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Home > Ask A Vet > 8 Common Hoof Problems in Horses: Signs, Causes & Treatment (Vet Answer)

8 Common Hoof Problems in Horses: Signs, Causes & Treatment (Vet Answer)

person holdin up a horse's hoof

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Dr. Samantha Devine

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Your horse’s hooves are precarious structures. Four complex hooves made mainly of keratin, the same substance as your fingernails, allow 2,000-pound animals to run and jump.

Hoof problems are prevalent in horses. One study in the Netherlands showed that 85% of horses had at least one problem with their hooves during routine farrier work.1 Many things can affect the hoof, including the environment. A damp, muddy pen can lead to thrush, abscesses, and even injuries if your horse slips.

What your horse eats significantly impacts your horse’s hoof health. Supplements may strengthen the hoof wall while overfeeding can lead to inflammation and weakening of a part of the hoof known as the laminae.

A well-thought-out management plan for your horse can go a long way to protecting their hooves. Regular farrier and veterinarian visits are essential to keep the hooves healthy and catch problems in their earliest stages.

Let’s check out some more common issues that can develop in your horse’s hooves.

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The 8 Common Hoof Problems in Horses

1. Thrush

Thrush is one of the most common conditions affecting the hooves. It is an infection and subsequent degeneration of the tissues around the frog, a triangular structure in the hoof.

Thrush typically has associated necrotic tissue and thick, dark discharge in the grooves or sulci around the frog. It is associated with the following:

  • Wet conditions, where mud and manure can get wedged around the frog and allow bacteria to thrive
  • Lack of exercise, which helps clean out the sulci
  • Improper hoof care, such as if you don’t clean out the hooves regularly

To treat thrush, your vet or farrier will need to debride and clean out the infected tissue.

2. White Line Disease

White line disease is when bacteria and/or fungal organisms enter the hoof wall area through a crack. You will usually see a powdery layer at the hoof wall with indistinct separations of the layers of the wall.2

Treatment is complicated because secondary issues like the coffin bone sinking or rotating are possible. Your vet or farrier will have to cut away the affected parts of the wall. When they do this procedure, the hoof needs stability, such as with a particular shoe, like a bar. It takes months for the wall to grow back out, so be patient.

farrier filing horse hoof shoe
Image Credit: Lena Bauermeister, Unsplash

3. Abscesses

An abscess in a horse’s hoof can be incredibly painful for them. A small wound forms, and bacteria or fungi colonize the area and create an infection. Pus can build up, putting lots of pressure on the inside structures of the hoof.

You may see a draining wound, or your veterinarian may detect an abnormality on exam and trimming of the hoof. Sometimes, you can see the abscess on a radiograph, commonly called X-rays.

Your veterinarian or farrier will need to clean out the area around the abscess so that it can drain. Then, you or they will clean the area, usually with a dilute iodine solution. You can use a poultice to draw the infection out and support drainage. If a bandage is necessary, it should be changed daily. You’ll also need to keep your horse in a clean, dry stall to minimize the chances of worsening infection.

4. Bruises

A hoof bruise typically occurs when there is an injury to the hoof wall or sole, such as stepping on a rock. Bleeding occurs, which you might see as a discolored spot within the hoof. It’s important to note that a bruise can set your horse up for developing other issues, like an abscess, so you’ll need to watch your horse carefully.

You’ll need to rest your horse while the bruise heals. You may use protective wraps on the hoof to alleviate discomfort. Your veterinarian may also prescribe pain medication for your horse to take.

Black and white horse hoofs with horseshoe
Image Credit: Anastasija Popova, Shutterstock

5. Laminitis

Laminitis is an inflammatory condition that affects the laminae of the hoof. These layers help hold the outer hoof wall to the internal coffin bone. The laminae can stretch out and lead to the coffin bone moving, often referred to as sinking or rotating, depending on its movement.

Also called founder, where the coffin bone may twist or sink from its normal position within the hoof. It can be associated with potentially irreversible damage.

