Common Hoof Problems

Laminitis and Founder
Club Foot
Contracted Hooves
Navicular Syndrome/Disease
Suspensory Failure


Thrush is an infection of the frog caused by fungus and/or bacteria that live in the horse's stall, paddock, pasture. Though these pathogens are ever present, a horse is especially susceptible when hooves are not regularly cleaned, the horse is confined to a small space (a stall), and/or the horse's diet contains an excess of sugar and starch (typical of most commercial grain feeds).

Infected frogs are often sensitive and the horse may wince when the hooves are cleaned with a pick. What begins as a simple irritant, could easily result in lameness if left untreated.

Infections of the frog are easy to avoid by providing a natural diet (free choice mixed grass hay), cleaning the hooves regularly and providing plenty of exercise. But once the infection has become established, it can be difficult to eradicate.

Deep infection can eat away at the frog until it reaches the internal structures of the hoof causing pain, gait alteration, and possible permanent hoof illnesses such as navicular syndrome as a result of sustained toe-first landing - a symptom of heel pain.

To check your horse for infection, clean out the hoof paying close attention to the grooves that run along each side of the frog. If you find grey, chalky material or black, slimy goo followed by a foul odor, be assured your horse has thrush.

What To Do

To avoid or treat thrush:

Clean your horse's hooves daily. Even if he will step right back into manure the moment you put the foot down, daily cleaning reduces the number of harmful pathogens by exposing them to air.

Eliminate sweet grain from diet (grain is not part of a horse's natural diet). Also take care to reduce sugar and starch intake by feeding mature, mixed grass hay. Horses living 24/7 in pasture should wear a grazing muzzle when fields are lush or stressed. Test your hay and supplement only the vitamins and minerals found to be missing.

Provide plenty of turn out time and exercise. An active horse with a strong metabolism is less likely to be affected by pathogens. Inactive horses with weakened immune system are often prime candidates for thrush.

If your horse is stalled, remove manure and wet straw daily. Manure and urine provide the perfect breeding ground for thrush pathogens.

Use a strip of sterile gauze to "floss" deep crevices in the back part of the frog.

Spray a 50/50 mixture of water and apple cider vinegar (with a few drops of tee tree oil) each time you clean the hooves.

For deep infections, soak hooves in a 50/50 mixture of water and apple cider vinegar for one hour every day for five days, then once per week for 20 minutes afterward until the frog has grown firm and leathery.


One day or another, every horse owner will likely be confronted with a hoof abscess. They can be caused by stepping on a sharp object that pierces the sole, a stone bruise, or as the result of illness or poor circulation that has caused tissue within the hoof to die. To expel this infection from the hoof, the body incases it in a pocket of puss. Under pressure, this bubble seeks the path of least resistance out of the hoof. Allowed to resolve itself, an abscess will burst at the coronary band, heel bulbs or through the sole.

It will be quite clear when your horse has an abscess. He may limp, hop on three legs, or lie down refusing to stand. You may notice increased temperature of the pastern, swelling, and a pounding digital pulse.

It is not uncommon for horses that have been shod for a long time to abscess after having the shoes removed. Increased circulation to the hooves begins a healing process and damaged tissue is removed.

What To Do

Traditional methods of carving through the sole to open the abscess can provide immediate pain relief (if the abscess track is found), however, this also opens the hoof to secondary infections. Additionally, the lost sole material will require months to grow back leaving the horse sensitive and vulnerable to additional injury.

Although it is difficult to watch a horse limp with pain, an abscess is best left to resolve on its own. There are things we may do to make this process quicker and more comfortable for the horse. A poultice made of Epsom salt will soften the hoof and help draw out the abscess. Rather than confining the horse to a stall, allowing him to move freely in a paddock with buddies will increase circulation and therefore speed recovery. Using this method, an abscess will likely resolve in 3-5 days.

How to make a poultice from items around the house or supermarket:

Needed: Epsom salt, a diaper, vet wrap, duct tape, an assistant to hold the leg up.

  1. Lift the hoof and clean thoroughly.

  2. Fill the sole with Epsom salt level with the hoof wall as if filling a bowl.

  3. Cover the packed sole with a diaper securing it around the pastern with vet wrap before setting the hoof on the ground.

  4. Wrap the diaper with duct tape leaving 2-3cm exposed at the top. Add extra strips of tape to the bottom for durability.

  5. Place the foot in a bucket of warm water allowing the diaper to become saturated.

Now turn that horse out into a paddock with friends.

The poultice should be replaced daily. Once the abscess has opened, continue this routine 3 more days to draw out all the gook.

