Maybe your horse seems a little “ouchy,” going a bit short-strided over firm footing. Or perhaps he’s been perfectly fine on most trails, but a little gimpy over rocky stretches. Or maybe nothing seemed to be amiss until your regular farriery visit, when paring down your horse’s sole revealed a purplish-red spot: a bruise to the sole, often called a stone bruise.
Your horse’s hooves may seem sturdy and unyielding, but they are more vulnerable than you might think. “Many people tend to think the foot is harder and stronger than it actually is,” says Julie Bullock, DVM, a veterinary podiatrist based in Huddleston, Virginia. “The foot is a living, flexible structure; the sole and wall have some give, to expand and contract. The hoof is well designed to withstand the forces of concussion and trauma, but it can still be injured by too much impact.”
By the time a hoof bruise is visible on the sole, weeks or months have passed since trauma of some sort---from rocky ground, a sharp stone or the like---ruptured a small blood vessel in the foot, leading to a pocket of bleeding within its soft tissues. (A pocket of pus trapped within hoof tissues is called an abscess, which can be a sequel to an injury that also causes bruising but is a separate physiological process that requires a different approach to diagnosis and treatment; see page 52.)
Mike Pownall, DVM, of McKee-Pownall Equine Services in Campbell-ville, Ontario, likens the bruising process to what you might experience if you walk barefoot over stony ground: “If you are walking on hard ground and step on a rock just wrong, it will cause trauma. When a very hard object meets a softer object---the sole of the foot---something is going to give. This causes bruising in the horse’s sole, which is disruption of blood vessels along with inflammation and pressure buildup inside the foot. This causes pain.”
Depending on the depth and extent of the bruising, the result may be mild to severe lameness. Most bruises heal on their own as the sole and hoof wall grow out; more extensive injuries may require rest and attentive care.
Occasional hoof bruises are inevitable, but if they become a regular occurrence, it’s important to look for the reasons why. Multiple factors, including hoof conformation, local terrain and shoeing problems, can predispose a horse to chronic bruising, and you’ll want to take steps to help keep his feet safe, healthy, strong and sound. Here’s what you need to know.
Between a rock and a hard place
The most common cause of hoof bruises is traveling at speed over hard, rocky terrain. But they occur on other types of footing as well. “On the East Coast, bruising is more prevalent in wet weather because the foot is softer; the sole tends to thin a bit and not be as strong,” says Paul Goodness, CJF, a senior member of Forging Ahead, a group farriery practice based in Round Hill, Virginia. “Also, the ground is softer, and the hoof sinks farther into the dirt and may encounter a rock. So we see more bruises during late winter and spring.”
Gail Conway, DVM, who practices in Comanche, Texas, has observed similar mud-related problems. “I’ve seen a fair number of cases where horses got along fine on rocky ground, but if it was muddy and rocky they were more apt to have problems, he says. “They might get mud packed in the foot, and a rock gets stuck in there and keeps pounding the foot until the rock is taken out.”
Nor does winter offer a respite from hoof bruising risks. “When the mud freezes there are lumps and bumps, and these can cause bruising if the horse steps wrong,” says Bullock.
“Many people pull their horse’s shoes for winter when they are not going to ride, then they trim the feet short and don’t allow time for the sole to toughen up before the ground freezes or leave enough foot to protect it from sharp ice and frozen lumps.”
In addition, says Pownall, “Horses with shoes sometimes get snowballs building up in the feet if they don’t have the right kind of pads to prevent snow buildup, and when those snowballs freeze the horse is walking on blocks of ice. This can cause bruising. When the feet are trimmed in the spring, you can see the whole sole is inflamed and red, and you know the horse had a big snowball in the foot that was putting pressure on the sole for a long time.”
Susceptibility to stone bruises varies among individuals as well. Just like every other part of his body, the thickness of a horse’s soles will depend, at least in part, on his genes. “Some horses can’t grow a thick sole, no matter how you protect it,” says Goodness. “If that individual horse has a sole that’s only going to be one and a half centimeters thick, you can’t make it thicker.”
