15 Signs of Hoof Problems
When your horse “tells” you that something is going on with their hooves, it’s best to remember that old adage “no hoof, no horse.” Hoof problems range from quickly healed, minor issues to lifelong lameness and pain. Unfortunately, most hoof troubles follow the same blueprint. Here are many types of hoof ailments and 15 signs of hoof problems.
Possible hoof problems
This microbial infection of the hoof is usually seen around the frog. Anaerobic bacteria, those microbes living without oxygen, can eat away at the frog and hoof.
A hoof abscess is a painful pimple inside the hoof capsule. The pressure from the infection creates pain. Most abscesses need veterinary care to provide prompt relief. An abscess often needs a track to drain for poultices and Epsom salt soaks to be most effective. Both vets and skilled farriers can find and open such a tract.
It’s gravel when an abscess escapes the hoof via the coronary band. You may find that this wound grows out with the hoof and looks like a dent, chip, or mark on the hoof.
This hind hoof has a small horizontal crack that was a gravel abscess popping out.
White line disease
This hoof wall disease happens when anaerobic bacteria invade the inner layers of the hoof, usually through a small crack around the hoof’s edge.
Laminitis and founder
Laminitis is the inflammation of the laminae (soft tissue) that secures the coffin bone to the hoof wall. Founder occurs when the damaged laminae allow the hoof bones to rotate, shift, or drop.
Read: Signs of Founder
Extra squishy hoof boots can help many hoof ailments
Navicular is the general term for the degeneration of bone in the hoof. It may also affect the surrounding tissues.
This painful condition is normally found on x-rays. The pedal bone, also known as the coffin bone, is inflamed, bruises, and has uneven edges.
Bone fractures in the hoof
The bones inside the hoof can fracture. Sometimes the outlook is good, and horses can recover from a broken bone in the foot.
X-rays are so important in the diagnostic process
Canker is sometimes confused with thrush, but the mechanisms are similar in that anaerobic bacteria cause the infections. In thrush, the bacteria eat away at tissue inside the grooves. In canker, the bacteria eat the frog, and provide a gross discharge. Additionally, the horn tissue in the hoof starts to grow out of the frog.
Bruising of the hoof wall or sole usually comes from an impact. You may not see discoloration until your vet has trimmed some of the sole. Bruising can also show up along the white line. Unfortunately, bruises are often painful and may morph into more serious hoof issues.
This white hoof has a light pink bruise on the quarter
Sometimes called street nails, punctures to the hoof are remarkably dangerous. If removed, the remaining puncture wound seals quickly, trapping bacteria and often leading to extreme pain and laminitis.
When the heel bulbs pinch together, contracted heels are the result. In extreme cases, the frog lifts and loses some function.
Keratomas are tumors of the hoof. While benign, they can interfere with hoof health and soundness. Inside the hoof, the cells that make the hoof horn under the coronary band go a little bananas and create the tumor. Surgery is usually needed.
A horse with thin soles is sometimes the result of genetics, although moisture, laminitis, and improper trimming can also cause this. The result can be bruising, navicular issues, tenderness, and arthritis.
The sole (#8) on the left is significantly thicker than that on the right.
Top 15 signs of hoof problems
Reluctance to move
When your horse’s behavior usually is one of striding forward and now is stilted or hesitant, there may be a hoof problem. You may also see that turning is challenging, and your horse will take many smaller steps as they try and turn.
Sensitivity to harder surfaces
A horse may appear to move well, but the reluctance to move shows up clearly when moving from softer surfaces to harder surfaces.
Any time a horse becomes non-weight bearing or lame at the walk is an emergency.
Some lamenesses are invisible at the walk and may only appear in the trot or canter. You may also notice that your horse only wants to canter on one lead or trot evenly in one direction without seeing an obvious lameness.
Often a subtle lameness manifests as “naughty” behaviors or hesitancy to move forward under saddle. And sometimes lamenesses don’t have anything to do with the hoof.
Which came first – the lost horseshoe or the hoof problem?
Losing shoes often
There are many reasons why a horse tends to lose horseshoes, and it may or may not be a sign of a hoof problem. Sometimes the farrier work needs a tweak, and sometimes your horse needs bell boots to protect his self-farrier skills.