If the abscess bursts at the heel or coronary band, a distortion of the hoof wall will likely result. This distortion will eventually be eliminated as the hoof grows and it is worn or trimmed away at ground level. If a heel is lost, additional sole material may fill in to compensate. This material should be left alone until the heel is able to rebuild. Competent natural hoof care is essential throughout this process.

Laminitis and Founder

The following article is a general overview of the causative factors, prevention and treatment of equine laminitis. For more detailed information or an evaluation of a specific case, please contact me directly.

The term Laminitis refers to a condition where the connective tissue in the horse's foot that holds the hoof wall to the coffin bone (Laminae) has been weakened or destroyed resulting in the coffin bone descending to a low position in the hoof capsule and possibly rotating to a steep angle placing unnatural pressure on the sole. This condition can be severe and sudden as in the case where the horse breaks into the grain bin, or can occur slowly over many months/years possibly showing no noticeable signs of discomfort. This chronic form is very common affecting many domestic horses to some degree.

We refer to this condition as laminitis because it was once believed that inflammation of the lamina was the cause of the damage. However, it has been demonstrated in recent years that inflammation occurs secondary to laminar damage that has already occurred as early as 48 hours before inflammation or pain is present. Therefore, in my opinion, referring to this condition as laminitis is incorrect and does not consider the degree of damage done to the horn/bone connection. For the remainder of this article, I will refer to the condition of damaged, separated laminar connection by the term "founder". When the laminar connection has been stretched or torn and the hoof wall is loosely connected or separated from the coffin bone, the horse has foundered. This can be identified as a horse with a long sloping wall angle ("Aladdin's slipper"), deep growth rings wider apart at the heel than at the toe, flat or bulging sole, horizontal red stripes in the hoof wall, blood spots in the white line, stretched white line with black crevices (seedy toe).

Many cases stem from a situation where the horse consumes more sugar and/or starch than he is able to digest in the small intestine. Once passed to the cecum, the sugars cannot be utilized and must be converted into lactic acid. This causes the hind gut, which should have an alkaline PH, to become acidic thus killing off the good fiber fermenting bacteria and causing irritation and permeability of the intestinal lining allowing toxins into the blood stream. This form of endotoxemia affects connective tissues throughout the body but most noticeably in the hoof. Also known as "Enzyme activated laminitis", it can occur suddenly from eating a large amount of grain feed, or slowly as a result of overeating spring/fall grass plus daily supplementation of grain or sugary treats (ie. carrots, apples, etc.).

Founder is also caused by high levels of insulin in the blood stream (Endocrinopathic laminitis). It has been demonstrated in recent years that high levels of insulin present in the hoof's vasculature cause an enzymatic response allowing the lamina to release its grip under relatively moderate force. Horses with Cushing's Disease or Equine Metabolic Syndrome (insulin resistance) are at high risk for chronic founder. Hard, dimpled fat deposits along the crest of the neck, buttocks and tail head, behind the shoulders, etc. are signs of a horse affected by a metabolic disorder.

Additional causative factors: deworming medications, vaccinations, anti-inflammatory pain medications, stress, Colic, allergies, long intervals between meals, sedimentary lifestyle, retained placenta (mares), iron overload.

Regardless of the cause, founder is a relative condition. In the acute stage, it can present with excruciating pain, however, as a chronic condition may present only intermittent soreness or no noticeable pain at all - just belabored movement resultant from the long slipper toe. Nevertheless, it is a serious situation and intervention is essential.

Once the lamina has been stretched or separated, it cannot be repaired. The hoof must be trimmed in a manner that relieves the separated hoof wall from stress allowing the hoof to grow new, well-connected horn from the coronary corium (at the hairline) all the way to the ground. In many cases, a competent trimming program can help gradually repair the foot over a period of 9-12 months as long as necessary lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, environment) are first implemented.

How can I know if my horse has foundered?
Do this prior to the hooves being trimmed or shod:
View the hoof at ground level from the side. Place a straight ruler (approx. 9 cm long) along the hoof wall from just below the hairline to the toe and observe the growth angle. Is the hoof wall straight or does it slope gradually downward? Observe the sole. Is it flat or concave? Observe the white line. Is it tight (2-3mm) or stretched with black crevices? If the hoof wall slopes gradually downward like a ramp, the sole is flat, the white line stretched and the horse is sensitive walking over small stones, he has likely foundered.

Additional signs: deep growth rings wider apart at the heel than at the toe, flat or bulging sole, horizontal red stripes in the hoof wall, blood spots in the white line.

