Hoofing It

Thanks to Robin Lynde at Meridian Jacobs, I recently had the incredibly good fortune to learn how to trim sheep hooves from an experienced large animal vet, alongside UC Davis veterinary students. I’m glad to be able to share what I learned because I couldn’t find classes on hoof trimming, and it’s not exactly easy to find someone who is practiced at hoof trimming, is willing to teach you, and has sheep available.

I don’t have dogs (yet!) or cats, so I was not familiar with trimming the nails of either. I’d trimmed hooves on two or three dozen sheep but was too hesitant and timid. As a result, I often made little, ineffective trims and took far too long to do so. When you’re bent over in shearing position (as is usually the case for me, since hoof trimming often accompanies shearing jobs), every second your spine doesn’t spend at a 90-degree angle to your hips counts for a lot and saves you a lot of discomfort.

Some of what I learned seems so obvious that I’m almost ashamed to type it, but something about that being part of learning, mumble mumble…

You can use a halter and don’t need to flip the sheep.

Apparently, my shearing position bias has obscured other ways of hoof trimming. Who knew you could halter a sheep in a pen, standing, and trim each hoof one at a time? (Everyone else but me, probably.)

I hold the sheep against the fence with my knee and just a little force, while a UC Davis vet student trims the sheep's rear hoof.

I hold the sheep against the fence with my knee and a little pressure, while a UC Davis vet student trims the sheep’s rear hoof. Photo credit: Dona Snow

It’s important to position and tie the halter properly. The front part of a halter has two pieces, top and bottom. The top — which does not adjust — slips over the sheep’s nose. The bottom part of the halter is adjustable and slips under the sheep’s bottom jaw. Do not flip the halter and put the movable part across the sheep’s nose instead. Doing so would put the non-adjustable section below the sheep’s jaw and in a position to slip down along its neck, where the sheep could strangle itself should it become twisted in the halter. Do not do this.

A properly positioned and tied sheep halter. Photo credit: Dona Snow

A properly positioned and tied sheep halter. Photo credit: Dona Snow

I will probably buy or make a halter. On days when I shear a lot of sheep, it might be nice to be able to change position, and I think it would be easier on the arthritic old ewes. It’s obvious, with their swollen joints, that being flipped over and having their legs grabbed is painful.

Lift the sheep’s hooves as little as possible.

Sheep do not like having their legs grabbed and/or picked up. When you pick up the sheep’s hoof to trim it, pick it up as little as possible, and keep it as close to the ground as you can. Yes, this means you have to bend over more, but the sheep stayed much more still, so it felt like a win to me.

I am probably picking up the sheep's hoof too much in this photo. When I left it a little closer to the ground, the sheep was much happier. Photo credit: Dona Snow

I am probably picking up the sheep’s hoof too much in this photo. When I left it a little closer to the ground, the sheep was much happier. Photo credit: Dona Snow

Use your sense of touch to identify where to cut.

One of the reasons I was so timid about hoof trimming is because I never felt sure of exactly where I should start trimming. I was terrified that I’d start trimming too near the hoof bed and draw blood as a result (and I don’t like to draw blood anywhere on a sheep).

Fortunately, feeling around the hoof bed with your thumbs tells you where to start. Gently press the hoof bed, moving toward the tip. When the hoof bed is no longer soft and everything is hard, you’ve reached overgrown hoof that can safely be trimmed off. You begin hoof trimming with a horizontal cut across the tip of the hoof.

I am lightly pressing the hoof bed to feel where the soft part becomes hard, and can be safely trimmed.

I am lightly pressing the hoof bed to feel where the soft part becomes hard, and can be safely trimmed. You can see how the overgrown tips are darker in color and curve in toward the middle. Your first cut will be horizontal, to remove those pointy, curled tips with one snip on each side. Photo credit: Dona Snow

I honestly never thought to do this on my own, and it seemed so stunningly obvious when my vet student buddy told me. I thought more experienced people were doing this by eye, but touch tells you so much more.

Bring a head lamp.

Good light makes all the difference. Barns are very dark a lot of the time and, even when electricity and lights are available, lights may not be in the same area where you were able to get the sheep haltered, or reach the ground when you’re all bent over in it and blocking it. If you have a buddy nearby, you can use her smartphone’s flashlight app in a pinch.

Better hoof trimming through technology! Photo credit: Dona Snow

This little light of mine, I’m gonna’ let it shine. Better hoof trimming through technology! Photo credit: Dona Snow

Spider webs and burnt wool have healing powers.

As a wise shearer once told me, if you hoof trim too far and draw blood, putting spider webs on it helps stanch the bleeding. The vet told me burned wool does the same. You can call these old wives tales, but enough people with decades of livestock experience have told me this that I believe them.

 

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