Equine hoof problems are a major source of concern for horse owners. Hoof issues can lead to lameness and unsoundness, causing discomfort for the horse and potentially leading to early retirement.

In one study, 85% of horses were observed to have at least one form of hoof disorder when examined during regular hoof trimming. [7]

Thrush was the most common hoof disease, followed by hoof wall cracks, growth rings, bruising, white line disease and laminitis.

The equine hoof is comprised of multiple structures and tissues that function in collaboration with each other to enable movement of the foot.

Multiple factors including trimming and shoeing practices, environmental conditions, nutritional status, and metabolic health affect the quality and integrity of the equine hoof.

Many hoof problems are preventable with a good nutrition plan and proper equine management practices. In this article, we will review seven common hoof issues in horses and discuss ways to help keep your horse’s hooves healthy.

To support your horse’s hoof health, submit their information online for a complementary review by our equine nutritionists.

Anatomy of the Horse’s Hoof

The outermost layer of the hoof structure is comprised of a hard wall that protects the inner tissues including the laminae (laminar layers) of the foot.

The white line is located between the hoof wall and the sole of the foot and represents the visible part of the laminar layers within the equine foot.

The insensitive laminar layers of the hoof connect to the inside face of the hoof wall. The sensitive laminar layers are the innermost layers of the laminae. They are filled with blood vessels and connect to the coffin bone, the foundation of the hoof.

Here is a brief overview of the external and internal structures of the hoof:

Healthy Horse Hoof Anatomy
Equine Hoof Anatomy Graphic

Common Hoof Problems in Horses

The equine hoof is vulnerable to a multitude of problems ranging from minor to life-threatening. Some of the most common problems that can affect the equine hoof include:

  • Abscesses
  • Thrush and other infections
  • Hoof bruises, punctures, and corns
  • Hoof wall cracks
  • White Line Disease (Seedy toe) or white line widening
  • Laminitis
  • Founder
  • Navicular Syndrome
  • Bone cysts
  • Fractures
  • Pedal osteitis
  • Cankers or overgrowths
  • Contracted heels
  • Keratoma
  • Frog cancer
  • And more…

Below we explain seven of these common hoof problems in horses in further detail.

1) Abscess

A common cause of sudden and severe lameness, a hoof abscess develops when bacterial or fungal organisms enter the structure through a wound or opening and cause a subsequent infection in the inner tissues. [1][2][3]

The invading microorganisms generate purulent exudate which causes pressure to increase inside the hoof, resulting in pain and lameness in the horse.

Hoof Abscess in Horses

Hoof abscesses are most likely to occur during the wettest seasons of the year including the spring and winter, although they can occur at any time. All horses can be affected by hoof abscesses.

Typical symptoms associated with a hoof abscess include variable degrees of lameness depending on the severity of the infection, a racing digital pulse, and the presence of heat and swelling in the foot. [4]

If left untreated, the symptoms of an abscess can worsen and potentially lead to permanent damage of the foot. [5]

Diagnosis & Treatment

Hoof abscesses are diagnosed by visually inspecting the affected hoof and using hoof testers to determine the sites at which pain is present. In some cases, taking radiographs of the hoof is necessary to locate the site of the abscess within the foot. [6]

A critical factor in treating all hoof abscesses is ensuring proper drainage from the site of the abscess in the hoof. [2] A veterinarian and or farrier may need to be involved in the treatment of abscesses where proper drainage is not present.

Poultices and drawing ointments such as ichthammol are commonly used to promote drainage from a hoof abscess. Once drainage occurs, affected horses typically experience significant pain relief.

During the healing process, an antiseptic treatment such as betadine or two percent iodine should be applied to the drainage tract of a hoof abscess. Medicated putty may also be used within the drainage tract to ensure microorganisms cannot re-enter the hoof.

Horses being treated for an abscess should be housed in a clean, dry area, such as a well-bedded stall or small paddock. During treatment, bandages should be removed and changed daily.

An abscess is considered healed after the drainage tract dries out and the affected tissues have healed over the opening of the tract. Only after abscess healing is complete and affected horses become fully sound, should shoes be applied to their hooves.

Horses with a mild infection due to a hoof abscess may be able to return to work in less than a week following treatment. However, abscesses involving deep infections can take several weeks to resolve.

2) Thrush

A relatively common infection that affects the center and grooves (sulci) of the frog of the equine hoof, thrush is caused by bacterial and or fungal organisms. A Dutch study of 942 randomly selected horses found that 45% had thrush. [7]

Among the different species of bacteria that can cause a thrush infection in horses, Fusobacterium necrophorum is the most frequently involved. [8]

Thrush infection is more likely to occur in the hind feet of horses stalled in moist, damp, and unclean conditions.

Some horses are more prone to contracting the infection if they have a long heel conformation that promotes deep, narrow frog sulci and are exposed to the contributing environmental conditions.

Symptoms of thrush include a black and foul-smelling discharge emanating from the affected areas of the frog. Horses with thrush may also display pain when pressure is applied to these areas.

