“No hoof, no horse” isn’t just an old proverb; it is estimated that as much as 70% of lameness is caused by hoof-related problems1. However many people neglect the importance of proper horse hoof care, allowing problems such as thrush, canker, abscesses, cracks and laminitis to develop and worsen. A report from the US Department of Agriculture found that 5.5% of farms did not trim their horses’ hooves at all, and 26.3% said that none of their horses were shod.2 The problems caused by this neglect could result in thousands of pounds in farrier bills, lameness and even death. Understanding the hoof, the problems that can occur and proper care for hooves will considerably reduce the risk of lameness, and help to avoid the conditions which might cause your horse serious pain and distress.
The heel bulbs are important in absorbing shock. Two oval bulges at the end of the heel.
The frog is made of a thick, leathery material. It resists the distortion of the hoof capsule during the stride, and its pliability allows independent movement of the heels. The frog also acts as a pump, moving blood back to the heart.
The central sulcus should be wide and shallow, but with a weak frog it can become deep, harbouring bacteria and fungi.
The end of the frog should be 2/3rd of the length to the toe, leaving a 1/3rd of sole left.
The angle of the wall is where the wall meets the bars. It supports the weight of the horse and is built to dissipate excess shock.
The bars control the movement of the heel, adding strength and protecting from excess distortion. Consisting mainly of inner wall, the bars are pliable, moving as the heel moves.
The collateral sulcus is the groove that runs either side of the frog. It is a haven for bacteria and fungi, so it is prone to diseases such as thrush.
The white line joins the sole to the inner wall, and seals off the border of the pedal, or coffin bone.
Due to the high ratio of intertubular horn which binds the tubules together, the inner wall is more flexible than the outer wall. This allows it to absorb shock, thus protecting the inner workings of the hoof.
The outer wall is much harder than the inner wall as a result of an increased number of tubules. The tubules add strength, shielding the sensitive inner parts of the hoof. The outer wall also controls the flow of moisture in and out of the hoof.
This large area of the hoof protects the sensitive inner parts of the hoof. The sole also shares some of the weight of the horse, offering support and taking pressure off the walls.
According to Burlington Equine, lameness in the forefoot is by far the most common unsoundness in the horse3. Proper care of the hoof is vital to keep your horse at the peak of health and happiness, but many owners underestimate the importance of the hooves, often forgetting such basic care as picking them out at least once a day. Tom Ryan FWCF, one of the most respected farriers in Bedfordshire, says “care of the hoof is equally important as care of any other body part, since the lower leg is the biggest source of lameness.” 4
Furthermore, hoof care is crucial in keeping your horse at optimum performance. Leaving the hooves to grow will cause them to become deformed, break and unbalance the horse. This makes the horse’s movements more unpredictable, increasing the risk of falling over and injuring both itself and the rider. Jay Tovey DWCF, one of the official London 2012 Olympics farriers, says “hoof care is vitally important if you require a horse that will stay sound for the majority of its working life.”5 Other diseases such as thrush and abscesses arising from hoof neglect can significantly worsen performance as they result in a tentative, abnormal gait and unresponsiveness to the rider’s commands.
Paying lots of attention to the hoof can save you paying lots of money in farrier bills. If a seemingly small problem is left unattended to, it can develop into a number of other conditions which are more severe and expensive to fix. For example, neglecting to pick out hooves may result in thrush which, whilst being manageable in its early stages, can infect sensitive tissues in the foot, and even invade the attachment of the deep flexor tendon to the pedal bone, causing permanent lameness. Tom Ryan uses the analogy of a car to explain this point; “if you don’t change your engine oil, you’re saving money in the short-term but the long-term problems are more expensive and damaging, like no early detection of oil leaks and even engine breakdown.” It is clear that proper care of hooves not only avoids major problems for your horse, but also makes economical sense in the long run.
There are many conditions which can afflict a horse’s hoof, many of which cause permanent lameness, further highlighting the importance of proper hoof care. These problems arise from a variety of different causes, including injury, poor trimming, diet, environment, improper shoeing or simply genetics. Whilst the conditions listed are of a range of severity, it is recommended that they are all treated seriously and are seen to as soon as possible.
