No Hoof, No Horse. – The Importance of Hoof Health and Maintenance

If you are one of my non-horse folk readers, fear not. This post in particular may not be for you, but there will be many more to come that are! But you might still learn something pretty cool if you continue reading!

I had the idea for this post when I was feeding the horses a few days ago, and found the snow cast of one of their hooves sitting in one of the shelters…

Not a perfect cast, I have seen some even more defined and its a fairly common occurrence to find these if you are a horse owner or work with them. But it got me thinking about the need for more knowledge in this area.

We have all heard the expression « no hoof, no horse » and we kind of know what it means, but do we really? If a horse has bad feet or hoof problems, they will likely not end up doing much in their lives, but it can get even more extreme in the sense that hoof issues and lameness in general is a leading cause of death or the need for euthanization in horses.

We generally trust our farriers or vets to tell us if there is an issue, but in the horse world the owner plays a much larger role in the horse’s health and safety then with other animals. We are their first line of defence, and need to take that role seriously.

Horses are strong and powerful, yes, but they are also delicate creatures and prone to injury and health issues many of which start with the hoof.

Knowing Your Horse

As horse owners we need to be able to identify and pre-diagnose hoof issues by smell, colour, shape and temperature – as well as behaviour changes in the horse – as quickly and as accurately as possible so as to know how to proceed.

If my gelding starts limps – even just a little – and maybe has some heat in one foot I have a very good chance of being correct in the assumption he has an abscess. He has had many before, and is the number one cause of his limping as he is not prone to any other kind of leg injury.

My mare however is a different story in the nearly 8 years I have owned her she has never had an abscess but has had a few other minor leg issues that I was able to correct with compresses, rest and hydrotherapy without the need of the vet. – Although I would consult him regardless to justify my assumptions.

We – as owners – Are Not Professionals

As horse owners we need a much higher understanding of equine veterinary medicine, but unless we are actually vets should not fall into the assumption that we know best. Advocate for your horse and yourself if you truly feel there is something deeper going on or if you don’t trust your vet get another opinion.

In the end though, they are the professionals and we are seeking their advice because of that fact, we should never be so full hearty in thinking we know better because we read something on the internet or in a book.

Also a note to any human physicians out there. Yes, you are experts in the medical field, but I have seen so many nurses and doctors misdiagnose their own horse’s ailments using logical reasoning from a human medical standpoint. Please don’t assume because you know the human body that you know the equine body as well. They are completely different, and must be treated differently. You can however use your training to understand equine medicine fast and more profoundly then most, educate yourself, seek veterinary advice and ask questions, don’t assume you know the answer because you maybe surprised!

Vet vs Farrier

One of the biggest questions when talking about hoof health is which professional do we call for a hoof issue? Both farriers and vets have the ability and knowledge to work with hoof health, both do emergency calls and both are willing and able to do the work.

If you ask a vet they will tell you to call a vet, and if you ask a farrier they will tell you to call a farrier. This makes the choice even more confusing to us, as it seems to come down to ‘he said, she said’.

In my opinion it’s best to have a little of both worlds, my vet of 11 years used to be a farrier and has substantial knowledge of hoof mechanics, as well as all of the tools needed to deal with any hoof related issue.

My farrier is a very knowledgable (it took a long time to find a good one!) and has substantial informal knowledge of equine medicine in general.

Both are professionals, both respect the opinions of the other and both strive to maintain continuance in their learning. I could easily call either/or, in any hoof related emergency, generally I go for my vet, because I have known him longer, and initially I did not have a farrier and had learned to do my own horse’s hoof trimming from a friend who used to be a farrier. So in the past I only had the one choice.

So far I have only dealt with minor lameness and abscesses, and I have seen my vet do excellant work, I have a tendency towards thinking that vets are more for ‘internal’ hoof issues and farriers for ‘external’, but really it’s just a personal preference.

Ask both professionals what kind of knowledge they posses, and make an informed decision. If one or the other bashes on the other profession, or the individual rather then respectfully telling you their personal opinion and preference and allowing you to make the decision they may not be the right fit for you.

If your vet never had any training as a farrier, I would recommend sticking with the farrier for all hoof related issues, but in the end trust your gut, it will tell you who to trust.

And don’t forget, nothing is stopping you from getting an opinion from both your vet and farrier!

Common Hoof Issues To Watch Out For

Trush

Thrush is a type of fungus that can grow on the hidden face of the hoof (the part that touches the ground), mild cases are very commonly seen in wet, muddy or humid conditions, but can become a real health concern if left unchecked.