Signs your horse could have laminitis are the following:
  • Hot-feeling hooves due to inflammation
  • Increased pulses that you can feel on the leg
  • Rocked back stance
There are numerous potential causes of laminitis, including:
  • Exposure to black walnut hull shavings
  • Secondary to metabolic conditions like Equine Cushing’s Disease
  • A rapid increase in grain consumption
  • Large amounts of lush grass ingested
  • Secondary to illnesses like colic
  • After a period of lameness where your horse has to bear an uneven distribution of its weight
  • Mares with retained placentas
  • GI issues causing inflammation of the gut

You’ll need to get a veterinarian out immediately to assess your horse. They may use equine-friendly anti-inflammatories and cold therapy like ice or water on the hooves. Your vet will usually recommend a diet change as well with calorie restriction.

6. Navicular Syndrome

trimming horse's hoof
Image Credit: IndiOdyssey, Pixabay

Navicular disease or syndrome is a complex condition affecting horse’s hooves. The navicular bone is a small bone near the horse’s heel associated with the podotrochlear apparatus.

Unlike many conditions that only affect one hoof at a time, navicular disease usually affects both front legs. Your horse may show signs such as the following:

  • Gait changes
  • Tripping
  • Shorter stride

Some horses are genetically predisposed to navicular disease, while others can have an injury that disrupts adequate blood flow to the navicular bone and heel area.

Diagnosing navicular disease can be difficult. Your veterinarian will need to take imaging of your horse’s legs and hooves. These images are usually radiographs (X-rays), but sometimes an MRI is used. Another helpful technique for diagnostic purposes is a nerve block, which is applied in different areas of the leg to see how the horse’s lameness improves.

While you can’t cure navicular disease, there are treatments to keep your horse comfortable, including surgery and corrective shoeing.

7. Sheared Heels

Sheared heels can occur with conditions like navicular disease and thrush. With this condition, the heels are unbalanced, often due to an issue with the conformation in the leg. Hoof cracks and thrush can quickly develop as the heels are not in alignment. You can trim your horse’s hooves and shoe them with special shoes to correct the condition.

8. Quarter Cracks

With a quarter crack, the hoof develops one or more splits up and down. The cracks are usually readily apparent but don’t always cause lameness. You’ll need to work with your farrier and veterinarian to determine the best way to correct the cracks. Some horses need minimal intervention, but others need to have wires or screws hold the crack together while it grows out.

As you can imagine, the earlier you intervene with these cracks, the better.

man wearing horseshoe on horse hoof
Image Credit: aglaya3, Pixabay

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What does a laminitic horse hoof look like?

If your horse has previously been diagnosed with laminitis, especially chronic laminitis, there are a few hoof changes you or your veterinarian may detect. These features can be beneficial if you want to purchase a new horse.

The hoof’s growth pattern change is associated with what is dubbed laminitic growth rings. These rings around the hoof are wider apart near the heel of the hoof but tend to be closer together near the front of the hoof.

Other changes associated with laminitic horse hooves include stretching out of the white line. With this change, horses with laminitis are more at risk of developing hoof abscesses and white line disease.

What does a hoof abscess look like?

Hoof abscesses can often be confused for laminitis in their early stages. Typically, a hoof abscess only affects one hoof, whereas laminitis typically affects two hooves or all four hooves: it’s not usually a one-hoof problem.

Because the keratin that makes up your horse’s hooves is such a firm structure, there’s not a lot of flexibility in the hoof when an abscess forms. You won’t typically see a swollen hoof. However, certain areas of the hoof may swell and are a bit more malleable, such as the heel bulbs or the coronary band.

With the intense inflammation associated with an abscess, your horse’s hoof will generally feel warmer than the other three hooves. You may also feel pulses at the base of the leg near the pastern but remember you may also feel these strong pulses with laminitis.

Sometimes, you will see a draining tract with an abscess. Your veterinarian will have a high likelihood of diagnosing this condition by using hoof testers.

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Horse hooves may look simple but they’re complex structures. Many things can affect your horse’s ability to walk and trot, so you should call for a veterinarian if you notice anything unusual about your horse’s gait, especially if you don’t find any abnormalities yourself, such as a loose shoe or rock wedged near the frog.

Featured Image Credit: Barbara Olsen , Pexels

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