Thrush is a bacterial or fungal infection of the hoof that develops mainly in the central and collateral sulcus of the frog. It is caused by warm, damp, anaerobic conditions such as a hot stable or a muddy paddock. Thrush can be worsened by wet weather, neglecting to pick out the hooves and a deep central/collateral sulcus. Common symptoms of hoof thrush are: resistance to cleaning and inspecting of the hooves; sensitive frog; toe-first landing; abnormal gait, and; a black, moist, foul-smelling substance in the affected area. If diagnosed early, thrush is easily treated with over-the-counter medication such as iodine or betadine solution. However, if left to worsen, thrush can infect deep sensitive tissues in the foot, erode the hoof and ultimately cause permanent lameness.
An abscess is a localised bacterial infection in the sensitive tissue of the hoof. As a natural defence against the infection, the body produces pus, which accumulates between the keratinised and germinal layers of the hoof. Since hoof is rigid and cannot expand, the pus puts pressure on the hoof, causing severe pain. Then the abscess will move upwards and drain out from the coronary band or heel bulbs. Among numerous causes of an abscess, penetration of the sole with a sharp object is the most common. It can also be as a result of bacteria entering the foot, either in the form of soil, sand or a nail driven too close to the white line. The symptoms for an abscess are heat, swelling and an increased digital pulse in the affected area. Moreover, the horse will refrain from putting weight on the injured foot or walk on its toe. An abscess is treated by pulling the shoe, locating the infection and draining it via a very small hole; if the abscess is too deep to be located safely, then it will drain naturally from the coronary band or heel bulbs. It is vital to keep the whole area extremely clean, and to apply a poultice. It is also recommended that treatment should be performed by a vet or farrier.
Cracks are quite simply splits in the outer wall of the hoof. Some are just ugly, and will correct themselves in a few months. However, often cracks are symptomatic of serious, underlying problems, such as poor nutrition and general health. If a crack runs too deep, it can severely compromise the structure of the hoof, exposing deeper sensitive tissues. Cracks can also be a sign of environmental problems, whether it is too wet, too dry or consistently alternating between the two. Excess water causes the hoof to swell, stretching the hydrogen bonds in the hoof wall; this weakens the ability to absorb shock. Subsequently, dry conditions cause the hoof to contract, distorting and breaking the hydrogen bonds, making the hoof brittle. There are many other types of cracks and causes to consider, such as sand and grass cracks. Careful management from the owner and farrier, improving diet, and preventing moisture and dryness all contribute towards treating cracks. Jay Tovey says “cracks can mainly be dealt with by taking away any stresses from the foot by not allowing them to become flared or unbalanced. Once a crack has occurred, this may be a lengthy process to repair especially if this involves the sensitive structures.”
White Line Disease is a bacterial or fungal infection which, confusingly, mainly affects the inner wall rather than the white line. The infection weakens the bond between the inner and outer wall, and has been known to infect the outer wall, frog and sole, even separating the two parts of the hoof wall. Other problems may be a decreased ability to support the weight of the horse, and an increased vulnerability to further infection. Like other bacterial and fungal infections, the risk of white line disease grows with unclean stables, warm and moist conditions, poor nutrition, injury and general neglect of the hoof. The symptoms may be a powdery black or gray substance at the white line, or a hollow sound when the outer wall of the affected area is tapped. There may also be soreness and abnormal growths on the hoof wall. It is treated by removing the infected tissue, and applying an antibacterial or antifungal chemical such as iodine. It is recommended that this treatment is undertaken by a farrier or vet.
A corn is a bruise which specifically occurs at the angle of the wall, appropriately nicknamed the ‘seat of corn.’ A red hue characterises a corn due to the damaged tissue and blood vessels, and they have the propensity to become infected if improperly treated. Dry corns are haemorrhages between the sole and sensitive tissue, causing thinning of the sole in the traumatised area. Moist corns occur when inflammatory fluids accumulate under the sole. Finally, a suppurating corn is an area that has been penetrated and an infection has set in, resulting in pus. Corns are often the result of poor shoeing, where the shoe is too short and tight at the heels. Alternatively, the shoe may have been left on too long whilst the foot grows. Other causes may be excessive loading of the horse resulting in too much weight at the heels, or a stone becoming lodged between the shoe and the seat of corn. A corn is diagnosed by noticing an abnormal gait, warm feet, a stronger digital pulse and pain when pressing on the hoof or using a hoof tester. Once a corn has been successfully recognised, the shoe should be removed and the corn relieved of pressure; for dry and moist corns this involves paring with a knife, whilst suppurating corns are drained like an abscess. Then a poultice or protective bandage may be applied, and the horse should be rested.
