Signs Your Horse Has a Hoof Problem Brewing

6 signs that a hoof problem is brewing

Part of the enjoyment of owning horses is the sensory experience of being at the barn: the sight of content, well-cared-for horses; the low, throaty nickers welcoming your visit; the sounds of happy munching; the sweet, fragrant aroma of hay. But the sights and smells of a hoof problem can tarnish that idyllic experience in a hurry.

You might be able to manage some hoof issues without calling in professional help. However, sometimes a pro—your farrier and/or your veterinarian—must provide advice and treatment to restore not only your horse’s soundness but also your peace of mind.

“When the owner notices a hoof problem, usually the first line of defense—other than their own knowledge—will be their farrier,” says Raul Bras, DVM, CJF, of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. “But when acute lameness is involved, owners will want to call in their veterinarian to determine if there’s some type of pathology (disease or structural damage) involved.

“I’m a huge believer in a team effort,” he adds. “I think it’s imperative when treating a foot problem. The veterinarian has expertise in diagnostics and pathology, and the farrier can bring a lot of skill regarding forces, mechanics, and shoes to address the problems that the veterinarian finds.”

Read on to learn about six common signs of a hoof problem. Of course, each horse and circumstance is unique. Find out what you can safely manage yourself and when to call in your farrier and/or veterinarian.

Hoof Cracks

For clarity’s sake, your horse’s hoof wall is divided front to back into three sections: the toe, the heels, and the area between, referred to as the quarters.

Some cracks in the wall are superficial, often referred to as “weather cracks” because they’re caused by changes in weather, environment, and hoof capsule moisture content (that of the wall, sole, frog, and heel bulbs). These might require only rest and watchfulness to ensure they’re healing and not worsening.

As with all hoof-related problems, you generally call your farrier first. But, says Bras, deeper toe and quarter cracks tend to be secondary to inner-hoof pathology, which distorts forces and results in cracks that likely require veterinary intervention.

“A toe crack can be due to separation of the hoof wall from the hoof’s sensitive inner structures or might be caused by clubby or upright pasterns, or—worst-case scenario—by laminitis with ­subsequent displacement of the coffin bone,” says Bras, adding that toe cracks are more common among lightly used horses kept on pasture. He explains that deeper cracks can be problematic because you have to treat the primary cause (e.g., the laminitis and/or coffin bone rotation) before you can resolve the cracks themselves. As if that weren’t complicated enough, cracks can cause additional complications such as contamination and possible infection of the sensitive structures within.

“Quarter cracks are commonly found on performance-type horses and can be caused by medial/lateral (side to side) imbalance, by hoof capsule distortion, low heels, or sheared heels (one shifted forward ahead of the other),” Bras says. “Also, you may find sole, bar, or heel cracks that can go deep into sensitive tissue and will start packing dirt, debris, urine, and feces, which can lead to ­infection.”

Your farrier will determine if he or she can address the horse’s problem through corrective trimming or shoeing. This could include, for instance, trimming to balance the hoof or alleviate pressure on the crack or applying shoes that immobilize the crack.

But if your farrier feels the cause goes deeper than either of you can address, your veterinarian can start diagnostics with radiographs to determine whether there’s pathology behind the problem.

If infection is involved, your veterinarian might administer systemic or local antibiotics. If inflammation is a factor, he or she might prescribe an anti-­inflammatory. He or she might collaborate with your farrier to design a shoe that supports the stronger hoof areas and reduces forces on the areas compromised by the crack. Or, your veterinarian might prescribe a treatment plate (a nail- or glue-on shoe to protect the affected area while still allowing access for treatment).

“For musculoskeletal or lameness issues, phenylbutazone (Bute) is usually the best anti-inflammatory,” says Bras. “Flunixin meglumine (Banamine) is more appropriate for gastrointestinal (GI) use. But some veterinarians will use Banamine because they’re trying to attack the primary cause—perhaps pneumonia or colitis—and trying to prevent a cascading inflammatory effect on the horse’s feet. And, if you’re dealing with ulcers, GI-protectant non-steroidal anti-­inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Equioxx might be helpful.”

Your veterinarian might also prescribe antiseptic poultices or foot soaks that you can administer to keep the area clean and free of infection-causing bacteria while the crack heals.

