How much attention do you pay to your horse’s feet?
Beyond picking them out every day and booking regular visits from the farrier, you may not give them a lot of thought. Yet with 80-90% of all lameness stemming from the feet, it is worth incorporating thorough checks of your horse’s hooves into your daily routine. Feel for any signs of heat, check for damage to the hoof wall, look out for risen clenches and loose or worn shoes, and check the sole for bruising or puncture wounds.
While some horses are blessed with good feet, others may be conformationally predisposed to certain problems. Some can be improved with farriery, while others might be solved with nutritional help or better management.
We outline five common problems affecting the feet and ask our experts for advice on how to avoid them, and what steps to take if they occur.
1. Horse Hoof Growth
The rate and quality of growth in hooves varies widely from horse to horse. Some will show better hoof growth in the summer, possibly due to nutrients taken from grazing.
Temperature, exercise and genetics are all also thought to play a part in affecting growth. Poor quality growth could be down to illness or an injury to the coronet band.
The rate of growth is less important than the quality of the new hoof. Good farriery and foot balance should compensate for any poor rate of growth, as long as the quality of hoof horn is good.
Diet can affect hoof growth, with a deficiency in certain nutrients often resulting in poor growth. One commonly-used ingredient in the best supplements for horse hoof growth designed to benefit hooves is biotin, a B vitamin.
Research suggests that at least 15mg per day of biotin is needed to achieve improved growth rates and better quality hooves. A study found that adding a hoof supplement increased hoof horn growth rates by 0.1mm per day.
Other nutrients are also thought to contribute to improvements in growth rates and hoof quality, including calcium, essential amino acids and zinc.
The effect of adding a supplement will vary, according to whether your horse’s diet was lacking beforehand. If the diet is already supplying sufficient amounts of the relevant nutrients, a supplement may have less of an impact.
2. Bruised Sole & Corns in Horses
Corns are a specific type of bruise on the horse’s sole, occurring in the bars of the foot underneath the shoe. The main causes are poor conformation or bad shoeing. Conformation plays a big part in causing corns – horses that have low heels and are therefore subjected to more pressure in the heel are more susceptible.
In horses with low heels, the hoof wall may collapse inwards, putting pressure on the seat of the corn. Horses that are shod with shoes that are too short in length, with insufficient support at the heel, are also vulnerable to corns, as it will increase pressure in the heel area.
If the corns persist there is the option to fit an appropriate bar shoe, or in extreme cases pack with a gel filler or rubber pads to alleviate the pressure on the corn.
Diet won’t solve corns. However, good hoof growth rate should help avoid the problem.
3. Cracked Horse Hooves
It can be quite distressing to see cracks appearing in your horse’s feet, or chunks of hoof horn breaking off altogether. A number of factors can cause cracks, similar to the reasons behind poor growth – such as a poor diet, genetic predisposition, thin hoof walls, or injury.
Having poor feet is a big problem, which can be difficult to treat. Good farriery should help to keep the feet well balanced and less likely to crack.
The main cause of cracks is variations in climate, as dry hooves lose their strength and flexibility. Cracks are usually caused by a fluctuation between wet and dry conditions. If we’ve had a spate of hot, dry weather, it causes the feet to dry out, especially after a wet winter. It’s like putting wet leather boots under the radiator – they shrink and crack.
With large sand cracks that cannot be solved by normal trimming and paring of the feet, your farrier might use tow clips to stabilise the crack, or the gap might be sewn together with steel wire and filled with resin.
There is also a host of creams and oils you can use to stop your horse’s feet drying out in the first place, but be careful which one you use. There are some good products on the market, which act as moisturisers and keep the external wall of the hoof supple. But oil-based products, particularly those designed for cosmetic effect in the show-ring, can prevent moisture getting into the hoof.
Supplementing your horse’s diet with hoof supplements for cracked hooves could improve the quality of the hoof, but don’t expect an instant transformation – new horn takes between six to nine months to grow down. However, the benefits can be seen sooner, as old nail holes and cracks grow out quicker than before. This will provide better quality horn for a farrier to nail into, so shoes should stay on for longer, and the risk of infection is reduced.
4. Concussion and Bruised Soles
This a very common cause of lameness. Some horses have very flat soles, which make them prone to concussion, compared to horses with more concave soles. Flat-footed horses often go intermittently lame when working on hard ground.
The problem is most common in competition horses, which may be working at speed on hard ground during the summer. When the horse’s foot hits the ground, the surface absorbs some of the impact, but on a very hard surface, the force of the impact is transmitted through the horse’s limb instead. Repeated excessive forces can damage the laminae that hold the pedal bone to the hoof wall, or cause microfractures in the foot bones.
If your horse does go lame after working on hard ground, your best option is resting him. It will be acutely painful for the horse at first, but it should settle down fairly quickly with rest.
It can be difficult to avoid firmer surfaces when you are out and about competing, but you can take sensible precautions. If you can’t avoid riding on hard ground, try to reduce the amount of work on such a surface to a minimum – especially roadwork, which can compound the issue.
Farriers can use gel or rubber pads to help protect the foot – ask your own farrier about which ones he advises for your horse.
5. Thrush in Horses
Thrush is a fungal infection of the frog clefts and is generally the result of poor stable management. The bacteria that causes thrush thrives in warm, moist conditions with little air. The disease can be a particular in winter, when the foot is in contact with wet bedding or mud for long periods of time, causing the ideal environment for fungal multiplication.
To avoid it, keep your horse’s bed scrupulously clean, and scrub his feet out regularly. If your horse’s feet do become affected, contact your vet or farrier.
Ask the farrier to trim the frogs well back on thrush sufferers, to decrease the number of frog crevices that harbour the thrush-causing bacteria and fungi. The disease can be treated with dilute iodine solutions washed into the feet, and antibiotic sprays.
It is also recommended to ask your farrier to ‘debride’ the affected area – to cut away as much of the affected horn as possible. Then you need to clean out the foot using an antibacterial dressing.