As horse owners, horse riders, and horse lovers, none of us want to find out that the horse in our life is feeling unwell in any way, much less when it comes to their hooves. Next to colic and cancer, hoof-related issues are one of the leading causes of death among equines. However, a lot of hoof problems are fairly common and can be easily treated if caught in the early stages.
As the days of winter wane to allow the warmth and blooms of spring, our horses are much more susceptible to hoof issues that could cause discomfort and pain.
With show season and the perfect summer trail days around the corner, we want to do all we can to prevent and watch for these threats so that our horses can be as healthy as possible.
Today we will be discussing four of the most common hoof problems that our horses face, particularly during the weather changes of springtime. These four hoof issues are: Thrush, Cracks, Founder, and Abscesses.
What You'll Learn Today
- 1 Thrush
- 2 Cracks
- 3 Founder
- 4 Abscesses
- 5 Happy Hooves, Happy Horse
- 6 Frequently Asked Questions
What It Is:
Thrush is an infection that eats away at the horse’s hoof and comes with a pungent odor and dark, runny discharge. Veterinarians believe the root of thrush to be bacteria.
Thrush often happens in moist seasons, when the horse’s paddocks are muddy. Bacteria is able to flourish in the hoof tissue because of the moisture of the ground.
Horses whose hooves are improperly trimmed can also lead to bacteria getting easily trapped in the hoof tissue, and therefore much more susceptible to thrush.
Prevention & Treatment:
Thrush is a common infection in the spring time and other wet months, but can be easily managed by the observant horse owner.
To minimize the chances of thrush, start by finding a reputable farrier who can keep your horse’s hooves in good shape. Make sure you’re doing your part by keeping the hooves clean regularly.
Depending on your climate, you may want to take extra measures to drain excess water from their enclosure. This could be as simple as a slope and gutter, or require more labor, like shelters and gravel.
For horses with a history of thrush, you can apply a mild thrush treatment every week during the wet months and twice per month in the dry months.
What It Is:
Hoof cracks are either vertical or horizontal splits that happen in the horse’s hoof when its structural integrity is compromised.
Often times they have to do with poor trimming, injury, or abscess. While many hoof cracks are superficial and will not cause any pain or damage, some of them can go deeper into the hoof wall and affect your horse’s ability to keep pressure on it.
Hoof cracks are most often caused by issues with nutrition or improper trimming, but sometimes weather changes do play a role.
If a horse is constantly standing in moisture, such as a muddy paddock, the hoof will weaken.
If, then, the weather dries out, either from a quick transition from wet-to-hot or wet-to-frozen temperatures, the hoof may crack vertically from drying out to quickly.
Horizontal cracks can also be caused by abscesses, that can more easily occur in the moisture of spring (read on for more information about abscesses).
Prevention & Treatment:
Most serious hoof cracks should be treated by proper nutrition and hoof angle correction by a good farrier.
For cracks caused by the dramatic onset of heat, make sure your horse’s hoof transitions to hot weather by letting water pool around their water trough.
Hoof oils and conditioners could potentially seal off incoming moisture, so make sure to consult your vet before applying them.
What It Is:
Founder is a condition of the hoof where the laminae of the horse’s hoof become inflamed. The sensitive laminae that connect the hoof wall to the coffin bone begin to die and separate from the hoof wall, causing extreme pain.
In worst case scenarios, the coffin bone will rotate and come through the sole of the horse’s hoof and euthanasia becomes inevitable.
Founder, more specifically, grass founder, poses its greatest risk in the springtime to pasture-grazing horses.
Rapidly growing grass causes the proliferation of sugar fructans, molecular structures that result in excess bacteria in the horse’s digestive system.
This overgrowth of bacteria releases toxins into the bloodstream that ultimately kill the hoof laminae.
Prevention & Treatment:
Veterinarians caution horses that are overweight or easy-keepers from eating the fresh grass of spring, as they are most susceptible to the overgrowth of bacteria in their gut.
However some years, the grass grows at such a rapid pace that all horses should be monitored. Take note if your horse favors any of its hooves at any point in the spring or summer.
If there is any question about their risk of founder, remove them from the pasture and call your vet to monitor them.
Your vet may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or require hoof wedges, cold water treatment, or even surgery for the hooves to heal.
What It Is:
Abscesses are infections in the hoof that have gotten trapped somehow by the hoof wall. They can appear seemingly overnight, as the infection must fester for some time before causing enough pressure to become painful.
