Aqueos - Why does my horse’s hoof smell? Vet guide to smelly feet in equines
Although we don’t like to admit it, we all suffer from smelly feet from time to time, even our four-legged horsey friends! But what should you do about it? Is it normal for your horse or pony to have stinky hooves? Or is it something to worry about? Read on to find out more.
Why do horses get smelly feet?
By the very nature of where horses live and how we keep them, horses’ feet are likely to be dirty at least some of the time. They may be wet and muddy from being turned out in the field, filled with soiled bedding whilst stabled (we all know certain horses and ponies who like to trample their bedding round and round the stable!) or packed with arena surface or debris from ridden exercise. It is important to be able to recognise when dirty feet progress to unhealthy and smelly hooves.
The importance of daily foot care
Hoof care is one of the most important aspects of the day-to-day care of your horse. Picking out your horse’s feet gives you chance to check the appearance of the frog, sole and heels, to check for stones, check for injuries, and check for anything stuck in your horse’s foot such as a nail or screw. You should pick your horse or pony’s feet out at least once a day – ideally twice – and always after riding on stony ground or any other potentially irritant surface.
It used to be said that you should carry a folding hoof pick with you when out riding or hacking for those unexpected and difficult to dislodge stones – this in fact is not a bad idea, even if it is somewhat easier to call for help these days with modern technology! Daily hoof care means you will become accustomed to the normal smell of your horse’s feet, and this will help you in being able to identify when there is a problem.
Why does my horse’s hoof smell?
There are a number of horse foot conditions which are associated with an abnormal smell coming from the hoof, and this is often accompanied by discharge of some sort. Some important conditions to be aware of are outlined below:
Thrush is a bacterial condition which affects the frog tissue, and is recognised by grey-black, very smelly discharge in the central and side grooves of the frog. It is typically more common in the hind feet than the front feet, and is often associated with poor foot care and poor stable hygiene e.g. damp/soiled bedding or moist conditions.
The frog tissue disintegrates and will need debridement (trimming) to get rid of the unhealthy/necrotic parts of the frog. In severe cases there may even be maggots present in the necrotic tissue, which of course must be removed! To treat thrush in horse hooves, debridement will need to be combined with regular cleaning and disinfection of the affected hoof or hooves, and it may even be necessary to bandage the foot until the frog has healed. Antibiotics may also be required – either topical (e.g. an antibiotic spray) or systemic antibiotics in severe cases.
Good stable hygiene, good foot care, and regular farriary are the best preventative measures for thrush.
Canker is another infectious frog condition that is also associated with unhygienic stable conditions and again is more common in the hind feet. Although canker also has a characteristic foul smell, the appearance of the discharge is different to thrush and looks like cottage cheese. Canker can also be identified by a cauliflower-like appearance of the frog/sole due to the excessive production of keratin.
The treatment approach for canker is very similar to thrush, however treatment may need to be more aggressive, will take longer and the condition is more likely to reoccur.
Horse foot abscesses also often have a foul smell associated with them — especially once drainage of the abscess has been established. Abscesses can occur due to solar bruising or corns, foot penetrations, foreign bodies, hoof cracks, laminitis, and white line disease — among other things!
Horses typically present with severe or non-weight bearing lameness with a foot abscess. Paring of the foot by your farrier or veterinary surgeon to release the infection is important (the shoe is likely to need to be removed first if present), followed by poulticing to draw the infection. If it is not possible to get an abscess to drain from the bottom of the foot, it may burst out at the heels or coronary band, and again this discharge is likely to have a foul smell.
What makes smelly hooves more likely?
Keeping your horse’s feet clean and healthy is more of a challenge when they are on box rest e.g. post-surgery, or if they have laminitis, or for management of a wound or other medical or orthopaedic issue. It may also be more difficult to prevent hoof problems if you have been advised to create a deep bed in your horse’s stable right up to the stable door, or if you have been advised to deep-litter the stable.
In this situation, the feet (especially the hind feet) do not get as much of a chance to dry out, which makes conditions such as thrush or canker more likely to occur. Speak to your veterinary surgeon if you are concerned, as they may be able make further suggestions for preventing problems in your individual situation.
Preventing problems with your horse’s feet
Regular trimming of your horse’s feet and especially the frog tissue, is a really important part of preventing smelly hooves. Farriers are very good at identifying early signs of problems such as bruising which could lead to an abscess, thrush, or canker. They are used to looking at horses’ feet day-in day-out, and will therefore know what is normal and abnormal for your horse.
Most horses in ridden work will be seen by their farrier every 4-8 weeks. This is a good opportunity for the foot to be pared (trimmed) to remove excess or unhealthy frog/sole tissue, to keep the hooves fresh and easier to look after. You may also want to consider using a multi-purpose disinfectant to keep areas where you horse or pony stands as clean as possible e.g. stable floors or tie up areas. And, again, daily hoof care means you’ll spot signs much earlier, increasing the chance of a good outcome.
Take home message
Acting quickly if you notice any abnormality with your horse or pony’s feet can help to limit the long-term consequences of hoof conditions. Do not hesitate to contact your veterinary surgeon for advice if you find an unexpected smell in your horse or pony’s foot, or anything else untoward.
Article written by Dr Jessica Putnam BVMedSci(Hons) BVM BVS(Hons) MRCVS – 28th July 2021