What To Do

Prevention: The best way to deal with founder is to prevent it from ever occurring. Reduce/eliminate grain supplementation. Lock grain bins. Avoid giving sweet or grain based treats (i.e. carrots, apples, bread). Expose horses to spring pasture gradually. Deworm and vaccinate only as needed (space out vaccinations rather than giving all at once). Heal ulcers and avoid colic triggers. Remember, anything that harms the gut, harms the hooves.

Emergency (grain over-eating): As much of the laminar destruction occurs in the first 48 hours proceeding grain bingeing, there is great benefit in knowing when such a situation exists at the onset and reacting immediately. When it is known that a horse has helped himself to a sack of grain, actions can be taken to reduce the amount of toxins circulated to the hooves and, as a result, reduce or avoid damage to the lamina.

Cryotherapy is the only known method of avoiding founder at the onset. Using a set of soaking boots that go up to the knee, soak all four legs in 50/50 ice and water for 48 to 72 hours. This can be done safely and will reduce circulation to the legs long enough to prevent damage while you take measures to heal the gut.

Eliminate all grain-based feed. Eliminate sweet and starchy treats. Soak hay in cold water up to 1 hour and feed in a hay net 24/7. Call the vet and ask him to prescribe a pain medicine that does not irritate the intestine (Better-Than-Bute). Treat pain only as needed. Some degree of pain can be beneficial in preventing too much movement.

Inform your hoof care professional so that he may begin a treatment program designed to reduce pain and allow comfortable movement.

After removal of the ice boots, turn the horse out with a buddy in a dry lot (or pasture wearing a grazing muzzle). The movement and company of a friend will help speed recovery. Stall confinement is counterproductive.

Chronic founder:
The key to breaking the cycle of chronic founder is to eliminate the causative factors. As the horse has possibly become hypersensitive to these factors, changes are likely necessary for the remainder of the horse's life. Provide 24/7 access to grass hay (fed in haynets). Replace grain based feed with pressed grass or beet pulp. If additional energy is required, oils (such as linseed oil) are a more stable source of energy than grain. For play time, use a dry lot. Use a grazing muzzle while in the pasture. Increase exercise and free movement as much as possible without causing discomfort. Do not ride a lame horse but work him within his limitations. Think of ways to encourage movement even when you are not around. Provide a stress free environment together with other horses. Horses are easily stressed when separated even if they don't show it. Test your hay and supplement minerals found to be missing. These are just a few examples. Consult your hoof care professional for additional tips.

Once these lifestyle changes have been implemented, frequent rehabilitative trimming plus plenty of exercise in hoof boots will help grow a healthy hoof.

Care of the foundered horse requires a team effort between veterinarian, hoof care professional and horse owner. Active participation from each is required to develop a comprehensive treatment program.

Related Articles:
A Natural Approach to Laminitis

Club Foot

The club footed horse is typically described as having one hoof more upright than the other - most often occurring in the front hooves. It can be congenital (present from birth) or acquired due to pastern or shoulder injury, caudal hoof pain, overfeeding, mineral imbalance, rider imbalance, poorly fitting tack, trimming mistakes, heredity.

The club footed horse moves with an altered stride with a limited the range of motion of the affected foreleg. The horse typically stands and grazes with one hoof farther back than the other. The horse may have trouble turning to the affected side.

Care must be taken when trimming. It is a mistake to try to make the hooves match one another. As this conformation is a result of pain somewhere in the horse’s body, trimming the hooves to match will only unbalance the horse and increases pain.

Another concern is the opposite hoof that bears more weight. This hoof often has crushed, run-under heels and flaring of the dorsal hoof wall.

Early treatment for the foal in the first few weeks/months often provides good results. Likelihood of correction in the older horse is poor, however, with proper care most club footed horses lead active lives.

What To Do

Foals: Seek veterinary assistance and correct foal hooves early before tendons and bones mature. Special applications (ie. toe extensions) may be recommended.

Provide plenty of regular turnout with companions.

Reduce the weight of an overweight horse. Provide high fiber - low sugar/starch forage 24/7 in a haynet with small (3cm) holes.

Balance the horse's minerals to complement the hay.

Clean the frog regularly to avoid thrush.

Provide regular hoof trimming in combination with massage, acupressure, or chiropractic.

Have your take checked by a professional. Be sure the saddle allows a good range of motion of the shoulder.

Most club footed horses have a weak, sloping shoulder on the upright side. Seek advise to strengthen the week side to balance the horse. Balancing the horse will help to balance the hooves.

Contracted Hooves

Navicular Syndrome/Disease

Navicular disease is defined as pain in the back of a horse's hoof with accompanying modification of the navicular bone confirmed by radiographic evidence.

Navicular disease differs form navicular syndrome which is more accurately described as caudal foot pain - meaning there is pain in the back of the foot with an unknown cause.

