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Rebuilding the Horse’s Hoof for Soundness and Health

Does that photo concern you?  It should.  There is a saying in the horse industry that goes, ‘No foot. No Horse’.  It is just a saying but there is merit to that statement on more levels than are readily obvious.  Your horse’s hoof or foot health is usually just associated with soundness, but in truth, their hoof is reflective of their overall health.  Poor hoof health in the horse equals poor overall systemic health.  What is interesting, though, is the amount of resistance put forth by the average horse owner in correcting the problems.  If it were your body, things would likely be different, or maybe not.  The truth of the matter is that there is another epidemic in the world, and this one involves hoof health in the horse.  Do you desire to correct the problem before it gets too late to intervene?

In almost every remote horse consultation that I am involved with, I request photos of the horse’s feet.  For many of these consultations, lameness is a concern, the hoof is important and most owners will recognize this fact.  Now, some owners could be contending with allergies, digestive problems, or even eye concerns, being very ‘distant’ from the gut, but the hoof is still important.  Many of these owners do not understand why I am requesting photos of their horse’s feet, because they do not understand the connection.  Given this, some will remit photos, while others do not.  Your horse’s hoof is important and I will tell you why.

Nail Fungal Infection and Horse Hoof Health
Nail Fungal Infection and Horse Hoof Health

I read a medical article a few years ago that was stressing the importance of evaluating fingernails and toenails in human patients.  The reason being is that the nail, very similar to the equine hoof, is a structure that can reflect internal and overall health.  If there are micro- or macronutrient deficiencies, the nails will tell the story.  If there are fungal infections in the nail beds, this indicates internal toxicity, digestive ailments, immune concerns, and an altered pH to the person’s body.  If there are coloration changes or even ridges to the nails, these can reflect stress to the body and organ damage; including the liver, heart, and kidneys.

Now, if physician’s are told, or recommended to evaluate their patient’s finger and toe nails, why don’t we do the same as the owner’s of those finger and toe nails?  Do we just let things go and wait for another to point out a potential problem? Do we even recognize the problem or do we dismiss it as being par for the course? Secondly, do physician’s evaluate their patients nails?  In my experience, the answer is ‘no’, they do not.  Why?  No clue to be honest.  Maybe it is a time thing?  Maybe they do not want to put their hands on the patient’s foot?  Maybe they just do not understand the relevance themselves?

Just as most physicians do not assess their patients nails as a reflection of overall health, veterinarians are just the same, for the most part. 

Your horse’s foot or hoof is not much different than your finger and toenails to be honest.  They are just as reflective of your horse’s overall health as your nails are of your own health.  But, just like many physicians, we often choose to overlook this fact.  The photo encased above is pretty nasty, let’s be honest, but it is a very common occurrence and maybe one reason why doctors do not wish to evaluate feet in a person.  The image reveals a severe fungal infection in the nail bed of all the toes, especially the big toe.  I can only imagine the smell that is associated with the problem. Now, many people see this infection and think it is common, so why get all concerned?  They are correct on one hand, wrong on the other.  Then, if they do get a little concerned, they may choose to use a topical solution or foot bath to resolve the infection.  Wrong again.

Now, let’s focus on the horse.

Here is a short list of hoof health problems that I routinely see in horses during consultations or during rehabilitation cases.

  1. Under-run heels, elongated toes  (poor trimming and balance)
  2. Medial-lateral wall imbalance (improper loading or poor trim)
  3. Wall separation +/- coffin bone rotation (laminitis +/- metabolic issues)
  4. Negative palmar angles or flat  (heel too far forward)
  5. Thrush (anaerobic bacteria with fungal infection)
  6. White line disease  (fungal infection with anaerobic bacteria)
  7. Recurrent abscessation (anaerobic bacteria with wall separation)
  8. Dry, flaky, and very brittle soles and wall
  9. Mismatched feet (high/low syndrome)
  10. Retracted soles  (pain and thin soles)
Mismatched and Under-Run Horse Hooves
Mismatched and Under-Run Horse Hooves

These are the most common conditions impacting the horse’s hoof that I personally see on a routine basis.  Now, as mentioned before, many of these problems are going on and the owner is not aware of them or concerned about them because the ‘main’ problem in the horse is distant from this site, such as an allergy or digestive concerns.  The truth of the matter is that these issues are present and they may or may not be creating lameness concerns, but they are telling a story about your horse’s health.

Due to some horses having several of these concerns going on at the same time, it is not uncommon to encounter a horse that cannot ‘hold a shoe’, and requires extensive glue-on shoes with nails, epoxy, and even some bondo thrown in for good measure just to keep that horse competing.  Very common to encounter and something I wish I had retained photos of during my career.  The point is that in most, if there is one problem present, there is usually another as they often go hand in hand.

Now, we are not here to review each of these problems and their origins, but more so the goal is to point out that these problems exist, they are a problem, and if health and soundness are desired, they need to be dealt with accordingly.  The only way to do this is to view your horse’s hoof as a mirror for what is going on in their entire body.  When you look at it this way, which is truthful, the feet become one of the first things you look at in any horse, even during a pre-purchase examination.  This is why feet in a horse are the first thing that catch my attention, above and beyond anything else.

If a horse’s hoof is healthy but out of balance, then this is easily remedied.  This situation is much different if the horse’s hoof is out of balance and there are health concerns along with it, as noted in the list above.  A farrier can trim and attempt balance, but hoof health goes much deeper and is not remedied with a hoof knife, rasp, or nippers.  One can cut away diseased or damaged tissue, but this is not solving the problem or remedying the cause.

