Hoof ailments in horses are an ongoing concern for the majority of horse owners.
Hoof injuries can quickly lead to lameness, cause pain and discomfort in your horse and potentially lead to retirement. Thus, a key role in looking after your horse and maintaining their ongoing wellbeing is to ensure your horses feet are well-kept and free from injury, inflammation, infection or disease. This is of particularly importance if your horse is an active sports horse.
It is important to have a basic understanding of how a horses foot is structured and formed, including the different internal structures, in order to understand common hoof problems and how to identify them.
The hoof of a horse comprises a number of complicated structures and tissues that all function in collaboration with each other to enable movement of the horses foot. If issues occur within the hoof, in most cases the horse will show early signs of lameness.
Some hoof problems occur quickly due to specific injuries, such as wounds and lacerations, or cracks in the hoof itself, while others develop over time, such as sesamoid issues, ringbone, laminitis and navicular disease.
Studies surrounding hoof ailments and hoof disorders showed that 85% of horses when examined for their regular hoof trim have at least one form of hoof issue. (1)
There are several commonly reported hoof ailments which range in severity. In all cases hoof issues require immediate medical intervention and attention.
In this article we take a look at some of the most common hoof problems that horses experience, how to help spot them and what treatments or methods of prevention you can adopt to help the horse long term.
An abscess is an infection in the hoof that commonly occurs due to an injury or puncture wound to the soft portion of the foot. Signs that your horse has an abscess include a dark patch on the hoof, bleeding or pus around the hoof or lameness of the foot due to the pain.
There are several methods you can adopt to prevent your horses from developing abscesses which include keeping your horse environment clean and dry. Many owners apply hoof hardeners prior to the weather changing (particularly if that horse has a history of abscesses) and routinely keep their horses hooves trimmed.
It is important that you regularly check for damage to to the hooves caused by nails, glass or other external sources that may create abscesses.
If an abscess does occur then treating the abscess immediately is a key requirement.
Many owners will soak their horse's foot in a bucket of warm water with Epsom salts for 20 minutes between using a foot pack replacement or poultices. This process needs to be repeated daily until the abscess ruptures. Once the abscess ruptures, it is advised to get your veterinary professional to make sure that the abscess drains completely before it heals. In many cases a soft poultice is applied directly to the hoof and under a bandage after every treatment.
Within the recovery process from a drained abscess the foot must remain clean and dry - often an issue in most yards and paddocks. If an abscess in a hoof is not drained via a hole in the horses sole then the infected pus will work its way towards the coronary band and in many cases burst out! In most cases abscesses will rupture within a few days, if treated, but can take 2-3 weeks if left alone. If the abscess is severe and does not clear quickly medical intervention and further diagnosis and studies will be required, often using radiographs. If the abscess worsens over time then additional inflammation can often be seen in the pastern and even down to the fetlock joint.
If any infection is seen, the vet may prescribe a cause of antibiotics. As with most pain, the horse will develop an inflammatory response when experiencing an abscess and this can create pressure in the sensitive tissue within the horses hoof. Relieving this inflammation will release the pressure on the internal tissue structures so many owners will use an anti inflammatory medication (NSAID) to support the horses pain levels.
Advanced magnetic bands have shown beneficial effects when used on horses with abscesses. It is thought that using tack like this can increase the blood flow within the hoof and thus speed-up the rupturing process whilst impacting the inflammatory response of the condition and reducing pain levels.
Bone Cysts in the Pedal Bone
A cyst formed in the pedal bone of the horse (distal phalanx) can create long term pain and lameness that can vary from mild to severe and often require the administering of anti-inflammatory medicines.
Diagnosing bone cysts is more commonly found in young horses but the reasons behind why the condition occurs is not fully understood.
Professional diagnosis is often a requirement by using local analgesia, CT scans or x-rays.
Treating Bone Cysts
Treating bone cysts will either be surgical or non-surgical.
The pain associated with horses diagnosed with bone cysts are closely related to inflammation within the hoof. Owners will thus often look at providing a form of anti-inflammatory treatment, normally using NSAID medications such as Bute and more naturally using technologies such as advanced magnetism to aid a reduction in the horses inflammation.
Non-surgical methods for treating bone cysts may involve your vet injecting the joint with hyaluronic acid or corticosteroid’s. There are also some joint supplements available on the market specifically for battling bone cysts.
In more severe cases treatment will require surgery with some horses experiencing a full recovery whilst others are forced into early retirement from any active exercise.
Surgical treatments involves keyhole surgery where the surgeon will drill a hole into the cyst from outside the joint. Stem cell therapy is also a new option within the equine community.
Corns and Sole Bruises (hoof bruises)
If you look at the sole of the hoof and it is bruised, it may be due to poor shoeing or bad trimming of the hoof. Additionally, rocks or other sharp objects can lead to damage or bruising of the foot. There is little you can do to prevent this other than inspecting the pasture and removing any unwanted objects from where the horse may stand.
Corns are bruises on the foot that form at an angle. They are commonly found between the bars of the hoof and the hoof wall and generally occur when shoes are ill-fitting or are left on too long.
Corns and bruises can sometimes be spotted due to the red and yellow discolouration on the sole and soreness when tested with a hoof tester. You may also see lameness of the foot if the bruises are particularly bad.
To prevent corns and bruised soles in your horse regular trimming and shoeing is advised to ensure the shoes are correctly fitted and the horse hooves is balanced.
Hoof Wall Cracking
The hoof of a horse can often be cracked due to a number of different reasons, such as a lack of regular trimming, cuts and injuries or too much moisture, which can lead to the expansion and contraction of the hoof wall.
