The digital cushion is a major component of the circulation and shock dissipation apparatus of the horse’s digit. It is a elastic, wedge shaped mass composed of a fibrous fatty tissue that has the consistency varying between your earlobe and nose depending on it’s health. Ideally, the digital cushion takes up the majority of the rear 1/2 of the hoof. It’s nestled underneath the deep flexor tendon, between the lateral cartilages, and above the frog. The DC can be felt by pressing between the bulbs of the heel.
The DC has sheet like ligaments that stretch from one lateral cartilage to the one opposite, allowing for independent movement of the sides of the foot. The digital tarus, part of the DC, originates from the underside of the coffin bone and deep digital flexor tendon and sends bands of fibrous tissue toward the heels creating a a biologic lattice for the vasculature of the back half of the foot. There are also a series of trampoline-like ligaments traversing the inner surface of the frog, facilitating it’s expansion and contraction.
Horses have many ways to dissipate the concussion of moving at speed. One way is by hemo-dynamic shock absorption in which the digital cushion plays an integral part. Let me explain:
During the swing phase of stride, blood is pulled into the extremities via centrifugal force. Upon the hoof landing, the fetlock descends. This drop causes the veins to close, trapping the blood within the hoof and dissipating shock like a waterbed. Much of this trapped blood is in the matrix of tiny veins and capillaries running amongst the sub structures of the DC. As the horse passes over the hoof, the fetlock rises and the blood-way is open. This built up pressure then shoots the de-oxygenated blood back up the leg, returned to the body and heart.
It is important for the horseman to know that there is a wide range of variability when comparing DC between good and weaker footed horses. In a strong hoof, the ligaments of the DC are much thicker and the digital tarsus will have numerous fibrous connections . The reasons for this are thought to be due to the presence of a highly adaptable myxoid tissue in the region. Myxoid tissue is very adaptable and can become fibrous or cartilage. It is thought that the environment and how the foot is trimmed and/or shod can contribute to the makings of a robust foot.
Util recently, most discussions on hoof lameness were limited to deterioration or injury to the navicular bone, coffin bone, the deep flexor tendon, the navicular bursa, distal sesmodian (collateral) ligaments or the coffin joint capsule itself.
It is my belief that these structures are often damaged due to lack of a properly functioning digital cushion. Further, I believe that much of the objective of best farriery practices is to be aware of the health of this underrated structure. In my practical experience I have come to believe that digital cushion is very adaptable, even in mature horses or ones with already compromised hooves, Horses that are well managed with plenty of exercise over varied terrain and shod or trimmed in a balanced manner will tend to have a more fibrous DC than horses that are kept up and not shod or trimmed well.
White Line Disease: Progression and Identification
White linedisease describes the result of an establishment of hoof eating micro-organisms within the hoof wall, usually concurrent with another hoof defect, imbalance or injury where the microbes gain entry. WLD feeds on the intertubular horn which fill the tiny voids between the strands of horn tubules. Affected areas begin as areas of wall/sole seperation. Untreated, these voids fill with the digested hoof material, manure and other debris combine creating ideal conditions for the proliferation of the microbes and more hoof loss
This article attempts help horse caretakers understand and identify white line disease in horses.
Tubular and Intertubular Horn
The hoof wall is composed of countless whisker-like horn tubules. These horn tubules are constantly produced at the coronary band by the horn papillae. Horn tubules provide structure, shape and resistance to vertical compression of the horse above. Intertubular horn is also constantly emerging from the coronary band, but from in the spaces between the horn papillae. Intertubular horn fills the gaps between all of the individual strands of horn providing cohesive stability, resistance to wear, and mass to the hoof wall. Both components are made the same keratinized horn material, but this matrix gives the hoof great strength while remaining flexible.
How White Line Disease Affects the Hoof
Many horses have a small degree of WLD , especially horses in wet environments. Any defect to the hoof wall not open to air flow such as nail holes or old abscess tracts will be prone to WLD invasion.
Grass cracks, named for the dewy fields that can lead to chronically overly wet hooves, describe numerous, small, superficial splits caused by the erosion of the binding intertubular horn beneath the surface of the wall from white line disease. Like grass, they start from the bottom and progress upwards. The loss of intertubular horn is what causes this delamination of the hoof wall and the weakened areas to fray and split.
