Baby Horse Hooves – Why do they look so Weird
If you have ever seen a new born foal, you might have looked at its feet and wondered why they look so odd… like claws or feathers… well that’s exactly what my girlfriend asked the day she saw our Clydesdale foal Sunny born. I did a bit of research and what I found out is fascinating.
What are Fairy Fingers?
Eponychium, also known as “deciduous hoof capsules”, “fairy fingers”, “golden slippers,” or “horse feathers” are soft coverings over the hard sharp edges of a foal’s foot when it is born.
It’s like your cuticles grew over the ends of your nails to make a soft cover
Baby horses need to get up and move very quickly after birth to avoid predators. That’s why they need fully formed hooves.
The Fairy fingers protect the mother’s uterus and birth canal from the sharp edges of the foal’s hooves during pregnancy and birth.
They start to disappear soon after birth and are gone within a few days
They look very weird and have many weird names, however understanding their name gives a fascinating insight into their function, read on to find out more….
A Clydesdale Foal is Born
A few years ago, we were at the farm at exactly the right time to see the birth of Strathorn Sunny. A strong healthy little purebred Clydesdale who was of the right quality to become a breeding Stallion.
He now spends his days in Ireland, using his Scottish accent to charm the ladies and pass on his genes to the next generation of Irish Clydies. Fun fact, he got his name because in the six weeks before his birth it rained every day, but the sun came out the day he was born.
It’s a shame we can’t have a Clydesdale foal born on the farm everyday here in Scotland, it might make the weather a bit better!
Strathorn Sunny. Living his best life with the ladies in Ireland
After the little man was out, and after my girlfriend had got over the overwhelming cuteness of a newborn foal, she could see that he was trying to get up and remarked… “Look at his feet! They are so…so… weird…”
Baby horses feet are weird
And indeed, weird they are. I had never really thought about it much. I have seen so many foals born here over the years I had just got used to it. I always thought it was just like when you’ve been in the bath for too long and your fingers go wrinkly. A foal is inside its mum for 11 months; 11 months in the bath would make my fingers pretty wrinkly!
I’d also heard them called “fairy fingers” or “golden slippers”, but what are they really? Are they just hooves softened by 11 months in the womb, or is nature up to something far more clever than that?
Newborn horse hooves. Very strange looking… but why?
Do foals hurt their mums when they kick in the womb?
What do babies do in the womb? How do they make their presence felt? That’s right, they kick! And baby horses are no different. They kick and wiggle and move around as much as human babies do. Have you ever been kicked by a horse? I have, and it’s not fun. Their feet are pretty hard! Now imagine a baby horse inside you, kicking away to say hi. Not something you’d like to experience I’m sure. So nature has a solution for that, and they are called the Deciduous hoof capsule, Eponychium, fairy fingers, golden slippers or horse feathers
Imagine your cuticles grew over your fingernails
On your finger, Eponychium are the live part of the cuticle. It is the thick layer of skin that joins the skin on your finger to your finger nail.
So imagine you cuticle grew over the end of your fingernail. It would make it very hard to scratch someone. Well that’s the same effect it has on the baby foal. It makes their feet far less sharp so they can’t scratch their mum.
What does Eponychium actually mean? Interestingly it comes from two Greek words, “epi” and “onúkhion”
Epi means – On top of;
Onúkhion means “little claw”
When you see them on a new born foal, the name makes perfect sense! They look exactly like little claws on top of the foals feet.
Deciduous hoof capsules
What about “Deciduous hoof capsules”?. You have probably heard the word Deciduous before, as in trees that lose their leaves in autumn. Well that’s the exact same meaning in this case. Deciduous means “falling off at maturity” or “tending to fall off”
So the “little claws”, “on top” of their feet are there to protect the mother. They keep the womb safe during gestation, and the birth canal safe when they are born.
So there we have it – understanding the meaning of Deciduous Eponychium leads to the description of what the foals “fairy feet” really are.
Deciduous Eponychium – Little claws on top of the feet that fall off
Why do foals need fully formed feet?
Good question, nature could have come up with another solution. Many animals can’t walk or move or leave their nests for weeks, months or even years, so why do foals have to get on the move so quickly? Couldn’t the foals have less well formed feet to protect the mother?
Horses are prey animals
Horses are prey animals, and as you can read about in our article Do horses sleep standing up, you will see that they have to be constantly alert for danger. A new born foal would make an easy meal for a predator such as a wolf. Predators are also attracted by the afterbirth so the foal has to be able to stand up and walk within hours of being born, hence they need fully formed feet to be able to do this. That’s why the golden slippers are required to protect the mother then allow the foal to walk within hours of birth.
How long do their golden slippers last?
They start to disappear as soon as the foals is born. At first they dry out, then as the foals stands and walks around they wear away. We usually see them gone within a day. Sunny was up a feeding within an hour and was outside the day he was born so his disappeared very quickly. If a new born foal isn’t getting up, or they aren’t outside they might last a bit longer but they are usually gone within 48 hours.
Deciduous Eponychium. “Little claws on top of the hooves that tend to fall off”. Fairy feet. Golden Slippers. Horse Feathers (not to be confused with full grown Clydesdales feathers, which you can read about here).
Call them what you like, they don’t last very long so unless you know someone who breeds horses you probably won’t see them in real life – and that probably doesn’t bother you because they are rather strange looking creations. You can be happy nature made them, so the mums can be safe when gestating and giving birth and the baby horses can get up quickly and escape predators. If horses hadn’t evolved this fascinating trait they probably would have survived this long and we wouldn’t be asking what they are!
Sunny out on his first day in the world with his mum Gail