Flares

A flare is a hoof distortion in which the wall separates from the sole at the ground surface. If opportunistic bacteria invade and infect exposed nonsensitive hoof tissue, the flare can become white line disease, sometimes called seedy toe—although it can occur anywhere from toe to heel. When bacteria invade deeper, reaching sensitive tissues, coffin bone displacement can occur.

Flares can occur on one or multiple hooves and affect horses of all ages, breeds, and sexes. “Conformation is frequently a factor; very flat-footed horses tend to have a lot of flares,” says Bras, “but routine farrier work should be able to address those.”

As with cracks, your farrier will be the first to evaluate flares, and if they progress into white line disease, he or she will probably recommend that your veterinarian take radiographs to determine the extent of inner structure involvement.

“The main thing (for the farrier or veterinarian to do) is to expose the area to the environment by resecting (cutting away) the insensitive laminae without making it more unstable and keep it clean,” says Bras. “If acute lameness is involved, you might want your veterinarian to take radiographs to see what else might be going on.”

Your veterinarian might use antiseptic solutions to be sure any exposed sensitive tissue doesn’t get infected or become necrotic (die). “There are a lot of commercial foot soaks that will treat the area,” says Bras. “And again, if there’s some kind of infection, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics will come into play. The veterinarian might have the owner soak the foot once or twice a week to keep it clean and exposed to air while it grows down.”

Abnormal Hair Growth at Coronary Band

“This is a tricky one,” says Bras. “A lot of things can cause hair sticking up at the coronet, but most involve inflammation around the coronary band, which we call coronitis.” Among those possibilities are:

  • Autoimmune disease (the body is producing antibodies that attack its own tissue);
  • A bad quarter crack that exposes sensitive tissue, causing infection;
  • Sheared heels that result in heel bulb inflammation; and
  • Displacement of the coffin bone (founder) that causes the soft tissue around the coronary band to shift.

Tracy Turner, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, operates Turner Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery, in Big Lake, Minnesota. He also worked as a farrier, so he has in-depth knowledge of hoof-related problems. He says diagnosis in cases with raised hair at the coronet band is based on a thorough examination of the horse and foot including nerve blocks, radiographs, and bloodwork.

“Treatment will be based on clinical findings but will be designed to reduce pain and inflammation in the feet, restore and aid mechanics of the hoof, and treat underlying causes,” he says.

“For simple coronitis, anti-­inflammatories or topicals can calm the inflammation down around the coronary band,” says Bras.

We’ve already covered treatment for quarter cracks; for coffin bone ­displacement that deranges soft tissue around the coronary band, see the shifting weight section at bottom right.

Taking a Horse's Digital Pulse

Heat and Subsequent Increased Pulse

Bras says that heat in the foot is basically inflammation, and it sometimes results in an increased digital pulse.

“The perfusion (blood circulation) of horses’ feet is so complex; they’re very good at maintaining a constant temperature,” he says. “Heat indicates some sort of inflammation and goes hand in hand with the digital pulse, although the anatomy and location of the horse can influence whether or not you’ll feel any excess heat or pulse. For example, boots or bandages can result in trapped heat. And, the feet of a horse standing in the sun—especially a horse with black hooves—might feel abnormally hot. But those instances of heat won’t necessarily reflect a problem.”

He recommends owners become familiar with their horses’ normal foot temperatures and digital pulses so they can confidently differentiate between normal variations and conditions that require attention.

“Possible causes of pathology that result in heat and increased pulse are broad, from something as simple as a bruise to an abscess to infection to laminitis,” Bras says. “Your first question will be whether it involves just one or multiple feet. If it’s unilateral, your farrier can test for a bruise or an abscess to see if he or she can localize the pain. But if that’s not the problem, you’ll need to call in your veterinarian.

“A lot of times, problems in the feet are secondary to something else,” he continues. “Your vet will probably take radiographs to determine the pathology.”

If he or she finds an abscess during the exam or radiologic evidence of infection, Turner says the next step is to determine the location and the tissues involved. “Radiography can determine if there’s bony involvement, and exam and imaging results will determine the best therapeutic approach.”

If the primary cause stems from laminitis, his goal would be to reduce or eliminate pain and inflammation and restore, protect, or improve hoof mechanics while treating the underlying or predisposing causes of the inflammation.

