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Environment and Exercise Shape Hooves

Gravel crunching hoof shown on gravel

     Assuming all other factors, such as nutrition, health, exercise and genetics are the same, your horse is only going to grow a hoof as tough as what he stands or works on the most. A horse that is kept stall bound is more likely to develop hoof related lamenesses such as stone bruises and contracted heels than if allowed more turnout on the same footing. If you've been keeping up with my website, you are catching on to the theme by now: more exercise equals better hoof health. Take the same horse and turn him out on some varying terrain that includes rocks and clay and his hooves will be even tougher.
     If you want to have a horse with tough feet, he should live on the terrain you want to ride on. If you only ever ride in soft arenas, then tucked in a softly bedded stall may be adequate, but you will probably need boots to protect him if you ever do decide to go on anything firmer, and he is much more apt to suffer from thrush and contracted heels than a pastured horse that frequents mud. He will still be better off than he was in shoes; in the long run his overall soundness and health will benefit not having the shoes, as his hooves won't be further constricted by the steel, but don't expect him to have super tough feet on gravel, if he never steps foot on it. "Use it or lose it" very much applies here.
     Firm, rocky ground is going to provide the best toughening environment possible. If you don't live where that's possible, the next best thing is to ride, or work, him on the firmest ground you can find on a regular basis. You want to stimulate that hoof to toughen up. The reason I mention hills is that flat manicured ground will not stimulate the whole hoof the same way. The hoof will flex in different directions depending on how it lands, so more variety in the course of the day provides better stimulation and practice for your horse (a wonderful side effect is a sure-footed animal). But again, not everyone lives in the mountains, so just try to provide as much exercise on the firmest ground available on a regular basis. If you ride sporadically on rougher terrain than your horse is used to, keep boots on hand as a back up, so you don't have to worry about it.
     At home, a wonderful way to toughen your horses feet, passively on your part, is to have gravel put in where your horse spends a lot of time- stalls, walk ways, around the water trough etc. The gravel (large pea gravel, nothing sharp) should be a couple-4 inches deep to allow it to shift. It will cushion, yet stimulate the hoof without damaging it. It really works wonders on freshly de-shod hooves. It cuts down on mud in the winter and can prevent thrush in wet seasons. Some exposure to textured concrete (just enough so they don't slip on it) or asphalt won't hurt, either. It's hard, so I DO NOT recommend it for the stalls, but in a walk way you frequently lead them through will also help to toughen them. Crushed limestone, aka "Screenings" is a wonderful thrush buster if you live on Kansas clay dirt.
     Just a note on the gravel, as has been mentioned by people that have it, it does get scattered about by the horses, so expect to have to refill/repalce after a while if it's not in a contained area, like a stall. And when putting it in, you want a firm base below it so the ground won't absorb it, so have larger rock installed as a substrate before adding the gravel. Some horses do love to urinate in pea gravel (but manure is easy to pick) so you may have to hose it  down on occasion. For this reason, I also don't recommend the gravel in stalls if the horse will be confined. The urine could build up and make the air foul. In those cases, rubber mats are great. They are firm footing and while they don't really toughen feet, they do stimulate circulation.
     Remember, hoof growth is determined by the amount of exercise and what it is worked on more than any other factor. For the toughest hooves, provide a toughest envrionment. Hooves need to be conditioned just like muscle.

Smooth healthy sole exfoliated naturally with gravel