Orla O'Hanlon of Farr & Pursey Equine Vets shares her expert advice on hoof cracks, how to manage them and what you can expect

Q: Hoof cracks: “My gelding developed a huge crack in his off side fore hoof last year (from the coronet band to the floor, not pictured), which eventually — after many months — grew out. Low and behold another one has developed, this time on his near side fore. I am guessing that as his mane hardly grows, this is also linked and I am guessing is predominantly due to genetics (he is a PRE)? My farrier recommended a biotin supplement and bar shoes to help stabilise the crack. I used a product which contains the correct levels and percentages of biotin, methionine, zinc, calcium and sulphur. I also applied cornucrescine around the coronet band. He hated the bar shoe and it made his stride shorten, so he is now back to normal shoes. I have switched to a different supplement too because the previous one did not appear to help despite prolonged use. I have also bought Camrosa ointment and Kevin Bacon dressing. His hooves seem quite soft in texture. He is fed grass/hay/hi fi/high fibre nuts plus a calmer. Will my horse always be predisposed to this condition and what is the prognosis and advice on how to treat such a problem?”

A: Hoof cracks are an eye-sore and sometimes a frustrating cause of lameness for owners, farriers and vets. They can occur in any breed of horse or pony at any age and at any time of the year. Maintaining strong healthy hooves requires an assessment of general health, a balanced diet and consistent quality hoof care.

Hoof cracks may appear in various locations (toe, quarter, heels), orientations (vertical, horizontal) and degrees of severity (superficial, deep). All of which can have a variety of causes such as uneven load, direct trauma, poor hoof quality or can even be secondary to disorders such as laminitis. The rate and quality of hoof growth varies with hooves growing faster in summer than winter months. The average equine hoof grows at a rate of 6-10mm per month, meaning up to nine months for growth from the coronet band to the toe. The quality of a horse’s foot can be influenced by genetics which we have to work with rather than trying to work against.

The vast majority of hoof cracks are secondary to poor hoof balance. This is often due to excessive or uneven load on a certain part of the hoof wall in stance or during motion. This causes damage to the tubular horn structure within the hoof wall causing it to weaken and split.

Cracks can also occur due to direct trauma to the coronary band as a result of wire wounds, strike from another horse or even standing on one’s own feet.

Those originating from the coronary band are often considered worse than other types as disruption to the coronary band causes damage to tubular horn formation therefore prolonging the healing process. These are more at risk of further splitting and damage in the nine months it may take for them to grow out hence may need stabilisation.

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The technique of stabilisation used will be determined by a cracks location, type, severity and also the finances available for repair. Smaller more superficial cracks may be resolved with trimming alone. Other more severe cracks may require debridement, remedial farriery and more advanced stabilisation techniques.

Farriers and vets will often examine the standing horse and the horse in motion. Foot placement will give an insight into the sites of impact and the possible leveraging forces exerted on the hoof wall. X-rays are often recommended to assess the hoof-pastern axis and latero-medial balance as this can correlate directly to uneven load through the foot and hoof cracks as a consequence. X-rays can give farriers exact measurements for trimming which can speed up the whole treatment process. No horse has 100% balanced feet and we can only endeavour to gradually make changes to try and achieve balance as close as possible for the individual.

Should trimming alone not be enough to stabilise the crack there are several different external techniques for hoof wall stabilisation from bar shoes to acrylic gels to plates and screws. The method chosen will depend on the lesion in question. What works for one horse may not be the best treatment choice for the next but the main principal of stabilisation is to evenly distribute the weight exerted on the weight bearing surface of the foot and prevent further leverage and splitting of the hoof horn so as to allow the time for the foot to grow.

Once the crack has been stabilised other factors such as the horse’s diet and management should be addressed. The aim is to provide a balanced diet. Most horses in low level work will acquire enough calories from a forage based diet however some additional nutrients in the form of a balancer is helpful. Those horses with poorer hoof quality may benefit from supplementation for hoof growth. This is a grey area with many opinions and a lack of concrete scientific evidence to quantify exact requirements for hoof growth. However, studies have shown the benefits of additional supplementation of water soluble B vitamin, biotin. One particular study showed an improvement in hoof horn strength with a dose of 20mg/day. Improvements were noted at six months of supplementation and further improvements seen after nine months. Biotin only had an effect on strength and not on the rate of growth.

Much like our skin, the hoof wall is permeable and vulnerable to environmental conditions. A hoof that is too dry will crumble. A hoof that has excessive moisture will become soft and brittle. It is advisable for horses not to be stood on soiled bedding or spend prolonged periods in mud.

With regard to topical hoof dressings. Research has shown that they may not have much benefit on hoof wall quality and may have detrimental effects to hoof strength by tampering with natural water absorption. It’s more important to have regular foot trimming, provide a balanced diet and ensure your horse’s general health is in check. Overall growth conversion in an animal with underlying undiagnosed systemic disease will be much slower. Don’t let the bigger picture ‘fall through the cracks’.