Premature Loose Shoes and Clinches Due to WLD
Horseshoe nails, especially loose or ill-fitting can exacerbate WLD. When the wall looses it’s intertubular horn, it loses stability. The damaged wall near the shoe is the most damaged and will not resist vertical compression. Instead of growing down, it will flare out to the side. This causes the clinches to loosen. Loose nails move with each step, enlarging the nail holes, leaving even more weakened hoof for WLD to homestead. Clipped shoes that are nothot fit will also cause this sort of damage because WLD will invade the tiny crack between hoof wall and clip.
A toe crack will originate from the center of the toe where the WLD first gains entry. The weakness can be from an old abscess, laminitis, clubby foot, excessive length of toe or from an inherent weakness in some hooves associated with the mid-dorsal notch of the coffin bone.
If the hoof is not returned to a state of balance and the WLD isn’t addressed with methods I will cover a future article, the crack will get larger.
Until you have a full thickness crack extending upwards into the coronary band and inwards towards the laminae. This shearing will cause lameness and even rotation of the coffin bone similar to laminitis.
White line disease is a very common condition in horses, especially those that already have compromised hooves. Horses with WLD are easy to spot due to the predictable progression of these hoof-hungry microbes. Fortunately, most cases can be improved with best farrier practices, more frequent trimming/shoeing and environmental changes. I hope to share my thoughts and methods for the management of white line disease in an upcoming article, so please like, subscribe for updates.
When asked how to treat hoof abscess, I recommend using an Animalintex hoof pack to draw the infection from the hoof capsule. Abscesses will usually resolve themselves given enough time, however, it is far better to be proactive because:
The hoof abscess will usually resolve quickly if the abscess is poulticed and drained.
The poulticed abscess is more likely to be drawn out through the ground bearing surface. If left to resolve itself, an abscess will generally blow out the coronary band. An abscess venting through the top of the coronary band damages the entire hoof.
Animalintex packs are the most convenient way to draw the pus to the surface to using an isotonic solution. It is preferable to the traditional “hoof soaks” which call for repeated, lengthy immersions of the whole foot because:
multiple hoof soakings water logs the foot. This will compromise the already weakened foot. Using a warm, damp poultice is a better alternative than repeated, lengthy soaks.
The pack can be left on for 24 hours at a time.
Getting a horse to stand in a soak is difficult unless you have a special boot.
If the abscess does drain, it will be evident if the spent hoof pack is inspected.
If Animalintex is not available, one part epsom salt and two parts wheat bran moistened with warm water and using a diaper as a vessel is a time tested alternative.
I do not think that ichthammol is a good medication for hoof abscesses at all. It contains formaldehyde which hardens the hoof wall, making it more likely the abscess will vent through the skin at the coronary band. Again, it is much more desirable to get the abscess to vent through the bottom of the hoof. Also, it’s tarry texture and strong smell will make it impossible to tell if you have drawn the abscess out.
Elizabeth’s abscess poultice method:
1. Make a hoof-sized hash tag of tape
This will serve as the protective outer shell. Gently place this near where your lame horse is for use later.
2. Cut a hoof sized piece of the Animalintex
Animalintex comes in squares and hoof shaped pieces. I think the square is the better value.
3. Dampen the Animalintex with warm water.
Don’t wet it too much or you will wash out the medicine! The moistened Animalintex pad clings to the foot making the pack easier to put on.
4. Don’t medicate the dirt! Clean the foot thoroughly with the wire brush.5. Place the t Animalintex on hoof.
If you have determined that the abscess is in a specific area of the foot such as heel or toe, center the poultice over that area. If unsure, use a big piece.
6. Use Elastikon or Vet-wrap to secure the wet Animalintex.
Elastikon is more expensive because it is better.
I alternate catching the heels in a figure eight pattern and circling the perimeter of the hoof. Be careful to keep tight bandages on the hoof only. The bandage needs to be snug or it will fall off. Make sure you get a snug pull when you figure eight the heels to the toe.
7. Place duct tape square over foot and form to fit. 8. Finish by circling foot with more duct tape and put leg down.
9. Clean up edges with knife or scissors and make CERTAIN that this pack does not come above hairline to avoid cutting off the circulation to the foot.
