Soft Hooves: Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Soft Hooves in Horses

Soft hooves are one of the more common problems associated with wet and muddy conditions. When discussing the topic of soft hooves, it’s important to understand that the hooves’ main purpose is to support the horse. The hooves are designed to provide balance and stability while carrying the full weight of the horse. When a horse develops soft hooves, other hoof problems that can lead to lameness are likely to follow. In this blog we will discuss:

  • How Soft Hooves Develop
  • Problems Associated with Soft Hooves
  • Prevention and Treatment

How Soft Hooves Develop

The anatomy of the hoof wall plays a large role in how the hoof softens. The hoof wall is composed of horn tubules that provide strength and density to the hoof wall, while at the same time allows the hoof wall to be porous. In normal environmental conditions, these tubules will remain tightly packed and the hoof will remain strong. In wet environmental conditions, the porous structure of the hoof acts like a sponge and will absorb moisture. This excess moisture weakens the connective tissue crosslinks that hold the tubules in place. These bonds will continue to weaken and stretch if the hoof is exposed to moisture for an extended period. This process causes the hoof to lose its structural integrity and shape.

Problems Associated with Soft Hooves

Under normal conditions, the sole of the hoof is concave. This concave structure helps protect the more sensitive parts of the hoof and acts like a shock absorber. When the hoof absorbs too much moisture, the hoof wall expands. The expansion then stretches and separates the white line area. When the weight of the horse is applied to the softened hoof, the hoof begins to pancake, causing the sole of the hoof to drop. Hoof pancaking will also cause the hoof wall to weaken, crack, and split. This creates the perfect environment for numerous hoof related issues to arise. 

Farrier Shoeing Horse

“The first thing that is noticeable when I see a softened hoof is the enhanced aspect of distortion. When softened, the hoof wall is not as strong and can become difficult to manage during rigorous work. When the hoof capsule is weakened, we must worry about the development of cracks and the hoof’s balance. Right now, I am seeing a lot of clients that are being affected by hoof abscesses. Especially in areas where the hoof tissue has become soft. It is important that your farrier is properly cleaning out the seat of corn area, enhancing the vertical depth of the hoof, and paying attention to the sole. This will help ensure your horse does not become too sensitive.” – Darren Owen, Professional Farrier

  • Poor Hoof Quality
    • Hoof cracks, splits, chips, and distortion can form due to the development of soft hooves.
  • Sensitive Hooves
    • Hooves may become tender to hard and rocky surfaces. Foreign objects, rocks, and other material can penetrate and bruise the softened sole. If the hoof becomes too tender, the horse may have difficulty walking or become lame.
  • Hoof Abscesses
    • A softened hoof increases the likelihood of abscessing. The weak hoof wall, stretched white line, and softened sole make it easier for bacteria and/or foreign material to penetrate the hoof capsule. This can result in the formation of hoof abscesses.   
  • Shoe Retention
    • A soft hoof makes it challenging for a horse to hold a shoe. When the hoof becomes too soft, clenched nails holding the shoe will loosen, pull out, or tear away. This can result in chunks of the hoof wall tearing out; especially around the nail holes. The loss of hoof wall makes it more difficult to reset the shoe. The farrier may resort to gluing the shoe if too much of the hoof is damaged.
  • Thrush and Crumbling Hoof Horn
    • Wet and muddy conditions expose hooves to “hoof-eating” microbes that cause thrush and crumbling hoof horn. Crumbling hoof horn, cracks, chips and flat soles are entry points for microbes to invade and thrive.
  • Lameness
    • A soft hoof is susceptible to a wide range of hoof related problems. Your horse could become lame from one or more of the above problems.

How to Prevent Soft Hooves

Proper hoof care, clean and dry environments, and proper nutrition all play a role in maintaining a healthy hoof.

“If your farrier does not have a good solid hoof to work with it is challenging to properly shoe the horse. This is where proper nutrition and prevention come in. This allows the horse to maintain a strong hoof even in times when we are experiencing challenging wet environmental conditions.” – Darren Owen, Professional Farrier

Below are a few steps you can take to help prevent soft hooves:

  • Avoid allowing your horse to spend extended periods of time in wet and muddy environments.
  • Use shavings and provide your horse with a clean and dry environment.
  • Routinely dry and clean your horse’s hooves of any mud, debris, or foreign material.
  • Keep a regular farrier schedule.
  • Provide proper nutrition and a quality hoof supplement such as Farrier’s Formula® Double Strength to develop a denser, healthier, and more resilient hoof.
  • Regularly apply a non-caustic hoof conditioner such as Farrier’s Finish® to help regulate moisture balance.
    • TIP: Adding 2-3 tablespoons of table salt or Epsom salt to a 16 oz bottle of Farrier’s Finish® will help pull out excess moisture and harden the hoof.
Hoof Moisture Balance

If your horse develops soft hooves or other hoof related issues, consult with your farrier and veterinarian. If you have any questions on utilizing Life Data® products to help treat or prevent soft hooves, contact us at 1-800-624-1873 or by e-mail at cservice@lifedatalabs.com.