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Dry Hoof Problems & Solutions

By: Alma DeMille, Certified Farrier & Blacksmith

    "No Hoof; No Horse." This is an old saying that is as true today as the first time it was spoken. There are many factors that effect the health of horse hooves; in this article I'm going to discuss "Dry Hoof" problems and solutions. 

    No matter where we live and keep our horses, the climate and type of housing they have makes a difference in the moisture content in their hooves. It is quite interesting, as I travel, to see the types of problems that most commonly arise in different climates. I have been in the deserts of Arizona and Nevada treating hooves for extreme dryness and the next week treated just as many in Missouri and Illinois for thrush and "rain-rot" which are caused by bacteria in wet climates. Every area has its own problems, and you just have to learn how to deal with them the best you can. I will discuss ways to cure problems that exist, but I want to stress that PREVENTION is the best and easiest medicine! I will discuss prevention of dry hoof problems too.

    Have you ever noticed how the hoof trimmings shrink after being cut from the hoof? Do you know why? It is because the moisture evaporates and the horny tissue shrivels up. Did you know that the external portion of the hoof you can see should be about 25% water in the wall and 33% in the sole, and 50% in the frog? This moisture is part of what gives elasticity and shock absorption properties to the hoof. Any loss of moisture decreases these functions and increases the probability of splitting hooves or injury to the limbs and joints. Moisture in the hoof is supplied in two ways: systemic- through the blood supply, and environmentally- from the ground they walk on. Approximately 80% of their moisture requirements are supplied systemically; therefore, proper nutrition, exercise, and general good health are the most crucial factors for strong healthy hooves. For this discussion, I will address the other 20%, the environmental moisture accumulation, retention, and restoration.

    If you go to your local tack supply store, you will find a large selection of products available that are being marketed to restore moisture, increase pliability, and strengthen the hoof. I'm sure all of these products have some value, but certainly some are better than others for different applications. Without naming brands, I would like to give some advise on what types of products work best for which problems. Let's first talk about preventing moisture loss and then restoring moisture.

    Over the top of the hoof wall there is a natural sealant called the periople, which grows down from the perioplic ring at the coronary band. This varnish like layer is effective in preventing evaporation through the top of the hoof, if it is unbroken. Very seldom, in most areas of the country, do you find a horse that has an adequate layer far enough down the hoof. This layer is worn off by friction as the horse walks through grass, brush, or sand. Any time a horseshoer rasps the top of the hoof wall, to shape the hoof, he completely removes this layer. (Note: This is a correct procedure when the farrier is removing a dish, flare, or bull nose. It is not correct when dubbing the hoof to fit the shoe!) A sealant, rather than a moisturizing cream or oil, should be applied to the entire hoof wall, being careful not to touch the coronary band, to replace this lost natural layer. To restore moisture to an already dry hoof, several coatings of moisturizer may be applied and then thoroughly cleaned and dried prior to sealing the hoof. Many people like to put moisture creams on this outside hoof wall, which makes it look shiny, but does very little good unless applied almost daily or inside a boot where the hoof can soak it in. An exterior sealant applied weekly will do much more good, as it will hold in the systemic moisture, as well as the moisture soaked up through the bottom of the hoof. Some "old timers" had it right when they tied up their horses where they had to stand in a puddle of water occasionally. A water trough that is purposely overflowed can provide additional moisture to the hooves, if you don't mind the mess. You must make sure that the soil around the trough is not a moisture absorbing clay that will pack in the hoof and actually suck out more moisture as it dries than what was absorbed from the trough. It is a hot debate which is better, these hoof dressings or water. But one thing is sure; water is cheaper and takes none of your time to apply. My opinion, having worked with thousands of these cases, is that the additional time and money invested are worthwhile if you apply these dressings daily or soak the hooves with them inside a boot. But if you just apply it every now and then when you have time, you'd be better off sealing the outside to prevent moisture loss and putting the animal where its hooves can soak up water.

    I shod a horse in 1998 whose hooves were full of cracks wide enough to put my thumb in, and they traveled clear up almost to the hair-line. His feet were dry, brittle, long neglected, and in dire straits. I shaped the hooves, made shoes with specially placed clips, filled the cracks with a hoof repair plastic, sealed the hoof wall surface with a liquid plastic, and gave instructions to the owners how to soak the hooves daily and seal them each week.  The same month I did the same thing with another horse who was actually in worse condition; in fact, its hooves were split so deep that it looked like a cow's hoof and was bleeding out of the cracks. I had to disinfect these and also added hoof staples along the splits before filling with plastic. Anyway, the owner to the first horse never did his part to maintain the progress I'd made. Then about 6 months later wanted me to come back and do it again because his horse couldn't walk any more. By that time the owner of the second horse had an animal with 4 healthy hooves that could be used for anything. The last two staples were down as low as the nails and the hoof above was completely normal and healthy! He followed the instructions I'd given him to soak the feet and seal the hoof etc. & had me come every 6-8 weeks and redo the horse. The moral to this is that once a horse has a problem you must stay on top of it all the time; you can't just treat it occasionally. Every day you miss, that hoof is losing moisture. Also, the farrier can only set things in motion the right way; the horse owner is the one who makes the most difference by the daily care given! 

    There are other extreme cases that may call for corrective shoeing. Let me give some brief examples. For a sole that has dried to the point of cracking, the horse should be shod with full pads, having the sole saturated in venice of turpentine or pine tar. Dry, atrophied frogs can be treated the same way, although they usually respond well to measures before mentioned like soaking in water. Brittle hoof walls may not have the strength to hold nails securely, and will benefit from side clips on each shoe. Choosing not to shoe in this situation could result in worse problems as the brittle hoof walls break and expose sensitive tissues  inside the hoof. Infection and severe lameness may follow. The only other alternative would be to use a boot to soak the hoof until it is pliable and tough enough to hold nails. Sand cracks usually don't cause lameness, but they are ugly and if left unattended can result in chronic problems. They can be prevented by regular trimming and proper moisture levels. Treatment should consist of the following: Clips pulled on either side of the crack to force it together and prevent its widening, cutting hoof wall out from underneath it to remove pressure, packing it with epoxy hoof repair, and sealing the entire  hoof wall surface. Hoof staples may also be beneficial. These steps will both prevent further damage to the hoof and will allow proper new growth.

    As you ride your horses enjoying the majestic scenery of the mountains, the peaceful tranquility of the plains, or the magic of the deserts, don't forget to stop and soak it all in. Preferably, in a stream where your horse and his hooves can get a drink!

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