by Maria Siebrand
There are many reasons why a horse may be sore-footed, some far more complex to rectify than others. But very often, the problem is easily addressed with hygiene, diet changes, or simply giving the horse time to heal. Here are some of the common causes of tender feet.
Thrush is absolutely the most common problem I see, even in very dry areas. In fact, it’s probably more of a problem in dry environments, because it is harder to identify. Even a mild case will cause the horse to wince if he steps on a pebble, and advanced cases will cause a horse to favor his heels even on very forgiving terrain. It is likely the leading cause of heel pain in the domestic horse. Unfortunately, the severity of the problem is frequently trivialized — most farriers will only mention that your horse has thrush in a sort of offhand way unless it is severe, and even vets may overlook thrush as being a primary contributor to lameness. The fact is that thrush (which is also known as foot rot; perhaps if we called it that more folks would take it seriously!) in the hooves of cattle and sheep is considered the #1 cause of severe, devastating lameness. Incidentally, it has been conclusively shown that a lack (either primary or relative) of zinc and/or copper in the diet predispose cattle to foot rot. The solution? Aggressive hygiene, appropriate footing at all times, movement, movement, movement, and diet balancing.
White line separation can create tenderness, too. Ever gotten a splinter up under your fingernail? Or simply bent the nail back to the quick? It’s not a pleasant experience. Horses with white line separation (stretched, poorly connected lamellae) experience something very similar with each step, and particularly if they get pebbles wedged in the gap between wall and sole. White line separation in an otherwise well-maintained hoof is almost exclusively diet related. Serious in and of itself, white line separation also predisposes the horse to white line disease, an infection which can be devastating. The solution? Diet balancing, hygiene, timely trims, and boots and pads until the separation is grown out.
Thin soles are another common cause of sore feet. Usually, horses are thin soled because they have been trimmed that way. Occasionally, the problem is diet related. Sometimes, a horse will blow an abscess and slough sole dramatically. In any case, thin soles leave the underlying structures precariously close to the ground. Thin-soled feet are in danger of bruising, pedal osteitis, and even coffin bone fractures. The solution? Pinpoint the cause and take steps to mitigate the problem. This may require diet changes, or simply allowing time and proper trimming to build sole material. It’s important to provide some type of protection for thin-soled horses on hard ground or rugged terrain, and also to minimize sole wear between trims. Hoof boots and pads are an easy solution!
Inappropriate diet is often a culprit of sore feet in barefoot horses. Just because that pound of sweet feed every day, or five pounds of carrots every Saturday, hasn’t caused a full-blown laminitis attack doesn’t mean it’s not making your horse uncomfortable. A little (and I mean a little!) too much starch/sugar can cause sensitivity in a barefoot horse, even if the horse isn’t suffering from insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome. Barefoot hoof care practitioners often refer to the problem as sub-clinical laminitis. If you’ve covered all the other bases, and still have a tender footed horse, try cutting out everything but hay – and only low carbohydrate hay – for a couple of weeks.
Remember, proper barefoot horse keeping isn’t just about trim. Diet, hygiene, lifestyle, and, of course, trim, all play an equal role in forging a truly healthy hoof!