Don’t Ignore Your Horse’s Hooves this Winter and Spring

Don’t put your horse at risk for developing problems such as thrush and abscesses. Here’s how to prevent these issues.

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As many horse owners know, mid-winter brings snow and other forms of precipitation that often continue through the spring—and that can mean wet and muddy conditions for our equine companions.

For horses living outside, these conditions can lead to mud clods and ice balls in the hooves. Prolonged wet conditions can cause very soft feet that are susceptible to more serious problems, including hoof wall separation, thrush, and sole abscesses.


This anaerobic bacterial infection slowly invades the hoof tissue. Thrush is characterized by black, malodorous necrotic, or dead, material in the central or collateral sulci of the frog—the grooves adjacent to and in the middle of the triangle-shaped frog.

Early stages of thrush involve only superficial tissues and do not cause lameness. But if thrush is not treated promptly and properly, the infection can advance into sensitive tissues and internal structures of the foot, such as the digital cushion, hoof wall, and heel bulb; this can lead to lameness.

The main factors causing thrush are excessive hoof contact with moisture and lack of regular foot care, either of which can occur when snow, rain, and cold temperatures cause some owners to be less diligent about mucking the stall, picking out hooves, or turning out horses for exercise.

Although less common, poor hoof conformation can predispose horses to thrush, even when they live in clean, dry conditions.

In most cases, thrush is preventable by maintaining dry footing, clean hooves, and regular turnout or exercise. If you detect signs of thrush, ask your veterinarian about safe treatment options, such as scrubbing the hooves with disinfectant solution and applying thrush treatment to the frog. For horses whose underlying hoof conformation predisposes them to thrush, good management techniques include regular trimming of the foot and frog.

Sole Bruising and Abscesses

This time of year, it’s not uncommon for horse owners to report, “Yesterday my horse was perfectly sound, but today he won’t touch one foot to the ground. There’s no apparent injury or sign of a problem in his leg or hoof other than sudden, severe lameness. What could have happened?”

Hoof bruising occurs for many reasons, from thin soles or hoof imbalances that allow abnormal hoof impact to inadvertent horseshoe contact on the sole and riding or walking over rocky terrain. Bruised feet might require changes in the farrier’s approach to trimming and shoeing, and hoof pads or boots might also help protect your horse’s feet.

Hoof abscesses can occur after bruising or from penetrating wounds. The abscesses occur when bacteria get trapped beneath the hoof wall or sole, and then multiply. The bacteria create pus, which builds up and creates focal pressure. This can be quite painful, and a horse is often reluctant to bear any weight on the affected foot, especially the heel. Abscesses remain painful until the pus pockets drain and the pressure is relieved.

The abscess often follows the path of least resistance to drain, bursting at the heel bulb, along the coronary band, or through the sole.

Check for a smoldering abscess by pressing your finger on each heel bulb and around the coronary band. Feel for heat in the foot and hoof and for tissue softening; also note your horse’s pain response.

If you suspect an abscess, have your veterinarian check the situation out and open the abscess to establish drainage. Owners can also attempt to draw abscesses out by soaking the affected foot in Epsom salts and warm water and by applying poultice packs.

Risk Factors for Sole Abscess

Factors that put a horse at risk for developing sole abscess include weather conditions cycling between wet and dry, penetrating wounds, close nails in a recently shod foot, bruising from ground conditions, and poor hygiene in stalls and paddocks.

What can you do to minimize or prevent the occurrence of painful abscesses? The best line of prevention is good hoof care that leaves adequate sole for protection and develops a snug and uniform sole-wall junction.

Good hoof care includes:

  • Frequent hoof cleaning to remove rocks and mud;
  • Routine farrier care to keep the feet balanced; and
  • Shoes for protection if a horse has thin soles or is prone to bruising.

Be proactive in maintaining soundness by keeping the feet trimmed so they don’t get wall separations that can lead to white line disease and abscesses.

This column was written by Luke Bass, DVM, MS, a veterinarian with Colorado State University’s Equine Field Service.


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