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Don't Let Hoof Injuries Keep You Off Your Horse

Thomas Newton, D.V. M.

The old-timer's saying, "No hoof, no horse," is an accurate adage. When your horse has a hoof injury, he's out of commission, sometimes for weeks. Unfortunately, horses' hooves are prone to several types of injuries. Bruises, punctures and abscesses are common because of the design.

The hoof consists of threes parts: a hard shell around the outside, called the hoof wall; a hard sole covering most of the bearing surface; and the flexible frog. All three structures have tissue which is constantly producing new wall, sole and frog. Nay penetration through the outer, dead, insensitive tissue into the live, sensitive, inner structures will cause lameness.

Bruises & Puncture

The simplest injury is a bruise. A bruise is a blunt blow which distorts the outer

casing enough to damage the inner tissue, causing pockets of blood and serum to collect. This is an ideal environment for bacterial growth. But if the bruise remains sterile, it will usually resolve spontaneously in 1 to 4 weeks.

A puncture is a more serious injury. The entrance wound closes over behind the retreating offending abject, creating all the necessary ingredients for an abscess - bacteria, blood serum, dead cells and body warmth. Any puncture in the foot which penetrates the sensitive tissue is likely to produce an abscess.

The location and depth of the puncture determines the seriousness of the injury.

For instance, a sharp rock barely penetrating the sole near the tow will create an abscess which will spread under the sole until it breaks out,. A nail penetrating into the navicular bursa, however, will cause a joint infection which could result in the destruction of the horse if the injury is not treated immediately and aggressively by surgically draining the joint.

"Gravels" are abscesses in the white line. The infection spreads up the white line and breaks out at the coronary band. They may be caused by small gravel penetrating the toe or another breakdown of the white line.

Horses which have foundered are particularly susceptible die to the damage to the white line.


Foot abscesses tend to be painful with the horse reluctant to stand on the foot. The infection may even result in soft-tissue swelling in the lower limb.

Although foot abscess may be signaled by a strong, throbbing pulse in the foot, they are often difficult to locate and require treatment by someone skilled with hoof testers and knife.

Treatment involves opening the abscess and allowing the blood, serum or pus to drain out. If a puncture is opened immediately, bacterial infection can be prevented. Subsequent treatment involves soaking the foot in hot water and Epsom salts to draw out the offending material. The wound should then be packed with an antiseptic or astringent such as iodine, betadine, or ichthammol, and kept clean with a bandage, boot or treatment plate. This treatment should continue until the foot has grown out new tissue and the infection is resolved.

A shoe and pad may help return the horse to work while the wound continues to strengthen.

The tetanus status should always be checked on each puncture patient, since Clostridium tetani, an anaerobic bacterium, can grow in the wounds.

If a horse is found with a nail still in place in the foot, don't remove it. Call your veterinarian who can radiograph the foot with the nail in place to determine which structures are involved.

Prevention is, of course, wise. Abscesses or bruises can be limited by keeping the horse's environment free from debris, including nails and sharp stones. Shoes and pads will protect hooves from a rough, hard terrain.

Monitor your horse's feet. Picking them before and after rides should be basic. No hoof, no horse - and that's no fun.

Southern States Cooperative, Inc., Reprinted from Mane Points magazine, with permission of Southern States Cooperative, Inc.