Seven Common Hoof Problems in Horses

Some common hoof problems in equine

As the old adage goes, “No Foot, No Horse”.  Horses are heavy animals spending most of the time on their feet.  In fact, them lying down for long periods can cause potentially disastrous damage to their muscles.  Unlike smaller animals and people, the sheer weight of a horse means leg amputation would not help them so any foot problems cause huge issues.

 

So, what are the most common disorders of horse’s hooves.

Laminitis

This condition raises masses of fear in any horse owner.

The horse’s hoof has two layers of soft tissue between the hoof wall and the inner structures.  This structure is called the lamina.  The lamina holds the pedal bone in the foot to the inside of the hoof wall and stops it falling further down within the foot.

Laminitis is a swelling of this structure.  It is usually associated with lameness of the front legs but can affect just one foot both back feet or all four.  This is an incredibly painful condition and can either come on really quickly or much more slowly and be there most of the time.

Laminitis presents more commonly in overweight ponies and is associated with hormonal conditions such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Cushings Disease.  However, it is also common in horses worked on hard ground, eating large amounts of fresh lush grass or even those recently treated with steroids.

The symptoms of laminitis include some or all of the following;

  • Lameness.
  • heat in the feet.
  • A bounding digital pulse, ridges on the hoof.
  • bruising of the sole.
  • Lameness or stiffness.
  • Standing back on their feet.

Laminitis, in the most severe of cases, can lead to the pedal bone rotating and dropping lower into the foot which bruises and may even puncture the sole.  These cases can be easily picked on xrays or MRI scans.

If you believe your horse or pony has laminitis you should ring your vet straight away.

With laminitis, you vet will ultimately want to work with both you and your horse’s farrier to try and make sure the horse has several treatments.  In most cases the horses should be kept on a;

  • deep layer of bedding.
  • rested.
  • have specific shoes to take the weight off their painful toes (such as heartbar shoes).
  • be given anti-inflammatory medications.
  • medications to improve the blood flow to the laminae.

Though laminitis can sometimes lead to a horse being put to sleep, especially in the more severe cases, getting the best treatment regime for them as soon as possible can really make a big difference.

The pedal bone (the lowest bone in the picture) has rotated and has dropped through the sole
White Line Disease

White line disease is very common.  It is caused by the separation of the hoof wall at one of the deeper layers of the hoof which lacks pigment, hence the white.  This may occur anywhere on the hoof but appears more at either the heels and quarters (back and sides) of the hoof.

There’s a number of possible causes of White Line Disease.  This tends to first develop with changes in moisture where the structure of the foot may be weaker. The movement of the foot when it’s strength isn’t at its maximum, as well as potential nutritional problems or increased concussion, may lead to small cracks developing.  With the presence of small cracks, bacteria and fungi get into the hoof from the outside world into the deep layer of the hoof causing it to separate.  However, the cause is not always clear-cut.

White line disease can alter in severity from really minor cases whereby the horse remains sound and relatively unaffected to the more severe end of the spectrum with it affecting the structure of the lamina treading to pedal bone rotation.

Other signs include

  • a crumbly area around the edge of the hoof wall on the sole.
  • the foot being hot or tender.
  • their feet becoming flat.
  • their hoof becomes concave on one side whilst bulging on the other side.
  • The hoof wall then starts to chip.
  • Their hooves sound hollow when tapped.

White line Disease may be diagnosed by your farrier finding damage to the hoof, either at the surface or when trimming.  In more severe cases where lameness is present any rotation of the pedal bones may be found by X-rays similar to laminitis.

With treatment,

  1. Any separated hoof wall should be removed and further damaged areas on the surface being removed at 7-10day intervals until the healthy horn is reached.
  2. The actual original cause of the disorder should be found and resolved.
  3. Appropriate shoeing can remove pressure from damaged areas of the hoof, these shoes should be replaced at four weekly intervals.
  4. The application of iodine or similar topical medications to the area may treat the infection.
  5. Keeping the foot dry.
  6. Use supplements which aid hoof growth eg Biotin and Methione supplements.

One thing to avoid is the application of acrylic to seal the area. This will enclose infection in and worsen the problem.

Navicular Disease

Navicular disease is very common. It is the cause of up to a third of chronic cases of lameness affecting both front legs, especially in Thoroughbreds.

There are a number of causes of Navicular Disease.

  1. Some horses are born with a divided navicular bone increasing the risk of a fracture to the navicular bone; a bone just in the heel of the foot.
  2. Trauma due to “wear and tear”. The most likely focus of this damage is due to damage of the deep digital flexor tendon (a tendon running down the back of the heel and which also attaches to the navicular (and pedal) bone.
  3. A fracture of the navicular bone.
  4. Reduction of blood flow to the navicular bone.
  5. In a smaller number of cases, the cause may be an infection of the navicular bone or a fluid sac behind this.  These infections are often caused by nails puncturing the area, often near the frog (a soft structure of the sole) which can lead to permanent changes such as arthritis.

Navicular Disease is related to swelling of the tissues and new the development of bone in some areas of/around the navicular bone and the breakdown of other areas of bone.

Signs of Navicular Disease;

  • Walking with their toes hitting the ground first.
  • Leaning forward over their toes; the opposite to those with laminitis, taking the weight off their painful heels.  This may visible by their hooves being worn over the toes and not at the heel.
  • With severe cases, your horse may be very reluctant to put any weight down their heels.
  • A nerve block (where your vet injects local anaesthetic at different points in the leg. This causes specific areas to become numb and, if the affected area is numb they will no longer be lame) around the navicular bone.
  • XRays show changes to the navicular bone leaving the Navicular bone looking moth-eaten around the edges.

To treat navicular disease your vet needs to find the cause.

