We have all been there, you have a big day of riding planned. You head off to the barn to saddle-up your noble steed. But as you approach him, you notice, something is off. Does he look like he’s limping? Yeah, he’s definitely limping, maybe due to horse hoof problems. Now, foiled plans are the least of your worries.
The truth is, even with the most attentive owners and in the best of environments, your horse hoof problems are bound to arise. It is important to understand the mechanical magic that goes into your horse’s movement and what that movement can tell you about your horse’s overall health.
Horse Hoof Problems: Hoof Anatomy
Horse hooves can be broken down into 3 main structures: The Outer Structure, The Inner Structure and the area underneath the hoof. You can read more about the main structures of your horse’s hooves here:
The Outer Structure:
The Outer Structure of the hoof includes structures such as the hoof wall, coronary band, and the inner wall/laminar layer.
The hoof wall is the hard, keratinous structure that protects the inner workings of your horse’s hoof. The front of the hoof wall’s primary function is protection whereas the rear portion of the hoof wall absorbs the shock of your horse’s movement.
The coronary band is the softer keratinous area located at the top of your horse’s hoof, beginning at the hairline moving slightly downward. This area is responsible for new growth and is very vascular-meaning it houses a lot of blood.
Inner Wall/Laminar Layer:
The inner wall is a softer, more pliable structure that consists of laminae which connect your horse’s hoof to the coffin bone. The main function of this structure is to provide your horse with some micro-shock absorption as they move around.
The Inner Structure of the hoof is contained the digital cushion and the coffin bone.
The digital cushion is the unsung hero of your horse’s hooves. Taking up the majority of the internal heel sector of your horse’s hoof, the digital cushion is responsible for the blood flow into and out of your horse’s hoof. When the horse’s leg swings, centrifugal motion pulls the oxygen-rich blood into your horse’s hoof, and when the horse presses down on that hoof, it seals the blood in, closing the capillaries. With its next step, the blood, now deprived of oxygen, makes its return trip back up your horse’s leg with help from the frog.
The coffin bone is responsible for the shape of your horse’s hooves. Also called the distal phalanx, the coffin bone has a very delicate relationship with the rest of the hoof structures. Any breakdown or injury to the outer or inner supporting structures can upset the balance required to maintain a healthy coffin bone.
Horse Hoof Problems: Underneath the Hoof
These are the parts of your horse’s hooves you are probably most familiar with. On the underside of the hoof, you will find the sole, the frog, the central sulcus and the bars.
The sole of the hoof is the concave structure found on the bottom of your horse’s hooves. Also comprised of keratin, the sole of the hoof is softer than the keratin of the hoof wall. The outer edges of the sole help to distribute your horse’s weight while also providing protection to the internal structures of the hoof. Located just inside of the edges, the “white line” of the hoof is where your horse’s sole meets the hoof wall.
The frog which is the ridged, V-shaped structure located on the heel of the bottom of your horse’s hoof, is a neat little feat of nature. This structure aids in circulation by pushing the deoxygenated blood back up your horse’s leg as he walks. It also allows the horse to feel the surface beneath them.
The central sulcus or cleft is the valley portion of the middle ridge in your horse’s frog. The central sulcus should appear wide and shallow. Located on both sides of the central sulcus is the bi-lateral sulci.
Finally, the bars, another unsung hero of your horse’s mechanics. The bars are located alongside your horse’s frog and like the frog, are V-shaped. This is another area where the softer keratin of your horse’s sole meets the harder keratin of your horse’s hoof wall.
Common Horse Hoof Problems
The Laminitis, also called foundering, can occur for a myriad of different reasons, some internal some external. Laminitis is a condition in which the inner or laminal layer of your horse’s hoof wall begins to tear away from the coffin bone causing inflammation.
Abnormalities In the Hoof Wall
Think of the hoof wall as your fingernail. In humans, white lines, not caused by external trauma can indicate certain deficiencies-this is similar to horses’ hooves. Horses like their hooves like we like our nails, smooth, shiny and free from cracks or other markings. Rings and Ridges are often cause for concern. The good news is that for the most part, rings around your horse’s hooves are simply new growth.
However, abnormalities like ridges can indicate an array of problems from something as simple as stress caused by a feed or routine change, to a system-wide problem such as a fever, nutrient toxicity or laminitis-which requires a call to your veterinarian. The hoof wall can also tell you how long the problem has plagued your four-legged friend, depending on where on the hoof wall you find an imperfection. Additionally, if you notice that your horse’s hooves appear dull, flakey or have cracks, your horse may have some problems retaining moisture. You can read more on abnormalities affecting the hoof wall here:
Abscesses occur when bacteria enter your horse’s hoof and cause inflammation. Lameness is the biggest clue that something is wrong with your horse’s hooves. The same applies here. The horse may avoid stepping on the hoof in order to avoid pain. Abscesses appear bruise-like with a notable pocket of blood and pus.
How To Detect Common Hoof Problems and the Importance of Early Detection
Changes or disruptions in your horse’s movement or the appearance of their hooves are going to be the biggest clues that there are problems that something is amiss and warrants further inspection. If you notice that your horse is avoiding putting weight on his front feet by leaning back in a downward-facing dog-like posture, foundering/Laminitis is most likely the culprit.
Changes in his gait can present as quick, short, strike-like steps are a tactic your horse may employ to avoid pain or he may not use the foot at all which can indicate an abscess or excessive irritation. Other common symptoms include deep cresting in your horse’s neck, bulging hip muscles and/or hot and swollen feet. If your horse’s hooves feel hot, your horse has a fever or moves in any of the ways mentioned above contact your veterinarian because this is not a problem that will resolve on its own.
Cleaning with a hoof pick before and after riding activities (or regularly with retired horses) will help establish good habits that bring you in regular contact with your horse’s hooves so you can observe their overall appearance and take note of any changes that may have occurred since you last looked at them. Additionally, monitoring your horse’s nutrition to ensure that they are getting the right balance of protein and lush/plush greens is important to ensure the overall health of your horse’s hooves. If you have any questions, comments or tips for detecting problems with your horse’s hooves please feel free to comment below.
-Your horse’s movement will be one of the biggest clues something is amiss with their hooves.
-Simply looking at the overall condition of your horse’s hooves can help ensure early detection of current problems and may aid in the reduction of future problems.
-Regular cleaning before and after riding activities or regularly if your horse is retired is the best way to prevent problems in your horse’s hooves.
-Diet plays a big role in maintaining healthy hooves. Avoid feeding your horse too much protein or keep your grain supply in a place not easily accessible to your horse and moderate lush/plush grazing activities to maintain a healthy diet. Also, be sure not to allow your horse to drink too much water until they have adequately cooled down from riding or exercise activities.
-Injuries to areas responsible for growth such as the coronary band can cause problems for future hoof wall growth or hot to the touch hooves can indicate a serious problem that should be checked by your veterinarian.
Comment below if you have any questions!