I get this question a lot: should a horse be running on concrete, tarmac, or generally hard surfaces? Does the horse feel any pain while doing so, and will there be any long-term damage to working a horse on hard surfaces? After all, we see horses trotting around in cities all the time, whether they’re pulling carriages or doing police work.
If the horse is walking at a slow pace, it should be fine even with a rider on its back. However, the hoof begins to suffer hairpin cracks and fine damage if the horse canters or gallops on very hard terrain. It all depends on the speed of the horse and the amount of time it spends walking on these hard surfaces, whether we’re talking about concrete, tarmac, stonedust, etc.
Some of the main risks associated with working a horse on hard ground for extended periods include arthritis, navicular syndrome, and windpuffs. Aside from health risks, cities pose many dangers to horses, from rocks that can get lodged in the hoof to broken glass, stray dogs, nails.. you get the point.
In order for a horse to work in an ideal environment, it needs to be able to dig in the top of its hoof into the ground. This facilitates traction and prevents wear on the heel area. In reality, horses often end up walking on surfaces that are a bit harder or softer. The walking surface shouldn’t be too soft either. Sand, for instance, causes the horse to put in way more effort than usual. This results in extra stress on its legs.
The biomechanics of running on hard ground.
I think it’s important to understand exactly what’s going on with the horse’s body and how it reacts to the concussive forces created while trotting or galloping on hard surfaces. When the hoof comes in contact with the ground, some concussive force is created. Normally, if the ground is moderately soft, it absorbs much of this force, and the horse feels little to no stress as a result.
When it comes to concrete or tarmac, the surface is too rigid to absorb concussive forces. Therefore, the shockwave travels upwards through the hoof and legs, which causes discomfort and potential injury. I should also note that temperature can also influence the quality of a horse’s working conditions, as very hot conditions can severely limit the hoof’s ability to expand and contract.
During movement, and as the hoof touches the ground, its capsule expands and the heel area opens. When the foot is lifted off the ground, the capsule contracts – this is the way a well-moistured hoof works. It absorbs concussion naturally.
Hoof moisture should ideally sit at around 24%, but hot working conditions can cause this level to fall as low as 14%. As the hoof dries up, it loses its mobility, as well as its ability to absorb shock. Shock is then transferred to other parts of the body, which can result in injury.
How can we help our horses walk on hard surfaces?
Horseshoes help out quite a bit, but even they’re not the most reliable. It’s not uncommon to see horseshoes failing if the horse is pushed a bit too hard, and that can result in instant damage of the hoof. Many horse owners rely on special pads with shock-absorption capabilities. These pads come in different shapes and sizes – some of them were designed for the heel of the hoof, and others for the frog area.
Finding it difficult to choose the right pad? Fortunately, you can (and should) talk with your farrier about what’s best for your horse. The farrier will make an informed decision based on the type of terrain and any pre-existing conditions your horse might have. In the end, you’ll probably end up using leather pads or plastic pads. Leather ones absorb moisture and were designed to provide extra foot support, while plastic ones will often fill in any gaps.
One thing you should always watch out for is pad dependence. If your horse uses pads for too long, it might not be able to run properly without them. That’s why it’s a good idea to use pads only from time to time and as the need arises. Take a break from using them every now and again.
Can horseshoes help with shock absorption?
I previously wrote about horseshoes at length, and I answered a very important question: can your horse go unshod? The answer is yes, but only if the horse spends all of its time in a natural environment, walking on relatively soft ground. With this answer in mind, we can easily reach another conclusion: horseshoes are essential if the horse is expected to work on rough surfaces.
It doesn’t get much rougher than concrete and tarmac, and depending on their material, shoes can absorb some of the shocks and concussions that would otherwise cause serious damage to the hoof and leg. There are two main materials that pop into mind when it comes to horseshoes: steel and aluminum. However, the farrier might suggest a composite shoe made out of metal and plastic/rubber. There are quite a few designs available on the market presently, and new ones tend to make an entrance every few years or so.
There’s no such thing as a universal horseshoe that will work wonders on every horse. Some horses are better built for work, others have more speed, and others impress with pulling power. Some are heavier than others, and thus require more sturdy shoes. One thing is for certain, though: a horse needs its shoes if it is expected to work on hard surfaces.
Easing joint problems in horses.
Your management program should always be focused on health and performance. Depending on the age of your horse and the conditions he’s worked in before, you can come up with a custom training regimen complemented by a selection of supplements that can ease joint issues.
Proper exercise can also go a long way, and knowing when to stable a horse for good can help you avoid costlier issues in the long run. If your horse does get diagnosed with arthritis for various reasons, you could still potentially ride that horse or put it to work to some extent assuming we’re talking about early stages. If the condition is already advanced, you should just let that horse take it easy for the rest of its life, and make sure that it gets to perform specific exercises that benefit arthritic horses.
It should be clear by now that horses do not fare very well when they canter or gallop over tough terrain. While some horses do work in these conditions for most of their lives, they wear special shoes and special protective gear that is designed to keep their hooves and legs as healthy as possible.
If you can avoid it, don’t make your horse run over concrete or tarmac. Even though it might not seem like it at first, the damage is there and it c uld cause long-term effects if not addressed properly.