Common Hoof Problems
Prevention is key to avoiding hoof issues
By Lynne Gunville
During her daily field visits to farms and acreages around the Saskatoon area, equine veterinary specialist Dr. Kate Robinson sees a wide range of hoof issues in horses – many of them preventable with a consistent daily hoof care regimen.
Robinson stresses the importance of daily hoof checks. Besides picking out their feet, owners can visually assess their horses’ hoofs and learn what’s normal for each animal. That way they can recognize any changes and identify problems as early as possible.
Horse owners also need to be aware that certain hoof problems show up more frequently at specific times of the year.
“When we have wet conditions in the spring and fall, that’s when we see more abscesses,” says Robinson, a field service clinician and assistant professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). “We also see laminitis or founder more often in the spring and summer and sometimes into the fall when pastures have particularly rich grass.”
She points out that diet is an important component of hoof health. By consulting with a nutritionist or a veterinarian and having their hay analyzed, owners can ensure their animals are getting the best diet possible.
“Analyzing the hay helps us to know whether it’s an appropriate feed for horses that are prone to laminitis,” explains Robinson. “It also lets us know that horses are getting the proper levels of the vitamins, minerals and proteins they need to build their feet properly.”
Robinson also emphasizes the value of good farrier care. In her view the most important measure owners can take is to provide farrier care for their horses every six to eight weeks from the time they are one month old.
A farrier’s hinged hoof model helps owners understand the difference between a well-trimmed hoof (right) in comparison to a hoof with excess hoof growth and other issues. Photo: Christina Weese
This hinged model shows a healthy foot and hoof (left) in comparison to a laminitic foot where the coffin bone has rotated, causing permanent damage. Photo: Christina Weese
While a farrier is adept at treating common hoof problems, Robinson advises owners to consult a veterinarian when they see signs of lameness in their animals.
“Lameness can be caused by a variety of issues other than foot problems. It’s often a sign of a more advanced disease process and should be checked out by a veterinarian.”
She adds that only veterinarians are qualified to prescribe pain medications, so they need to be consulted in cases requiring pain control.
By working with a veterinarian and a farrier, owners can prevent or detect problems such as hoof cracks and white line disease in their early stages. Photo: Christina Weese
Although Robinson deals with a wide range of foot issues, the most common problems she encounters are abscesses, laminitis, and navicular syndrome.
Abscesses can be caused by a number of factors, but they’re often secondary to a bruise or a crack that’s allowed debris or bacteria to work its way into the foot. They’re extremely painful and can show up quickly, despite an owner’s vigilance.
Once the abscess has been located, the veterinarian or farrier pares it out and drains it before wrapping the foot with a poultice and protective bandage. The horse often requires pain medication and should be confined and closely monitored. During the daily bandage changes, owners can soak the foot in warm water and Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) to draw out the infection.
Laminitis is often secondary to another problem such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) or equine metabolic syndrome. Because the condition may be triggered by rich pasture grass, owners should carefully monitor their horses’ diets, particularly for the breeds that are predisposed to pasture-associated laminitis.
Although lameness may be the first clinical sign of laminitis, owners should be aware of subtle changes in the foot — such as founder rings or long toes — and consult with their veterinarian to determine if there’s an underlying condition that needs treatment.
Although lameness may be the first clinical sign of laminitis, owners should be aware of subtle changes in the foot — such as founder rings or long toes — and consult with their veterinarian. Photo: Christina Weese
If your horse is diagnosed with laminitis, your veterinarian can prescribe pain medications and take X-rays to assess the severity of the disease. In many cases therapeutic farriery can help by preventing the horse from putting undue pressure on the foot structures during recovery.
Navicular syndrome refers to any type of heel pain and may be caused by a number of factors such as conformation problems, soft tissue injury, or improper foot care. The first sign is often a mild lameness that affects both front legs and may come and go from one day to the next. While treatment varies according to the underlying cause, it usually involves the co-ordinated efforts of a veterinarian and farrier.
Thrush is another condition that Robinson often encounters. This infection of the hoof’s sulci (grooves on either side of the frog) and the frog can result from muddy conditions or a stall that’s improperly cleaned. Daily picking of the hoof to remove any dirt, debris, or feces will usually prevent thrush from developing.
Dr. Kate Robinson, WCVM equine veterinary specialist. Photo: Christina Weese
By working with both a veterinarian and a farrier, owners can prevent or at least detect other problems such as hoof cracks and white line disease in their early stages. Hoof problems are painful for the animals and costly for their owners, but Robinson emphasizes that many of them can be avoided if horse owners follow good hoof management practices.
“Horses have evolved so that they are walking on the fingernail of their middle finger. Their hoofs are capable of bearing weight and doing the jobs required of them,” says Robinson. “But it’s a huge task, and horse owners should do as much as possible to help them with that task.”
Lynne Gunville of Candle Lake, Saskatchewan, is a freelance writer and editor whose career includes 25 years of teaching English and communications to adults.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2016 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: iStockPhoto/Juan Garcia Aunion