The best cure, is prevention. Maintaining a good trimming/shoeing schedule, and daily picking/cleaning of the hooves are essential. Monitor your horse’s hooves closely even if you have never seen thrush on them before, it could still happen. Horses with shoes are particularly prone as the mud and debris do not clear themselves readily from the hoof.

The fungus is essentially eating away at the hoof tissue, and can – and will – eventually make it’s way inside of the hoof capsule.

Thrush will generally be seen starting in the channels along side the frog, and will begin to eat away at it first as the tissue is softer. Thrush can also be commonly seen along the white line, but this is actually called white line disease and may need to be treated differently. – The reason the picture of the mould of my horse’s hoof inspired this post, is because you can clearly see the healthy and well formed frog. A good indication of a healthy horse!

Thrush Treatment

There are many products on the market to treat thrush, some liquid and some in powder form. Budget and application preference will play a role in your decision, as well as efficacy. If your horse only has a mild case then most of the cheaper products may work well, but if it is more severe then you may need to spring for the pricier ones.

Don’t think however that the price tag is the sole indication of the quality of the products. I have purchased some higher end products that did nothing to treat even the mildest case of thrush. Generally Thrush Buster or No Thrush Powder work very well.

There are also many home remedies that I have used in the past such as diluted bleach (I would no recommend this!), and iodine. You can experiment with homemade remedies but please discuss with your vet for safety before trying anything new!

Abscesses

Abscesses can be very common in some horses, and completely unheard of in others. Abscesses happen because the outer wall of the hoof does not have much give, so when there is swelling, fluid build up or infecting the liquid must be released somehow. The hoof is made to do this quite well naturally, channeling the unwanted, dead or infected material up the hoof wall, and expelling it through the coronary band.

This process works very well in most horses, and is better left alone, but it can be very painful and if the process fails the horse could end up with a secondary injection that could even become systemic.

Generally I opt for having my vet excise the abscess from the bottom of the hoof, instead of letting it get too far. Although on a few occasions my gelding did not even go lame and the only way I knew there had been an abscess was because it popped at the coronary band.

Abscesses can be identified by lameness, hoof feeling hot to the touch and sensitivity on the sole of the hoof. If the vet decides it may need to be excised they will use a special tool to place pressure on different areas of the sole to find the abscess, then use a farrier’s knife (which is a specialized tool for the hoof) and slowly scrap away the hoof horn until the abscess is released.

The horse will have instant relief from the pain, and you will just have to keep a bandage on the hoof, and keep the hole clean until it begins to close. I have had times when a small abscess was removed and my horse was ridable by the end of the same week.

Abscesses can be caused by anything from a nail in the foot to a simple stone bruise (blood blister)!

Other Less-Emergent Hoof Issues

For most of these issues only a farrier is needed, unless there are secondary health concerns associated with the underlying issue.

Quarter Cracks

These are cracks stemming from the bottom of the hoof up, or vice versa in the quarters (which of the sides of the hoof. These are generally to do with weak hooves, or poor hoof maintenance. Most can be corrected with proper corrective trimming, but some severe cases can need corrective shoeing, glue or even specialized staples as well. Cracks can continue to grow until they bleed and render the horse lame and the inner soft tissue of the hoof exposed.

Toe Cracks

These are similar cracks from the ground up, but on the toe. These are just as important to address and can cause severe abscesses if left unaddressed and to accumulate debris.

Superficial Cracks

Sometimes small superficial cracks can appear on the surface of the hoof wall. These are often called grass cracks or sand cracks and if they do not deepen do not affect the horse.

Founder Rings

Founder is an inflammatory hoof disease caused by many things, fever, obesity and sudden changes to diet are all leading causes of founder. Founder can be debilitating and can lead to death in horses in severe cases. Founder can be identified by flattening of the sole of the hoof, heat in the hoof, lameness, standing in a setback position to alleviate pressure on the forehand and by founder rings. These are rings – or bumps – that run horizontally across the hoof wall, starting in the coronary band, there may be multiple or just a few, and may vary in size, shape and distance from one another.

There can be false cases of these rings if there are quick changes in nutrition, or if the weather is very unstable, changing from dry to damp and back again often, and in this case can indicate simply the expansion and shrinkage of the hoof. Better safe than sorry, check with your farrier if you are not sure!

Founder could be emergent in some cases, but generally we only see the signs after the fact. Prevention is key with founder. Making changes to diet slowly and progressively, keep horses weight in check, and keeping fever down in sick horses is key.

Take Home Message

Horses are delicate creatures, and we as horse owners have a huge responsibility to be able to catch health issues before they because debilitating. Educate yourself, ask professionals questions and make sure you trust your vet and farrier and that they are qualified to do the work you require of them.

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