The trouble with mud

When the going gets muddy, the muddy get hoof problems; here's what to look out for.

Continuous exposure to moisture can cause a long list of hoof problems, ranging from difficult-to-manage soft, sensitive feet that won’t hold their shape or nails, to various types of damage and infections in the capsule and its structures. Then there are the injuries due to slipping and scrambling in deep mud or bad footing, lost bell boots and pulled-off shoes. In short; keeping horses’ feet sound and healthy can be a difficult challenge when weather is wet and footing precarious.

Moisture’s Effect on Hoof Structure

Feet tend to lose their shape when they are constantly wet. They become flatter and wider, which may be nature’s way of giving them more surface to not sink so deeply in the mud.

The hoof’s horny tissues—frog, sole, bars, and walls—do this because the moisture makes them more deformable under normal weight-bearing pressures. And when the outer structures start to fail, the inner structures become overloaded and vulnerable to pressure as well. Horn tubules can become so saturated that the foot starts to collapse, the sole starts to drop, and then the characteristic foot flare and flattening occurs.

Mud-Related Issues

Continually wet feet are more vulnerable to issues such as thrush, canker, abscesses, and white line disease. You would think that the constant contact with and support from the ground in soft conditions would aid the frog, but the opposite seems to happen; the constantly wet frog becomes more susceptible to pathogens.

Common Conditions

Our sources list some of the conditions and issues commonly seen in mud- and moisture-laden hooves:

Sole bruising: Persistent water and mud exposure can make hooves more susceptible to sole bruising even from small stones.

Thrush: This anaerobic (able to survive with little to no oxygen) bacterial disease affects the frog and surrounding sensitive tissues. It can be painful for horses and is difficult to clear up if feet are constantly wet.

White line disease: The anaerobic bacteria or fungi that cause this condition can creep into and infect the inner nonpigmented space within the hoof wall, particularly with constant mud exposure.

Abscesses: These localized accumulations of pus within the horse’s hoof are common in soft, permeable feet; sand or small bits of gravel and debris can penetrate the sole or the white line. Flares create separation; foreign material gets pressed up in there and may create an abscess.

Scratches: This lower limb issue, also known as pastern dermatitis, dew poisoning, or greasy heel, involves painful inflammation and lesions around pasterns that are exposed to moisture and mud. There are several dermatological conditions that may appear as scratches can be caused by a number of pathogens. If you see this you should call a veterinarian because the horse may need antibiotics and in some instances might need systemic antibiotics versus something topical. The hair may need to be clipped away and the lower limbs scrubbed and then kept clean and dry.

Lost shoes: Shoes can slip off if hoof walls are too soft to hold nails effectively. It means shoes that suck off easier, especially if they have pads.

If the shoe can’t be found, you then have the risk of that horse or another stepping or rolling on the mud-buried, nail-riddled piece of metal, potentially creating a puncture wound.

Injury Risk

Along with fostering an environment amenable to hoof-harming pathogens, muddy terrain can also cause horses to slip, slide, and injure themselves. Horses in slick footing might scramble to keep their balance, making them more likely to hit themselves or step on one shoe with another foot and pull it off.

Preventing Problems

You can prevent muddy-paddock casualties simply by monitoring your horse’s feet regularly. If you are checking feet you’ll know if they need attention and can address small problems before they become larger ones.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do about the mud and it may help to use a hoof dressing to seal out moisture. Moderate use of hoof dressings may be beneficial, such as once or twice a week. If you overdo it, however, the hoof starts to rely on the artificial protection and this may be counterproductive.

Also be wary of bringing your horse in and out of muddy environments frequently. When the horse comes out of the mud—into a barn or pasture that’s not muddy—then the mud dries on the hoof. If it’s a clay-type mud, it draws moisture from the hoof wall and starts to dry out the foot. It’s better for horses to either stay in the mud or out of it, because when they go back and forth, back and forth it’s hard on feet.

That goes for wetness in general, as well. Think of what happens when you wash a bunch of horses in one afternoon and your hands are wet and dry repeatedly; the skin tends to chap and crack. This back-and-forth between wet and dry is the horse’s biggest challenge because it can create cracks in the hoof wall.

Take-Home Message

Keep a close watch on your horse’s feet this winter. Employ regular farrier care and call your veterinarian at the first sign of a moisture-related problem brewing. A hoof-tissue-eating pathogen or strained ligament can quickly put a dampner on your horse’s comfort and your riding plans.