We’ve all heard the old saying “no foot, no horse” – so what happens when you start to see issues like hoof cracks?
Hoof cracks are fairly common abnormalities in the hoof wall. They can be superficial – a micro-crack that appears on the surface of the hoof wall – or they can be more serious, penetrating deep through the hoof wall into the sensitive tissue. Small, surface-level cracks may require nothing more than a trim and some time, but more complicated hoof cracks may require more significant interventions.
The hoof is designed to take an impressive amount of force; however, various factors can impact the hoof’s integrity under pressure. These include:
- conformation of the horse
- weather and footing conditions
- the quality and frequency of trims
- poor nutrition
- poor shoeing
- weaknesses in the hoof wall
- lack of exercise
You may have heard hoof cracks referred to as sand cracks or grass cracks; however, naming hoof cracks by their location gives us a lot more insight into the cause and treatment. For example, when someone refers to a sand crack, they usually mean that the crack appears vertically from the coronet band, while grass cracks appear vertically from the toe.
We talked with Steve Kraus, CJF, BS, the head farrier for Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, about the types of equine hoof cracks and how to deal with them. So let’s crack on…
Quarter cracks are one of the most common types of hoof crack and are seen on the sides of the hoof. They typically form due to limb conformation defects (such as toeing-in or toeing-out) or imbalanced hooves. Essentially, quarter cracks are formed when the force from movement is unequally distributed across the hoof.
“For instance, a toed-out foot with a base-wide stance will usually develop a medial crack,” says Kraus. “If you drop a plumb line down from the front of the horse’s shoulder, it will point to the crack. The opposite is true for the toed-in, base-narrow horse.”
While much of the time quarter cracks are caused by conformational defects, there are ways to treat them. Step one is stabilizing the hoof to make sure it is well balanced and takes into account your horse’s conformation. “Suturing or a glued-on patch will stabilize these cracks,” says Kraus, adding that, “often a bar shoe with strategically-placed clips is applied to add stability to the hoof wall.”
Toe cracks are any cracks that appear in the front half of the hoof. These cracks form from the ground up.
Long pasterns and low hoof angles are the most common cause of toe cracks. Kraus explains that this causes “extreme force on the inside of the hoof wall which pulls the deep flexor tendon, which attaches to the bottom of the coffin bone, and bends the hoof wall inward, creating the crack.”
When it comes to toe cracks, Kraus recommends keeping the horse’s toes trimmed on the shorter side, using rolled or rocker toe shows, and, in more serious cases, applying patches to stabilize the crack. Shoes with side clips can also provide added stability and prevent the over-flexing of the hoof wall that caused the toe crack to form.
Unlike other types of hoof cracks, horizontal hoof cracks are caused by a popped abscess exiting through the hoof wall. Typically, an abscess that forms in the white line of the hoof, which is where the sole of the hoof connects to the outer hoof wall, travels up the hoof and exits through the hoof wall, causing a horizontal crack. Once this horizontal crack appears on your horse’s hoof, the worst part is likely over – the abscess in your horse’s foot has erupted and the grow-out can begin.
Typically, the treatment for a horizontal crack is time. Letting the crack grow out and continuing to monitor and do regular trims is all that is required in most cases. If there is a lot of damage, hoof repair materials can be used to stabilize the hoof.
Heel cracks are found at the rear of the hoof wall and are caused by ill-fitting shoes that do not properly support your horse’s heel. “In this situation, the heels lack needed support and crack from the pressure exerted on them,” states Kraus.
To correct heel cracks, your first step is reassessing your horse’s shoe size and switching to a better-fitting shoe. According to Kraus, when trimming you want to focus on “trimming the hoof so that the point of the heels is in line with the highest, widest part of a normal frog; proper-fitting shoes easily will take care of cracked heels.”
Fixing a cracked hoof in horses usually only requires two things: stabilizing the hoof and time for the crack grow out. Essentially, the goal is to prevent any further cracking for as long as it takes the hoof to grow out.
When should you become concerned about a hoof crack? According to Kraus, “any fissure in a horse’s hoof wall is a matter to be concerned about.” Once you see cracks begin to form, take pictures and put a call in to your farrier to determine the next steps. It is usually not an emergency unless there is pain or lameness, significant instability in the hoof (i.e. the area around the crack clearly shifts with pressure), or fluid (such as blood or pus) leaking from the crack.
How long it takes to heal a hoof crack depends on its location and if it is stabilized. Hooves take at least one year to fully grow out, so a crack in the coronary band can take at least that long to fully repair. The further down the hoof the crack is, the less time it will take to grow out.
Once you’ve fixed a hoof crack once, you certainly do not want to cross that path again! There are several things to do to prevent hoof cracks from reoccurring, or occurring in the first place, such as:
1. Regular trims. It is recommended to have your horse’s feet trimmed regularly every 4-6 weeks. Set up a schedule with your farrier in advance to avoid waiting too long in between trims. Hooves that grow too long do not distribute your horse’s weight effectively, meaning that you may be opening the door for cracks to occur.
2. Regularly pick and check over your horse’s feet. Regularly examining your horse’s feet allows you to spot small cracks before they worsen, while keeping dirt and debris out of the hoof can help avoid issues like abscesses, thrush, or white-line disease, which can also cause cracks or other issues.
3. Feed a nutritionally balanced diet including copper, zinc, methionine, and biotin. Diet can play a role in the quality of your horse’s feet. Making sure that they are receiving a balanced diet, especially in regards to important nutrients such as copper, zinc, methionine and biotin can be beneficial. Research from Zenker and colleagues at the University of Zurich has shown that adding 15-20mg per day for the average 1,100 lb (500 kg) horse can give a small boost to hoof quality compared to a placebo. Consult with your veterinarian or a qualified equine nutritionist to make sure your horse’s diet is balanced to support their hoof health.
4. Consider your horse’s footing. In the summer, cracks can be formed by repetitive concussion on hard or uneven ground. Being aware of footing that is too firm and keeping arenas well harrowed and paddocks free of stones can help with prevention of hoof cracks.
5. Prevent stomping. Many hoof cracks are formed from horses repeatedly stomping due to bugs. If bugs are bad, don’t be stingy with bug protection! Managing pests in your horse’s environment by regularly removing manure, using fly traps, etc. is also important.
Although hoof cracks are a common concern for horse owners, prompt attention when they appear and prevention with good hoof care, diet and footing are key to avoiding or resolving them so your horse stays sound and comfortable.