Sheep Hoof Trimming

Click on any of the following images for a larger view, and watch my little hoof trimming video at the end!

Regular attention to the hooves or feet of domestic sheep is essential for their well being if they do not free range, and hoof wear is not in balance with hoof growth. Most pasture-kept sheep need their hooves trimmed at least twice per year. In small flocks, tipping the sheep to look at their feet whenever an opportunity presents itself is an excellent habit. Trimming with the rate of growth is better than waiting until hooves are over-grown, or a flaw in the white line caused a large area of the hoof wall to separate from the foot.

The anatomy of the sheep’s hoof is easy to understand and anyone can learn to trim the hooves with some patience.

It is totally stupid to think that sheep are stupid, that they lack awareness and are unable to feel. In fact, they are so observant that they often pre-calculate a human’s next move, resulting in them going in exactly the opposite direction than the one you want them to go in. That’s not stupid on the sheep’s part, but is frustrating for the human. Sheep require patience and calm handling. Trimming their little feet requires patience and great care. Hacking away at them with garden shears just won’t do and shows no respect. Anatomically, the feet of sheep are just as detailed and as amazing a natural design as the hooves of larger animals, and therefore require detailed attention on their scale. Advice like “try not to draw too much blood” is atrocious! When trimming sheep’s feet you should NOT draw ANY blood.  Bleeding means that you have removed too much horn and have injured the corium (quick). This predisposes the sheep to infection, not to mention pain! Sheep deserve gentle handling and respect for each of their body parts. If you inflict pain and fear each time you handle them, then they will never want to cooperate with you. Why should they? Hoof trimming needs to be executed in a methodical manner with attention to detail, otherwise it is counterproductive!

A sharp hoof knife is still the best tool for hoof trimming. It needs to be sharpened before every trimming session to be effective. A sharp hoof knife will trim excess hoof wall, unless the hoof wall is particularly hard during summer months or in large, older animals. To remove an excess of particularly hard hoof wall, the use of a small version of hoof nippers would be my choice, because that is what is use for the same job in larger animals, like cattle and horses. Hoof sole does not need to be removed in sheep. In fact, it is your guide for the length of the natural hoof wall. However, sometimes the heel is excessively over-grown and covers the sole. Careful distinction between the two must be made to avoid unnecessary injury.

I think it is easiest to attend to sheep’s feet when they are “tipped up” into the sitting position. On your own, the use of a “sheep chair” is most useful for this, but the job is decidedly easier with two people. Bending over the sheep while you are restraining it in the sitting position on your own (without a “sheep chair”) is not ideal – unless you are very skilled. Trimming the sheep’s feet while the sheep is standing may be done, but is best reserved to tame sheep that are too large to tip comfortably. Some heavy rams and pregnant ewes are very uncomfortable in the sitting position, and if they stand quietly for hoof trimming, then this may be more kind. If they jerk around at all, however, tipping them is SAVER.

Colin works part-time at the Salt Spring Abattoir where he slaughters the local lamb, mutton, and beef. This gives me unique access to a variety of feet from dead sheep and cattle for not only practicing my own hoof trimming skills, but also for documenting sheep hoof anatomy and the steps of sheep hoof trimming in great detail without subjecting a live sheep to a lengthy photo shoot. Therefore, the feet in the following photos are NOT from our own Cheviot sheep.

When to trim?

All lambs should have their feet looked at at 3 months old when they receive their first vaccines. Few require any real trimming at this point, but occasionally, the hoof wall is overgrown in lambs reared in barns or paddocks, and it begins to curl under the foot where it applies pressure to the sole and traps dirt (bacteria). Lambs unable to naturally wear the growth of hoof wall horn and heel horn due to confinement need this processed mimicked by trimming to assure that the feet develop normally and the lamb is not subjected to unnecessary discomfort.

At the latest, all lambs not destined for slaughter should have their feet looked at at weaning time. Depending on where the lambs were reared, the feet might already be over-grown at this point. From then on, adult sheep, regardless of sex, should have their hooves inspected and trimmed, if necessary, at least every six months as part of routine worming/vaccinations/shearing. If your sheep’s feet are very over-grown after each six month interval, the feet should be looked at and trimmed more often or the sheep’s environment should be re-evaluated. Of course, if any one member of your flock shows any degree of lameness, this needs to be addressed immediately.

Click on any of the following images for a larger view. Use the “go back” button to close the larger view.

  A set of naturally trimmed feet from a butcher lamb. They look good from the top, but only a view from the bottom can tell if any trimming is necessary.
  The bottom or underside of the same feet reveals that these hooves do NOT require any trimming. The lamb naturally wore the hoof wall horn and heel horn PERFECTLY!
  The feet from a second lamb of the same bunch look pretty good from the top as well, but …
  … their underside shows that a first trim would be beneficial. The horn of the hoof wall and the heel is starting to over-grow. At this stage, trimming is quick and easy for the sheep and shepherd.
  Anyone can see, that the third lamb of the same bunch of butcher lambs needs its hooves trimmed.
  The underside of the feet shows that hoof trimming in this lamb has become an urgent matter.Hooves should be trimmed WELL BEFORE they progress to this stage.