Treatment

Thrush is treated by removing necrotic tissue from the hoof, a process completed by a farrier or veterinarian. The affected hooves should be cleaned daily with a diluted iodine solution.

To prevent and help treat thrush, horses should be stabled in a dry and clean environment. A tetanus vaccine should be administered to horses that are not up to date on their vaccination against the disease.

Horses treated for thrush typically recover within 7 to 14 days unless there are complications involving the deeper tissues of the hoof being affected.

3) Hoof Bruise

A hoof bruise occurs when there is hemorrhaging within the hoof tissue caused by acute trauma to the hoof. [9][10] Improper shoeing or farrier work and blunt trauma can promote the development of hoof bruises.

The most common signs of a hoof bruise include visible patches of discoloration on the sole or wall of the hoof. Depending on the degree of bruising in the hoof, some horses may show slight sensitivity whereas others may be lame.

Rest is needed for horses to heal from a bruised hoof. Using protective cushioning on the foot from shoes, pads, boots, or wraps may help horses feel more comfortable during the healing process.

4) White Line Disease

A disease that destroys the two inner tissue layers of the hoof wall that are covered by the hard outer layer, White Line Disease results from bacterial and fungal invasion into the hoof. [11][12]

These microbes invade the tissues of the hoof wall through a separation or crack and subsequently cause an infection.

White Line Disease in Horses

Factors believed to promote the development of white line disease in horses include living in conditions that are excessively wet or dry and having hoof capsule distortions such as long toes, under-run heels, a club foot, or sheared heels.

White line disease can develop in one or more feet of the horse. Horses with mild white line disease may not exhibit lameness, whereas those with severe damage to their hoof wall may suffer laminitis and coffin bone sinking and or rotation.

A powdery hoof wall without a solid junction between each layer is commonly present in horses with white line disease. When tapped with a hammer, an affected hoof may produce a hollow sound.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Veterinary advice should be sought to determine the extent of damage caused by white line disease in affected horses. X-rays may be used to evaluate the problem and aid in developing an appropriate treatment plan.

Treatment of white line disease typically requires hoof-wall resection by a farrier. [11][12] The farrier cuts away each of the three layers of the hoof wall to remove the infected parts of the hoof. Once resected, the hoof will require support with a bar or other form of therapeutic shoe.

During the healing process, a farrier will debride the affected area regularly. A resected hoof will take several months to a year to grow out and must be kept as clean and dry as possible to prevent the infection from recurring.

5) Laminitis

A painful condition, laminitis occurs when the laminar layers of the hoof which connect the outer hoof wall to the coffin bone become inflamed. [13][14]

This condition can range from mild to severe and potentially lead to founder which involves laminar damage and coffin bone rotation and or sinking. [15][16][17]

Laminitic Horse Hoof Diagram

The most common cause of laminitis in horses is due to grain overload or sudden access to lush pasture. Horses most at risk for the condition include those with endocrine disorders including Equine Metabolic Syndrome and Cushing’s disease. [18][19][20]

Laminitis can occur due to other causes including:

  • During illness, such as colic. This condition is referred to as septic-associated laminitis. [18]
  • During a non-weight-bearing lameness that induces stressful forces in one or more hooves of the weight-bearing limbs. This condition is referred to as support limb laminitis. [18]
  • Exposure to black walnut hull shavings has been associated with the development of laminitis. [21]

Symptoms of laminitis include:

  • Softening of the coronet band
  • Heat in the hooves
  • Increased digital pulse
  • Reluctance to move
  • “Sawhorse” stance

Treatment

Horses suspected of having laminitis should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. With prompt treatment, lasting damage to the hoof structure may be prevented and many horses can recover.

Treatment of laminitis involves removing the underlying cause of the condition. For example, dietary changes must be implemented to reduce inflammation and underlying infection or illness must be treated. [22]

Therapeutic shoeing, the use of pain medication, and cold therapy are common strategies that are used to support horses healing from laminitis. [23]

6) Founder

Damage to the laminar connection between the hoof wall and the coffin bone that results in rotation and sinking of the coffin bone is referred to as founder.
[17][16] This condition can have a sudden onset or occur slowly over time.

Founder is very painful for the horse and can result in a permanently altered hoof structure. Multiple factors can contribute to the development of founder. [16]

Horses on lush pasture or horses that are fed large amounts of grain are more prone to laminitis and founder. A high intake of starch and sugar can overwhelm the small intestine, causing excess carbohydrates to reach the hindgut and resulting in damage to the intestinal lining. [16]

If the intestinal lining is compromised, toxins can enter the peripheral blood supply and cause damage to the laminae.

Acute illnesses such as colic and diarrhea, which cause inflammation in the small intestine, increase a horse’s risk of founder due to the presence of endotoxins in their body. [16]

Mares that retain their placenta are also at risk for the founder due to increased levels of endotoxin exposure. [16]

Horses with non-weight-bearing lameness may develop founder if the laminae in the hooves of their supporting limbs are affected. [16]

Horses with metabolic issues such as Cushing’s/PPID and EMS have a higher risk of founder. [25][26] This may be related to higher levels of cortisol and insulin which cause lamellar inflammation, laminitis, and founder.

