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Horse hoof anatomy: your complete guide
A horse’s hooves are critical to its survival. In fact, there’s a popular saying that goes “no hoof, no horse” which we think sums it up really well. When you consider the sheer size of a horse and the weight they carry on their feet, it can seem quite remarkable that they’re supported by so little.
Here at Equestrian Surfaces, we understand the importance of proper hoof and foot care and the role this plays in your horse’s well-being and health. Whilst at first glance the equine hoof may not appear too complex, each part of the horse hoof anatomy plays a crucial role in ensuring your horse can stand, gallop and function properly.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a short guide to understanding horse hoof anatomy.
Fun fact: Hooves have evolved over time from being made up of ¾ toes! When foals are born, their hooves are soft and pliable, but exposure to oxygen causes them to harden over time.
Outer Structures – horse hoof anatomy
The first part of the hoof that you’ll notice is the hoof wall. This is the hard, pigmented outer layer that houses and protects the more delicate structures within. Its purpose is to support the horse’s weight, absorb shock as it moves, and is the first line of defence against injury and disease.
The hoof wall is made up of a dense layer of keratin, which is a type of protein found in hair and nails, and it provides a strong and protective outer layer for the hoof. If your horse’s outer wall is healthy, it should be impermeable, meaning external substances such as grit and dirt should not penetrate the wall.
The hoof wall, much like a human fingernail, does not have nerves or blood vessels – which means no direct sensation can be felt from them. Similarly to our human toe and fingernails, the hoof wall is a continuously growing keratinous material that needs to be trimmed or naturally worn down.
In summary: what does the hoof wall do?
- Protect against injury and infection
- Houses the delicate, internal structures of the hoof
- Provides an impermeable protective barrier
Moving upwards, we have the coronary band. The coronary band, also known as the coronary cushion or the coronet, is the area where the hoof wall meets the skin of the horse’s leg. This is the area where new hoof growth occurs, and it is responsible for producing the cells that make up the hoof wall.
Although its outer structure is tough, the coronary band is highly vascular – which means it has a large blood supply that is essential to provide the necessary nutrients for hoof growth. Without these blood vessels, the horse would struggle to supply adequate blood flow to the hoof.
Injuries to the coronary band are often extremely serious for horses, as it hinders the hoof growth and cause permanent damage to the hoof wall – to the point it may no longer be rideable. Damage to the coronary band also results in significant blood loss.
In summary: what does the coronary band do?
- Regulates blood flow to the hoof
- Produces new hoof material
The periople is a thin, waxy layer that covers the outer surface of the hoof wall. It predominantly protects the soft area just below the coronary band, where newly formed hoof wall tissue is grown. This newly grown tissue is typically much softer than the rest of the hoof wall, and, therefore, much more vulnerable to injuries or infection. The periople help protects this tissue before it’s had a chance to harden. It is also responsible for the outer, shiny layer of the hoof wall and stops water from penetrating.
In summary: what does the periople do?
- Protect the newly grown tissue of the hoof wall before it has hardened
- Prevents water from penetrating the hoof and causing infection
- Provides a shiny outer layer to the hoof wall
The inner wall of the hoof is often referred to as the laminar layer – which is a soft tissue structure that sits between the hoof wall and the coffin bone. It comprises interlocking finger-like projections called laminae that act a little like Velcro, providing a secure attachment between the hoof wall and the coffin bone. This allows for efficient transmission of weight and force as the horse moves.
In summary: what does the inner wall do?
- Secures the hoof wall to the coffin bone
- Provides blood flow and nutrients to the hoof
- Allows sufficient weight distribution
The inner framework – horse hoof anatomy
Now we’ve covered the outer framework of a horse’s hoof – it wouldn’t be right for us to ignore the highly complex and cleverly designed inner framework. There are several structures that work together to support the overall health and function of a horse – which we’ll explore more about here…
The digital cushion is a highly elastic and fibrous structure that is located at the back of the hoof, just below the coffin bone. As the name suggests, the Digital Cushion is a cushion of various fibrous tissues, including collagen, elastic fibres, fat and cartilage. It acts as a shock absorber and helps to absorb and protect the hoof from injury.
