Ask an Expert

Hoof Wall Integrity

August 24, 2010

A horse with problematic front feet needs special attention paid to hoof wall separation.

Question:

I have a huge Quarter Horse gelding with small front feet. He had shoes on when I bought him, but had numerous cracks and two quarter cracks on each front. He can not keep a shoe on because of flare and separation of hoof wall. I pulled his shoes and have been on a two-year rehabilitation program. The quarter cracks grew out and he now has better looking hooves. He was very sore when shoes were pulled but now is able to walk around on grass, dirt, or pavement and even small limestone. I use hoof boots when I ride, just on the front. I have been very pleased with them. I am sure that using shoes caused an excessive force on his front feet causing them to break out in quarter cracks. I think some horses can wear shoes and some can’t. This horse can’t and barefoot was the only option I had. He is better off and hopefully I can keep him sound. I soak him in White Lightening solution every now and then, to keep out any bacteria due to any wall separation. Seems to work for him. Hopefully the flare will eventually grow out with proper trimming. I get him trimmed every six weeks and in between trims, I rasp out the rough edges.

Answer:

It sounds as if you’ve worked hard and gotten some positive results with your gelding’s hooves.  Maintaining hoof capsule integrity is a primary concern, and it’s vitally important when you have a large-framed, heavy horse on small, “tea-cup” hooves.

By eliminating the cracks, you’ve made major progress in restoring strength and support to the hoof capsule.  But it doesn’t sound as if the problems are completely resolved, as the continued flaring and hoof wall separation indicate that the hoof capsule is still compromised and failing to function optimally.  No matter where hoof wall separations and flares evidence, they’re always an indication that laminar connections within the hoof capsule have broken down, and they do warrant some “separation anxiety.”

Basically, for the hoof wall to separate, there has to be a tearing or shearing of the connections between the sensitive and insensitive tissues.  Ultimately, the area of separation shows us where the insensitive, external hoof wall is tearing away from the sensitive, internal structure of the coffin bone.

While you’ve had success with maintaining your horse barefoot, it’s potentially a factor in the continued problems you’re experiencing with the separations.  Once a separation starts, it tends to pack and fill with dirt, sand, fecal matter, and other ick.  Then, as the horse “loads” or bears weight on the hoof, the ick tends to act as a wedge, exerting mechanical pressure on the wall, causing more tearing and subsequently enlarging the separation.  As the separation enlarges, it also becomes a moisture pocket where bacteria and fungi breed and proliferate.  Although good maintenance programs, such as yours, can reduce the chances of abscesses and major infection, the moisture and bacterial activity still manage to weaken the hoof wall and encourage further tearing, shearing, and separation.

The real problem with all of these mechanical issues is that the hoof is plastic, not elastic.  It’s flexible enough to distort and remodel its shape, but it doesn’t automatically snap back and regain its original shape.  So professional farriers have to utilize their knowledge of the internal structures in order to remodel the hoof capsule.  In effect, the farrier is the elastic—working to recover the distortion and regain an optimal shape.

When the farrier deals with significant flares and separations, his or her most common and effective approach is to “unload” the affected area.  Basically, this means that—working from the ground surface—the farrier removes the distorted and dysfunctional areas of the hoof wall.  By removing this area, the farrier can stop the cycle of the new growth following the old (distorted) growth.  Depending upon the severity of the problem and the amount of hoof wall removed, the hoof capsule will often need to be supported through an appliance (shoe) or an application (acrylic or urethane) that artificially and temporarily replaces the removed area.

Last, but definitely not least, external distortions often mirror and mimic internal distortions.  Subsequently, if you don’t already have an equine veterinarian working with your professional farrier on this, it would be a good time to expand the team effort.  A set of radiographs could really help to determine exactly what issues you’re dealing with.

– Danvers Child, Certified Journeyman Farrier (CJF) and editor of Professional Farrier magazine for the American Farrier’s Association, an AQHA Educational Alliance Partner.