Horse Health From the Bottom Up

A hoof crack has no bias: Every equine breed and discipline can suffer from the malady.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

A quarter crack is not the only hoof crack a horse can suffer. Hoof wall cracks are generally described by their location on the foot - the toe, quarter, heel or bar. Hoof cracks affect racing and performance horses and even everyday using horses.

Cracks can vary in length, depth and severity, according to Dr. Britt Conklin, co-owner of Reata Equine Hospital and Podiatry Center in Weatherford, Texas. Dr. Conklin, a member of the American Farrier’s Association and a Texas Professional Farrier Association-certified farrier, has dedicated a large portion of his practice to equine foot care.

“Cracks are also characterized by the presence or lack of (several factors),” he explains. “Deep cracks that involve the sensitive tissues are usually associated with a variable degree of hemorrhage, infection and/or lameness. Superficial cracks involve the stratum externum (outside layer of hoof) and a variable amount of the stratum medium (the secondary layer of hoof) and usually do not result in lameness.”

Crack Causes

Dr. Conklin says there are a number of factors that cause hoof cracks. Excessive hoof wall length from infrequent foot care, abnormal loading patterns and conformation of the foot or limb can cause splitting of the hoof. Previous injuries to the coronary band often create deformities and weakness in the hoof below the injury. Genetics play a role when horses with thin, weak walls and poor horn quality are produced.

“This weakened hoof wall does not hold up as well to normal forces that act on the hoof wall and may result in a crack,” Dr. Conklin says. “Moisture content can play an important role in the development of hoof cracks. Dry and brittle hooves are more prone to crack."

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Foot and limb conformation can also predispose a horse to cracks. A horse’s hoof conformation is a result of the limb above, which the foot is supporting. Horses with significant angular and/or rotational deviations in the limb can concentrate an abnormal amount of stress over a certain part of the foot below, resulting in a hoof wall defect. The defect is created because the force coming down the limb is not evenly distributed across the foot.

“Horses with significant conformational deficits do not have an even landing and loading pattern,” Dr. Conklin says. “This results in an abnormal concentration of the ground reaction force to a certain area of the foot during loading and the stance phase of the stride.”

Resolute Repairs

While the instigators of a hoof wall crack can be genetic, environmental, injury or neglect, finding the cause is Job 1 before a suitable repair strategy is reached. The two main objectives when treating a hoof crack are debridement, removing damaged tissue and foreign objects from the crack, and stabilization of the hoof wall, Dr. Conklin says.

“The crack must be debrided until normal horn (hard wall) is reached,” he explains. “If the crack extends into the dermis or sensitive tissues, hemorrhage from the debridement is expected. The crack is often more extensive than what can be visualized from the external surface of the foot. Once the crack is fully debrided, the infections can be addressed with foot soaks, topical treatment and bandaging.

“Once the crack is clean, dry and no longer hemorrhaging, it can be stabilized and patched,” he says. “There are several different ways this can be achieved. The way we address most cracks is by lacing them with wire and patching them with acrylic. A therapeutic shoe application is applied to redistribute pressure to other parts of the foot, while minimizing the load on the compromised hoof wall.”

Some type of bar shoe is generally used to stabilize most cracks, whether they are superficial or have been debrided, according to farrier Wayne Berry of Lindsay, California. Wayne’s clientele consists largely of performance horse trainers, and he works extensively with the veterinary staff at Pacific Crest Equine in Exeter, California.

“My role is to try to avoid them or stop them,” Wayne says of hoof cracks. “Horses don’t always grow a perfect foot. Sometimes they grow one side higher than the other, and we need to keep them level and balanced. A difference of 3/8 of an inch causes a gap in that quarter and starts putting all the pressure on the longer heel.

“Before I ever start (trimming), I want to inspect my last work before I start the new work. I’m going to say, ‘OK, we’re growing just a little bit more lateral heel, so I’ll make it even, then I’ll start my work.’”

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Repair techniques have not changed significantly through the years. There have been improvements in hoof wall acrylics and other materials used in patching the cracks. There have also been a myriad of therapeutic shoes that have steadily improved.

“Focusing on and identifying the cause and treatment through debridement and stabilization are still the mainstay of therapy,” Dr. Conklin says.

Preventing Peril

Most trainers wind up having to deal with hoof wall cracks during their careers. Like most horsemen, John Ward just wants a sound horse he can train and show. The two-time National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity open champion rides on quality native soil at his ranch in Tulare, California, and his home-breds have the reputation of being structurally sound horses. In spite of it all, he still deals with the occasional quarter crack.

“When you’ve got a quarter crack, you’ve got a problem,” John says. “Our ground is good here, and I leave the 2- and 3-year-olds barefoot in front for as long as I can. I also pull the front shoes off my show horses if we aren’t showing around November or December.”

John has an older horse with a chronic hoof-crack problem. John keeps the show veteran sound by pulling his shoes for a couple of months every fall, because “he just needs to have a moment.”

“I’ve done the whole deal where you lace them, the bar shoes, all that stuff,” John says. “(Renowned veterinarian) Van Snow has flown in here and laced them up for me and, I’ve had them bleed, done the wrapping and treated them. You can get horses shown, but it is a pain.”

John says giving his problematic show horse a shoeless “moment” each year works for him, even though there is no reasoning as to why that particular horse suffers from chronic cracks.

“If the correct etiology or cause can be determined, then certain modifications can be made with trimming and shoeing at the same time the crack is repaired,” Dr. Conklin says. “If the correct modifications are made, the success of the repair is greatly increased and the likelihood of recurrence is minimized.”