There may be a relationship between the shape of a horse’s hooves and whether he is sound or lame, but so far there is no definite answer as to which came first. In other words, does a particular horse with odd looking hooves have a greater than average risk of becoming lame, or does a horse become lame after which its hoof conformation changes because of changes in circulation to the hoof, weight bearing, or other factors related to the horse’s particular unsoundness? Or is the answer somewhere between these two options?
Researchers from the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket, England, conducted a study that measured and analyzed the shape of the front hooves of 25 sound horses as well as 427 hooves from lame horses. Various tendon, ligament, and bone problems were responsible for some lameness cases while others had no defined cause. Shape of the coronary band and hoof wall, length and angle of various hoof structures, presence or absence of growth rings, and appearance of horn tubules were studied.
Results showed that for horses showing lameness in one hoof, that hoof was taller and more upright than the sound hoof in about 20% of cases. The lame hoof also had a longer toe and a lower, more collapsed heel than the sound hoof in 10% of these horses. Horses that were chronically lame tended to have hooves with divergent growth rings and nonparallel alignment of horn tubules.
The researchers concluded that hoof asymmetry could be related to lameness, and advised potential horse buyers to examine horses’ hooves as indicators of impending lameness. While this is probably good advice in general, buyers should keep in mind that hoof shape and lameness were linked in only 20% of lame horses in this study. Hoof conformation should be considered along with all other aspects of a horse’s condition and suitability for a particular equestrian discipline when prepurchase exams are conducted.