Other factors that can predispose a horse to bruising include an upright or flat-footed hoof conformation and farriery issues such as unbalanced trims, overdue shoeing and the use of toe grabs, borium and other devices that increase stresses on the foot.
The tales that bruises can tell
The occasional hoof bruise is inevitable, but those that recur again and again in the same area of the foot indicate chronic stresses, imbalances or other problems that need to be addressed. If your horse has frequent hoof bruises, especially if the discoloration often appears in the same spot, talk to your veterinarian or farrier about the potential causes so you can find ways to ease the stresses before more serious injury occurs. The location of the recurring bruises offers clues to the cause of the problem:
• Heel and bar area. Bruises in the back of the sole, where the hoof wall meets the bars, are commonly called “corns.” The stresses that can cause corns include upright or pinched heels that cause the horse to bear too much weight on the sensitive tissues at the back of the hoof. Another potential cause is the pressure of shoes that are left on too long, so that the growing hoof wall pulls the heels of the shoe forward over the sole. Delayed breakover caused by a too-long toe, which causes extra leverage that pulls on the laminae near the heel, can also cause corns.
• Tip of the frog. Bruising that occurs repeatedly around the front of the frog develops under downward pressure from the coffin bone. This type of bruising is more common in horses who work too hard on firm ground as well as in those with long toes.
• White line. A thin red bruise that appears in an otherwise healthy white line indicates some leakage of blood from the sensitive laminae, the tissues that connect the leading edge of the coffin bone to the interior of the hoof wall. These are often the result of long toes or other hoof imbalances that cause strains on the laminae.
• Hoof wall. Bruising that appears in concentric lines parallel to the coronary band are caused by bleeding at the corium, the tissue layer where the growth of the hoof horn begins. These are more likely to be visible in white feet. This type of bruising is often the result of too much work on hard surfaces; hoof wall bruises may also appear in horses who paw or stomp repeatedly, especially on harder footing.
Suspect bruising whenever a horse turns up footsore. Usually, the pain is fairly mild. If the bruise is in the heel area, the horse may put more weight on the toe; you’ll notice him resting with his knee forward. A bruise in the toe may cause a horse to land on the heel.
Most bruises are not a tremendous cause for concern, but you will want to try to protect the hoof from further trauma. “The challenge and frustration is that even if you take away the cause---the rocky footing or sharp ice---the bruise is still there and the horse still has to walk on a sore foot,” Pownall says. “That area may continue to be aggravated.”
Taking a few days off from riding will help aid healing. If you do choose to ride, stick to slower speeds on softer footing, and ease off immediately if the “ouchiness” gets any worse.
A horse who suddenly turns up severely lame requires more attention. In addition to rest, icing the hoof can help to relieve the pain and inflammation. “An acute bruise can be helped more with cold than with soaking, and we recommend putting the foot in ice,” says Bullock. “I also advocate anti-inflammatory medication in the beginning of treatment. Bute works about the best for pain in the feet.”
It’s important to keep in mind that bruising can affect more than the sole of the hoof. “There are many structures that can get bruised---such as the frog or the bars of the foot,” says Bullock. “Some horses will actually bruise the coffin bone. A deep bruise in bony structure will take a lot longer to heal.” And, of course, you’ll want to call your veterinarian right away if your horse develops a sudden acute pain in his foot. Bruises tend to not leave a horse three-legged lame. If your horse is, it may be an abscess or even something more sinister like an infected puncture wound.
If your horse has thin, sensitive feet, talk to your farrier about what can be done to provide more protection and support. You have multiple options, says Goodness: “One is to simply get the sole higher up off the ground [with a thicker shoe]. Another is to provide protective covering with a wider webbed shoe. A cushioning pad or some sole support [such as a pour-in pad] can also be helpful. Often when you start using some kind of protection like a pad or sole support, this helps thicken the sole just because it’s covered and protected from wear. This allows it to grow thicker. The more natural protection you can have between the ground and the foot, the better.”