If there is no external reason to why the hoof walls are cracked, it may be worth looking at the horses diet as vitamin and amino acid deficiencies in the horse can also impact the horses hoof health.
Treating a cracked hoof is important to prevent further issues and one method to assist is to apply glue-on patches to protect the hoof and provide additional stability to the hoof wall. In many cases a ‘bar shoe’ with strategically positioned clips are applied to provide stability toe hoof wall.
This condition is an overgrowth and infection of the horn producing tissues of the the hoof which is often visible from pus protruding from the horses sole (the frog). Canker is found in both front and back feet and produces a foul smelling discharge.
Treating a horse with canker is a challenge and must include intensive care. All loose horn/bone growth must be removed first and an antiseptic and antibiotic dressing needs to be applied daily. Your horse will require strict box rest in a clean and dry stable and several weeks or months of rest and recovery.
Many owners also look at providing support to their horse recovery with a carefully controlled vitamin program and applying advanced magnetic devices such as EQU StreamZ to be used alongside their recovery.
Laminitis (also known as Founder)
The lamina is connective tissue within the horses hoof and the coffin bone of the foot. This tissue can become inflamed, which can then impact the circulation in the foot, leading to the laminitis.
This inflammation leads to lactic acid and bacterial toxins enter into the bloodstream of the horse and can be caused by poor foot care, too much grain, injury, colic or some medications that include steroids.
To help spot laminitis, look for your horse moving its weight onto its back feet. You may also find that your horse becomes resistant to walking. Generally, horses with laminitis will be visibly lame and will often lie down. If you believe that your horse has this this condition, it is important to call a vet as soon as possible.
Navicular disease may take a long time to show symptoms as it is more long-term gradual deterioration. The tissue of the navicular bone becomes inflamed and then breaks down over time, leading to lameness.
One of the early signs of this disease is intermittent lameness that becomes more common and a worn toe which no longer touches the ground on the front hoofs. This disease has a number of different causes, such as poor nutrition, genetics or the impact of the toe over a long time on hard surfaces.
Quittor is a long term inflammatory condition of the cartilage supporting the pedal bone next to the coffin bone of the foot. Less common within the equine community as it was a common condition in working draft horses.
Quittor is usually caused by an injury to the sole of the hoof. Inmost cases this injury results in damage to the coronet or pastern resulting in
It can lead to pus and swelling over the cartilage covering around one-quarter of the hoof, leading to the foot becoming lame.
Treating Quittor in horses is only achieved through surgery to remove the diseased tissue and cartilage. Most horses who are forced to have quitter surgery will make a full recovery, if caught early.
White Line Disease (Seedy Toe, Hollow Wall)
White line disease involves the separation of the hoof wall, a painful condition found in some horses which require immediate attention. It is caused by bacteria, fungus or yeast that can cause the white line in the hoof to disintegrate, leading to the coffin bone rotating and the loss of support within the foot.
The diagnosis of white line disease is carried out by your vet using physical examination techniques such as x-rays. Tapping on the horses hoof wall, with this condition prevalent, will create a hollow sounding noise - hence, “hollow wall”.
This disease is treated with corrective shoeing techniques and providing adequate support to the remaining foot.
Sheared Heels and Quarters
In a normal horses foot, both bulbs in the heel will be balanced and both contact the ground at the same time as they are at the same level. However, if a horse has sheared heels, one of the bulbs will hit the ground fist, meaning that all the horse’s weight will be on this one section of the hoof. This can lead to inflammation, pain and lameness and, if left untreated, it can create further complications such as navicular disease or thrush.
Most of the time, poor shoeing or trimming can lead to sheared heels, meaning that it can be avoided easily with corrective trimming and shoeing.
Sidebone is most commonly found in the front feet of the horse and is associated to incorrect or ill-fitting shoes. Although sidebone rarely creates lameness itself it is commonly related to the development of laminitis and as such requires immediate medical attention.
The cartilage of the coffin bone becomes hardened, turning to bone and leading to pain and swelling. It is frequently found in heavy horses working on hard ground or with hunters and jumpers, but less common in thoroughbreds.
Sidebone is diagnosed by veterinary examination who may use techniques such as nerve blocks and x-rays to establish the exact issue. Again, corrective shoeing and trimming is important along with a short period of rest and recuperation. Many owners now resort to tack such as advance magnetism to aid the horses recovery process alongside medication and box rest.
Thrush can occur in many animals as well as horses and is often associated to poor conformation or trimming of the foot and can be seen more in horses with low levels of exercise and often on the hind feet.
Thrush in horses is a bacterial infection that occurs in the frog area of the hoof, which can lead to a terrible foul odour and a dark discharge forming on the hoof.
Thrush can occur due to poor hoof hygiene and cleaning. If the hoof is not cleaned regularly and packed with wet mud, bedding or manure, thrush can thrive. It is important that thrush is treated promptly as if left untreated, it can lead to severe lameness.
Full recovery is common with appropriate changes in the horses conformation through shoeing and a carefully planned exercise program.
Maintaining your horses hooves is vital in keeping your horse happy, mobile and sound. Whether your horse is living a life at home in the paddock or competing in 3-day event or breakaway roping - all horses require an element of hoof maintenance.
Having a farrier you trust and someone who knows the individual horses is advised as each-and-every horse will require their own shoeing and trimming programs.
Alongside the attention of a farrier (and vet) many owners now support their horses hooves with supplements and vitamins. With major advancements in advanced magnetism many owners are now adopting advanced magnetic therapy products as part of their ongoing care and wellbeing programs. This holistic and natural approach in supporting the horses hooves have shown to support a plethora of hoof conditions and provide a low-invasive and long term natural solution.
If you are concerned about the health of your horses’ hooves, then it is important to consult your farrier and your veterinarian for advice.