Soreness after a farrier visit
This is another case when farrier work may need adjustment. However, consistently sore hooves after trimming may indicate sub-clinical laminitis.
Soreness after time on grass
Horses with metabolic disorders have a higher risk of laminitis due to consuming sugary and starchy pasture (and all sugary foods, really). A horse coming in from the pasture with sore hooves tells you that the sugar-to-laminitis pipeline may be open. While this may happen to horses without metabolic disorders, it’s more likely to show up due to pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) or equine metabolic syndrome (EMS).
There are many places a horse hoof can crack – along the edges, down the quarter of the foot, and in the area under the horseshoe. Lameness may or may not accompany cracks. The critical thing about cracks is that they are monitored for enlargement and treated for white line disease if appropriate.
These little cracks are perfect opportunities for white line disease.
Larger quarter cracks
Quarter cracks begin in the coronary band and creep down the quarter. Cracks may grow over time or appear suddenly. The largest problem with quarter cracks is lameness and the possible open wound. Surgical intervention may be needed, and your vet and farrier need to develop a treatment and shoeing plan.
This quarter crack has healed, but it still has a long way to grow out.
Rings on the hoof
There are a few reasons you see ridges or rings on the hoof. Usually, it’s a health disturbance that interrupts the hoof growth, like a fever, laminitis, or injury. Sometimes rings appear after a blip in proper nutrition. This hiccup may be from changing feeds, new and fresh pasture, or any other change.
Because the hoof growth cycle takes months, you may see this sign of a hoof problem after the problem has happened and hopefully resolved.
Nothing says “thrush” more than that funky smell from the hoof. You may catch a whiff while picking hooves, and it’s usually paired with some goopy black stuff.
But – funky smells could also mean a wound or infection in the area. Heel bulbs can get knocked, skin infections around the pastern may smell, and the holes left by a gravel abscess can get filled with foul-smelling stuff.
This bruised hoof is showing pink areas along the hoof wall – ouch!
Discoloration of light-colored hooves
Contrary to popular myth, light-colored hooves are not softer and less healthy than dark hooves. You can better see bruises on light-colored hooves, which may be of some benefit.
You may see a pink or reddish area on light hooves that could be due to a knock or an internal hoof problem.
Wounds on the coronary band
The coronary band is the soft-ish junction of the hoof and leg. It’s also the home of the hoof wall, creating the horn tissue. Wounds here can directly impact the hoof growth, sometimes with permanent disfigurement. Wounds near the hoof quarter may morph into quarter cracks.
Taking the digital pulse is easy and fast!
Increased digital pulses
The vessels that move blood in and out of the hoof reflect the inner workings of the foot. A normal, healthy hoof will have faint or non-existent digital pulses. As injury or disease creates swelling inside the hoof, the digital artery has to work harder to push blood into the hoof. Subsequently, the digital pulse begins to thump.
A different, strong, or bounding digital pulse means pain and problems inside the hoof.
Hand in hand with inflammation in the hoof is heat. But, heat is subjective. Your horse may have been standing in the sun, heating up the hooves. Or, it’s below zero, your hands are icicles, and the hooves feel warm in comparison.
A truly inflamed hoof will have heat. Temper your findings of a hot hoof with other signs of discomfort, not relying on feel alone.
Poor hair coat
Like rings on the hoof wall, a poor hair coat can indicate internal problems directly or indirectly related to the hoof. A dull and listless coat is sometimes associated with a large parasite burden, improper grooming, and metabolic disorders.
Read: Causes of dull coats
Spare yourself and your horse some heartache and escalating vet bills by consulting with your vet as soon as possible if your horse shows any signs of a hoof issue. Prompt diagnosis and treatment save your horse some pain and lessen the potential for life-altering vet bills.
Don’t forget that horses are masters of confusing us, circling the drain at the most minor inconvenience and barely showing any hint of danger with far more severe veterinary emergencies.
This video shows you how the digital artery “works” to check your horse’s hoof health. Inflammation in the hoof has nowhere to go – it’s trapped by a hard shell.
This video shows you how to measure the digital pulse. As a general rule of thumb, no news is good news. If there’s no pulse, everything should be normal. There’s always the exception, though.
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