In summary: what does the digital cushion do?
- Absorb shock within the hoof
- Prevent injuries
Coffin bone (also known as the Pedal Bone)
The coffin bone is a small wedge-shaped bone that sits encapsulated within the hoof. Despite being small in size, it is the largest bone in the hoof – and responsible for providing support to the horse’s body weight it. It plays a vital role in distributing the horse’s weight evenly, as well as helping to absorb and disperse shock during movement.
The coffin bone, as you may expect, is made up of a dense, hard bone tissue – which makes it strong enough to fulfil its function and support the horse during movement.
In summary: what does the digital cushion do?
- Helps support the horse’s body weight
- Absorbs shock within the hoof
- Rotates when a horse has laminitis
Next up, we’ve got the navicular bone – also known as the distal sesamoid bone. This is a small, boat-shaped bone located behind the coffin bone, in the area you’d recognise as the “heel”.
The navicular bone helps to stabilise the coffin bone and plays an important function in transferring weight and pressure from the horse’s leg to the hoof. It is also involved in the function of the deep digital flexor tendon, which helps to control the movement of the horse’s leg and foot.
Navicular disease is a relatively common condition in horses and can be extremely painful for them. It involves inflammation and degeneration of the navicular bone and surrounding tissue areas, ultimately leading to lameness and a lack of function in the horse’s hoof.
In summary: what does the navicular bone do?
- Stabilises the coffin bone
- Works with the major tendons within the hoof to support the movement
Under the hoof – horse hoof anatomy
Finally, we’ve got the underneath of the hoof. If you’ve ever looked under your horse’s hoof and been confused by what you’re looking at or what insights you can take from them – read on.
The sole is the hard, concave structure on the underside of the hoof. It is designed to support the weight of the horse and to provide a protective barrier between the ground and the internal structures of the hoof. Whilst it is the sole that makes direct contact with the ground, most of the structure does not touch the ground due to its concave shape.
The sole is made up of a similar material to the hoof wall, but it is much thinner and more flexible. It is also highly sensitive and contains many nerve endings.
Another important feature of the sole is the ‘white line’ that is the junction between the hoof wall and the sole; this attaches the sole to the hoof wall and protects the sole from infections.
In summary: what does the sole do?
- Supports the weight of the horse
- Provides a protective barrier between the ground and the inner hoof
You can’t miss the frog! The frog is a tough, thick, V-shaped structure that points down from the heel of the hoof. Despite being made up of the same material as the rest of the outer wall, the frog also has several oil glands, which means it is typically softer to touch and often feels very rubbery.
The frog acts as a shock absorber when the hoof makes contact with the ground, helping to reduce the impact of each step and providing protection to the delicate structures inside the hoof. As well as this, the frog contains several blood vessels that help to promote blood flow to the hoof, which delivers nutrients and maintains the health of the hoof structures.
Furthermore, similarly to the sole, the frog also has sensitive nerves that communicate to your horse about where they are standing.
In summary: what does it dos the frog do?
- Provides shock absorption
- Supports healthy blood flow
- Secretes a natural lubricant to keep the hoof healthy
Conclusion – Horse Hoof Anatomy Guide
So, there we have it! If you weren’t in awe of horses’ hooves and how delicately and uniquely their anatomies are made, we’re sure you will be by now. Understanding that each part of the hoof is crucial for maintaining the health and well-being of your horse may even help you identify more minor issues before they escalate into more severe problems.
If you, like us, want only the very best for your horse, then get in touch with our friendly team at Equestrian Surfaces Ltd. today, to see how our award-winning equine surfaces can help increase the well-being and leisure of your horse.
Give us a call on 01282 834 970 or get in touch here!