that I see in horses’ feet in my travels around Australia is the effect of environment. Horses are on their feet for most of the day, so it is reasonable to expect that they are going to need to adapt toenvironment1 any changes in the ground surface to maintain an optimal weight distribution.

The following photos show very graphically how quickly a horse is able to adapt. Taken about six months apart, the photo on the left shows the horse in its dry climate of Western Queensland and that on the right is the same foot after six months living in the constantly wet environment on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

There are two things that the horse has adapted to – a huge increase in moisture levels and a yielding ground surface.

These photos belong to Brian Rourke who – along with his son Mitch as an apprentice – runs a very busy farriery business on the central coast of New South Wales (see Brian’s letter on page ). The challenge Brian has with horses in his care is the constantly wet environment. Give me the drought any day!

Of course there is nothing new under the sun and researchers have for many years documented morphological variation as a result of changes in environment. (a good reference is the work done by Mr Gene Ovnicek who was one of the pioneers of studying mustang feet at various locations in the USA – ).

Those of you who have done any workshops of ours have heard me talk repetitively about the variation of wall length relative to sole plane. For horses on harder ground it is important that weight is distributed over most of the ground surface of the foot, leaving no significant wall height. However, for those horses on softer ground, the weight bearing distribution is not so important because the feet are sinking into the ground, thusenvironment2 allowing full weight bearing, even with a longer wall which is required for grip. Function is thus maintained on either surface.

This system works well for the adaptable horse – if a horse can adapt, then it can maintain function. Remember that long term soundness is strongly tied to maintaining function.

But let’s now consider how we have traditionally accommodated environmental changes with shoeing:

Unfortunately, horses are shod to the same parameters year round. Horses are shod the same for dry hard ground as they are for wet soft ground.

Changes in weight bearing requirements can not be taken into consideration with shoes, which I believe is one of the major factors leading to chronic lameness.