In Cracks Pt 1: The Real Cause of Hoof Cracks we talked about imbalance in the horse and the hoof. In Cracks Pt 2: Hoof Wall Cracks we covered how the hoof landing affects the structure of the hoof wall and how different kinds of crack can develop. Now lets look at why cracks get worse and the effectiveness of treatment.
What Makes Cracks Worse?
I may have mentioned this a few times, but… growth rate! A hoof wall crack that’s at the bottom of the foot, will have more leverage on it when the hoof wall gets longer. Particularly if the crack is due to uneven loading, or static imbalance of the hoof capsule as the longer the hoof is, the more unbalanced the forces are.
Often as the hoof wall gets longer, so does the crack. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the crack is travelling up the hoof wall though. Look at it this way. In a newly trimmed hoof, a crack goes 3mm up the wall. You have 3 mm of growth over the next 6 weeks. That means the crack will be 6mm long, and still be in the same position.
It’s double the length, but it isn’t any worse. The trim makes it look much better, because it halves the length. This gives the impression that the crack is being trimmed out, but it’s not, it’s just excess hoof being trimmed off. It also gives the impression that it keeps getting worse, which it isn’t, the hoof is just getting longer.
The Cause of The Problem Getting Worse
Whatever it is that’s causing your crack, if it gets worse for any reason, then the crack will get worse. That sounds kind of obvious, but sometimes this gets overlooked. It’s not uncommon for a physical therapist to blame a crack getting worse, as the cause of a worsened physical problem.
It’s not often that way round. Usually something will have made the physical problem worse, so the crack got worse. This can make you feel like you’ve got lots of problems going on, but what you’re seeing is lots of symptoms, often there is only 1 problem.
If you’re treating symptoms, you’re going to need lots of different treatments, repeatedly. If you’re treating the cause, you may only need 1 treatment to see improvement in lots of different areas. Treating symptoms is stressful because it doesn’t get you anywhere, though obviously there’s a lot of value in managing symptoms while treating the root cause.
Unfortunately there aren’t many problems that are mutually exclusive. This means that if you have 1 problem that’s causing a crack, and you add a second (or third, or fourth…) problem into the mix, then you’re going to get a worse crack, or more cracks.
This is one of the reasons why I like to use preventative methods. Addressing an issue while it’s still a small warning sign usually means you only need a small intervention. Waiting for problems to build up before you take notice means you’ve got a much longer journey back to a good place.
It’s sometimes harder to identify smaller problems, and harder to be sure they’re improving, by the nature, that smaller things are harder to see. It’s usually fairly easy to see a broken leg, or that a horse is 100lbs overweight. Less easy to notice a horse being 5lbs over weight, but so much easier to lose 5 lbs than 100lbs.
Stepping in early makes for a more consistent lifestyle, with fewer ‘big’ issues and a quicker recovery when the ‘big’ issues do happen. It can however make you feel like you’re worrying about everything all the time.
I try to go for awareness rather than worry. Awareness comes from clarity and observation and puts you in a position of strength. Worry just makes you feel like crap without doing anything productive, often while sabotaging your best efforts, and blinding you to your successes.
If you’ve read the Hoof Geek Guide: Infecction Free Hooves you’ll know that infection loves little cracks and crevices to live in. So does infection cause cracks? It’s possible, but I think it’s the other way around. I think a crack develops and infection gets in and sets up camp.
Will infection management get rid of a crack? I don’t see how. Cracks don’t heal. They grow out. Yes you can get rid of the infection that’s in a crack, and that will stop the infection getting to the healthy structure, but generally healthy structure is pretty resistant to infection anyway.
Not to mention, once you’ve disinfected a hoof, you put it straight back on the ground where it picks up infection again.
Years ago when I first started out, I was definitely ‘treat infection happy clappy’ (to give the condition a technical name!) Any spot of infection, I pointed out and suggested people address it. As it turned out, about half of my clients, for one reason or another, didn’t address the infection. The other half did.
I didn’t notice a huge difference in the speed with which anyone’s cracks grew out. It’s for this reason, that I now tend to recommend infection management for 2 reasons.
1. (most commonly) because the owner is worrying and they NEED to do something. If I give them something safe to do, it means I don’t come back 6 weeks later to find they’re slathering the hoof religiously twice a day with some toxic junk that says it will cure all their ills but in fact will cause hoof wall damage (see the article in Cracks Pt 2: Hoof Wall Cracks)
Seeing someone spending half an hour twice a day doing something costly that’s damaging the hooves, just breaks my heart. Having to tell someone that’s what they’ve been doing and could they please stop, is even worse! Not least of all because by that point they’re usually too stressed out to listen, and they can see things are getting worse, which makes them less likely to listen.
2. The infection is bad, and the wall quality is poor, making it more likely that the infection will run rampant around the foot faster than the improvements grow through.
Better Than All That…
There was a horse who taught me a lot about many things. Handling her feet was a bit of an issue. It wasn’t something she allowed daily. She’d had injuries to her legs, and some very poor handling. While she’s a poppet now, back then – well she’s the reason I learnt to trim for myself.
