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"No foot, no horse" is probably one of the most well known sayings in the equestrian world, but did you know that foot problems account for approximately 80% of lameness issues? It is important to appreciate the vital role that the hardy outer hoof plays in the horse's wellbeing. Far more than being the simple equivalent of the human toenail, this wall of horn has to support the huge weight of the animal, act as shock absorber, regulate moisture intake, and stand up to considerable wear. What is more, this seemingly simple construction has the crucial task of protecting the complex structure of the inner foot - a mass of sensitive tissues, ligaments, tendons, nerves, blood vessels and bone. Yet when something goes wrong within the foot's inner structure, this tough, protective shell is unable to expand and make room for any inflammation, and this can cause the horse to suffer a high degree of pain. It is therefore essential for any caring owner to have a basic knowledge of foot ailments so that immediate and appropriate action can be taken at the first sign of trouble. In particular, bruising and infection can appear at any time and in a number of different forms - the most common of which are outlined below.
Abscesses occur when the sensitive tissues within the foot become infected, usually as a result of a puncture wound, nail prick, bruise or corn. They can cause sudden and acute lameness, although the abscess itself will have taken several days to form. The horse will be in severe pain and a vet must be called immediately. If left untreated, an abscess is likely to burst out through the sole, coronary band or toe, in which case the horse is said to be 'graveled'. However, no animal should ever be forced to reach this stage - not only will the pain be extortionate, but there is also the possibility that the object that caused the initial puncture wound could have penetrated up into the navicular bursa, thereby creating a life-threatening injury. An abscess is relatively easy to recognise should one be suspected. Any inflammation or infection within the foot will cause the digital artery (found on the side of the pastern) to pulse and the hoof to feel hot. Some (but not all) abscesses can also be identified by a visible bruise on the sole of the foot. The vet will remove the horse's shoe, clean up the hoof with a knife, and use hoof testers to establish the site of pain. Once the location of the abscess has been located, a drainage hole will be created and the horse will require a wet poultice so that the infection may be drawn out. An improvement should be seen within two to three days.
As the horse's sole is very thin it can bruise easily, especially if a stone is picked up or the animal is worked excessively on hard ground. This condition will cause lameness that is especially apparent when the horse is trotted up on a hard surface, and the bruising can sometimes be seen on the surface of the sole. A bruised sole may well lead to the formation of an abscess or a blood blister, and so it is advisable to consult a vet if this particular ailment is suspected. The exact location of the problem can be determined by applying pressure using hoof testers. The shoe will need to be removed, the area pared down, and a poultice applied. Thin-soled horses that appear to be particularly susceptible can benefit from having protective pads fitted once the bruise has healed.
Essentially bruises of the sole that are tied to a specific location, corns occur beneath the heels of the shoe. They are usually the result of poor shoeing or trimming, but shoes left on for lengthy periods can also be to blame. Corns are recognisable by their positioning and reddish-yellow colouring, and they often cause some heat in the heels. As a corn can easily degenerate into an abscess, it is advisable to ask a vet to treat the issue. He or she will pare out the affected area and fit a surgical shoe that will transfer the horse's weight away from the site of pain. Unfortunately, corns are one of a number of equine ailments that have a habit of reoccurring after the initial episode, thus highlighting the need for decent foot care on a regular basis.
Not to be confused with grass crack (which starts at the bottom of the hoof), sand crack is a vertical split in the horn that begins at the coronary band. Faulty conformation and brittle feet are possible causes, but injury to the coronary band is the most likely culprit. Superficial cracks rarely give cause for alarm and should simply grow out. Deep cracks, however, can lead to inflammation of the laminae or result in infection, thereby giving rise to lameness. In such cases, the split will need to be stabilised by a vet or a farrier and the accompanying symptoms treated with drugs if necessary.
Also known as white line disease, seedy toe is a condition in which the hoof wall separates from the laminae at the white line. This creates a cavity that becomes filled with crumbling horn and other debris, frequently causing infection. It is often a sequel to laminitis and founder, but can also arise when the toes have become too long. A horse suffering from seedy toe is only likely to be lame if a secondary infection is present or he is feeling the effects of laminitis. Nonetheless, the condition requires immediate treatment; the vet will pare away the infected horn before tapering the edges to prevent any further invasion. The horse will need to be kept stabled until fully healed, and a broad webbed shoe may be fitted.
Thrush is a bacterial infection of the frog. It is recognisable by the foul smell that is caused by a build up of black discharge in the frog clefts, and the frog itself may appear soft and weak. The horse will only become lame if the condition is allowed to fester and spread to the sensitive tissues within the foot, and so early treatment is vital. This will entail aggressive trimming of the frog, the application of an antiseptic spray, and a clean, dry bed. Whilst animals with deep frog clefts are particularly susceptible, thrush usually appears in horses that have been forced to stand in damp, dirty conditions and have suffered poor foot care in general. A good standard of mucking out is the best preventative measure, but it is also advisable to clean the feet of all horses that have just been worked in sandy arenas.
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