Sharpen Your Hoof Knife, or "No knife, no trim."
By Marjorie Smith

Your two main tools for trimming a hoof are the hoof knife and the rasp. The rasp can be used for most of the parts of a natural, barefoot trim. There are some areas that can only be done with the hoof knife, and others where either tool will serve.

To trim a hoof, you need a top-quality knife made of a hard grade of steel, and you have to keep your knife sharp. Sharpening your knife is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of using the tools. A cheap knife won't hold its edge; the quality of the steel is too soft.

The hone that I like the best is the SaveEdge. It has a blue handle, a straight blade coated with diamond dust, and an oval cross-section that can also be used for sharpening the hook of the knife.

Your knife might last a year or two, depending on how many horses you're trimming. When it has been sharpened so much that it gets narrow, throw it out. A narrow knife blade will eventually snap in two, stabbing you or your horse's foot.

Brand-new hoof knives are not sharp enough to use and will make you feel like a klutz. You should be able to cut through the frog as if you were cutting butter. As long as the knife is the slightest bit dull, it will feel like you're trying to carve a hunk of rubber eraser.

Photo 1

First, you need a steady "table" to work on. Kneel on your right knee, set the left knee up to use as a table. Holding the knife firmly in your fist, set your fist firmly on your knee (Photo 1).

Look at the knife blade. Along the inside of the blade there is a narrow, flat bevel. This forms the sharp edge that you cut with. The bevel needs to be at just the right angle to the blade, to make a "good edge." If it is too steep, the edge will be rather blunt and won't cut well. If it is too shallow, it will cut well briefly, but then break off because it's so thin. It will take some experience, but you will find the in-between angle that is just right for a sharp blade. Your eye and your arm will come to recognize exactly the right angle for sharpening.

Photo 2

You are going to hold the sharpener (hone) in your right hand in a position that gives you free motion of your right elbow. Lay the hone across the blade so that the two blades make a cross or right angle (Photo 2). Then tip your left hand until the bevel of the blade meets the hone where you are going to sharpen.

Photo 3

Angle is just right to make a sharp edge that won't break easily. (Photo 3)

Photo 4

Sharpener at low angle. This makes a long, brittle edge that breaks easily. (Photo 4)

Photo 5

Sharpener at high angle, edge will be too blunt to cut well. (Photo 5)

Photo 6

The motion you are going to use is a diagonal motion of your right arm, while keeping the two tools at a right angle to each other. Start with the tip of the hone at the handle end of the knife blade (Photo 6). Move it both along and across the blade, so that you end up with the handle end of the hone almost to the hook of the knife (Photo 7). Then reverse the motion so that the hone ends up where you started. Press firmly -- you are working on steel! You need to use enough pressure so that the sound is not a squeak but not so much that you get a heavy grinding noise. There is a medium grinding sound that "sings."

Photo 7

Use a long, diagonal stroke across the knife blade, going from handle to hook, back and forth, using the whole length of both tools. Watch that you don't grind a notch just before the hook; that is your most powerful area for cutting and you want to keep a correct blade shape there.

Check to see if your blade is sharp. Stand in the sun or near a bright light and look directly at the sharp edge in the sunlight. If it's not totally sharp you'll be able to see a tiny strip of brightness along all or part of the edge. Nicks made by grains of sand will show up clearly.

Photo 8

If you are using too much pressure or have done too many strokes, the edge of the blade curls over toward the back of the blade. You can feel a tiny burr along the back of the blade. After several strokes, feel gently with a finger, moving the blade away across your skin so that you don't cut yourself. If you feel a burr, hold the knife blade back-side-up on your knee, lay the hone flat on the back side of the blade, and wipe the burr off the edge with one light, diagonal stroke (Photo 8). Other than this, you never sharpen the back side of a hoof knife. Unlike a kitchen knife, it's a one-sided blade.

Photo 9

To sharpen the hook, hold the knife upright in your fist, hook down, with the sharp edge facing you. Place the narrowish edge of the hone in the hook and make short strokes, tilting the hone to match the bevel as it bends around on the inside of the hook (Photo 9).

Once your new knife is well-sharpened, you will only need to do a few strokes each time before you use it. In dry weather, you may need to sharpen before each foot. On a rainy day, you can probably do four feet on one sharpening.

About the author:
Once a teenage horse-story addict, Marjorie Smith 'rediscovered' horses at the age of 45. Soon she had her very own first horse and discovered some of the new thinking about horse training and health. A friend showed her how to look at horses' legs and hooves for balance, which led to her eventually pulling the shoes off her present two horses "because they were in my way." After a year of trimming on her own and two years of studying and practicing different methods, she now helps others understand trimming. She developed the website "Barefoot for Soundness" at which presents the idea that horses are better off without shoes.