Design features of a horse’s digestive system and hoof….

The horse’s digestive system and hoof, in terms of design, horses are way more complex than we are.. and so there are alot of factors that can affect thier hooves that might not be apparent to us.

Here’s some that strike me as remarkable..

One of their complex design features is their digestive system.  Unlike us they have a very small stomach, a small (small) intestine and a very large large intestine.

Horse's gut

Diagram of the digestive system and the very large hind gut

The large intestine (or hindgut) is full of bacteria that are there to ferment down all the fibre that they eat.  The bacteria are incredibly efficient at that job which is why horses can grow so large and generate such energy from what is otherwise a very poor diet.  But the flip side of this is, if their diet is changed it takes a while for the bacterial balance to adjust to what is required to break down the new food.  And this adjustment is hard work on their bodies.  You can often ‘read about’ changes of diet as ‘growth rings’ around the hooves.  That suggests that the diet was changed over too quickly….

What helps me to think about it, is that one of the most similar digestive systems in the animal kingdom is that of the elephant….They do everything slowly!!!.

The other bit of design which makes hooves pretty special (and harder to care for) is the hoof capsule itself.  If we compare them to our fingernails they’ve effectively got a hard figurenail all the way round with a (hopefully) very thick layer of skin (the frog and sole) at the tip.  There is then a very elegant feature called the white line that joins the wall and the sole together in a flexible (and ideally), infection proof seal…


So the hoof capsule is a fantastic piece of engineering, but, and this is the thing, it kinda has a critical design flaw and that is, unlike our finger tip, the hoof capsule can’t expand if it becomes inflamed.  Have you ever had an infection in the nail bed of your finger – one that makes your finger swell up & really sore whenever you touch it?

swollen finger






Just imagine the equivalent in a horses hoof – if for whatever reason the inner structures of the hoof become inflamed, then there’s nowhere for that swelling to go because the capsule is so rigid.  So inflammation and swelling in a hoof is really painful for them…no wonder horses can become three legged lame overnight when an abscess is brewing.

So what does that mean for us – for one we need to carefully consider what we are feeding our horses and why.  And we’ve also got to work hard to ensure that the horse remains comfortable for the work that we ask of it.  If your horse is telling you its sore, then we need a rethink about how we’re supporting that foot.


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  1. […] Read more here: diet, environment and work, trim, horse & hoof design […]

  2. […] (Read here) about horse digestion and hoof design…. […]

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