Canker, often mistaken as thrush, is a bacterial infection that affects the deeper tissue layers of the frog, heel, and other underlying structures. It causes the disintegration of the intertubular horn into soft vegetative stands, covered in foul-smelling pus, and frequently, blood. In its early stages, there are few, if any, signs of lameness or discomfort. If canker is allowed to develop, however, it can cause severe lameness as the infection spreads to the sensitive laminae and undermines the sole of the hoof. Furthermore, a cauliflower-like growth may begin to develop at the heel of the hoof, at which point the horse will stamp in discomfort. Like all other bacterial infections, canker is caused and worsened by warm, damp conditions, as well as a dirty stable. Poor trimming, improper shoeing and general neglect of the hoof (failing to pick it out at least once a day) all increase the likelihood of canker, whilst certain genetic conformations such as narrow hooves and sheared heels can make your horse more vulnerable. If diagnosed early, canker can be treated fairly quickly by removing the infected tissue and carefully applying antiseptic and antibiotics. However, when the infection deepens and develops, treatment becomes more expensive and time consuming; the infected tissue must be removed before the application of caustic agents and astringent solutions. Antibiotics may also be used, and the area is protected with dressings, hospital plates or even a plaster cast.
Navicular disease is the inflammation or degeneration of the navicular bone and its surrounding tissues. The navicular bone acts as a fulcrum for the deep flexor tendon; prolonged compression in this area causes cartilage degeneration, eventually exposing the bone. This results in pain and lameness in the horse. Other contributing factors may be a ‘toe first landing,’ tension of the ligaments supporting the navicular bone, and conformation such as small, long and narrow feet. The symptoms of navicular disease include mild to severe lameness, a ‘tiptoe’ gait and frequent stumbling. Jay Tovey says “navicular disease can be prevented by keeping the feet balanced in a way not to cause excessive strain around the navicular area, for example by keeping toes short and a good hoof pastern angle.” Once the onset of navicular disease has begun, its degenerative nature means that it cannot be cured. However careful foot management, along with NSAIDs and appropriate rest, can help to extend the period of time for which the horse will be sound.
Laminitis is one of the most common causes of lameness in horses and ponies. The USDA 1998 study found that 2.1% of the recorded horse population had suffered from laminitis at some point in the prior twelve months. 4.8% of these horses had to be euthanised. Of an estimated 8 million horses in the US, this would make 168,000 laminitis cases and 8,064 euthanised horses per year. Rather than being primarily an inflammatory disease, laminitis is widely thought to be the ischaemia (restriction in blood supply) of digital dermal tissues. The bond between the dermal and epidermal laminae which supports the distal phalanx within the hoof capsule is destroyed, and in some cases, resulting in the horse becoming foundered. This means that the pedal bone moves distally within the hoof, and begins to ‘sink’ in some cases. Overeating and obesity is one of the most common causes, as Jay Tovey notes “it’s all too easy to overfeed, thinking your horse will love you more in return.” However many horses need less food than that which is implied by feed companies and show judges. Another cause of laminitis is trauma or mechanical stress, for example prolonged work on hard surfaces, or repeated jumping. There are many other possible causes of laminitis due to the extreme complexity of the disease, such as any systemic disease involving a septic or toxic focus. In terms of the cure, Tovey warns that, “once the horse has foundered then you are looking at 12 months specialist farriery care to support the pedal bone which is suspended within the hoof capsule, whilst the hoof regrows itself with a new laminal bond.” It is important also to indentify the cause of laminitis and treat it appropriately; in addition NSAIDs may be prescribed by a vet. Horses with laminitis tend to load all their weight onto the heel in order to relieve pain in the toe and hoof wall. After fitting frog supports, the horse brings his feet back under himself and stands with his in a more normal position. This is because the support takes some of the weight through the frog, meaning less pressure is put on the hoof wall. A correctly fitted frog support will improve the comfort of over 80% of laminitis and acute founder cases. 6
Through proper care of hooves, it is possible to limit, and even totally avoid the damage cause by the above hoof conditions. Jay Tovey argues that “prevention is always better than the cure, and the horse will benefit from good regular hoof care,” so it is vital to understand how to care for the hooves even without the symptoms of problems.
Farrier Chris Volk emphasises the importance of picking out the horse’s hooves.7 Volk encourages picking out before each ride, after untacking the horse, when the horse is taken in at night and before turnout the next morning. Moreover the frog should be gently cleaned and the entire surface brushed. This allows the rider to intimate his or herself with the horse’s hooves, and begin to establish what is normal in a healthy hoof; for example the slight warmth of the sole, the digital pulse at the pastern and the rubbery texture of the frog.
