Regularly picking horses’ hooves out and visits by the farrier are essential routine care and should always be a priority to help prevent the likelihood of issues occurring. Injuries and diseases can have varying levels of severity, with some requiring veterinary or farriery attention.
Donkeys are also susceptible to similar hoof issues. For specific advice visit The Donkey Sanctuary.
Laminitis affects tissue called sensitive laminae which are found in the horse’s hoof. Laminitis occurs when blood supply to the hoof is compromised which may result in failure of the bond between the internal structures within the hoof. This can cause the pedal bone to move.
Navicular disease (also known as navicular syndrome) is caused by damage to the area surrounding the navicular bone in the horse’s hoof. The damage could be seen in the navicular bone, ligaments, deep digital flexor tendon or the navicular bursa. When the area has been compromised it can cause obvious lameness, but it may only be apparent when on hard ground or a tight circle.
Navicular disease can be diagnosed by a vet. A vet is likely to ask questions to understand the clinical history of the horse and conduct a lameness assessment. Nerve blocks and x-rays may be used and in some cases MRI.
Signs of navicular disease can include:
- Intermittent lameness
- Shortened stride length
- Reluctance to turn on a small circle
- Soreness in the shoulders.
Symptoms may be managed depending on their severity, but the disease is very rarely cured1. Corrective trimming and shoeing can be used to relieve pressure on the hoof and maintain good balance. Pain relief is sometimes prescribed to ensure the horse’s comfort.
Thrush is a common bacterial infection affecting the horse’s hoof, more specifically the soft frog tissues and sometimes the heel of the foot. It usually starts in the frog clefts and can produce black smelly discharge. It can affect one hoof or all four at a time.
White line disease
White line disease (also known as seedy toe) occurs when the hoof wall and sensitive laminae begin to separate at the white line. This causes a cavity which can then start to fill with dirt, horn and other debris exposing it to infection. Horn is the hard tissue which makes up the outer hoof wall. Once the horn has become compromised, anaerobic bacteria (meaning the bacteria don’t need oxygen to survive) begin to thrive and spread throughout the hoof wall.
Photo credit: Nigel Brown AWCF
The highlighted area shows a large cavity caused by separation at the white line
When picking out the horse’s feet a noticeable cavity can be seen around the white line. The horn may also start to become crumbly. The condition doesn’t always cause lameness but if left untreated can become very serious.
If you’re concerned about your horse, contact your farrier or vet. It may simply be that the farrier is able to cut back the affected area exposing the bacteria to oxygen, discouraging further growth. The area should be kept clean and dry to prevent further bacteria entering2. Your farrier or vet may apply iodine solution or other antiseptics to the area to aid in recovery. In severe cases an x-ray may be needed to determine the degree of separation - a larger separation could cause the pedal bone to move within the hoof capsule resulting in laminitis.
Make sure that the horse regularly sees a farrier to maintain good hoof balance, this can help to prevent infection from occurring.
Penetrating hoof injuries are relatively uncommon in horses, but can be caused by nails and screws. Deep wounds can cause severe damage to the internal structures of the hoof causing permanent and severe lameness. Any penetrating injury should be immediately seen by a vet.
This is one of the most common causes of lameness in horses3 and can affect both shod and unshod horses. Injury to the sole of the hoof can damage the sensitive structures within, causing bruising. Standing on a hard object such as a stone, repetitive work on hard ground or poor hoof care can all cause bruising.
Bruising occurs when the tiny blood vessels within the sensitive sole burst when damaged. Severe bruising can cause the formation of a ‘haematoma’3, this is like a blood blister and can be extremely uncomfortable for the horse.
Usually, the horse is only lame on the affected leg, which can be intermittent. The area of pain can be located by the vet or farrier using a pair of hoof testers. This area can then be carefully trimmed back which may reveal a red/purple bruise in white feet.
Bruises usually heal on their own, however, if severe bruising occurs the hoof may need to be poulticed with a protective bandage to relieve the weight-bearing pressure on that foot. Protective hoof pads may also be placed under the horse’s shoe to help prevent further bruising from occurring.
This is a term used to describe the condition where a nail has been driven too close to the sensitive laminae during the shoeing process. Often this causes low degree pain and lameness, and there’s risk of an infection forming around the nail causing an abscess.
Signs of nail bind are often lameness following shoeing either immediately or a couple of days later. Heat and an increased digital pulse may also be present.
The problem nail can be determined using hoof testers. Usually, removing the impinging nail is enough to solve the issue. However, most of the time the whole shoe is removed, and a poultice applied to draw out any infection. A tetanus injection may be advised if the horse isn’t already vaccinated, as well as a course of antibiotics from your vet depending on the severity.
An abscess occurs when bacteria gets trapped between the laminae and hoof wall causing a localised infection. The infection builds a large amount of pressure within the hoof which causes sudden and severe lameness. Sometimes abscesses can burst out of the top of the coronet band if left untreated.
Changes in weather can cause the hoof to become dry and as a result can crack allowing bacteria into the hoof wall. Poor management can lead to abscesses if the hoof isn’t regularly trimmed, or if your horse suffers a penetration injury.
An abscess is often diagnosed using hoof testers to locate the specific area. The vet or farrier will then likely drain the area, relieving the pressure. It’s important to keep the area clean to prevent further infection spreading. Tubbing the hoof may be useful, this is where the horse stands in warm water with Epsom salts for approximately 15 minutes. Or a poultice can be applied to draw out any infections and keep the hoof clean.
Pain relief and antibiotics may be prescribed from your vet such as bute.
Abscesses can take varying lengths to heal dependent on their severity.
Photo credit: Nigel Brown AWCF
The image shows an abscess after an initial poultice being applied. The blue colour is an antiseptic which has been used by the farrier to draw out infection
Grass cracks tend to start at the bottom of the hoof or on the sole whereas sand cracks originate at the top of the hoof at the coronet band.
Grass cracks usually occur when the hoof becomes overgrown, and the pressure causes the horn to split or break off. This type of crack rarely causes severe lameness; however, it can lead to infections such as abscesses.
Sand cracks tend to occur due to poor foot balance or injury. They can be superficial, however if you notice a sand crack occurring it’s important to speak to your farrier as this often indicates that the horse may need trimming or shoeing differently.
Hoof cracks will not heal without intervention. It’s important to speak to your farrier to find the cause of the cracks before infection starts to take hold. It’s better to act early to prevent further damage to the hoof from occurring. Remedial shoeing or alternative procedures may be required to help correct and support the hoof while the crack grows out.
Photo credit: Nigel Brown AWCF
An untreated sand crack which has spread downwards
Supported by Nigel Brown AWCF on behalf of the British Farriers and Blacksmiths Association.
- Belknap, J. (2022) Disorders of the Foot in Horses.
- Main Street Veterinary Clinic. (2016) Seedy Toe.
- Carson, D. & Ricketts, S. (2022) Bruised Sole in Horses.
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