Saving Soft and Thin Soles

Soft, thin soles are one common condition of a horse’s foot directly related to his environment.The art and science of farriery is a deep and complex subject. The scope of this practice covers a large area of expertise all with the intent of maintaining comfort and soundness of our horses and ponies. But what happens when things go wrong? Those who have had lameness issues understand how devastating and stressful it can be when a diagnosis given is unfavorable.

An owner/rider can do a number of things to avert many of these distressing situations, including being intuitive to her horse’s needs and being observant.

Pii of two feet healthy on right


In general, the horn of the horse’s foot is both a protective and a supportive structure. It protects the coffin bone (Piii) and sensitive tissue within its borders and in doing so, supports the limb as a whole. Periodic maintenance of the foot is primarily given to the farrier while the daily routine of animal husbandry is the responsibility of the animal’s owner.

As a rule, we expect the horse’s foot to reproduce and grow sufficiently to retain its protective and supportive characteristics. The quality of horn reproduced is dependent upon many factors including genetic disposition, dietary intake and environmental conditions etc.

The genetic predispositions of our horses are already calculated in the breeding of the animal and its traits are seen in particular breeds, which sometimes translates into the quality of the hooves and the thickness of the sole. The average thickness of the sole can range between about one eighth of an inch for the Thoroughbred to half an inch for the Appaloosa or similar breeds. Dietary intake plays a major part, a result of good stable management, a well-balanced diet, dental care and a worming program.


We sometimes overlook and become complacent about the everyday environmental effects on domesticated horses’ feet. This being especially true when there are no performance or lameness concerns to consider. Hooves are affected by wet or dry climates, fields, stalls, run-in sheds, etc. Thin soles are directly associated with a wet environment and are sometimes overlooked until they become a problem.

Both protection and support become suspect when the horse lives or grazes in a wet environment. Exposure to excessive moisture will inevitably saturate the hoof until the sole becomes soft and much of its protective qualities are lost through exfoliation of the horn. A similar effect is soaking your own feet; the hard calloused skin becomes soft and is easily removed.

With the reduced quality and support, the sole and foot flatten out under the descending weight forces of the third phalanx (coffin bone). If allowed to continue, the hoof could remain a flat, wide foot if not correctly protected and supported.

A healthy well-conformed hoof should have a slight concavity to its sole. This shape is its strength to support and also is part of the natural physiology and anti-concussive mechanism. A flat foot has little anti-concussive qualities and impact will resonate throughout the limb.

This same condition can be caused by excessive use of the hoof knife, mutilating the sole and leaving the animal vulnerable to the elements. This practice should be frowned upon no matter what is presently in vogue in the industry as it demonstrates a lack of both knowledge of the anatomy of the foot and compassion for the horse overall.


The first indication of this condition is shortening of your horse’s stride and his reluctance to be ridden over stony terrain. More often than not, a horse will veer to the grass verge because he is more comfortable walking on this softer and more giving area. This is a true signal of soft or thin soles; be intuitive and learn from your horse as your horse knows best!

Another way to tell if the soles are thin is by thumb pressure. You can test the sole by simply pressing with your thumbs which is approximately equal to 5 to 7 pounds. If the sole yields or flexes under this light pressure test, the sole is too thin. One can only imagine what it would feel like with the entire weight of the horse plus rider over a stony path or trail


The first thing is to try to keep the horse in a drier pasture or stable. Keep the hooves picked out and clean, allowing as much air as possible to the solar margins of the foot.

The amount of work the animal is in determines the amount of protection necessary. If the horse is in minimal work on good footing, painting the soles with products that dry and harden the sole may suffice. This approach is in conjunction with the removal of the animal from the offending conditions; otherwise, many of these "sole paints" would be ineffective.

With more exposure to the soles (i.e., riding on trails with rocks), the foot has to be protected either with boots or the conventional shoe. If in doubt, discuss the issue with your farrier; he/she will advise you on the condition of your horse’s hooves and your particular needs.


Don't take this condition lightly as it has serious consequences over the long term. If anyone tells you that the feet will harden up and your horse will “get used to it,” please think again as this is a fallacy of thought. All horses deserve the courtesy of comfort therefore, the feet must be protected.

The repetitive insult of riding a horse who is foot sore will inflame the sensitive tissue adjacent to the coffin bone. This will result in pedal osteitus (inflammation of the coffin bone) and a demineralization of the bone will ensue.

From a personal standpoint, the most successful approach I have had in my practice is with traditional shoeing along with a pad complemented with sole supporting material. This addresses the two elements of protecting and supporting the soles of the foot.

The only negative to this approach is that once the animal is shod, the support material under the pad is not removed until the next shoeing interval, subjecting the frog to the possibility of thrush. This is a relatively small concern when considering the alternative, and can be easily rectified.

Once the sole can stand the thumb pressure test, the pads and shoes may be removed, depending on the horse’s duty and footing conditions. At this stage it is important to consult with your farrier.

Change of environment can make a considerable difference in the health of the sole and the hoof as a whole. Once the environmental conditions are regulated, then nature will take over and possibly produce sufficient sole to protect and support the foot.

Pennsylvania farrier Dave Duckett is a Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers, London, and winner of 25 gold medals in British, International, European and World Horsehoeing Championships. He is the author of “The External References of the Equine Foot.” Further reading: "The Mirage of the Natural Foot” by Michael E. Miller, MD, CJF, FWCF


Frank Dugan, sales manager with Vettec Hoof Care Products, “The sole is what is protecting the bony column from sinking further, so it is important that a horse has good depth of sole for support.”

Rod Sidoros, with Recovery EQ: “The front feet are usually affected because they support close to sixty percent of a horse’s body weight. In extreme cases, as weight bears down on the coffin bone, it will rotate through the sole to the ground.”

“As with the frog, advice to leave the sole alone only makes sense if the sole is already the perfect depth,” says Lisa S. Lancaster, MSc, PhD, DVM, author of The Sound Hoof: Horse Health From the Ground Up. “Retained sole that is unable to naturally exfoliate needs to be removed by the farrier. This is especially important before shoeing because the pressure of a shoe and pad over retained sole can cause lameness. Recognizing retained sole takes experience. This is not a decision for horse owners just learning to do their own trimming.”

“A chalky frog and sole could mean the horse lives on footing that is too soft, and the hoof is not being worn naturally. Adding a finer grade of gravel plus sand to spots of the paddock can help. Spreading out small amounts of hay all around the paddock to force the horse to move more would help,” says Melanie Oastler, of in Ontario, Canada

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Category: Hoof Care

Opinions expressed herein are those of the experts consulted and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors and publishers. The information in this publication is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to medically prescribe or diagnose in any way. ~ Holistic Horse Inc.