  • Any fractures need to be repaired, often with surgically placed screws.
  • Putting a camera (known as an arthroscope) into the back of their foot to view the structures around the navicular bone, cut away any unhealthy tissues and clean out the area.
  • Your vet may suggest you call your farrier to shoe your horse so their toe is shorter and their heel. This stops them putting pressure on their heels.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory Drugs such as Phenylbutazone (“Bute) or Meloxicam (Metacam) to reduce both the swelling and pain helping your horse be in less pain and be able to move easier.
  • In severe cases, surgery can be done to cut the nerves at the back of the foot. This doesn’t affect their walking as these nerves don’t control their muscles. It also only helps in the short term as, over time, the nerves will heal. This method works purely by numbing the area so your horse will no longer be in pain and will therefore no longer be in pain.

    Heartbar shoes can help with laminitis and cracked hooves
Foot Abscess

A foot abscess is a very common cause of sudden lameness at rest in horses.

As the horse suddenly becomes severely lame when they previously showed no lameness, many horse owners initially think their horse has damaged a tendon though this is not the case.

An abscess is a pocket of infection and pus.  As the hoof is very hard there is nowhere for this pus to be released so pressure builds up against sensitive structures of their foot such as the lamina.  Abscesses are very, very painful and often the horse won’t even put weight down their leg at all.

Usually, an area of the sole next to the abscess becomes soft which can be found and then removed by a farrier or vet, releasing the pus.  With the pus gone the pressure on the structures of the hoof reduces instantaneously and the pain drops rapidly with the horse no longer being quite as lame.

To help drain any extra pus from the foot and prevent further pus and infection developing there the foot is often bandaged with a poultice which actively draws any pus out of the foot. With training, most horse owners are able to apply bandages and poultices to their own horse’s feet, especially if they are quiet.

Bruising

Horses feet, like ours or those of other animals, can become bruised.  A bruise on a horses foot looks very similar to bruises we may get.

These develop for a number of reasons;

  • Having stones stuck in the foot or walking on stony ground.
  • The rotation and dropping of the pedal bone in laminitis, especially if the pedal bone has rotated and is dropping
  • Abscesses.
  • Poor feet trimming.

Nothing consistently speeds up the healing of bruises but your horse should not be worked when they have these as they do cause some pain.  Providing your horse with a thick soft bed will also help through the cushioning reducing the pressure on their feet.

Cracked Hooves

Several things can cause hooves to become cracked.

If the hoof becomes cracked, either side of the crack move as the horse is walking and weight-bearing.  This constant movement puts pressure on the lamina and tears it.  As the lamina is the only structure within the hoof holding the pedal bone against gravity, the tendency is for the pedal bone to rotate and drop if not careful.  Other risks are that infection enters the crack leading to a foot abscess or even, more dangerously, the pedal bone becomes infected which, if happens, will require surgery.

Cracks have various causes.  The vertical cracks start either at the top or bottom of the hoof and are known as sand and grass cracks respectively.

Sand cracks are commonly caused by the hooves being overgrown.  The overgrowth places pressure on the front of the coronary band (the area where the hoof grows from) which contains lots of small tubes for supplying nutrients to each tiny section of the hoof.  As pressure is placed on the papilla they become blocked and, after a short period of time, the new horn growing in that area dies from a lack of nutrition.  As a result, a gap develops in the growing hood, creating a crack.

Cracks starting at the bottom of the hooves, however, result from a horses foot not being correctly balanced.  Horses should walk with either side of their foot hitting the ground at the same time and the heel hitting slightly before the toe.  If the horses walk isn’t balanced, some areas of hoof are worn more than they should be and other areas not worn enough.  A crack will develop if the hoof isn’t trimmed down to correct this difference.  Sometimes cracks can start in the middle.  This isn’t seen as much as it used to be and was caused by carriage horses stepping n the hoof of the one next to them.

If cracks develop you should contact your vet, especially if they are more than superficial.

These may have foreign bodies in them that must be identified by xray before removal.  Without these procedures the likelihood of foot abscess and infection of the bone (osteitis) is greatly increased.

A good farrier should be able to reduce the size of the crack however, in severe cases, they cannot fully immobilise them.

Grass cracks can sometimes be removed mostly through trimming of the hoof.  As well as this trimming of the hoof should be used as a method of altering how the hoof hits the ground the balance the foot and reduce the pressure on the crack to allow it to heal.

Finally, glues and staples can be used in the centre of cracks as well as heartbar shoes to help to stabilise the hoof wall.  Over time, the cracks grow out as the foot grows down.  The exception to that is with severe defects or those fully splitting the coronary band whereby a gap may always be present in the growing hoof.

Picking out a horses hooves is a very important part of their care
Thrush

Thrush is a fungal infection of the sole.  It creates a foul odor and black discharge often around the frog.

Thrush may develop due to a lack of hygiene and can also be aided by the improvement of that.

To prevent Thrush developing, your horse’s feet should be picked at least once daily with a hoof pick and cleaned if they are muddy.

Thrush is treated by adhering to strict hygiene regimes and, if needed, you can buy Thrush treatments.

Thrush usually doesn’t cause pain or inflammation so it doesn’t usually cause them to become lame, however, over time it can damage the soft structures of the sole.

End Note

So some of the main problems affecting the hooves of horses and other equids (such as donkeys or zebra) are laminitis, abscesses, navicular disease, thrush, cracks, bruises and white line disease.  These can all be of varying severities and often can be interlinked ie navicular disease can be due to a bone infection which could lead to an abscess or bruises can be as a result of laminitis.

To find out about my connection with horses then read my introductory blog.  Also if you want to discuss anything here in more detail then leave a comment below or contact me directly.  Finally, if you found this job informative/ interesting then please subscribe; enter your email in the box in the right sidebar.

Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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