Navicular disease has been described by Dr. Rooney D.V.M. as the result of long term toe-first movement and the subsequent unnatural pressure to the navicular region.

In contrast to a heel-first movement where the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) is loosened as the coffin bone rotates forward, a toe-first movement increases tension of the DDFT as the coffin bone rotates backward. This exaggerated pressure first results in damage to the fibrocartilage of the navicular bone and the DDFT, then the DDFT itself, then permanent remodeling of the navicular bone.

Navicular disease may result from any situation that causes the horse to compensate for caudal hoof pain. This could be due to a weak, undeveloped hoof from lack of movement, excessive weight, poor saddle fit/unbalanced riders, incorrect shoeing/trimming or even something simple as an untreated case of thrush.

Whereas toe-first movement leads to navicular disease, and toe-first movement is the result of pain avoidance, taking steps to develop the back of the hoof so the horse may comfortably walk heel-to-toe is the best prevention.

What To Do

Hoof development begins early with the foal providing plenty of turnout and free exercise, mineral balancing, avoiding rapid growth, and competent hoof care form the earliest opportunity.

Avoid shoeing at least until the internal hoof structures are fully developed.

Provide plenty of regular turnout with companions.

Clean the frog regularly to avoid thrush.

Establish a competent barefoot trimming program to balance the hooves and increase circulation.

Support the horse suffering caudal hoof pain with padded hoof boots while riding/exercising.

A Word About Digital Neurectomy

Digital neurectomy eliminates caudal hoof pain but not the cause.

A digital neurectomy is often recommended by veterinarians as a treatment for navicular disease. Having confirmed navicular disease in the lame horse with radiographs, a treatment program often begins with special shoeing (ie. heartbar shoes, egg bar shoes, pads/wedges), but in refractory cases, a digital neurectomy may be recommended.

In short, the nerve leading to the foot is severed at the fetlock or carpus deadening everything below - the horse no longer feels the pain. Or anything else for that matter, and the horse is then shod to protect the hoof from sharp stones etc. that he can no longer sense on his own. Athletic activity resumes and often the owner is initially satisfied with the results.

Unfortunately, the underlying cause of navicular disease has not been treated and is likely to continue unabated. The horse's movement is modified possibly causing compensatory issues elsewhere in the body. Additionally, infections and scarring can result from the initial surgery and the procedure may need to be repeated after a couple years in cases where the nerve regrows. Any issue related to the long term use of horseshoes (ie, founder, crushed heels, contraction) remains a concern. Understandably, a horse who cannot feel the ground may be nervous, stumble or emotionally unbalanced.

The digital neurectomy may be used to extend the usability of a doomed horse but it does not increase health nor provide lasting results.

Suspensory Failure

Suspensory failure can occur as a result of injury or disease. Injuries to the suspensory body are common in the foreleg and lameness is not always evident. Early diagnosis is important to prevent secondary problems such as split bone fractures resulting from thickening of the ligament. In cases of injury, rest and restricted movement is indicated. Most horses resume full athletic ability.

Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis (DSLD) is a hereditary condition once thought to only affect the suspensory ligament and presents with sudden bilateral or quadrilateral lameness, stumbling/tripping, leg cramps, dropped fetlocks (coon foot), pain on palpation of the suspensory ligament and its branches, lumpy thickening of the ligament. The horse may often lie down or be found sitting on fences or other objects. He may dig holes to stand in with toes pointing downward. If the hind legs are affected, the horse may assume a post-legged stance. Diagnosis is confirmed by ultrasound.

New research confirms that there is significant involvement with connective tissue throughout the body undergoing an accumulation of proteoglycans therefore damage is not restricted to the suspensory ligament but rather distributed throughout the body. DSLD is more recently referred to as Equine Systemic Proteoglycan Accumulation (ESPA).

As it is a degenerative condition, prognosis is poor. Affected horses should be retired and mares should not be bred. Regular turnout is indicated and attention to diet, mineral supplementation, competent barefoot hoof care and limited use of support devices (ie. sport boots) can extend the horse's wellbeing.

What To Do

Provide 24 hour turnout with companions.

Reduce the weight of an overweight horse. Provide high fiber - low sugar/starch forage 24/7 in a haynet with small (3cm) holes.

Balance the horse's minerals to complement the hay. Increase the level of magnesium to 1.1 with calcium.

Supplement MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane) to reduce pain and increase health of connective tissue.

Clean the frog regularly to avoid thrush.

Establish a competent barefoot trimming program to balance the hooves and increase circulation.

Use sport medicine boots while walking, exercising or for support. Do not use longer than 12 hours daily.