Hoof bruises can look alarming, but may not be a reason to worry.
The equine hoof is a marvelous piece of anatomy. It is made to withstand the horse’s weight and let him live his life. In short, hooves are meant to take a real beating. From time to time, we see evidence of what is known as a “hoof bruise”. It can occur anywhere on the hoof wall, sole, heel, bars, tip of the frog, or near the white line, making it appear pink or bloody. Hoof bruises are generally more noticeable on lighter hooves, but that does not mean light hooves are more prone to bruising. Let’s look at what you need to consider when you see the discoloration of bruising.
What’s in a bruise?
Hoof bruises are usually a sign that something has or is happening with the hoof. It can mean there has been a trauma. It can mean that part of the hoof wall is too long, creating pressure in a specific area. It can also mean that the heels are too high or the bars are laid over. We may never really discover the full reason for bruising, but one thing is certain – hoof bruising is usually not serious. In fact, it is the least serious of all external hoof problems and horses are rarely lame from bruises. We can equate a bruise in a horse to a bruise in humans. While we see evidence in the form of discoloration, and may have some mild tenderness at the site, it rarely stops us from doing what we do. In some rare cases, hoof bruises can be severe and can lead to other problems, but this is not common.
An Ounce of Prevention
So what do we do about hoof bruises and when, if ever, do we need to address them? Let me begin by saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Keeping your horse well-nourished on good forage, providing plenty of turnout (ideally 24/7), and giving him regular balanced barefoot trims will optimize his ability to cope with minor injuries such as bruises. If he does take part in some typical horseplay with his herd mates, or steps on something that might make him flinch, he is best prepared for recovery if he is generally in good shape to start with.
Symptom of a Bigger Issue
At times, I have customers tell me their horses have been bruised by walking on gravel or stones. I can say that dramatic changes in surfaces can cause some tenderness; it is important to acclimate your horse to new surfaces at times. But I also often consider that the horse might have an early or low grade inflammation or laminitis, or a thin sole, rather than bruising. Hooves are pretty darned tough and withstand a lot of concussion and different surfaces. In such cases, the bruises may be a symptom rather than the actual problem.
Why Hoof Bruises Develop
As a barefoot trim specialist, I am generally not too concerned about bruises on the bottom of a hoof. I trim normally and only respond to areas that seem mushy or wet. These are often abscesses rather than bruises, though they may initially just seem to be areas of discoloration. As I noted before, bruises on the hoof wall may mean there is an area of too much pressure or leverage. Hooves don’t grow symmetrically at times and this can be the result. I equate this to fingernails – you may cut them into a nice even curve, but they will not continue to hold that same shape as they grow. And wear and tear may chip them or ding them up. The horse’s hoof is no different. That is why regular trims help.
One other point of interest is that bruising might not appear immediately after the injury or occurrence. In some cases, hoof bruises develop slowly (such as with a long hoof wall). Just as we don’t see a bruise immediately if we sustain an injury, the horse may not show the bruise for days or even longer, especially in cases of hoof wall bruising. This can make the cause of the bruise elusive.
To Treat or not to Treat
Understanding that treatment is generally not needed, and recognizing that lameness may be a sign of inflammation or early laminitis rather than bruising, are key points. I often have customers who feel that shoes are the answer to bruising. Shoes generally do not improve things. Hooves can still bruise when shod, and in fact, the shod hoof is less flexible and less able to function normally, making bruising no less likely.
Hoof boots are an alternative for dramatic surface changes with no time for transition or preparation. They are also useful for sudden “bursts” in riding time. There are many makes and models of boots that can do the job. But once again, I stress that horses that suffer lameness are often responding to something more than bruising.
If your horse is lame and we determine that inflammation is the culprit, we will treat for the root cause. Understand that treatment is not for bruising from walking on gravel or stones. It is, instead, for the inflammation or early laminitis. This is why it is important to report lameness early.
There is no doubt that a vividly colored hoof bruise can be alarming. They are rarely nearly as serious as they might first appear. Consult with your farrier and be prepared to report any other signs of injury (puncture wound, swelling of leg, etc.) as well as any associated lameness. The reassuring thing is that hooves are generally pretty resilient structures and can withstand the rigors of day-to-day use and minor injury.
Sherri Pennanen is the owner of Better Be Barefoot Natural Trim, Rehabilitation, and Education Center in Lockport, NY. She has been certified as a natural trim specialist for almost 20 years and has over 45 years of horse experience. She is committed to herd-based living for horses in a chemical-free environment. betterbebarefoot.com