10. Put a call in to your veterinarian, let them know you have a horse with a possible abscess.
Some vets and farriers like to cut a big hole in the hoof searching out the abscess. I do not care for this practice as
More often than not, they do not find the abscess because it is still too deep in the hoof. It is better to continue to poultice until the pus is drawn just below the surface.
Now the horse has a foot wound in addition to the abscess. This horse now requires weeks of stall rest and bandaging as his delicate sensitive hoof and possibly bone are now exposed to the environment.
An experienced hoof person can look and palpate the hoof and have a pretty good idea of where the “track” is. The track is the spot in the hoof where the original breach of the hoof capsule occurred and an excellent place to drain it. It is best to wait until only the slightest nick allows the pus to be expressed. I prefer allowing more time and poulticing to invading the hoof capsule in search of an abscess. It is usually not necessary to whittle the hoof until it bleeds.
Once the abscess is vented and drained , the horse will become noticeably less miserable and will continue to become more comfortable. I recommend flushing the tract with hydrogen peroxide and iodine. There may be some residual foot soreness because the hoof has been traumatized. This should steadily improve until the previous level of soundness is achieved
When the horse is non reactive to reasonable palpation of the affected area, the shoe may be reapplied and the horse may be gradually returned to work.
Hopefully “How to treat hoof abscesses in horses” helps you in your hoof care endeavors. For more information on the causes of abscessing, including information on horses with chronic hoof abscess check out Hoof Abscesses; symptoms and causes.
As a kid riding lesson horses first and then grooming and exercising privately owned horses for lesson money. I got pretty far without knowing much about horse hoof care other than to always pick the hooves before and after riding.There were a lot of boring hoof products my horsey catalogs that I didn’t understand. I figured some horses had good feet, some horses had Navicular disease.
I did like those bell boots with the interchangeable colors a lot. Maybe dramatic foreshadowing?? Farriers love bell boots.
Farrier science takes years of study and thousands of feet in your lap to really wrap your head around how they respond to trimming, shoeing, time, the environment, management, use, etc..
The hoof is so perfect, it seems simple at first glance. It is anything but.
This simple appearance is a source of many misconceptions. What seems like the obvious answer to an otherwise seasoned horse person, or sometimes fellow shoer, is not actually correct once the true complexity of the hoof is considered.
Here are a few examples:
1. Some horses just have good feet.
There are horses born with good feet, however, usually have some other things in common other than the prized, high quality hoof wall. Often good feet reflect of other nice things about the animal or where he lives.
Horses with legs that are mostly straight with hooves pointing in the same general direction will wear their feet evenly and be free of distortions like dished toes and flares
Horses with cupped hooves
Horses that are in dry environments
Being related to other horses with good feet, intended or otherwise
There are also animals with not so great feet. This is not necessarily because they have actual “bad hooves”, it can be a result of one or a combination of factors.
Horses with conformation that causes them to paddle, rope walk, drag a toe, stab, be lame, etc will wear unevenly. Without the regular intervention of a conscientious farrier one side will get wore to a nub while the other side grows long and flares outward.
Horseshoeing or trimming by an unqualified or careless farrier can cause problems, especially if the same mistake is repeatedly made.
Hoof left not level or not trimmed often enough. The hoof will flare on longer.
Shoe doesn’t fit foot or left on too long. This causes corns or bruising of heels.
Shoe doesn’t fit, or left on too long. The nails waller out hoof wall of an loose shoe. Excessive nails.
Excessively wet environments are very detrimental to hoof quality.
Repeated shoe loss
Horses with sloping pasterns and low heel angle conformation
Nails behind the widest point of the foot restrict hoof function. This can lead to or exacerbate chronic hoof problems.
Horses that I would classify as having truly “bad feet” may have issues such as club foot, chronic laminitis, horses with “no heel”, and or moderate to severe white line disease. Feet like this have weaker or distorted hoof due to pathologies in the hoof capsule. This will require more frequent visits from a farrier with experience in managing imbalances and management of their environment.
Fortunately, even horses with compromised and diseased hooves can improve when hoof care is a priority.
My best advice is to be proactive and get your horses feet done before they look overdue and evaluate management practices in regard to the daily care and conditions. A step such as waiting until the dew has dried from a grassy field to turn out a horse would be a good example of this.