Horses with founder may show a range of signs of distress and discomfort. The most common clinical symptoms include:

  • Sudden lameness
  • Resistance to moving
  • Feeling a strong digital pulse and heat in the foot
  • Shifting weight back and forth
  • Standing with the legs camped out in front of the body or with all four legs under the body
  • Laying down more frequently

Diagnosis & Treatment

An accurate diagnosis of the condition requires clinical and radiographical examinations of the hooves by a veterinarian. The sooner treatment is started, the better the chance that affected horses will recover.

Prevention and treatment of founder requires addressing the underlying causes of the condition such as improper diet and metabolic issues. Horses with founder are commonly administered non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain and inflammation.

Corrective trimming and shoeing are critical for horses that have foundered. Some horses may also benefit from cold water therapy to reduce inflammation and slow the progression of laminitis and founder in their affected feet.

Navicular syndrome, also referred to as navicular disease or podotrochlear syndrome typically occurs in the forelimbs and affects the podo­trochlear apparatus (PTA) of the equine foot. [27][28][29][30]

The PTA is comprised of multiple structures including the navicular bone, coffin joint, and ligaments and tendons. [27][31]

Horses affected by navicular syndrome may exhibit a mild to severe degree of lameness, changes in their gait, and a general reduction in performance.

In affected horses, the rear portion of the foot can undergo a range of changes due to the condition.

Navicular syndrome may involve abnormal bone remodelling processes in the navicular bone and the development of inflammation, lesions, and adhesions in the DDFT. [27] The distal interphalangeal (DIP) joint and the navicular bursa may also be affected by inflammation. [27]

Because navicular syndrome typically affects multiple structures in the foot, it is believed there are several factors that can precipitate the development of the condition.

Horses are more likely to have the condition if they:

  • Have genetic factors that contribute to the existence of poor nutrient channels in their navicular bone.
  • Are over ten years of age
  • Have a weight-to-height ratio of 3.45 or higher.
  • Are born with a divided navicular bone.
  • Have suffered an injury that results in poor blood supply to the rear of the foot.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosing navicular syndrome requires a veterinary clinical evaluation that includes diagnostic analgesia and radiographic imaging. [33]

There is no cure for navicular syndrome. However, corrective trimming and shoeing, medications, and non-surgical and surgical interventions are commonly employed as treatments for the condition. [34]

Key Tips for Healthy Hooves

Nutrition: Feed a high-quality mineral/vitamin supplement

To grow and maintain healthy hooves, horses require a balanced diet that provides adequate amounts of key vitamins and minerals. [35][36][37][38][39][40]

Some of the most important nutrients known to support hoof integrity include biotin, copper, selenium, and zinc. For a 500kg horse at maintenance, optimal amounts of each of these nutrients are as follows:

  • Biotin: 20mg per day
  • Zinc: 400mg per day
  • Copper: 100 mg per day
  • Selenium: 2mg per day

It is recommended to feed a mineral and vitamin supplement that provides organic trace minerals, which are better absorbed and utilized by the body compared to inorganic trace minerals.

Mad Barn’s Omneity mineral and vitamin supplement provides all of the nutrients required to grow out robust, healthy hooves. It balances the majority of forage and grain-based diets and is designed to correct for the most common nutrient deficiencies that can impair hoof growth.

Omneity Equine Mineral & Vitamin Supplement
  • 100% organic trace minerals
  • Complete B-vitamin fortification
  • Optimal nutrition balance
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Hoof Care: Maintain a regular farrier schedule

Keep your horse’s hooves well maintained on a regular trimming/shoeing schedule of 4 to 6 weeks. Shorter intervals between farrier sessions are better than longer ones and will make it more likely that hoof issues are caught early.

Regular trimming can help prevent the growth of long hoof walls and hoof imbalances which promote stress and strain on the hoof capsule, soft tissues, and ligaments. Regular farrier work is critical to guard against the development of hoof problems.

Paddock Management: Avoid wet areas your horse’s turnout space

Ensure that the turnout area where your horse spends the most time is dry.

Consider laying down a gravel base and filling it with round, pea-sized gravel to a depth of approximately 4 inches to create an area in your pasture that can drain away excess moisture.

Summary

Hoof problems in horses are an extremely common occurrence, affecting 85% of horses in one study.

While most hoof issues are mild, if left untreated they can worsen over time and lead to lameness. Problems with your horse’s hooves such as laminitis can also signal systemic health concerns that need to be addressed.

Vigilance, regular farrier care and good management practices are all important to support hoof health. Your horse’s diet also plays a critical role in supplying the nutrients required to grow healthy hoof tissue.

Is your horse affected by hoof problems? Submit their diet online for analysis by our equine nutritionists to identify deficiencies or imbalances that might be impairing hoof growth.

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References

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