Equine hoof problems are a major source of concern for horse owners. Hoof issues can lead to lameness and unsoundness, causing discomfort for the horse and potentially leading to early retirement.

In one study, 85% of horses were observed to have at least one form of hoof disorder when examined during regular hoof trimming. [7] In this study, 95.6% of horses were either stalled or housed in small paddocks, which can affect hoof pathology. [7]

Thrush was the most common hoof disease, followed by hoof wall cracks, growth rings, bruising, white line disease and laminitis.

The equine hoof is comprised of multiple structures and tissues that function in collaboration with each other to enable movement of the foot.

Multiple factors including trimming and shoeing practices, environmental conditions, nutritional status, and metabolic health affect the quality and integrity of the equine hoof.

Many hoof problems are preventable with a good nutrition plan and proper equine management practices. In this article, we will review seven common hoof issues in horses and discuss ways to help keep your horse’s hooves healthy.

To support your horse’s hoof health, submit their information online for a complementary review by our equine nutritionists.

Anatomy of the Horse’s Hoof

The outermost layer of the hoof structure is comprised of a hard wall that protects the inner tissues including the laminae (laminar layers) of the foot.

The white line is located between the hoof wall and the sole of the foot and represents the visible part of the laminar layers within the equine foot.

The insensitive laminar layers of the hoof connect to the inside face of the hoof wall. The sensitive laminar layers are the innermost layers of the laminae. They are filled with blood vessels and connect to the coffin bone, the foundation of the hoof.

Here is a brief overview of the external and internal structures of the hoof:

Healthy Horse Hoof Anatomy
Equine Hoof Anatomy Graphic

Common Hoof Problems in Horses

The equine hoof is vulnerable to a multitude of problems ranging from minor to life-threatening. Some of the most common problems that can affect the equine hoof include:

  • Abscesses
  • Thrush and other infections
  • Septic arthritis (joint infection)
  • Hoof bruises, punctures, and corns
  • Hoof wall cracks
  • White Line Disease (Seedy toe) or white line widening
  • Laminitis
  • Founder
  • Navicular Syndrome (Palmar Hoof Syndrome)
  • Bone cysts
  • Fractures
  • Pedal osteitis
  • Cankers or overgrowths
  • Contracted heels
  • Keratoma
  • Frog cancer

Below we explain seven of these common hoof problems in horses in further detail.

1) Abscess

A common cause of sudden and severe lameness, a hoof abscess develops when bacterial or fungal organisms enter the structure through a wound or opening and cause a subsequent infection in the inner tissues. [1][2][3]

The invading microorganisms generate purulent exudate which causes pressure to increase inside the hoof, resulting in extreme pain and lameness in the horse.

Hoof Abscess in Horses

Hoof abscesses are most likely to occur during the wettest seasons of the year including the spring and winter, although they can occur at any time. All horses can be affected by hoof abscesses.

Typical symptoms associated with a hoof abscess include variable degrees of lameness depending on the severity of the infection, a pounding digital pulse, and the presence of heat and swelling in the foot. [4] Not all of these symptoms need to be present to suspect a hoof abscess.

If left untreated, the symptoms of an abscess can worsen and potentially lead to permanent damage of the foot or cause sepsis of important internal structures. [5]

Diagnosis & Treatment

Hoof abscesses are diagnosed by visually inspecting the affected hoof and using hoof testers to determine the sites at which pain is present. In some cases, taking radiographs of the hoof is necessary to locate the site of the abscess within the foot. [6]

A critical factor in treating all hoof abscesses is ensuring proper drainage from the site of the abscess in the hoof. [2] A veterinarian and or farrier may need to be involved in the treatment of abscesses where proper drainage is not present.

Poultices and drawing ointments such as ichthammol are commonly used to promote drainage from a hoof abscess. Once drainage occurs, affected horses typically experience significant pain relief.

During the healing process, an antiseptic treatment such as betadine or two percent iodine should be applied to the drainage tract of a hoof abscess. Medicated putty may also be used within the drainage tract to ensure microorganisms cannot re-enter the hoof.

Horses being treated for an abscess should be housed in a clean, dry area, such as a well-bedded stall or small paddock. During treatment, bandages should be removed and changed daily.

An abscess is considered healed after the drainage tract dries out and the affected tissues have healed over the opening of the tract. Only after abscess healing is complete and affected horses become fully sound, should shoes be applied to their hooves. If shoes are absolutely necessary, a shoe with a hospital plate can be applied to allow access to the abscessed area.

Horses with a mild infection due to a hoof abscess may be able to return to work in less than a week following treatment. However, abscesses involving deep infections can take several weeks or even months to resolve.

2) Thrush

A relatively common infection that affects the center and grooves (sulci) of the frog of the equine hoof, thrush is caused by bacterial and or fungal organisms. A Dutch study of 942 randomly selected horses found that 45% had thrush. [7]

Among the different species of bacteria that can cause a thrush infection in horses, Fusobacterium necrophorum is the most frequently involved. [8] More important than the type of organism causing the infection, however, is the situation that sets the sulcus up for the infection to occur.

Thrush infection is more likely to occur in the hind feet of horses stalled in moist, damp, and unclean conditions.

Some horses are more prone to contracting the infection if they have a long heel conformation that promotes deep, narrow frog sulci and are exposed to the contributing environmental conditions.

Symptoms of thrush include a black and foul-smelling discharge emanating from the affected areas of the frog. Horses with thrush may also display pain when pressure is applied to these areas.

Treatment

Thrush is treated by removing necrotic tissue from the hoof, a process completed by a farrier or veterinarian. The affected hooves should be cleaned daily with a diluted iodine solution or other antifungal or antibacterial product.

If granulation tissue or sensitive structure of the hoof are exposed after debridement of the necrotic tissue, astringents should be avoided. Your veterinarian can prescribe metronidazole, which can be made into a paste and packed into the area. A hoof bandage is applied and changed daily until the area is healed over.

To prevent and help treat thrush, horses should be stabled in a dry and clean environment. A tetanus vaccine should be administered to horses that are not up to date on their vaccination against the disease.

Horses treated for thrush typically recover within 7 to 14 days unless there are complications involving the deeper tissues of the hoof being affected.

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3) Hoof Bruise

A hoof bruise occurs when there is hemorrhaging within the hoof tissue caused by acute trauma to the hoof. [9][10] Improper shoeing or farrier work and blunt trauma can promote the development of hoof bruises.

The most common signs of a hoof bruise include visible patches of discoloration on the sole or wall of the hoof. Depending on the degree of bruising in the hoof, some horses may show slight sensitivity whereas others may be lame.

Rest is needed for hor