By Tracy Gantz
Understanding what causes foot bruises and how to treat and possibly prevent them can save your horse from sore feet.
While laminitis and navicular disease pose more dangerous threats to your horse’s feet, the average horse is more likely to encounter a foot bruise than any other lameness. If you recognize the causes of foot bruises and understand their treatment and prevention, you can stave off discomfort in your horse and perhaps avoid an abscess, which is a more serious problem that can develop in a bruised hoof.
Most bruises show up on the sole of a horse’s foot, although a horse can also bruise the quarters, the toe, and the frog of the foot.
“Often the location of a foot bruise is based on the purpose of the horse,” says Meredith May, DVM, now a veterinarian at Terra Vista Animal Hospital, in Rancho Cucamonga, California, who studied stone bruises in the field with Don Shields, DVM, who runs Winner’s Circle Ranch. The layup facility in Bradbury, California, cares for injured racehorses and show horses. Thus, Shields sees his share of foot bruises.
Causes of bruises can range from encounters with rocks, snow, or ice on the trail, to the continual concussive forces of a horse’s particular activity, such as a jumper whose front feet hit the ground hard. Shields notes that horses can also bruise their feet when the surface they work on changes (e.g., they transition from a sand arena to hard ground) or is uneven.
“The horse evolved to be walking all day long while it’s grazing and then have short bursts of intense speed,” says Shields. “We do something totally different with them–moderate to intense levels of exercise over a longer duration.”
Genetics and management also play a role in foot bruising. Some horses have softer or thinner soles that are more prone to bruising. A flat-footed horse puts more pressure on his soles and bruises more easily, says Shields. If a horse’s feet aren’t kept clean and dry, they also can become more susceptible to bruising.
Improper trimming and shoeing can cause bruises. A short heel might lead to bruising of the frog; taking too much off the sole can leave it thin and prone to bruising; and a long toe can put too much pressure on the toe and result in bruising.
Bruises often don’t show up immediately. You might not actually see the bruise until weeks later.
Once the trauma occurs, blood vessels rupture in the vascular tissue inside the hoof, causing the bruise. How long a bruise takes to show up depends on its depth and the thickness of the horny tissue on the bottom of the foot, notes Shields.
If the bruise is severe enough, a horse will become lame. But an owner might not discover a bruise until the farrier’s next visit, when trimming the foot reveals the problem.
The bleeding that occurs when the blood vessels rupture can cause heat in the foot. An owner might notice that one foot is hotter than another. You can sometimes discover heat in a foot by touch, although heat can indicate problems other than a bruise or abscess. Shields recommends a simple technique for finding heat using an infrared laser thermometer available at an auto parts store. A veterinarian or farrier can also find sensitive areas in the foot using hoof testers.
Finding the bruise early not only allows the chance to alleviate the horse’s pain, it can prevent the development of an abscess.
Abscesses can occur when bacteria find their way into a bruised area and cause an infection. The pressure built as the pus accrues could make the horse more lame, and the infection might require treatment with antibiotics.
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