Common Foot Problems

A horse is almost bound to experience a hoof problem during his lifetime. How serious it is and how it is handled could make the difference in his return to full soundness. During an early-morning presentation at the Thoroughbred International Exposition and Conference (TIEC) held in Lexington, Ky., June 20-22, Robert Hunt, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, a surgeon at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee and Associates, discussed hoof anatomy and common hoof problems. Hunt has worked as a farrier for a number of years, and disorders of the feet comprise a considerable portion of Hunt's practice.

Hunt began his talk with the anatomy of the hoof. He presented numerous slides that illustrated the parts of the hoof and provided insight into circulation and hoof growth. The foot consists of the hoof capsule and internal contents, the corium, 11 ligaments, two tendons, the digital cushion, one synovial joint, one bursa, two and a half bones, lamella, and part of two cartilages. The corium, or coronary band region, is where hoof wall growth is initiated. The wall is thickest at the toe, and it gets thinner as it approaches the heels. Hunt said one disadvantage in the horse's hoof anatomy is this lack of wall thickness at the heels. This is because the horse should be landing on the heels since the heels provide the greatest amount of shock absorption.

Hoof wall growth averages one-quarter of an inch per month, taking between nine to 12 months to completely replace the entire hoof wall. Injuries to the border of the corium will be reflected as wall defects that extend downward as the wall grows.

Water content of the hoof varies from about 25% in the wall, to 33% in the sole, and 50% in the frog, according to ideal values based on past research. These values can differ based on the climate and the individual horse. The hoof wall is avascular (without blood vessels), however, circulation is of utmost importance within the hoof capsule. The hoof wall also does not contain nerves, therefore many hoof wall injuries that might look horrible to us might not bother the horse. Hunt said that he prefers to leave most hoof wall injuries to heal on their own.
Common Foal Foot Problems

Some of the more common foot problems in foals are bruising, abscesses, and fractures of the coffin bone. Hunt said that if he is trying to differentiate between an abscess and a coffin bone fracture, clinical signs are most important. Most abscesses normally occur at the toe versus fractures that generally occur in the wings of the coffin bone at the heel.  Squeezing across the heel bulbs will produce a very marked pain response, while not being sore at the toe. Abscesses can become a severe problem, leading to significant damage or complications if not dealt with promptly.

More serious foot problems in the foal involve septic osteitis (infected coffin bone) and septic arthritis. An accurate diagnosis is imperative since these problems can be life threatening. Hunt said he assumes that all foal lamenesses involve infection, and therefore are life threatening, until he proves otherwise. The great urgency with foal infections is that they can get into the joints easier than in adult horses, greatly reducing the prognosis for a successful outcome.

Common Adult Foot Problems

Hunt provided a long list of common foot problems of adult horses including:

  • Bruise;
  • Abscess;
  • Wall cracks;
  • Sole penetration
  • Puncture;
  • Coffin bone fractures
  • Septic osteitis
  • Navicular problems;
  • Laminar problems; and
  • Hygiene problems.

He presented photographs of a variety of cases with a discussion of prognosis and treatments. For instance, for most hoof cracks are left alone unless stabilization is needed for internal structures. In the case of injuries to the white line, these will usually grow out just fine but might require special shoeing to help balance the load on the hoof.
If a horse has a puncture to the foot from a metallic object such as a nail which is still protruding, the object should be left in place so that a radiograph can be taken to better evaluate the damage and see which structures were involved if veterinary attention is readily available.

Hunt ended his presentation with a strong recommendation for good foot hygiene and a regular trimming schedule. Cleaning hooves out daily can help eliminate bruising from lodged rocks, abscesses, thrush, and canker. In addition, daily cleaning can help owners spot problems early.

About the Author

Sarah Evers Conrad

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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