by Keith Seeley
“Hello? Yes, Ma’am? Who did you say referred you? Oh, great. Thanks for calling. What can I do for you? Your horse’s feet are cracking. When was the last time you had him worked on? That long ago?? And your horse’s feet are cracking. Well, are they breaking off at the bottom or are they cracking or splitting up the hoof wall? Up the hoof wall, eh? Ok, so are the cracks on the sides of the foot or at the toe? At the toe, ok. How far up do the cracks go? One is just a little ways, like an inch or less? Yes, ok. And the others? A bit farther. And the right front goes almost half way up the wall. And what do the cracks look like from the ground-side of the foot? I see. Well, without that information and without seeing the horse, I can’t give an accurate diagnosis, but it sounds like your horse may have a problem commonly called ‘seedy toe’. No, it’s not fatal. It’s primarily a maintenance problem, meaning you and your farrier have to work together to treat and / or prevent this problem. Yes Ma’am, it is treatable and yes we can get rid of it, but it will require you to follow some instructions in between your farriers’ appointments. When can I be there? Hold on, let me get my calendar.”
To us farriers, this is a fairly typical scenario. The responses and the methods of treating this condition vary greatly. To me, this is one of those situations that are not at all unlike doctors treating you for a cold or flu. Each one has their own ideas of how to treat and / or prevent problems, but this in itself is a topic for another day.
Most of the time, this cracking at the toe is a telltale sign of seedy toe. Not always. I have been fooled on occasion, but usually. It’s basically a maintenance issue associated with horses whose feet aren’t tended to regularly. Supporting factors to this could be because the terrain isn’t hard enough or abrasive enough to keep the horses feet worn short, because the toes are allowed to grow too long without regular trimming or shoeing, or because the horseshoer doesn’t fully understand the dynamics of the hoof. Long toe/low heel is a typical hoof condition I tend to see associated with seedy toe. As a general rule, it affects the front feet more frequently, mostly due to the growth pattern of the feet and the fact that horses carry about 70% of their weight on the front end.
Here’s what’s happening. As the horse grows out of balance, i.e., toes get long, conformational problems go unchecked, etc., and the anaerobic bacteria and fungus are allowed to gain a foothold on the weakest part of the foot. In this case, that would be the toe area. Think about it. Put your fingertips together as though you were placing your hands around the hoof wall with your fingers at the front of the foot. Pretend the heels of your hands are the heels of the horse’s feet. Now then, keeping your fingertips touching, move the heels of your hands in and out, simulating the loading and unloading of the horse’s foot. Notice how the point of the foot that moves the most is right at the toe. From the standpoint of the motion of the foot, that is the weakest point. The laminae are really stressed. When you add long toes, poor environmental conditions and/or balance/conformational issues, you get to a point where the anaerobic bacteria and fungus can take hold. The white line begins to be eaten away. The horse, just from walking, begins to pack dirt and muck into that spot, and the situation begins to compound. The more crap that gets packed in, the better the environment for the bacteria and fungus and the more they are able to eat away at the white line. (The crack itself is due to the stresses on the hoof wall, both laterally and longitudinally, and the packing of more and more debris in a confined space.) It all becomes a vicious cycle. It is entirely possible for the white line to be completely eaten way, to the point that the hoof wall is only being held in place by the hairline and not much else. I know, I’ve seen this happen. However, this is usually the exception, not the rule. But, it is possible. Why is this able to happen? Because neither the horse owner nor the shoer properly maintained the feet to prevent and / or treat the problem. In some cases, the shoer never tells the owner about this problem, nor do they themselves do anything to treat or prevent the problem. This is another reason why you should be using a certified professional farrier.
