Feathered feet are a distinctive feature of some horse and pony breeds. The hair is long and thick enough to almost cover the hooves, which give the equine an extra layer of warmth in cold conditions and are useful for traction on rough ground. Most feathered horses are draft breeds such as Clydesdales, Friesians, and Gypsy Vanners. However, horses with long hair on their legs may also be seen in light riding and show classes.
There is something about a big, full bodied horse with silky white feathers cascading down their lower leg that seems to touch the heart of anyone who sees them. These gorgeous beasts are not only beautiful to look at but are also very powerful and can pull large loads with relative ease. Most of these breeds are found in colder climates and are used for work including plowing fields, pulling plows and carts, and working in harness.
Most people do not realize that horses have hair on their feet but they certainly exist. It is not as common as many other equine features, such as the mane and tail, but it does appear on a number of different horse breeds.
The hair on the foot, known as the fetlock, is actually very similar to our own fingernails in that it is made of the same protein, keratin combined with amino acids. The main difference is that while our fingernails grow out of the skin, a horse’s fetlock grows into the sole of their hoof.
It is not clear why some horses have fetlock hair. It is thought that a gene responsible for the thickness and density of the bones in the feet causes some horses to develop fetlock hair. The more dense the bones, the more fetlock hair that is developed.
Some breeds of horses with fetlock hair, such as the Clydesdale and the Irish Draught Horse, have very long fetlock hair that is very thick and may nearly cover the hooves. This is thought to be a protective measure against the icy winter temperatures in their native land.
Other horses, such as the Ardennes horse and the Dales Pony, have a more natural, lighter coat of fetlock hair that does not grow quite so long but is still thick and very shiny. The fetlock hair is important for the health of a horse because it helps to keep the hooves warm and protects the frog from excessive pressure.
Like any other hair, the fetlock hair needs to be cleaned regularly. Horses with fetlock hair can get dry and brittle, especially if they are kept indoors or have wet, muddy environment. Horses with fetlock feathers should be bathed with a mild shampoo to keep them clean and detangled, and should be inspected daily for injuries or signs of pain. If any problems are noticed, it is recommended that a veterinarian be consulted. It is also important that these horses be kept dry as much as possible to prevent fungi and other infections that can occur in the area where the feathers meet the ground.