She had infection in her hooves. I was well motivated to find a way to address this without having to touch the feet. And I did – can you guess??? Yep – NUTRITION!
My fabulous little pony (fabulous as long as you weren’t trying to pick up her feet that is!) got over infection problems much faster than anyone using (or not using) topical solutions. When I remarked on this to clients, they were interested. A scoop in the bucket is much less effort that disinfecting feet. Turned out to be more effective too.
I’ve definitely said this before – nutrition!
There’s a saying amongst Personal Trainers and Coaches who have an interest in health. ‘You can’t out train a bad diet’ The same would be true of hoof health. You can’t out trim, or trim out a bad diet.
Here’s an interesting study. I may be setting myself up for a load of abuse here, but hey – that’s always a risk if you’ve got a blog I guess 🙂
A Case Study
In the first set of photos you can see there’s a crack on the inside of the of the hoof wall, when you look from the underside, there’s definitely seedy toe there (that’s white line disease in a pocket at the toe).
You can also see there’s no other infection anywhere in the hoof wall. This is one of the main reasons I think the infection gets in because of the crack, not the other way round. If the infection came first – then you’d see it in more than 1 place.
You can also see a big chunk of calcification up at the top on the left. Calcification develops due to imbalance…
In the second set of photos you can see the crack is already starting to get worse. (YAY ME!) Haven’t I chosen my first set of progressive trimming photos to show to the public well!
Why didn’t I worry? (well ok I certainly gave it serious consideration, and still do) Because this was also the first time in years that the horse had been sound after a trim and remained sound until her next trim.
I was trimming very differently to the person before me. The horse had been barefoot, retired and had the calcification for years before I started. But if you do something different, you’re going to get a different result. If you keep doing the same thing you’re going to get the same result.
The owner and I decided the result we were more interested in was the comfort of the horse, rather than making her hoof fit what was generally believed it should aesthetically be.
In the third set of photos you can see that the crack is still there, though the calcification has reduced in size. Interesting isn’t it. It seems the strain of the imbalance moved from the internal structures of the hoof, to the hoof wall.
Infection management has almost no effect. We do do it – mostly to make us feel like we’re trying 🙂
All the way through you can see the hoof wall is beautiful from underneath, except for the crack – the site of weakness. There are some superficial cracks to the outer layer of the outer wall. In the first 2 sets of photos these cracks were trimmed off with the removal of flare. You can see however, how the quality of the hoof wall is poor around the site of the calcification.
In the third set you can see outer wall cracks all over. This is due to the pressure put on the coronary band. It’s causing a circulation problem – one that is managed as well as possible, but as the underlying cause isn’t likely to be cured, the effects will continue to be seen. Her diet is awesome, which minimises the other problems as much as possible.
The horse is as sound as can be expected. ‘Soundish’ is the term I use to describe her. The calcification causes a restriction in the movement of the joint, so she’s always going to have difficulty turning to the right, and arthritis in other joints will affect her overall comfort and soundness, however, she’s enjoying her retirement and is, happy and comfortable.
What does the hoof look like now? Here’s a pic of the last time I saw her. Unfortunately it was dark and only the sole shot came out. You can see however that the crack is a little worse, but the hoof wall quality is amazing. For those of you wondering – I took this pic before I finished the trim, so it would show the quality of the whole thickness of wall, which you can’t see after you’ve applied a mustang roll.
Can you trim a crack out?
Generally no. You can when they’re so superficial it’s hardly worth bothering. In the above example you can see that I could, and did when removing flare. When I didn’t need to remove flare, I didn’t. There is some value in being able to see the cracks. If I’m always rasping them off, I can’t tell if they’re changing.
There’s another point. A crack is a point of weakness, and the bits that aren’t the crack are strong healthy horn. You have to trim away the strong healthy horn until it matches the most internal bit of the point of weakness to trim the crack out. In other words, you’re removing good structure to make it match the bad structure.
A crack is a hole. Can you dig out a hole? Think about it. Yes you’re making it look neater, which pleases the eye, but are you adding to the strength and structure of the foot by doing it? Not always.
Separation is slightly different from cracks, and that you can sometimes, but not always trim out. We’ll cover separation another time.
In short, you can only trim off what the horse isn’t using (assuming you want a sound horse after the trim – which – erm – you do!) I used to have a client who was more concerned with how the hoof looked than how sound the horse was. Like I said – used to!
So how do you address cracks? Find out what the root cause of the problem is and treat that. Sorry I can’t give you a one size fits all answer to that question. I would if I could, but there’s multiple causes and multiple combinations of causes. The best I can do though the medium of a blog is suggest places for you to look and explain why.
I think we might have made it to the end!! Though now I realise we need to cover separation… We’ll do that another time. Surely we’ve had enough of cracks by now!
The Home of 'Oh! Now I Get It!' Hoof Care
Do you want to learn more?
Visit the Hoof Geek Academy for free resources and courses to put you in control of your horse's hoof care.