Maintaining Healthy Hooves in Horses

Horses belong to a group of mammals that use the tip of their hoofed toes to carry their weight when moving. These hooves also play a key role in their ability to function and perform. It is, then, a marvel to see a horse's small hoof support its size, weight and speed as they run.

These hooves are like human fingernails. They have rubbery soles wrapped in solid walls strengthened by keratin. Like fingernails, they need constant care. Hooves need regular trimming to prevent them from growing brittle, uneven, and fragile. They also need regular check-ups to examine for possible signs of infection and injuries.

Knowing the physical anatomy of a horse’s foot and hoof will help you to assess their condition. Most injuries are visible, while others develop undiscovered over a period of time. Untreated diseases and injuries will impact your horse's appearance and performance. It can cause lameness, poor balance, damaged hoof structure, and poor performance.

Here are some of the common hoof conditions that horse owners should be aware of:


1.    Abscess

·         How to spot it: An abscess is comparable to a pimple with pus under the skin. It can feel like a slight pinch, or be very painful for the animal. Bacteria that entered the inner hoof structure through broken gaps cause these abscesses. These gaps resulted from shifting environmental conditions between wet and dry, ill-fitting shoes, sharp wounds, or dirty hooves.

·         How to treat it: The most basic solution for an abscess is to open and drain it. Break the skin and remove the pus. Once done, soak the foot in an antiseptic solution like chlorine dioxide. Doing this will help treat the open wound. 


2.    Thrush

·         How to spot it: This infection is caused by prolonged exposure to manure, mud, or other wet environments. It’s identified by a foul smell and dark ooze from the underside of the foot. Unchecked thrush causes hoof damage and even lameness. It can be easily treated if discovered in its early stages.

·         How to treat it: There are two steps to attack and get rid of thrush. First, kill the invading bacteria by using over-the-counter thrush remedies. Second, change the affected horse’s living condition. Keep a better hoof care routine to prevent its return.

3. Laminitis

·         How to spot it: Laminitis is a swelling of the laminae of the horse’s foot. The laminae are soft tissues between the hoof wall and collarbone of the front feet. It can be caused by obesity, insulin resistance, and poor nutrition. Signs of Laminitis include weight shifting to rear feet, struggling to walking, and needing to often lie down.

·         How to treat it: Once your horse shows any of these signs, immediately call your veterinarian. Laminitis is a complex disease and treating it is urgent.

4. Navicular Disease

·         How to spot it: This disease begins with the swelling and collapse of the navicular bone and its surrounding tissues. Improper care and nutrition, and genetics are some of the common causes of this disease. If left untreated, it will lead to irregular lameness that worsens over time.

·         How to treat it: Effective treatment methods for this disease include corrective shoeing and using drugs that open blood vessels and increase blood circulation to the navicular bone. Call your veterinarian for further assistance.

5. White Line Disease

·         How to spot it: This disease is a fungal infection that causes the white line to collapse, and the hoof wall to separate. This infection usually stems from an improperly balanced hoof.

·         How to treat it: Treatment for this disease will vary depending on the severity of the hoof damage. If caught in the early stages, you can soak the hoof in a chlorine-based agent weekly, and keep the hoof as clean as possible. If it's in an advanced stage, it's best to remove the affected hoof wall completely.

These diseases, if left unattended, can cause serious damage to your horse. The statement, “no hoof, no horse” captures how important hoof care is. Regular maintenance and routine hoof care will ensure that your horse is in top form. Use the following tips to create your own hoof care routine:

1. Clean Out Hooves – Using a hoof pick, remove dirt, rocks, grass, and manure from each hoof. Do this daily, especially before or after riding sessions. After picking, clean each hoof with a stiff-bristle brush to remove debris from the sole. Frequent hoof cleaning will remove fragments that can cause injuries or infections. It will also allow you to check for signs of thrush, cracks, or abscesses.

2. Check the Shoes – Check for sprung or shifted horseshoes. A sprung horseshoe happens when instead of being flat on your horse’s hoof, the shoe is loose or bent. A shifted horseshoe means it has changed positions. Either way, improperly shod hooves are more susceptible to injury from the metal shoe itself, as it can strain sensitive hoof structures when your horse uses the affected foot.

3. Balance Moist with Dry – Too much moisture from wet weather, damp pastures, and muddy corrals can cause hooves to soften, while too much hot and dry weather can cause hooves to crack, break, or grow brittle. It’s important that hoof water loss and absorption is kept at a balance. One way to do that is by using a topical conditioner to moisturize and seal in the needed moisture. Be wary though of conditioners that leave the hoof feeling oily. If used frequently, they can soften the hoof wall and make it more prone to injuries.

4. Keep Out of Mud – Long hours dipped in mud may change hoof moisture levels, loosen shoes, or cause thrush or skin infections in the joint area. Make sure to keep pastures leveled by filling in holes to prevent water from gathering and forming mud. Also, build a run-in shelter to provide dry ground while your horse is out to pasture.

5. Great Health = Great Hooves – Your horse’s diet also plays an important role in their hoof health. Hooves, like skin or hair, require certain nutrients to ensure healthy growth, keep their strength, and allow quick repair and renewal. This can be achieved by providing a regular diet of quality hay, fresh and clean water, and mineral supplements such as calcium and zinc to promote hoof health.

6. Regular Farrier Visits – Schedule farrier visit every 4 - 8 weeks. The frequency may vary depending on your horse’s individual needs. It can be increased if your farrier is correcting a problem or curing an injury.

Performing the steps above will help you respond to problems faster. It will also require lesser intervention if diseases are caught early. First familiarize yourself with your horse’s anatomy, and then train yourself to be observant until it becomes second nature!  Still, it's encouraged that you consult your veterinarian for specific questions regarding your horse’s health.