Learn to recognize common indicators of hoof stress, then work to eliminate or minimize their causes
When you head to the barn to care for your horse, are you often lost in your thoughts rather than focused on his subtle signs of wellness? Have you found yourself tossing him hay, dumping his grain, giving him a pat, and then rushing off to school or work?
To help you spot potential problems before they become major issues, take a few minutes each day to be mindful of your horse and his well-being. Hoof health is paramount to his overall wellness, and a quick daily head-to-toe once-over—with emphasis on the toes—can help you catch anything out of the ordinary.
Then, if you spot something unusual or if something does squeak by and become an issue, you can work with your hoof care professionals, which include your farrier and/or a veterinarian with a special interest in hoof care, to combat the issue and restore your horse to soundness.
Read on to learn what two veterinarians passionate about hoof care—Debra Taylor, DVM, owner of Twin Creeks Podiatry, in Auburn, Alabama, and emeritus associate professor of equine medicine at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine; and Tracy Turner, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, of Turner Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery, in Big Lake, Minnesota—suggest for identifying and dealing with the hoof stressors they encounter most frequently.
The Big Six
The six things our sources see stressing their patients’ hooves most often include:
1. Ground conditions (dry and hard or excessively wet)
“I think wet is even worse than hard and dry, because the hoof wall soaks up moisture and allows the hoof to distort more easily,” Turner says.
2. Immune stress
“You can certainly get inflammation due to immune-related issues,” says Turner, “and the inflammatory process in the coronary band (at the hairline) can create abnormal horn and conditions.”
3. Mechanical stress
“I see this as ground reaction force (GRF, the force transmitted from the ground to the ground surface of the foot, into the hoof wall, and through the laminae—the Velcro-like tissues that attach the wall to the coffin bone within— and bony column above) being applied to a distorted hoof,” Taylor says. “One example would be a hoof that cracks due to the GRF of shoeing a flared hoof.”
4. Excessive sugar in the diet
“This is the most common stressor I see,” Taylor says. “Sugar in the diet turns on an abnormal endocrine event that weakens dermal (laminae—these reach out from the coffin bone to interlace with the epidermal laminae on the interior of the hoof wall) connections, which leads to either flaring or pulling the laminae apart, which can also lead to laminitis,” Taylor says. “Sedentary lifestyle and nonstructural carbohydrates lead to obesity, which in addition to hoof problems can lead to insulin resistance.”
5. Failure to recognize hoof distortion
For example, shoeing to accommodate a hoof flare rather than correcting the flare and then shoeing the properly shaped hoof, says Taylor.
6. Expired hoof care
This involves hooves that aren’t getting trimmed regularly— horses should be seen by farriers every four to eight weeks—or shoes that have been left on too long.
How Do Stressors Manifest?
The key words here: changes in shape. Watch your horse’s hooves for:
Breaks in the hoof wall
Though usually the result of a loose or pulled shoe (so, occurring at or near the ground surface), breaks in your horse’s hoof wall can also be the result of coronary band injury.
“The width of the frog should be 50% of the frog’s length (the distance from the frog’s base, or widest part, to its apex),” Taylor says, “and in the case of contracted heels, the base of the frog is less than half of its length.”
These can occur at the toe or quarter (side) of the hoof and might travel downward from the coronary band or upward from the ground surface.
Flared hooves usually result from improper trimming or shoeing or from expired hoof care. The hoof wall flares outward away from the hoof structure at the ground surface and might result in separation at the white line (the soft, fibrous inner layer of the hoof wall, visible at the edge of the sole; this separation can also lead to fungal or bacterial infection known as white line disease).
Uneven growth rings
“From heel to toe to heel, the growth ring should be the same width,” says Taylor. “A bulging growth ring indicates increased GRF that has caused the tubules (that make up the hoof horn) to be misdirected and curl; the excessive strain will push the tubular horn back up the foot.”
An imbalance of the hoof, sheared heels manifest as one heel higher than the other, with the higher side usually having a more vertical hoof wall.
Thin, flat soles
Many people attribute thin, flat soles to breed, but Taylor attributes them to chronic solar hypoperfusion (lack of blood flow to the sole).