When it does, many horses will show its effects by heavily favoring that hoof, trying to keep their weight off of it at all costs.
Much like a pimple, an abscess will start out as a foreign particle, like a pebble or simple bacterial penetration through a crack in the hoof.
The majority of abscesses enter through the white line, the transitional tissue between the tough hoof wall and the hoof sole tissue.
This happens easily when the horse has been standing in mud for too long without the relief of dry ground. Other abscesses stem from exterior cracks on the outer hoof wall.
When the bacteria and/or foreign material enters into the hoof, the horse’s body will try to attack it with white blood cells and other infection-fighting molecules in your horse’s body.
All this accumulates as pus and inflammation in your horse’s hoof. Without much room to grow, the pressure from this pustule causes sharp discomfort when your horse walks or even stands.
Prevention & Treatment:
In order for this pain to cease, your veterinarian will need to somehow “pop” the abscess so that they can properly drain and clean it. This will allow the hoof to heal and completely expel the infection.
For advanced abscesses, your vet may also recommend a poultice to draw out the infection. Poultices also keep the hoof soft enough to disinfect and treat it as it heals.
The easiest way to prevent abscesses is to keep the hooves clean and free of rocks that could enter behind the hoof wall.
Keep an eye on their enclosures, so that your horse always has a dry place to stand. Moist ground just provides more opportunity for the hoof to become infected with bacteria or for a pebble to get lodged and absorbed by the softer tissue.
Horses can also be more susceptible if their hooves are trimmed improperly or if they have a naturally thin sole.
A good farrier can determine proper hoof shape, as well as the necessity of shoes for your horse to prevent abscesses.
Happy Hooves, Happy Horse
Because our horses rely so heavily on their legs for daily life, hoof health is essential to a happy horse. The following steps can help prevent all the hoof-related issues our horses face during the changing of the seasons:
- Clean your horse’s hooves on a regular basis
- Keep their enclosures free from mud, but moist enough to hydrate their hooves in the heat
- Find a reputable farrier to trim their hooves and monitor their hoof health
- Always observe whether your horse favors any or all of their feet
I absolutely love the turn of the seasons, when the longer days arrive with the promise of more riding time.
As riders, keeping our horses’ hooves healthy is a great way to guarantee an amazing Spring and Summer for us and our horses.
Frequently Asked Questions
This is an old-fashioned saying that refers to the fact that an unsound horse with poorly cared for hooves is simply not usable. In the old days, when people depended on horses for transportation and hauling, a horse with unsound hooves would simply be disposed of and replaced. Luckily, today we have the luxury of being able to take the time to help horses recover from hoof problems. Even so, it’s a lot easier and more effective to provide good care and keep your horse’s hooves in good shape than to struggle with helping your horse recover from injury, poor hoof care or neglect.
Whether or not your horse needs shoes, and the type of shoes that are best depends a great deal on how and where you ride and the type of challenges your horse faces. If you’re just ambling about the pasture or riding other soft surfaces, shoes may not be necessary. A good barefoot trim may be all that’s needed.
Metal shoes can provide protection on rough, hard surfaces. Plastic or rubber shoes, or hoof boots, can provide excellent traction on slick surfaces. There are many types of specialty shoes that can be used to help correct or counter hoof problems.
A horse who has good, healthy hooves and does not have to deal with dangerous, damaging surfaces (e.g. slick, hard pavement, ice, rocks) can do very well with a trim that is designed to maintain the natural shape of the hoof. With a barefoot trim, the hooves are left slightly longer and rounded where they contact the ground. It takes a skilled farrier, especially trained in barefoot hoof care to provide just the right, unique barefoot trim for your horse, donkey or mule.
It’s a good idea to set up a regular, standing appointment with your farrier every six weeks. When your farrier comes, he or she will examine your horse’s hooves for problems, such as laminitis, flares, white line disease, cracks, seedy toe and thrush. He or she will check for symptoms of impending problems, such as heat in the hooves, higher than normal digital pulse and limping. Your farrier will make recommendations, trim your horse’s hooves and replace or adjust shoes as needed.
Handle your horse every day. Give him or her a light grooming that includes lifting all four feet. Use a hoof pick to remove dirt and stones. Wipe the hoof clean with a clean, dry cloth and apply a hoof conditioner lightly to all surfaces. This daily routine will help keep you apprised of the condition of your horse’s hooves. It will also help keep your horse’s hooves in good condition between farrier visits, and the regular handling will make farrier visits easier and more pleasant.