Anatomy of the healthy hoof:

  A correctly naturally worn or correctly trimmed hoof of a sheep has a very upright, neat, and square appearance.
  The toe angle is steep and the heel is high. The toe is well rounded on the tip, allowing an unobstructed breakover of the toe during the natural gait.
  The outer (abaxial) hoof wall shows a concave area. This “lift” is also observed in wild sheep, and deer. Once the foot is fully weight bearing during the natural stride, the sole is compressed and this part of the outer hoof wall takes weight.A correctly trimmed hoof, like this one, will have this abaxial hoof wall “lift” and the rolled toe by simply trimming the hoof wall back to the natural surface of the sole.
  A correctly naturally worn or correctly trimmed hoof of a sheep has no over-growth of the hoof wall horn or the heel horn.The sole is NOT flat, but is contoured naturally in a specific shape to act as a pressure-absorbing cushion and for giving the sheep a firm grip in all terrain.
  A detail reveals that the hoof wall at the toe is worn shorter to allow an unobstructed breakover of the toe during the natural gait. The hoof wall takes the full weight only during full compression of the sole, when the sheep puts its whole weights on the leg. In the naturally worn hoof, the sole with its natural contour, is fully exposed to give the sheep an excellent “feel” for the terrain and firm grip. Like walking bare foot for us, the sole is exposed to air to prevent bacterial growth; it is stimulated to develop resilience, and dead sole horn is gently buffed away. If you look closely, you can recognize a fingerprint-like texture of the hoof sole. Hoof sole should NOT be cut away during hoof trimming!

Step-by-step hoof trimming of over-grown, but healthy sheep hooves:

  These sheep hooves are over-due for trimming.
  The underside reveals grossly over-grown hoof wall horn which trapped a lot of debris and manure. Otherwise, the feet are healthy.
  With the curved tip of your hoof knife (you are going to use it like a hoof pick and not to cut anything), clean out the hooves of all debris and dead sole horn, the later which will appear as a white powdery substance. This will reveal the healthy sole.
  The exposed healthy sole is your guide for how much to shorten the hoof wall. It indicates the actual hoof length. YOU MUST LOOK AT THE UNDERSIDE OF THE HOOVES TO DETERMINE HOW SHORT TO TRIM THE HOOF WALL. Without seeing the cleaned hoof sole, you have no guide as to the natural shape of the foot!
  NEVER START TRIMMING BY CUTTING THE TOE OFF! Begin nipping off excess abaxial (outer) hoof wall starting from the heel towards the toe level with the sole. Residual dead, white, powdery sole horn may obstruct where to cut as you get closer to the toe. At this spot, be conservative how much you cut on your first pass.
  Repeat nipping the abaxial (outer) hoof wall on the other claw. The inner hoof wall (axial hoof wall) is easier to trim with the hoof knife. TRIM THE AXIAL (INNER) HOOF WALL LEVEL WITH THE SOLE. NO NOT PARE AWAY MORE. Some people suggest to remove the axial wall altogether to prevent hoof rot. This, however, destabilizes the foot. Removing the hoof wall removes the protective shell of that area and, in my opinion, exposes the foot to injury where foot-rot causing bacteria can then gain access! Read more by the National Animal Disease Information Service in the UK (PDF)
  With the excess abaxial and axial hoof wall removed, you can now use the curved tip of your hoof knife to clear away the residual dead, white, powdered sole horn to expose the healthy tip of the toe.
  The natural hoof shape, based on the surface of the healthy sole, is now taking shape.
  Nip off excess horn at the toe.
  A view from the front reveals still remaining pockets of dead, white, powdery sole horn. This means that more hoof wall needs to be removed as well.
  With the curved tip of your hoof knife remove the dead, powdery tissue to expose the healthy sole at the toe. Now, remaining excess hoof wall at the toe becomes very apparent.
Nip off the remaining excess hoof wall at the toe. You can shape the sharp edges of the hoof wall a bit with your hoof knife, if you like. In larger animals, these final touches are done with a rasp, which isn’t practical when trimming a flock of sheep. Using a small rasp or file or sand paper at this stage is, however, appropriate. If you get a sheep ready for a show or sale, or if you care for just one or two pet sheep, then you may want to consider this final touch.
  Before and after from the bottom.
  Before and after from the top.
  Before and after from the side.
Disinfect all of your tools after each use and keep them sharp at all times.

Regular, correct trimming can prevent hoof horn over-growth by restoring the natural weight bearing shape of the hoof, and thereby facilitate natural wear. After a number of frequent correcting hoof trimming sessions you may notice that you can go for a longer time between trims without hooves becoming over-grown. If, during routine trimming, some sheep in your flock don’t appear to need a trim, resist the temptation to trim for good measure. Any thinning of the sole horn or excessive trimming of the wall will cause bruising or injury of the corium which responds with faster horn growth to protect itself!

Want to see it again? Watch my little sheep hoof trimming video:

(Move your mouse over the video to turn music on/off or to pause/play)