Benjamin Franklin once said:
“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”
A horse is only as good as the feet he has to travel upon. Proper hoof care remains the foundation of soundness in any horse, no matter his occupation. Some horses do just fine with a basic pasture trim every 6-9 weeks. Those with orthopedic issues or high performance demands often require corrective shoeing to remain sound.
What happens when feet are neglected, or environmental conditions are less than ideal? The hoof is under constant assault from arid conditions, wet conditions, bacteria, and physical trauma. We will cover some of the basics of hoof disease in this series.
Anatomy of a Hoof
Let’s start with some anatomy. Many vital, yet delicate structures comprise the equine hoof. First, the coffin bone (last phalanx of the 3rd digit) lies deep within the hoof itself. Hence the name. Attaching the coffin bone to the hoof wall are the laminae. The coronary band forms the junction between haired skin and the hoof wall. It provides nutrition to the hoof wall, much like the cuticle of your finger. The hoof wall grows from the coronary band toward the ground at a rate of approximately ¼” to 3/8” per month, resulting in a new hoof every year. The hoof wall is similar in structure to a human finger nail; once damaged it cannot heal. Rather, it must be replaced by growing out. The area where the hoof wall meets the sole is the white line. The horse bears most of his weight on the hoof wall, not on the sole. The soft V-shaped structure at the back of the hoof is the frog, acting as a shock absorber and pump to return blood from the hoof. The front of the hoof is the toe, the sides are the quarters, and the back is the heel.
Causes and Signs
This time of year, many horses are subjected to wet environmental conditions. This could be from heavy rains in the south, to constant snow in the north. Overgrown toes can act as a lever to pull the wall from the sole with each step a horse takes. If the hoof is not allowed to dry out sufficiently, or the white line becomes damaged, bacteria and fungi have an open door for invasion.
White line disease occurs when certain types of fungi invade the damaged white line. These fungi set up shop, begin replicating and destroy the hoof wall. The resulting “cheesy” material gives rise to the name “seedy toe”. If caught early, the damage can be minimal. In a horse turned out for the winter, the damage can be devastating.
Prevention and Treatment
As with most diseases, prevention remains the best option. Check your horse’s feet frequently, especially in wet conditions. Clean the feet to assess for damage or signs of infection. Work with your farrier to maintain a routine hoof trimming schedule. In horses with conformation issues or high-performance demands, corrective shoeing may be needed.
If you find your horse has white line disease, work with your veterinarian to develop an effective treatment plan. If the disease is caught early, and no significant damage has occurred, topical treatments, soaks, and moving the horse to a dry environment may be enough to prevent further damage. If the infection has spread to a large part of the hoof wall, hospitalization with specialized supportive shoeing will keep the horse comfortable until the hoof wall has grown out enough to resume normal function.
In the next segment, we will cover thrush and abscesses. Stay tuned!