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Recognizing the Signs Your Horse Has a Hoof Problem

Learn how to recognize the common signs of hoof problems, from behavior changes to physical abnormalities, so you can take steps to keep your horse sound.
a male veterinarian wearing a blue shirt and khakis feels a chestnut horse's ankle for heat.
Photo courtesy The Horse staff/Kevin Thompson

As durable as they might seem, your horse’s hooves are not impervious to injury and infection. From cracks to abscesses to seedy toes, many hoof problems can develop regardless of the level of care you provide your horse. The good news is early detection and treatment can help prevent more severe issues from arising. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most common signs of hoof problems in horses, so you can take the necessary steps to keep their hooves healthy.

Gait and Behavior Changes

If your horse is limping, exhibiting an uneven gait, or showing signs of discomfort when moving around, he might be experiencing some form of hoof problem. Horses with hoof problems might also exhibit changes in behavior, including a reluctance to move, irritability, or decreased appetite.

Possible causes: Any painful hoof condition, including navicular disease, abscesses, punctures, and laminitis.

Heat or Swelling

Excessive heat or swelling around your horse’s hooves can indicate some form of inflammation. You can typically feel heat from inflammation with your hand, while swelling can be visible around the hoof area. Heat and swelling often go hand in hand with an increased digital pulse, which you can feel on the back of the pastern—the area between the hoof and the fetlock (ankle) joint. When in doubt, it’s best to have a farrier evaluate your horse’s hooves.

Possible causes: Bruise, abscess, infection, bony injuries, laminitis

Abnormalities in Hoof Shape

Abnormalities in the shape or growth of your horse’s hooves are key signs of a hoof problem. These abnormalities are important to pick up on because they can distort the forces applied to the foot and lead to more severe problems if unaddressed. They might also leave the hoof vulnerable to infection.

Possible causes: Cracks, chips, flares, underrun heels, club foot

Foul Odor

If you notice a foul smell emanating from your horse’s hooves, it might be a sign of an infection. If the culprit is thrush, you should also see black and pasty discharge around the frog. Infections can be caused by bacteria, fungi, or other organisms and can lead to severe hoof problems if left untreated.

Possible causes: Abscess, canker, thrush

Take-Home Message

If you notice any of the clinical signs listed above, contact your veterinarian or farrier immediately. They’ll ask you questions about your horse’s feet and give you next steps to take. In person, they can assess the situation and recommend prompt treatment to address the issue.

By staying alert to the signs of hoof problems, you can take proactive steps to address any issues and prevent more severe problems from developing. Additionally, regular care, including trimming and picking hooves, can help prevent problems from developing.

ProblemClinical SignsWho to CallImmediate Treatment
AbscessAcute and generally non-weight-bearing lameness caused by infection within the hoof.Call the veterinarian first and, if necessary, a farrier.Keep your horse in a clean, comfortable environment. Placing the foot in a hot water soak with Epsom salts or applying a medicated poultice
might help relieve pain.
Puncture WoundLameness ranging from mild to severe, an observable puncture site in the bottom of the foot, signs of infection,
and, possibly, the penetrating
object still in place.
Call the veterinarian.If the object, especially a nail, is still in the horse’s foot, do not remove it. The vet will want to take an X-ray with the object in place to determine its depth, direction, and what structures might be involved. Restrict your horse’s activity, protect the wound to prevent further trauma, and keep him as comfortable as possible—preferably in a clean, deeply bedded stall.
Hoof CrackA vertical (or, rarely, horizontal) crack at the horse’s toe, quarter, heel, or bar.If there’s no blood and your horse shows no signs of discomfort, then call your farrier.Clean the foot and keep it covered (using a hoof boot or gauze/wrap/duct-tape combo) until the farrier arrives.
BruiseA visible bruise on (most commonly) the sole, quarters, toe, or frog, and possible lameness.Call the farrier or
veterinarian.
If you notice a problem immediately, apply cold therapy to slow the blood flow and minimize bruising.
LaminitisReluctance to walk, weight-shifting, a “sawhorse” or “pointing” stance, or more time than usual spent lying down.Call the veterinarian and, later, a farrier.Begin cryotherapy (e.g., standing in an ice slurry that extends above the ankle) immediately, restrict your horse’s movement, and place him on soft footing/deep bedding.
FractureSudden lameness (particularly after exertion), increased digital pulse, coffin
joint swelling if the joint is involved, among others.
Call the veterinarian and,
later, a farrier.
Get your horse into a clean, deeply bedded stall and restrict his movement.
Hot NailNon-weight-bearing lameness that occurs immediately following shoeing. There might be a trace of blood where the nail exits the hoof wall.Call the farrier or, if severe, a veterinarian.Do not remove the nail, but restrict your horse’s movement and keep him comfortable in a stall.
Twisted ShoeA shoe that has not been completely dislodged from the foot.If there are no punctures or abrasions, call your farrier.Restrict movement.

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