Tending To A Tender Foot

Although the equine hoof is a marvel of resiliency, it’s not made of rubber, or titanium, or diamond. As a living structure, it has its vulnerabilities, and when faced with unusual stresses, it shows them. Stone bruises, those
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Although the equine hoof is a marvel of resiliency, it’s not made of rubber, or titanium, or diamond. As a living structure, it has its vulnerabilities, and when faced with unusual stresses, it shows them. Stone bruises, those reddish-purple (on a white hoof) or dark gray (on a dark hoof) spots sometimes visible on the soles of your horse’s feet, especially right after the farrier’s knife has removed the surface crud, are one of the most common signs that the hoof has taken some abuse. But by the time you see the bruise, it’s just a reminder of a long-past trauma; the injury is already several months old.

Fortunately, stone bruises usually aren’t serious. When they’re fresh, they can cause minor lameness, for a few minutes or a few days. Some horses seem to be able to ignore them better than others. But if a stone bruise happens right before an important competition, it’s a crisis. If your horse shows a predilection for repeatedly bruising his soles, it’s a chronic problem that you’ll want to solve.

Stone bruises generally are the product of your horse’s environment. Traveling on hard, rocky ground can batter your horse’s soles, especially if he’s used to more manicured conditions. (Remember as a kid how you tiptoed very gently over a gravel driveway early in the summer, yelping, "Ouch, ouch, OUCH!" before your bare feet had gotten tough?) But a hard knock against a solid object (a fence rail or a tree root, for instance), can have the same effect. So can shoes that are too small, or those equipped with caulks, grabs, or trailers that alter the foot’s natural flight path, or concentrate an unusual amount of pressure on a small area. Hooves that grow up and around a shoe left on too long also can bruise, particularly if the shoe is loose and bangs on the sole with every step. The end result is rather like the aftereffects of your big toenails being stepped on by a Clydesdale, a blooming reddish spot sandwiched between the toenail and the soft tissue underneath.

Certain types of feet seem to be more vulnerable to bruising than others. The classic battered hoof has a flat sole and thin walls (a conformational fault seen in many Thoroughbreds). Concave feet have a better chance of avoiding small, sharp stones because less of the sole comes into direct contact with the ground. A horse with soft feet (common on the wet and rainy West Coast of North America) might be likely to bruise if he’s ridden on firmer ground, but a horse with hooves as hard and dry as iron also can be a bruising candidate, since his foot has less natural give than most. Small, upright feet, especially those designated club feet, can gather more than their fair share of bruises

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Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She’s written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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