The level of protection horses require varies. Some might need padding only during certain times of year or for particular events. “Some horses suffer bruising during training,” says Bullock. For example, if the horse has been living on a soft pasture all winter, he may need extra protection if you start conditioning him by riding on gravel roads. “There are many types of shoes and hoof boots available now that can help protect the feet,” she says.
Other horses might need extra protection only when they’re going to be working on rocky trails, such as during an endurance ride. “This is a lesson I learned here in the mountains of Virginia where it is very rocky,” says Bullock. “I no longer train my endurance horses without pads---because of the rocks and the chronic pounding and impact. Anything to help absorb concussion and also protect the bottom of the feet will help, whether full pads, plastic shoes, pour-in pads or other options. The key is to be proactive.”
If you opt for hoof boots, Conway recommends carrying extras when you go out on the trail in case your horse loses one in mud or deep sand. “On one ride over particularly frustrating terrain, I came to a spot where there were four boots within a 10-foot radius, where they’d all been pulled off in the mud,” he says. “We have places in our region where riders have to slow down going through sand or it will pull the boots right off. I don’t see many stone bruises right here, but I see some on endurance rides, and most of the time these are horses that lose a boot or a shoe.”
At the other extreme are horses who get sore in almost any circumstances. For these cases, Bullock recommends keeping shoes on year-round, and also adding hoof pads or pour-in pads, if needed, even in winter. “To combat mud around the barnyard, people often haul in gravel or stone dust,” she says. “If thin-soled or flat-footed horses have no shoes when they walk on the gravel, they may bruise. Those individuals do best if you leave front shoes on for winter, to get that foot up off the ground a little, to protect it from bruising.”
Remember, though, that even well-shod horses can sustain bruises. “I have seen horses step on a rock during an endurance ride and be sore,” Bullock says. “In one instance, a rock punched a hole through the plastic hoof pad and put a dent in the sole. While the horse was trotting it didn’t bother him much and he wasn’t lame, but when he stopped at the vet check, just standing around, he favored the foot. We iced it and let him go back on the trail, and he finished in the top 10 and was fine, but this just illustrates the fact that a horse can bruise the sole even when wearing hoof pads.”
Also keep in mind that pads aren’t the answer for all horses. “Some don’t want anything on the bottom of their feet; they just won’t perform as well,” says Goodness. “There is a lot of difference among horses regarding what they perceive as support and what they perceive as pressure. I’ve had several horses that were a challenge because they were hardworking, top-of-their game international athletes, but they didn’t accept any help that we wanted to give them. They could wear only minimal shoes.”
Other measures for protecting a horse against stone bruises include applying one of the commercial products meant to help toughen the sole. “We tend to believe they help,” says Goodness. “Essentially, these are chemicals that dry the sole and keep it from becoming soft. We don’t know how much this helps, but it may be beneficial for certain horses.”
Wet, muddy turnout conditions soften hooves and predispose them to bruises. Avoiding mud is impossible at certain times of year in many areas of the country, but you can take steps to help keep your horse’s feet dry. Bringing him into a stall each day can give his feet a chance to dry out, and laying gravel or even rubber mats in turnout areas can offer him a respite from standing in the muck.
Hoof supplements, especially formulations that include biotin, are another measure that may help strengthen a horse’s hoof walls and soles---along with maintaining good general health, nutrition and weight. “Most of the time when we see a horse with a stone bruise it’s a flat-footed overweight horse,” Conway says. “Everything you can do to promote hoof health and stronger feet is all part of prevention.”
Painful, “ouchy” feet are no fun for your horse, or for you, when you have to limit your riding. But by taking steps to protect his hooves from the effects of hard impacts, you can make the most of your summer days in the saddle.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #455, August 2015.