Imagine an entire horse’s body weight supported by a hoof, a structure not dissimilar to a human fingernail! Healthy hooves are vital to horse’s well-being, and most horses experience some hoof problems in their lifetime. The hoof and foot structures often are the culprit causing lameness. Here are two of the most common hoof problems seen in our practice: hoof abscesses and heel soreness.
Hoof abscesses are a common cause of lameness. Abscesses occur when bacteria gain access to soft tissue structures immediately under the sole, usually through a separation at the white line, in association with a bruise or due to penetrating wounds. Bacteria rapidly multiply in the warm, moist conditions; bacterial exudate produced combined with the body’s immune system attempting to fight off infection produces intense inflammatory responses resulting in reluctance to bear weight on the affected hoof.
We typically diagnose abscesses by evaluating the affected foot’s digital pulse and applying hoof testers to the sole to identify areas of discomfort. Occasionally, an abscess, following the path of least resistance, will rupture at the coronary band. Treatment typically consists of paring back the sole, identifying the infected area, and establishing drainage. A poultice bandage is routinely used ensuring all infected tissue is cleaned from the abscess. In the event a horse is diagnosed with a foot abscess, ensure the horse received tetanus vaccination recently.
Heel soreness is commonly caused by long toes and low heels. We diagnose it by evaluating hoof conformation, sensitivity to hoof testers when applied across the heels, positive response to palmar digital nerve desensitization, and radiographic evaluation of hoof conformation. Treatment includes farrier work to achieve optimum hoof balance, usually a combination of shortening the toe to move the break-over point back, increasing heel support, and using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
There are many opportunities for horse owners to prevent these hoof conditions. Most importantly, assemble a veterinarian-farrier team to work together identifying and treating problems early on. Scheduling routine appointments with a highly trained, competent farrier; regular hoof cleaning; maintaining the horse in a clean, dry environment; regular exercise; and optimum nutrition all aid your horse’s healthy hoof maintenance.