Underrun (low or collapsed) heels
Horses can develop underrun heels if they’re conformationally predisposed to having low heels; their hooves have been shod or cared for inappropriately; or their hooves are incompatible with the climate they live in—specifically, one with excessive moisture. “Left uncorrected, they can cause alterations in hoof wall growth that can be very difficult to correct and can predispose the horse to lameness problems ranging from bruised heels to navicular syndrome (aka podotrochlosis, or lameness from the bone or soft tissues in the podotrochlear/navicular apparatus at the back of the foot),” Turner says.
These signs of hoof stress can lead to problems with internal structures such as bones, ligaments, and tendons, resulting in lameness.
Managing Hoof Stress
Once you determine that one or more hoof stressors have impacted your horse’s feet, you’ll want to confer with your hoof care professionals. With their advice, remedial care might include:
Simply removing shoes, combined with time off from work, can improve some conditions caused by hoof stressors.
Therapeutic trimming, shoeing, and hoof repair
Proper trimming and shoeing can alleviate or eliminate stressor-caused problems. “For example,” Turner says, “shoeing to achieve proper balance and/or adequate heel support can often restore hoof health. And, sometimes, rebuilding the hoof with acrylic or urethane repair composites that alter coronary band stresses can improve hoof growth.”
Today, plastic and rubber shoes and boots have joined the ranks of steel, aluminum, titanium, and alloys. Turner says your farrier can offer advice based on your horse’s use and hoof quality; some materials reduce concussion while others have exceptional wear properties, and still others protect damaged hoof structures.
Your hoof care team can also improve hoof health by using alternate attachment methods: Acrylic or polyurethane adhesives can replace nails on some shoes.
“This is the biggie,” Turner says, “but its results also take the longest to see; hoof wall only grows a quarter of an inch per month. Biotin (a B-complex vitamin involved in hair, skin, and hoof health) is one supplement that can help.” Look for a product that provides 15-20 milligrams of biotin per day.
Taylor says some hoof supplements also provide copper and zinc. “Those are really important, especially if you have superficial wall cracks or thrush that just won’t go away.”
She says choosing feedstuffs, such as alfalfa, that have a low glycemic index (containing minimal sugars and nonstructural carbohydrates) also improves nutrition.
“If a horse’s feet are too wet, some beddings such as shavings can help dry them out,” Turner says. “Bedding can also make feet too dry and hard. Ask your farrier what the best course of action would be based on your bedding; one trend is to use hoof sealants that can protect the foot from moisture loss or gain.”
“I think too much hosing can create excess wetness, so horses that get bathed excessively can develop hoof problems,” says Turner.
If a horse is experiencing hoof inflammation, cold helps reduce it, says Turner, which can buy you time until you determine what’s causing the inflammation. “There are different theories on why it works; one is that by slowing circulation, icing inhibits toxins from going into the feet, which can be very helpful in the early stages of laminitis. Icing can also be a good pain reliever, enabling the horse to load the hoof capsule more correctly.”
“Although we’re still going to put most of the weight on the hoof wall, pour-in packings are designed to increase weight-sharing among structures,” Turner says. “Medicated packings can decrease inflammation and, depending on the composition, might also help eliminate infection such as in white line disease.”
“Different tools, such as (pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, or PEMF), electrical stimulation, and standing on magnets, can help increase circulation,” Turner says.
Taylor says exercise also increases circulation: “Dr. Andrew van Eps of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine proved that movement increases perfusion. You’ve got to at least hand-walk the horse if he’s on stall rest, and to do that you have to find something comfortable for him to walk in.”
Administering pain-relieving medications
“Pain relief allows more normal application of stress (read: weight) because the horse will step on the foot without trying to protect it,” Turner says. “Pain is a protective mechanism, but if a horse’s pain is at a low scale, breaking the pain cycle can take stresses off of ligaments, tendons, joints, and so on because the foot is being loaded more correctly.”
It’s relatively easy to tell when your horse is lame; it’s much harder to recognize indicators before lameness occurs. Having the ability to spot these problems and working with your hoof care team of professionals can save your horse pain and yourself frustration and lost riding time.