“Don’t fall apart over cracked or dry hooves. Instead, take a look at what kind of crack it is and what might be causing it.”
What causes the cracks and dryness we so often see in our horses’ hooves? Let’s look at the variety of cracks, assess the causes, and see if dry hooves need moisture, or something else!
1. Hoof wall growth
When the weather warms up in the spring, a horse’s hoof walls go through a growth spurt. This accelerated growth catches most barefoot horse owners – and many trimmers – by surprise for the first few years. The hoof that usually does fine when trimmed on a five to six-week cycle can suddenly be too long at four weeks. By the time the trimmer shows up at six or seven weeks, the wall may have begun to flare and split at the base, and small cracks may even have begun to travel up the wall.
Solution: Adding moisture to a wall that is long and flaring will only weaken it, and the cracks can get worse! The answer in this case is a good trim that relieves the stress on flaring walls. Be aware of the length of your horse’s hoof walls, and let your trimmer or farrier know if they appear to be growing fast or wearing too slow.
2. Sub-clinical laminitis
Pastures become rich and abundant in the spring, and few of us can resist turning our horses out to graze. You need to be careful, however, because for many horses a lush pasture contains toxic levels of natural sugars. This is no secret to owners of insulin resistant and Cushing’s horses, but there’s also a danger to horses that don’t appear to have insulin sensitivity. Many have low grade laminitis episodes that are usually misdiagnosed as seasonal sole sensitivity.
Why? A simplified explanation is that grass stores sugars created by photosynthesis during the day, and uses these sugars to continue growing at night. When the temperature drops into the 40ºF range, the grasses go dormant, and the sugars they contain aren’t utilized. That means sthe grass starts the next day with extra sugar. This sugar storage can accumulate for several days, with the grass growing sweeter each day.
I know people who, during these periods, feel confident restricting their horses to a “virtual dry lot” with extremely short grass that is almost too short to graze. This isn’t a good solution. It may sound odd, but that sparse, short grass is even higher in sugar than the long grass outside the fence. The shorter grass is trying desperately to survive, and produces abundant sugars to fuel its growth attempt. This is why horses will ignore a patch of tall, lush grass and instead crop down a clump of already short grass. If grass is stressed, it has a much higher sugar content.
When a horse has a sub-clinical laminitis attack, the hoof wall attachment to the coffin bone weakens. That weakening is initially visible when the sole’s attachment to the wall is inspected, because the “white line” begins to stretch, resulting in a crevice between the sole and the wall. The weakening white line allows the walls to bend and flex, and walls that are normally strong and straight begin to flare. When this occurs, the sole usually begins to appear flatter because the coffin bone is poorly attached.
Solution: These are mechanical cracks, and as in the case above, moisturizer will only weaken the wall further. The solution for cracks resulting from subclinical laminitis is to keep your horses off grass (or use a grazing muzzle) for at least a day immediately after cold spells, and keep a close eye on how much stressed (short and overgrazed) grass is available in their “dry lots”. It is also a good idea to re-evaluate your over-all feed program if you have horses on spring pasture, to eliminate unnecessary carbohydrates from grains, pellets and supplements.
3. Scarred walls and tubular deformities
When horses injure their coronet bands or walls, they frequently end up with a scarred hoof capsule, and the scar usually appears as a crack. These cracks are unsightly but typically don’t impact the horse’s soundness. They are scary looking, though, and the first thing people want to do is moisturize them! Again, moisture will weaken this crack and make it more inclined to spread further.
Solution: These cracks in dry hooves are unique, and each needs to be assessed and trimmed based on its individual characteristics. A good trim is essential, with the emphasis on balancing both sides of the crack and relieving pressure in a way that does not distort the balance of the hoof. A severe crack is intimidating to shoe or trim, and the area is usually allowed to overgrow because the assumption is that longer walls give the area more protection.
4. Multitude of surface cracks
Several times a year, I see walls that have lots of shallow vertical “cracks” that run along the tubules. Again, people want to moisturize them to protect the capsule from cracking into a million pieces. In fact, these “cracks” aren’t actually cracks; they are fissures in the coating of the hoof wall that contain yeast.
Solution: The best way to get rid of these is to use a rasp, sanding block, or wire brush to smooth the surface of the wall. Soaking the foot for a short period makes this easier.
Solution: Like our own cuticles on fingernails and toenails, this can be removed by rubbing with a rasp, a coarse rag, or a sanding block. A moisturizer will soften it so it is easier to remove – you can also wet the feet for the same effect.
6. Thin walls, weak walls and soles
When horses initially come out of shoes their feet can be very weak, with thin soles and walls that chip and peel easily. Once more, we tend to assume that the best thing we can do to encourage healing is apply a nutrient-rich moisturizer.
Solution: Moisturizers make these walls look better, but don’t affect the integrity of the wall. The best thing for weak hoof capsules is a good set of well-fitting hoof boots and pads, and as much exercise as the horse is comfortable with.
When is a moisturizer appropriate?
There are many instances in which moisturizing and/or soaking is beneficial to dry hooves:
a) In association with trimming: Several vegetable-based “moisturizing sprays” are available, and these are excellent for softening dry hooves and frogs prior to maintenance trims.
If a frog has a dense hard horn with a deep, tight, central sulcus, the easiest way to open the sulcus is to soak the frog or use a softener so that the abutting edges can be trimmed with a knife or nippers.
Soaking dry hooves in water also works well, but the commercial moisturizers seem to soften the wall faster. These moisturizers either evaporate or are absorbed by the wall in a short time, so they don’t have a detrimental effect, particularly when used on tough feet.
b) In association with hoof rehab: When hooves are transitioning from a shod or pathological condition to a healthy state, they often develop a false or retained sole and/or bars as part of the process. This sole and bar will begin to voluntarily shed at some point. Occasionally, I will encourage it to loosen by soaking the feet in an organic apple cider vinegar dilution, or use a disinfectant like Oxine or White Lightning to loosen and disinfect at the same time.
In addition to dry hooves, these products are also great for hoof infections, including thrush, white line disease, fungus and yeast. These products are also great for hoof infections that involve soaking the foot. A variety of other beneficial soaks utilize organic apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, oregano oil, usnea, and the list goes on. These soaks moisturize and soften the hoof short term, while cleansing, disinfecting, and balancing the pH of the foot.
If your horse’s hooves are dry or cracking, don’t panic! Early detection and resolution of dry hooves, with the aid of your trimmer, can often put a quick end to any issues.
Linda Cowles is a professional trimmer in Sonoma County, California. She is the author of www.HealthyHoof.com and is a founding member and Vice President of the American Hoof Association www.americanhoofassociation.org.