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Soft Soles and Wet Weather

Kate Hore RNutr(Animal). Snr Nutritionist at NAF

The saying ‘No foot, no horse’ is well-known in the equine world, and applies equally to the underside, or soles, as it does to the hoof wall. Ideally a horse should have thick, hard soles, naturally concave, and with well-developed natural calluses which allow the horse to cope with whatever terrain he is faced with. Many factors affect hoof sole health, with genetic influences being a strong one. Certainly breeds such as Thoroughbreds are prone to thin, soft soles as many owners of ex-racers can testify to, but it is not just about breeding.

Environmental conditions can also be very influential, and prolonged exposure to wet, soggy conditions can soften the sole making them more prone to injury and lameness. Care should be taken to ensure that horses are not left standing in boggy, rain soaked pasture, and for sensitive individuals it may be necessary to stable or shelter them for periods of time to encourage the hooves to dry out.

In a rainy summer, the combination of warm and wet fields can provide the ideal condition for bacteria to proliferate. With thin soles those we’re most aware of are the Keratonolytic (keratin attacking) bacteria, such as the sheep foot-rot causing organism, Fusobacterium necrophorum, which once it’s gained entry, through damage, can cause Thrush. Thrush is a bacterial condition usually affecting the grooves around the frog. The signs of Thrush are a foul-smelling, black discharge, and the frog itself may also appear softer or change shape. Mild cases usually cause few problems for the horse; however they should still be swiftly and effectively treated, as if left to develop thrush can delve deeper into the critical structures of the hoof, where it can become severe.

To treat thrush, move the horse to a dry environment, and ensure the hooves are thoroughly cleaned and dried daily. Your vet or farrier should pare away all the dead and damaged tissue, until healthy tissue is reached. After paring a topical treatment should be applied to harden the sole, and dependent on the extent of trimming it may be necessary to apply a hoof poultice and bandage.

Even without the development of conditions such as Thrush, or the more serious – but thankfully rarer – Canker, soft soles can still be a problem for the horse. Soft soles are less able to support the rest of the hoof, which can lead to hoof flare, imbalances and tenderness. Lameness may also occur as the horse becomes more sensitive to hard or stony ground.

Exercise is a key part of management. Regular exercise keeps blood flowing well round the hoof, so encouraging healthy, strong, growth. When exercising try to vary the surface your horse is working on. Just as our feet harden if we spend time walking barefoot over summer, so your horse’s feet harden if they regularly exercise over different terrain. Retired horses, constantly at pasture, may be more prone to soft soles, and should be carefully monitored.

Lastly don’t forget the diet. Good soles are those that grow well, and that requires a quality, well balanced diet, to ensure the necessary nutrients for strong soles and keratin production are adequately provided.

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