The two common denominators in poor hoof health in the horse are:

  1. Nutrition
  2. Digestive Health

These two are essential and they go hand in hand in the horse, as they do in the human.  These are the two things you are in control of, as a horse owner, unless you perform your own trims as well.  All too often, horses owners struggle with hoof health on many levels, yet feed a very poor quality forage and attempt to make up the difference with a vitamin-mineral supplement.  In addition, many owners feed a high quality forage, yet still struggle with concerns in their horse.  If one feeds an inferior diet, being processed foods and synthetic based nutrients, you will negatively impact hoof health and digestive health, which then creates a viscous cycle.  You can feed a high quality diet, but if gut health is impaired for various reasons, your horse may not benefit.

The diet you feed your horse impacts digestive health and digestive health impacts the ability to fully utilize that diet.

As a veterinarian, I can only make recommendations to a horse owner.  I can advise dietary strategies, but cannot go out and buy that hay for the owner.  I also can advise on trimming of the foot, but cannot implement unless they haul the horse to our facility.  One thing that I can do and recommend heavily is addressing digestive health in the horse.  It is one key aspect, along with a complete diet change, that we employ in all horses at our facility and it makes a huge difference.

Here’s the good news! 

You can dramatically improve your horse’s foot and overall health!

From my perspective, in working with off-track Thoroughbreds for most of my career with a multitude of health and hoof issues, we maintain a certain strategy that appears to be working quite well and could apply to most horses.  This of course taken into consideration along with routine bare-foot trimming every 10-14 days, at least initially.

Our current strategy to rebuild the horse’s hoof includes:

  1. High quality forage (alfalfa or alfalfa mix)
  2. Pasture turnout barefoot with mixed surfaces
  3. Supplemental nutrition (EQ Rejuvenate, or barley grass powder)
  4. Cur-OST EQ Tri-Guggul (digestion and inflammatory support)
  5. Cur-OST EQ Cell Repair
  6. Vitamin D3  (custom blend formula)
  7. Adaptogens (EQ Adapt & Calm)

Now, here is the thing.  We are not just addressing the horse’s foot with this regimen, but more so we are addressing the underlying problems creating the hoof concerns.  We are fixing the foot from within, not externally, outside of routine and proper trimming.  The vast majority of these horses have digestive concerns, whether if they are apparent clinically or not, and in addition, their body is overrun with toxic debris from medications, vaccines, stress, poor diets, and improper digestion.  Many have impaired liver function as well, which screams for detoxification.  The EQ Tri-Guggul formula allows us to conquer two feats in one; digestive support and detoxification.  Guggul (Commiphora mukul) is one of the most powerful detoxifying and liver supportive herbs around, and when combined with the Triphala herb blend, the results can be incredible.

As the diet is modified, the digestive system begins to shift slowly.  As we implement herbal strategies to further support the digestion and detoxify the body, things begin to shift more quickly.  As we implement adaptogens to help settle the stress response, which is present in EVERY horse, things shift even more quickly. Then, the icing on the cake is addressing the cellular damage which has developed over months or years,  at the mitochondrial level, which can take us to a whole new level of improvement.  This is greatly assisted with the EQ Cell Repair formula.

There are two things to keep in mind, though.  First, trimming and balancing of your horse’s foot must be done properly and routinely.  We routinely ‘touch up’ a horse’s foot in our facility every 10-14 days.  Once they are stable and balanced, traveling well, that trim could be reduced to maybe every 4 weeks.  Second, these things take time.  It is not uncommon to have positive changes within a week with improved soundness, but the hoof can take up to six months to fully regrow, which is what is desired.  Your goal is to set the wheels into motion, so that as new growth occurs, it is balanced, healthy, and strong.

If you can look at the human foot photo above and be concerned, then you should be as well when you look at your horse’s feet or those of another in your barn.  Heck, look around at your competitors at the next event and take notice of what their horses are competing on.  If we are concerned about a fungal nail infection in a human being a sign of possible immune or cardiovascular concerns, why are we not the same about the average horse’s foot with thrush or white line disease?  We should take these conditions more seriously and realize that the problem is deeper than what is realized.  Topical solutions or soaks can help, but most horse hoof problems indicate deeper concerns. In many cases, if you address the deeper concerns, along with proper hoof trimming, the issues readily correct themselves.

Horses are bought and sold for incredible amounts of money every day, yet have horrendous hoof problems, with some held together with epoxy, nails, and pads.  I am not sure how or why these transactions are acceptable, but can only make the comment that someone is not paying attention. It is not uncommon then to have these same horses continue to ‘require’ pads, nails, and epoxy to keep them ‘sound’ so they can compete.  It is also not uncommon for some of these owners to realize there is a problem, desire a solution, but either not understand what created the problem or have the dedicated time or resources to correct the issue.

What we accept in the horse industry becomes our reality, but this does not indicate that it is truthful.

The longer a hoof problem goes on, the deeper the damage, both in the hoof and in the body.  For some off-track Thoroughbreds and other breeds, the damage is so extensive on a cellular level, that complete repair is not possible and we can only get to a certain level of improvement.  This would not be the case if we just paid a little more attention to health and a little less attention to outcomes in performance. In truth, by paying a little more attention to health, the performance outcomes might beat your expectations.

You possess more capabilities and means of intervention for your horse’s health than ever before. The question remains, though, what do you do?

Food for thought.

Related articles:

Thrush, Abscesses, and White Line Disease

Equine Gut Health and Soundness


Author:  Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN




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