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Horse Hoof Cracks – Why Worry?

Do your horse’s hooves look like this?

cracked hoof

Or like this?

healthy hoof

Hoof cracks can be one of the most frustrating things a horse owner has to deal with. Ugly, potentially serious, difficult to treat – there is nothing good about hoof cracks!

The two horses pictured above lived together. They shared the same trimmer, the same trimming schedule, the same feed stuffs, the same environment. Yet one had feet like iron, the other constant cracks and flaring. It took a long time to work out how to fix the one with such poor hoof quality. I explain how below.

What Causes Hoof Cracks?

There is unfortunately no simple answer here. There are a number of factors which can predispose a hoof to cracking, and in most cases, there will be more than one factor at work. When analysing the cause of a hoof crack consider the following:

Environment

It is essential for the hooves to maintain the correct moisture balance in order to prevent cracking. Overly dry conditions will cause the hooves to dry out and become more brittle. Conditions which are too wet will cause the hooves to become saturated, overly flexible and weak (a bit like your fingernails after soaking in the bath). In both there extremes the hoof will be prone to cracking.  So the first thing to consider is the environment where your horse is spending his time.

Diet

There are dietary factors which predispose to hoof issues, although in many cases the underlying mechanism is unknown. One nutrient which should be avoided, particularly in horses with hoof problems, is sugar. This includes sugar from feeds and fruit, as well as the more usual sugar cubes!

On the other hand, several studies have found biotin to be beneficial in stimulating hoof growth. Horses do produce biotin themselves, but not always a sufficient amount. Other limiting factors are copper and zinc. Many pastures are high in iron, which competes with copper and zinc for absorption, and can cause a relative lack of these essential minerals.

If your horse has poor quality hooves, ensure a low carbohydrate diet, with a large amount of roughage. Then add a mineral supplement with the above ingredients.

Movement

In the wild horses are constantly moving. A few mouthfuls here, walk on, a few mouthfuls there, walk on … It has been estimated that 20km a day is not unusual. However, in a domestic situation, horses don’t really need to move this much, and often don’t have the opportunity even if they wanted to.

Exercise is essential for strong and sturdy hooves. The impact with the ground stimulates hoof growth, and improves the blood flow feeding the underlying coria which produce the hoof wall. Give your horse as much space to wander as you can. Encourage him to move by keeping water and feed widely separated. Ride him regularly. Do whatever you can to make sure your horse moves!

Mechanical Forces

Many times a crack is a symptom of  uneven mechanical forces working on the hoof. This may be due to an unbalanced or overgrown hoof. Flared hooves, or areas of hoof suffering from white line disease will also be very prone to forming cracks. Every stride will be pushing the weakened hoof wall away from the underlying supporting structures. At some point, something will give and a crack will develop.

Conformation factors will affect how your horse loads the hoof and how the forces are dispersed. Horses which are base wide (hooves wider apart than the knees), or base narrow (hooves closer together than the knees) will present specific challenges in trying to ensure the hoof is balanced and equally weighted.

Genetic

There are unfortunately hereditary factors which will affect the health of your horse’s hooves. Just like some people naturally have stronger finger nails than others, so to some horses will naturally have more robust hooves than others. But you can still do everything you can to ensure your horse develops the healthiest hooves he can.

Types of Hoof Cracks

Cracks are categorised in different ways, but the most common way is to refer to them according to where on the hoof the crack occurs, and where it starts (coronet moving down or ground moving up).

Cracks which start at the bottom and progress upwards are called “grass cracks“. Grass cracks are generally thin and superficial, not penetrating the full thickness of the hoof wall.

Cracks which start at the top and progress downwards are called “sand cracks“. They are very similar in other respects to grass cracks.

Quarter cracks commonly occur when hooves are allowed to grow too long. They can also develop as a result of imbalance or a pedal bone (P3) abnormality.

Toe cracks, as the name suggests, occur at the toe ie. the front of the hoof. These can be the result of a crena (or notch) in the pedal bone, the cause of which can be hard to identify. Anecdotal evidence suggests that long standing toe clips are common cause of demineralisation of the pedal bone at the toe, but there can be other reasons.

Toe cracks can also be caused by a horse habitually landing toe first, possibly due to heel pain or hoof imbalance.

In my experience, toe cracks are absolutely the hardest to get rid of. They occur surreptitiously and quickly become infected. If your horse starts to develop a toe crack start treating it immediately!

Horizontal cracks are, as the name suggests, cracks that run across the hoof rather than up of down. They are usually as the result of a previous abscess, and apart from maybe looking unsightly, generally don’t cause much of a problem.

Why Worry About Hoof Cracks?

Hoof cracks are a symptom of an underlying problem, and will just get worse unless the causal factor is addressed. So what happens when hoof cracks are allowed to linger?

Infection

One of the first things that happens when a hoof crack develops is that infection (commonly known as “seedy toe”) sets in. Cracks allow microbes entry to the rich, moist, anaerobic environment of the hoof. Here they flourish, devouring the protein rich matrix of the white line. In extreme cases the microbes can eat their way up the hoof faster than the hoof can grow. Seedy toe seriously undermines the integrity of the hoof and can be extremely difficult to get rid of.