Bras and Turner also recommend cryotherapy (icing feet) to reduce the effects of inflammation. “Research proves that cryotherapy decreases the triggering effect of inflammation that can cause more problems in the horse’s feet,” Bras says. “It slows down the mechanism in the horse’s feet that, left unchecked, can progress to more serious problems.”

He stresses the importance of icing above the coronary band and even the fetlock at very low temperatures for 24 to 48 hours or up to three days nonstop.

“Always ask your vet for instructions,” he says, “because if true laminitis is involved, the (blood) reperfusion from not soaking long enough or high enough can be more damaging than not icing at all.”

Conveniencewise, he says, it can be easier for the owner to send the horse to an equine hospital for cryotherapy, but the owner can do it at home. “Just be sure you have enough ice and enough slurry that the (ice) boots don’t slide down, and the boots stay on 24/7,” he says.

Odor

“Odor most often indicates thrush,” says Bras. “In addition to the odor, you’ll be able to see the problem (black and pasty discharge) in the frog area. 

“Another scenario that gets confused or mistaken for thrush is canker,” he adds. “Canker can create a superficial bacterial infection where sensitive tissue gets necrotic and smells, too. And odor can also indicate abscesses.”

He categorizes thrush as being more localized to the frog’s exterior and caused by various types of bacteria. “Canker, on the other hand, is intracellular,” he says. “The best way I can explain it is that thrush is from the outside in—some of the frog tissue will be eaten away. Canker is more from the inside out—abnormal tissue growth.”

He says your farrier can pare away the thrush-affected frog to expose the area to air (since the causative bacteria thrive in a low-oxygen environment) and suggest topical disinfectants that you can apply.

If thrush, canker, or an abscess has invaded the sensitive tissue and resulted in infection, your veterinarian can administer or prescribe an anti-inflammatory and antibiotics as needed. “When you have infections involving the foot,” says Bras, “foot soaks, foot wraps, poultices, and/or topicals are always part of the treatment. Then, after the infection is taken care of—usually in a couple of days—shoes may be applied. The type of shoe would depend on how much additional treatment is anticipated and, consequently, how much access you’ll need to keep the area clean and medicated.”

Signs Your Horse Has a Hoof Problem

Shifting Weight Off Front Hooves or From Side to Side

“Horses have a cycle where they normally shift their weight to alternate the forces and the perfusion in their feet,” says Bras. “When a horse shifts its weight (between his front feet), people tend to assume it’s laminitis. If the horse is shifting more than usual, it is usually due to some sort of inflammation. But you have to figure out where the inflammation is coming from. If from the laminae, then it’s called laminitis. But it may also be from causes other than laminitis, such as too-thin soles (allowing) pressure on the corium, or sensitive tissue of the sole.

“Laminitis doesn’t necessarily mean the horse is going to end up foundering (progressing to coffin bone rotation),” he stresses. “But, the horse shifting its weight due to inflammation in the feet is quite concerning.”

Turner says he’ll start by watching the horse’s posture. “Horses with generalized foot pain (for instance, laminitis) tend to camp out in front so they bear weight on the back of the foot, whereas horses with heel pain tend to bear weight on the toe,” he says. “And, even when pain is generalized, one can usually find an area of ‘exquisite pain’ that will indicate the source.”

He’ll then feel the foot for inflammation. Whereas horses with abscesses usually have an increased pulse on the side of the hoof where the abscess is located, he says, a horse with navicular disease (pathology involving the navicular bone and its associated structures) or heel pain rarely has an increased digital pulse because the ­inflammation isn’t as severe. And laminitis usually—but not always—causes pain at the toe.

He adds that a thorough, careful examination progressing from a percussion hammer, hoof testers, and wedge tests to determine the pain’s extent and location, to nerve blocks and imaging techniques to confirm his suspicions, should result in a diagnosis. Your farrier and veterinarian will advise on the best course of action.

Take-Home Message

Sometimes you can successfully treat hoof problems on your own—in mild cases of thrush, for instance. But, don’t hesitate to call your farrier as a first line of defense, then enlist your veterinarian’s expertise, as well, if needed. Working as a team, you and your farrier and veterinarian maximize the opportunity to restore your horse’s hoof health and your peace of mind.