Ok, so now that I’ve gotten you all worked up to the point that you think every crack at your horse’s toe is seedy toe and that your horse’s foot is going to fall off, you’re wondering what you can do about it. Well, again, not every crack at the toe is seedy toe and not every case will be severe. But every case of seedy toe should be dealt with as though it were going to become severe. So what do you do now? Well, first off, you will want to use your phone to talk to a farrier. Next, you’ll want to use your hoof pick and try to dig out all the black gunk in the hole that’s been formed in the ground side of the hoof at the toe. Yes, this means you’ll have to pick the horse’s foot up to see the hole and clean out the mess. Don’t be afraid to get in there and dig. You’ll pull out some dirt, manure and other such gunk. You’ll then start pulling out something that looks like old moldy cheese. That’s where the bacteria and fungus had been working on the lamina. You’ve got to clean all that mess out. Now then, you can use a number of chemicals to help kill this stuff, but it needs to be used on a regular basis in order to begin to clear it up. Ten percent (10%) Iodine solution is just barely strong enough to affect it. But if used regularly, the hole, packed with saturated gauze or sponge and some form of shoe or boot placed on the horse’s foot, will usually clear up. The length of time required to clear it up will depend on the severity and depth of the hole and the length of time it takes the horse to grow out new hoof wall. Personally, I use a mixture of 10% Iodine, DMSO and Epsom salt crystals. This by itself isn’t strong enough to immediately kill off the bacteria and fungus. But if used on a very regular basis, it will weaken it enough so that it doesn’t continue getting worse. The horse’s hoof can then grow out the affected area, eventually putting sound hoof back on the ground. Other readily available chemicals and solutions that can be used are: 10 to 2 Clorox solution, Betadine solutions, Methiolate or Iodine crystals. All of these are reasonably effective against seedy toe. Again, the frequency of their use is the trick. In some cases, the best way to deal with the problem is to fully cut out the affected area. That’s known as performing a resection. The hoof wall is completely removed, along with all of the black lines and patches, thoroughly disinfected the area, and the hoof wall rebuilt with one of the many hoof-building products on the market. Think of it like a doctor cutting out cancer in the body. They remove the affected area, take out a little bit extra to be sure, then close it up and provide a series of treatments to prevent it from coming back. But remember, this should only be considered in sever cases.
So how do you know which is the best method and best treatment for your horse? Good question. I can’t answer that in this article. Your farrier will have to look at the situation, determine the severity, weigh the options, and determine a course of action. He, or she, may decide that a simple daily treatment of Iodine and gauze packing will do the trick or that a resection is needed. Only your farrier will know for sure. Once a course and direction are determined, you will be expected to follow the instructions given to you by your farrier. If you don’t follow them, don’t expect the problem to go away. Your farrier is not a miracle worker. He, or she, can only do just so much during each visit. The rest is up to you! The part of the treatment that IS your farriers responsibility is making sure the feet are trimmed properly, the pastern angle is properly maintained, the balance of the horse is properly maintained and the low heel / long toe issue is addressed. More hoof problems tend to grow out and disappear when the feet are keep properly balanced and properly trimmed.
You may wonder if this is something that’s painful for you horse. The answer depends on your individual horses’ hoof condition and the severity of the situation. At first, your horse will not feel anything. Image you have a split or break in the exterior part of your fingernail. As that split makes it’s way to the quick of your finger, it then becomes painful to you. Same thing with your horse, as the split gets bigger, more gunk gets packed in his toe and the more laminae that’s eaten away, the more he’s going to feel the affect in his foot. Plain and simple, it’s cause and affect. The more you have your horse’s feet tended to by a qualified, certified farrier, the less likely your horse is to developing this condition. Is this an assured guarantee? No. I wish I could say yes, but I can’t. Even the best of us can’t control your horse’s conformation, environmental conditions, nutritional health and genetics. But what we can do is keep your horse balanced so that the stress and load on your horse’s feet are kept within proper limits. We can provide you with the knowledge and guidance to keep your horse’s feet as healthy as possible. And we can employ any number of ways to treat this, and other, hoof conditions or ailments.
I hope this article has helped you see that the key to a sound and healthy horse is to keep him properly trimmed and balanced. This is the key to addressing so many hoof ailments, even better than having a complete chemistry lab at your fingertips. Proper trimming is the fundamental key to a sound healthy horse!
Please contact me if you have any problems or questions. I’ll be happy to help.
Please be kind to your horse and Happy Trails. And remember, Horses are People Too….