Health Issues with Rescue Horses


According to the Unwanted Horse Coalition, the number of neglected or abused horses increases every year. Which one of us hasn’t thought of “rescuing” a horse caught in circumstances beyond belief, and of taking him home to nourish him back to health and vigor? It is certainly not a project for the faint of heart, and requires much more than hope and love. The select few who have the courage, knowledge and resources to take on rescue horses – and to do so properly – are acutely aware of the associated challenges.

Rescue horses will almost always have hoof issues of some sort. Ever wonder why? We all know hooves are important. “No hoof, no horse”, right? But how many of us truly understand the complexities of the hoof’s function, and why achieving proper hoof mechanism and form is often the most difficult obstacle to overcome in a successful rehabilitation?

Basic hoof function
Beyond being simply a “foot” that provides traction, support and protection, each hoof plays a vital role in the horse’s circulatory system by acting as an auxiliary pump for the heart when the horse is in motion. As the hooves expand on weight bearing, nutrient rich blood from the heart is literally sucked into the hoof capsule and circulated through the growth coriums (the vascular blood supply to the internal hoof structures where new hoof horn is produced). It’s then shunted back out of the hoof and up the leg to the heart, when the foot is in flight.

The hooves also play a role similar to that of the liver and kidneys, metabolizing excess protein, certain waste products and toxins into hoof horn, thus eventually expelling minor toxins from the body through new hoof growth. So if proper hoof mechanism fails in even the slightest way, the overall health of the horse is directly affected. Proper recovery from starvation or neglect will be difficult to achieve if hoof issues – and more importantly, the underlying causes – are not addressed and corrected. More often than not, improper diet (too much and too rich being just as harmful as not enough) has played a substantial role in many hoof pathologies.

This is a crucial concern for anyone rehabilitating rescue horses. Any equine subjected to domestic abandonment or neglect is usually in some sort of metabolic distress. Great care must be taken to make slow changes in dietary intake, as well as in the approach to hoof care, to allow the body and hooves to heal accordingly.

It is highly recommended that you choose your rehabilitation hoof care professional with great care. Find one who has experience with chronic hoof issues, understands the full anatomical and biological function of the hoof, and is aware of the natural healing process. As with any profession, the more education and experience a practitioner has, the better equipped he or she will likely be to deal with exceptional cases that long term neglect can cause. Keep in mind that it may take a dedicated team of equine professionals carrying out a myriad of different types of treatment to help the whole horse (and therefore the hoof) return to a healthy state.

Getting started
Many rescue horses will exhibit an excessive amount of growth or a severely deformed capsule (usually through chronic laminitis or founder) that significantly affects their movement and comfort. Discretion and experience will dictate the best course of action for the horse, and most professionals will agree that gradual adjustments are necessary to best facilitate healing. But trims can – and usually do – occur much more frequently. Since inflamed regions of the corium have a higher metabolic activity, which results in more active growth, more frequent trims are usually required in rehab cases. Many practitioners will actually trim severe cases every few days in order to stay on top of the growth and maintain balance and function.

All healing requires adequate blood circulation to bring fresh nutrients to the area and replace damaged cells. Inflammation and pain are often the result of this process, as are frequent abscesses during the initial stages as the body tries to get rid of dead corium material. To expect the horse to be completely pain-free during a major healing or rehabilitation is unrealistic.

Treatment and healing
Since movement is arguably the most important element of natural holistic healing, rescue horses must be as comfortable as possible in order to want to move. You must find the balance between appropriate pain management and setting the stage for significant healing. Be wary of conventional pain killers that simply mask the inflammation instead of addressing the cause. Keep in mind that pain is actually an effective regulator, naturally providing a way to keep a horse’s movement within his physiological limits during the healing process. Therapeutic hoof boot and pad combinations can offer a healing horse some comfort yet allow the natural hoof mechanism to do its work.

Pain so severe that a horse will not move is detrimental to rehabilitation. When used within reason, a chemical painkiller can make all the difference in the horse’s spirit and therefore aid his initial healing. There is growing evidence, however, that long term use of phenylbutazone (“bute”) does more harm than good. It upsets the natural balance of enzymes in the horse’s hindgut, causes ulceration of the stomach lining, and inhibits hoof healing by enabling further degeneration of the lamina (connective tissue) through the proliferation of digestive toxins reaching the hoof. Remember, the hoof is a metabolic organ, and does not need to deal with added toxins in its system as it tries to heal! It is best to wean the horse off any chemical painkillers as soon as humanely possible and try to manage the pain homeopathically.

Providing healing rescue horses with an appropriate herd mate in the same paddock to encourage movement and social interaction is often an undervalued healing tool. It will offer the horse a “reason to live”, and fulfill physiological and behavioral needs, setting the stage for an easier recovery.

How long will it take ? Be prepared for the entire process to take a long time. A lot depends on the nature of the original pathology or concern, the quality of the rehabilitation trimming methods, the original state of the horse’s health, and most importantly, careful attention to the diet and environment. Be aware that hoof pathologies cannot simply be trimmed, shod or medicated to health, and often require a drastic departure from traditional feeding practices in order to fully take effect.

The exact role of the relation of diet and hoof health is beyond the scope of this article, but it must be noted that it is a major factor that will determine the level and speed of recovery. With the implementation of a proper nutritional program to support strong connective tissues within the hoof capsule, minor hoof deformation and impaired mechanism can often be dealt with in a few weeks or months with the skill of a qualified practitioner. Where bone ossification or deterioration or tissue necrosis are significant, it can take months to years. The average hoof growth cycle (the time it takes for a horse to re-grow a new hoof from the coronet down to the ground) is usually around eight to 12 months. In a compromised state, this growth can take a year or two, sometimes more – with the hoof often changing shape several times during the healing process – to finally arrive at a properly functioning foot. For recovered horses and their caretakers, the months of rehabilitation speak for themselves.

Holistic approaches to hoof management and care of rescue horses can often provide relief and healing where other methods fail. Some rescue horses may always exhibit some form of hoof ailment, but they have an incredible capacity for healing and adapting. If we have the courage to trust in the healing power of nature, the knowledge to address the initial cause of the overall ailment, and the resources and education to dedicate to the healing process, then love and nourishment can very well do the rest.

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