Pain

Deep cracks extending through the depth of the hoof wall can cause your horse to go lame. This is because movement causes the displaced hoof wall to pull against the underlying structures to which it is normally attached. It can take a long time for your horse to become sound again.

Permanent Deformity of the Hoof

Cracks that extend as far as the coronet can cause permanent damage to this vital structure. This can result in a permanent blemish (or even a deformed hoof) due to inadequate hoof horn produced by this part of the coronet.

Cracks are common, but it’s important not to ignore them.

Treating Hoof Cracks

Having read the information above, you probably already know how to treat hoof cracks!  Remember that you cannot fix a crack – it has to grow out. A hoof grows at a rate of approximately 1 cm per month. It can take a long time to resolve a hoof crack. The trick is to be consistent and persistent with your hoof care program.

Trimming

Simply the very best thing you can do for your horse is to ensure his hooves are trimmed regularly, every 4 – 6 weeks at least. Some horses with poor hooves initially require trimming even more frequently. Do it – the growth rate will normalise over time and you will be nipping potential problems in the bud.

But regular trimming is not the only trimming factor to consider. It needs to be done by someone who not only knows what they are doing, but who actually cares about the individual horse. There is no such thing as a one size fits all trim, especially if you are battling cracked hooves.

Your farrier may need to resort to more desperate measures if the cracking is particularly bad. He may decide to resect part of the hoof wall, or use staples, screws or adhesive to maintain the structure of the hoof. Hopefully you can avoid this by dealing with cracks as they arise, or hopefully prevent them from forming in the first place.

Nutritionhay bale

The second element to the solution of cracked hooves is diet. This and correct trimming are in my opinion the two most important factors to maintaining hoof health.

Keep your horse’s hard feed ration as low as possible, and keep the hay and roughage coming – as much as possible! Add a good mineral and vitamin supplement with biotin, copper, zinc and methionine, and that should cover the nutrition side of things.

Other Factors

It can be difficult to control the moisture content of your horse’s hooves. Some people like to use a hoof sealer, to either keep moisture in or out. I used to believe that hooves shouldn’t be dressed with anything, but I have definitely seen a positive effect by using a natural oil, such as linseed or coconut oil, 2 -3 times a week.

And make sure you keep your horse moving. If you have limited pasture space you might like to investigate options such as the “Paddock Paradise” designed by Jaime Jackson.

I deal with the space issue by giving my horses the run of the property. In this way they get access to a lot more space than a single small paddock can provide. And believe me, they use it! To rest paddocks, I close the particular paddock to keep the horses out, instead of keeping the horses locked up.

Multiple Causes

It took over a year to identify the issues affecting the horse in the picture at the top of this post. Remember that I mentioned that often there will be more than one factor involved in hoof cracks? That was the case here.

I started the horse on a good multi mineral and vitamin supplement, and saw some improvement in the quality of the hoof horn, but the cracks continued. I started an aggressive program targeting the seedy toe he suffers from. That helped a bit. Then finally I decided to up the trimming frequency to every fortnight. That finally did the trick!

Would more frequent trimming have worked on its own? I don’t believe so. The horn quality was poor and there was obviously some limiting factor at play. Was seedy toe the reason for the cracks? Again, I don’t believe that was the only factor. What was needed was improved hoof horn (supplement), decreased damage of growing hoof (eradicate seedy toe), and prevention of flaring and overgrowth (more frequent trimming).

Summary

Keep your horse moving, address dietary bottlenecks, provide a lot of good quality hay, have your farrier/trimmer visit often  … do it all … keep on doing it all … and finally you will banish the crack demons. Good luck!

Do you have any questions about hoof cracks? Or anything to add to the above? Please let me know with a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible 🙂


Carol

4 Comments

  1. This is very common on horses with poor maintenance. I remember when i visit Nepal. I noticed that most of their horses are having hoof problems. maybe because of poor proper care and everyday use.

    • Hi Flora. Yes, you are probably right. A lot of people don’t understand that hoof health is the result of a lot of factors. Diet, environment, exercise, trimming … it’s a complex subject.

  2. Hi I just bought a 2 year old gelding with bad hoof cracks, he has not been handled much so how will I get a farrier to see him as he has not been taught to pick up his feet and this will take time, but I really want his hooves looked at to see what they can do.

    • Hi Simone. I’m afraid I really don’t have any easy answers for you. However don’t stress. If he’s managed this long without hoof care, another few weeks are unlikely to be a major problem, so just start doing what you can. Firstly, make sure his diet is balanced and include a good vitamin and mineral supplement. A large part of hoof health is diet. Is he getting sufficient exercise? Movement will not only stimulate blood supply to the hooves, but may go some way to ensuring the problem doesn’t get worse while you’re working towards getting his hooves trimmed. Then start getting him used to being handled as soon as possible. Do something with him every day if you can. And most importantly – speak directly to a farrier and ask their advice. In my experience, farriers are really good at handling difficult horses, provided they know ahead of time so can allow for extra time to the job. It may take a few visits to get all four hooves looked at, so be prepared for this. Extra cost, but it will get easier each time. The alternative, depending on your finances, is to send him to a trainer for a few weeks. Good luck and let me know how it goes.

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