If your horse has distressed looking feet that are not improving and you are not getting a satisfactory answer of why, just like in other aspects in life, it may be time to try a different approach.
2. Feeding supplements will cure my horse’s feet.
I do not recommend hoof supplements until all other balance, management and environmental issues have been resolved. Horses with bad feet have normal levels of biotin in their blood. Despite what you may have heard, there is little evidence that supports that they have a significant impact on hoof growth or quality. These products cost well over $1 per day and there are valid, industry-wide concerns about the lack of regulation in the supplement industry. There have been recent allegations by scientists claiming these products do containing any evidence of containing what the label promises.
Biotin is he main ingredient touted by the supplement makers to promote hoof growth and it is required for not only hoof growth. It is required by every cell in the body. What no one ever mentions is that biotin deficiency is extremely rare. It is found in oats, hay and grass which is what most horses eat anyway. If you are feeding quality horse food, you should be fine.
Also, because hoof grows so slowly, it will take more than a year’s worth of supplementation to see the purported “results” that the supplement makers promise. I would like to suggest that it is more likely that improvements in the horses environment, management and farrier work is what leads to better looking hooves.
It is possible that since there are products that are touting other ingredients not as present as biotin in the equine diet. This may be of real benefit to some horses, I am not a nutritionist. People seem to really like to feed the hoof supplements for the right reasons. They want to avoid or remedy a nasty hoof problem, and of course I do too. I don’t think it is possible to “supplement” your way out of the majority of the hoof problems I come across.
The efforts and resources need to go into good shoeing and management first.
3. Judging the quality of a shoeing job by how long the shoes stay on.
No one likes a lost shoe, but losing shoes is a part of shoeing horses well. The best way to never have to go back and replace lost shoes is to use a shoe that is too small for the foot.
I was reading an olden time farrier book that has all horses on a 3-4 week cycle and going any longer was asking for trouble. Those people needed those animals so they did what it took, that may be the case with some today.
A properly fit horseshoe is going to be slightly larger than the horse’s hoof, especially in the heel area. The hoof repeatedly expands as it strikes the ground, supporting the horse and rider then contracts as the hoof is picked up. The shoe must be fit to accommodate both phases.
Although this extra lip of shoe is needed to avoid heel pain, it is more likely to get pulled than one that is too small. Fortunately, an expertly applied shoe should come off without damaging the wall.
Using a hoof gauge to determine toe and heel length
A hoof gauge is a protractor for the hoof that measures the toe angle in relation to. Mathematically, the correct answer would be “not enough information”. No two horses are alike it is not possible to determine optimal balance without first addressing the animal.
I have worked for many nationally respected farriers and have attended many continuing education clinics and none give any credence to this measurement that seems so important to some people.
Toe angle is important in the way the hoof relates to the limb and the horse’s conformation, not the ground, which is what the gauge is measuring.
The hoof angle should match the angle of the pastern. The length of the pastern will dictate the hoof angle and no farrier can change the conformation of your horse, nor is it a good idea to try.
5. Don’t touch the heel!
The heel should be brought back to the widest point of the frog. Attempting to make the toe steeper by leaving the heel sounds like a good idea, but since the hoof grows forward and down, this practice is detrimental to the health and proper functioning of the foot.
6. Using topical products to “fix” imbalance issues.
There are many premade hoof dressings on the the market and many more old-timey recipes that people claim will heal hoof cracks, grow hoof fast and cure what ails your horses troubled soles.
Hoof dressings can enhance the water repellency of hooves in some environments. It may help with some fungal/bacterial invasions as the ingredients usually contain some kind disinfectant like pine tar.*
Topical dressings do not grow new hoof or do anything to heal the sensitive structures within the hoof capsule no matter what they claim.**The hoof is dead, it is not possible for it to heal, it only possible to create conditions where it will be eventually replaced with undamaged horn.
*Horses with cracks in their hooves are very common in the Southeast that is related to year round wet/dry conditions that is hard on all of us. It is usually a white line disease related problem and needs a farrier with experience to debride affected horn. I do recommend antifungal topicals to fight fungal and bacterial invasions of the hoof wall.
**I do think hoof poultices are helpful to help with inflammation and isotonic soaks/packs to draw infections from the hoof, See this for more.
Thanks for reading my blog, please spread the word. If you have any questions about consultations on your horse or general hoof care questions you would like to see my take on, feel free to contact me here.