When picking out the hooves, this is a great time to look for problems such as thrush, abscesses, punctures, cracks or canker. If the owner performs this basic care as often as Volk suggests, then the problems will be caught and diagnosed early, making treatment much easier and cheaper. It also avoids the risk of the conditions worsening and resulting in permanent lameness, or even death of the horse.
Hygiene is also a huge part of keeping your horse’s hooves in the best possible condition. A clean, dry stable will massively reduce the likelihood of a bacterial or fungal infection such as thrush. Similarly, excessive exposure to moisture can be limited, thus allowing the hooves to remain hard and clean. You should try to avoid turning out in deep mud or extremely wet weather, as this compromises the structural integrity of the hoof and provides ideal conditions for fungi and bacteria. Baths should be restricted to before shows only, as a brush works fine in the removal of sweat. Furthermore, the daily application of hoof oils, creams and dressings can help to keep hooves tough. For example, Kevin Bacon’s Hoof Dressing protects from water excess in wet weather, but maintains ideal moisture levels in dry weather.
It is of vital importance to reiterate that spending money on farrier visits and products now will save you money in the future, as the early diagnosis and even avoidance of potential problems makes treatment much easier. Jay Tovey emphasises this point: “There are no ‘quick fix’ products on the market that would be able to cure a condition. No ‘lotions or potions’ can rectify feet that have been neglected by leaving them too long between farriery visits. Attempting to budget on hoof care could result in a costly process of a new long term remedial shoeing plan.” Ensuring regular farriery visits is a major part of being a responsible horse owner. Proper fitting of shoes and trimming can greatly improve a horse’s balance and soundness, and reduce the risk of the development of corns and canker to name but a few problems.
Chris Volk advises owners to schedule farriery visits according to the horse’s needs, rather than a budget. If a horse has a problem with its feet, then waiting the usual period until the next farriery visit could be severely damaging. For example, in the case of a flared hoof or under-run heel, the horse may benefit from a shorter interval between appointments. Normal, healthy hooves must still receive routine farriery visits; Tom Ryan FWCF, when asked what constitutes proper hoof care, replied “regular attention every 4-6 weeks from a farrier.”
Despite this, you can take certain measures to ensure your horse’s hooves remain in the best possible condition between farrier appointments. For example, you could learn how to remove a shoe, in the event that the shoe becomes sprung or shifted. Stephen Jackson PhD argues that often, the best way of promoting hoof wall growth, integrity of the hoof tissues and structural integrity of the foot is a well-balanced diet that meets the horse's requirements for all nutrients.8 Firstly, the horse must not be overfed due to the risk of obesity, but also not underfed as this can result in reduced hoof growth (Butler and Hintz, 1977). Second, it is essential to meet the protein requirements of the horse in order to maintain the structural integrity of the hoof, since keratin (an insoluble protein) is crucial to the hoof wall composition. In terms of minerals, zinc is widely involved in the health of the hair, skin and hoof. Adding a zinc supplement, or raising the zinc in your horse’s diet, might improve hoof growth.
Biotin is a B-vitamin which is important for thyroid and adrenal gland function, reproductive tract health, nervous system stability, and most notably, the growth and repair of skin and hooves. Various studies have found a statistically significant improvement from biotin supplementation on overall hoof condition with 15 to 25 mg per day.9 In other studies, biotin supplementation did not change growth rate, but the quality of the hoof improved. Biotin supplements are widely available, such as NAF Biotin which features a blend of biotin, methionine, MSM, zinc and calcium. In summary it is of vital importance to carefully manage your horse’s diet so that the hooves are kept in the best possible condition. Regular exercise on good surfaces is also necessary in promoting hoof growth and improving circulation in the foot.
In conclusion, it is paramount that the owner recognises that healthy hooves are a product of careful, regular management. Hooves are the foundation of soundness in a horse, and daily preventative measures can save the owner thousands of pounds in the long term. The moment hooves are neglected, however, problems are allowed to develop and worsen, risking permanent lameness and even death.
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2Hoofcare & Lameness: The Journal of Equine Foot Science, September 1998
4Telephone interview with Tom Ryan FWCF
5Email interview with Jay Tovey DWCF
8Stephen G. Jackson, PhD, published in ANVIL Magazine June 1996, presented at the 1996 Bluegrass Laminitis Symposium
9Kentucky Equine Research: http://www.ker.com/library/health/2010/08/biotin-basics.html