Hooves: Too Dry, Too Damp?
Your boots protect your feet from different types of weather, and you can always adjust your footwear to match the conditions. But your horse's hooves are exposed to the environment 24/7, affecting his physical well-being and hoof health. Whether you live in a dry desert climate, a wet and rainy region, or somewhere in between, you'll want to understand how excessively dry or wet weather can affect your Quarter Horse's hooves. With a few simple and proactive tips and tools, you can combat hoof issues before they happen.
First, know the hoof
Before we get to the nitty gritty, it's important to understand the structure of the hoof. Your horse's own body has some control over the moisture content of the “living" areas of the hoof, the sensitive regions inside the hoof where blood flows, similar to the quick in a dog or cat's nail. But the outer layers of the hoof, the hoof walls and soles that behave much like our fingernails, are affected by environmental moisture conditions. We'll focus on the hoof's outer layers, since that's what's mostly affected by extreme conditions.
When hooves are too wet
Despite snow on the ground during the chilly months, regions that experience cold winters are actually pretty dry much of the season. But it's often in the transitional periods of fall and spring when the melting snow becomes water and heavy rain and mud join forces that excess moisture can become an issue for horse's hooves. This can lead to certain issues:
- Thrush. Where do bacteria tend to thrive? In wet conditions! Thrush is a bacterial issue in the hoof, usually caused by overly wet conditions, so spring and fall mud seasons are prime times to be on the lookout. Thrush may also crop up during periods of prolonged stall rest, such as when a horse is recovering from an injury and needs to remain inactive to heal or when challenging weather, like excessive heat or rain, forces horses to stay indoors for an extended time.
- Soft hooves. When too much moisture soaks into the hard parts of your horse's hoof walls, it can cause them to become overly soft and pliable. The frog — that soft triangular region behind your horse's sole next to the collateral grooves that you clean out with a hoof pick — acts as a shock absorber and provides traction to the hoof. If your horse's hooves are in significant moisture for too long, the frog, in particular, can suffer and deteriorate.
- Excess sole bruising. Likewise, the softness caused by excess moisture can cause your horse's sole to bruise more easily, which can be painful. Abscesses (internal hoof bacterial infections) may also become more likely.
When hooves are too dry
Picture this: it's midsummer, and it hasn't rained in weeks. The pastures are dry, the ground is hard and your horse's hooves kick up dust whenever he's on the trail. Conditions like these are enough to contribute to a variety of hoof issues. When you have a hoof with too little moisture combined with hard, dry ground conditions, you have a recipe for cracking and breakages.
While any location can experience the occasional drought, the Western and Southwestern U.S. experience them regularly. Quarter Horses are no stranger to the arid or mountainous conditions of these regions, where they may be called upon to perform ranch work or to pack riders and supplies into deep back country. Healthy hooves are important in conditions like these, just as they're important to the Quarter Horse in the show ring. Again, some horses may be more susceptible than others, but in general, overly dry environmental conditions can contribute to:
- Hoof cracking. When hooves dry out, they begin to lose their flexibility and pliability. Instead of giving to pressure when it occurs, dry hooves may likely to start flaking or cracking during exercise (or even when stomping flies). The severity of a hoof crack can range from superficial to serious, but many only cause cosmetic damage. But it is possible to develop more severe chronic cracks (such as quarter cracks), where the hoof's ability to bear weight can be compromised.
- Loose shoes. If your horse's hooves are too dry and lack flexibility, it can hamper their ability to hold nails for shoes — not fun!
- Contracted heels. Overly dry hooves may begin to deform somewhat in the heel region, possibly leading to lameness. (Incorrect trimming often plays a part with this issue as well).
- General lameness. A hoof that is super dry and brittle can be painful! This could cause a decrease in performance, as well as affecting your horse's mood and overall health.
Solutions for hoof protection
Your horse's hooves ideally contain enough moisture to help them remain flexible and act as a proper shock absorber. Regardless of whether your horse's hooves are too wet or too dry, there are plenty of solutions at your fingertips.
- Try a hoof conditioner. Soaking your horse's dry hooves in water may seem like it would help, but this could be tricky and may create new issues, as a repeated wet/dry cycle can ultimately dry your horse's hooves out even further. Instead, consider a product like Rain Maker Hoof Conditioner by Farnam. A hoof conditioner like this can help keep moisture from escaping the hooves in dry conditions and help keep the hoof from becoming too brittle.
- Try to avoid sudden changes. The biggest issues mainly arise when your horse boomerangs back and forth between moist and dry conditions. This can happen if your horse is exposed to dewy conditions in the pasture overnight, followed by dry conditions during the day. If possible, try not to allow your horse's hooves to become soaked, then rapidly dried from local daily climate changes.
- Offer a dry area of the pasture. Consider adding a small “sacrificial" area of the pasture, preferably on high ground, where you can temporarily contain horses in a dry area until conditions improve. Use a fill with good drainage like gravel to build a safe place for horses to hang out. Geotextile fabric can even be used under the fill to help keep the area secure and help prevent washouts.
- Consider a hoof boot. Properly-fitting hoof boots can offer a short-term solution for wet, muddy pastures and trails.
- Keep stalls dry. It's more difficult to keep the stall's bedding as dry as it should be when a horse is indoors a lot, but it's important to stay on top of this every day. Aim to remove as much wet bedding as you can, then redistribute the remaining clean bedding back into the center of the stall, as clean bedding often builds up around the edges.
- Try a thrush-relief product. Daily cleaning of the collateral grooves is important, but if thrush remains prevalent, you might need some additional help from a product like Farnam Thrush Relief. The copper naphthenate in this product helps treat thrush, and the product also helps to form a moisture barrier on the hoof, limiting additional water intake.
Too Wet or Too Dry
- Use a hoof sealant. In wet conditions, a hoof sealant can help block and limit the amount of moisture that gains access to the hoof. Something like Horseshoer's Secret Hoof Sealant by Farnam can help protect the hoof in wet conditions. It can also do the reverse, and keep moisture in the hoof during dry situations.
- Feed well! Good nutrition and providing quality horse feed will go a long way towards overall tip-top hoof health. Also, consider a palatable feed supplement like Farnam's Horseshoer's Secret Pelleted Hoof Supplement to help promote healthy hoof growth.
The old phrase "no hoof, no horse" is certainly true. If your horse's hooves aren't healthy, then your horse's ability to work and enjoy life is severely limited. But with a little foresight and daily hoof care, you can successfully protect your Quarter Horse's hooves through the many changing climates of the passing seasons and avoid the pitfalls of overly dry or wet hooves.
Farnam, Rainmaker and Horseshoer's Secret are trademarks of Farnam Companies, Inc.