I can remember being very nervous the first time I fit a hot shoe to a live horse. The combination of hot metal, sharp tools and live horses seemed risky, surely there was good reason. Why do some farriers hot shoe and others opt out from all the smoke and flame?
In my schooling, apprenticeships and first years on my own I almost exclusively hot shod. About five years in, I became involved with the thoroughbred racing and breeding industry. For a variety of good reasons explained later, most race stock, especially, the sales yearlings, and horses in training and racing are shod cold.
I have shod horses well with and without the use of the forge. One way isn’t inherently better for every situation, but having a choice lets me bring more options to my clients.
The benefits of hot shoeing
1. Hot metal is more malleable
Heating the metal prior to trying to change its shape is like letting the butter defrost before serving it with rolls. The metal is much easier to work with; the bends and dimensions can be controlled with a much greater degree of precision when the steel is red hot. If the horse needs a shoe with any sort of modification, ( ex. rocker toe) hot shoeing is in order.
2. Create a perfectly level hoof
A perfectly level foot will hold a shoe much better than one that is almost level. Imagine a table that isn’t exactly level, and the wobble just a fraction of an inch creates. It’s the same thing with the shoe except you can’t fix it with a coaster.
If the foot or shoe isn’t level, it’s obvious, if you are hot shoeing.
3. The ability to “hot fit”
When I set the hot shoe onto the hoof, a.k.a. “hot fit,” about 1/8″ of horn is melted. This creates a perfect marriage of hoof and shoe. The hot shoe has evened-out any variation in the hoof wall and creates a gasket like seal with the shoe.
4. Clips work best when “hot fit”
I like to use clips on most horses. Nails are a necessary evil that damage the hoof wall, to some degree, no matter how skilled the farrier. Clips help secure the shoe and help reduce the stress on the nails and the hoof.
Hot fitting, clipped shoes create a divot that locks the shoe in place.
The case for cold shoeing
Some shoes are not made to be heated up and doing so could be dangerous. The shoes worn by the majority of thoroughbred racehorses become very brittle when heated, and could easily break under the weight of the horse.
Hot shoeing may not be practical. Some clients may not want the fire risk involved with hot shoeing. Having any kind of open flame in a barn setting requires safety precautions. If a horse must be worked on in a stall or if the barn is littered with hay, I would rather not take the risk of introducing a flame or red-hot metal.
With cold shoeing, the farrier is more nimble and able to service horses without as much equipment. A skilled farrier should be able to level and fit most shoes accurately, without the luxury of a mobile shop.
Lastly, some horses are “non-smokers.” Some horses may come completely unglued by the sights, sounds and smells of hot-shoeing, even though, the process is painless. The hoof is an excellent insulator. Tests have shown that the heat used for hot-shoeing does not harm or involve live tissue, however, some horses still take issue with the process.
In conclusion, there are as many ways to shoe a horse as there are farriers. I hope hot shoeing versus cold shoeing has answered some questions you haven’t had the opportunity to ask or given some insight of the possibilities of more advanced hoof care. As long as attention as been paid to fit, form and function the end result will be a well-shod horse.
Don’t forget the number one cause of lost shoes is not following Elizabeth’s Farrier Service via your social network of choice.
I love being able to have choices when selecting the shoe for the horse in front of me. I carry different versions of each size of shoe in order to truly customize the job depending on the horse’s individual needs. How does a farrier or horse owner chose the most appropriate footwear for a particular horse? To have this discussion let’s talk about the terms farriers use when describing a shoe.
Size: The most obvious, big hooves = big shoes and vice versa. Using too small of shoe is a sure way to rob a horse of years of productivity, one that is too big is more likely to get pulled off, possibly damaging the hoof, and inconvenience everyone involved.
Usually the small horseshoes are labeled “0” or “00” and pronounced “ought” or “double ought” in reverence of the old fashioned word for zero . I have seen as small as “four ought”. Shoes larger than “0” will be labeled 1,2,3….
Just like any shoe shopping experience, there is no universal system for shoe sizing. Not only is there huge variation in comparing different brands take on what a size one is, but there are completely different systems especially if you are using European shoes, racing or polo shoes.
Material Most commonly cast or machined from mild steel or aluminum. Steel is more durable, easily worked in the forge and less expensive. Aluminum shoes are much lighter, able to be applied with glue and available in many styles for therapeutic applications.
The market for shoes made of even less traditional materials like plastic, rubber and fiberglass or the combination of seems to be growing. I’m sure as 3D printing becomes more accessible, choices will continue to increase.
Web size describes the dimensions of the metal used to make the shoe. Narrow webbed shoes will sink into the earth easier and give a better grip. Wider ones will float the foot over soft footing, provide a more rigid support, more protection and allow for more slide. A wide webbed also offers more surface area to distribute the horses weight which better mimics the barefoot horse.
Weight of shoe: the heavier shoe the higher the arc of stride, the lighter the lower.
Traction devices: the shoe can have modifications to limit the sliding of the hoof. A harder metal (tungsten carbide, tool steel, borium) can be attached to the shoe by brazing or welding that allows the animal to be used on pavement. Calks can be built into the shoe or holes can be drilled and tapped to accommodate screw in studs that can be changed by the rider to suit the going.
Plain shoes give less traction than the barefoot so it is very common for those shoes to have a grove (farriers would called this a “fullered” shoe as the tool used to make the crease is called a fuller). in the ground bearing surface to break up the surface area to prevent the horse from slipping under normal circumstances. The fullering also allows nails to be removed one at a time.
Reining horses are often fit with plates that increase the slide phase of stride.
It is imperative to understand the perils of over-using traction devices as it can negatively effect the shock absorbing mechanisms built into the horse’s limb, especially on young stock. The animals caretakers need to know which horses have special shoes as they can injure themselves and others without proper precautions.
Therapeutic shoes: Heart, egg, and straight bar shoes are available off the rack. Shoes with enhanced breakover built into the toe as well as ones with elevation built into the heel can help horses with some types of injury or disease.
Those are the most common ways to classify horse shoes. I am sure that I missed some, especially now as it seems that there are new brands coming out all of the time. I believe in keeping things simple and mostly shoe with a steel clipped medium-wide webbed shoe until there is a reason to use something else. When an exception comes along it is great to have all of these options to chose from.
There are a few factors that you should take into account when determining the hoof care needs of and individual. Ask yourself:
What are you going to do with this horse?
A lot of times the answer is not much. If the horse is going to be used lightly on easy footing like sand or grass, the horse may be fine shoeless. On the other hand, if your plans include extensive trail riding or the footing you have is abrasive, I would recommend having some hoof protection.
Competition horses benefit from horseshoes because of the increased traction can give an edge to the horse. In horse racing, shoeing choices are made known so the bettors will have more information to base their wagering decisions on.
People who show or ride their horses away from home may need shoes as the venues may have unpredictable footing.
What is the quality of the horn?
The hoof wall is made of horn. The horn can be thought of as lots of tiny “straws” starting at the top of the hoof and growing towards the ground. Horses with horn that grows pretty much straight, without flaring (“platter foot”) or bending at the heels (“crushed heels”) are candidates for barefoot.
This is not a static state either, once hoof imbalances are addressed and a new growth pattern is established by a few cycles of timely shoeing the barefoot option may be asked again. A goal of mine when shoeing any horse is bringing the foot to equilibrium with or without shoes.
Horses of all breeds can be successfully kept barefoot but ponies, gaited horses, drafts, appaloosas, paint and mixed breed horses usually have inherently good hoof quality.
Is growth exceeding wear?
If the horse grows two nipper round of hoof in four weeks, it may not get them nailed back on. The hoof is excellent and gives excellent traction on a variety of surfaces. A horse like this may be able to perform at high levels without shoes.
Does the horse have a condition that the shoes help alleviate?
Therapeutic horseshoes can be of great value to the unsound animal. Veterinarians will recommend shoeing protocols designed to help the limb function more normally. Wedge heels can decrease pull from certain tendons, leather pads can protect a thin-soled foot and modifications to a basic shoe will help ease breakover (the phase of stride where the foot rolls off the ground). Good horseshoeing can enhance performance.
Some horses will transition without missing a beat when taken out of shoes, some will require a little time to get used to it especially while the old nail holes grow down. Most performance horses need shoes because of the demands upon them.
I recommend evaluating your current situation and discussing the options with your farrier or hoofcare provider.