Insufficient Natural Movement
The self-cleaning mechanism of the hooves cannot function properly without movement on the proper terrain. If the horse is not continually moving about on firm, dry terrain, any accumulated material in the hoof cannot be expelled normally. In addition, without sufficient movement, blood flow to the hoof will be compromised, which often results in slower tissue recovery when thrush has previously "eaten away" healthy tissue.
Unhygienic Living Conditions
Horses that are kept in small enclosures or stalls have no where to walk except on their own manure. Bacteria can be found in manure, urine, and saliva. Fungal spores and yeast can be found in many of these areas as well, rubber mats being the most "inviting" for spores to hide out. Indoor areas need to be kept clean and regularly sanitized. Neglecting to keep your horse's living environment clean can cause more exposure to the bacteria/fungus that cause hoof infections than is normal. Horses that are turned out in muddy lots, even if free from manure, are just as susceptible as a horse standing in a dry, clean stall with un-sanitized rubber mats.
Weakened Immune System
In the case of a weakened immune system, be sure that you are feeding a good quality hay, and any supplements necessary to boost your horse's immune system. Check with your veterinarian and think about doing hay analysis, water analysis and blood work to determine any system deficiencies. Vitamins A, C, E and others as well as echinacea and homeopathic remedies can help to boost the immune system. Monitoring your horse's pH and using dietary supplements to balance it can help tremendously in fighting infection. Internal and external probiotics can help fight bacteria and yeast infections.
What are the different types of hoof infection?
The primary agent involved in hoof infections is Candida albicans, a yeast. Yeast attacks and damages soft tissue areas, setting up the perfect environment for other types of infection (bacteria and/or fungus) to invade. Most often yeast will begin to attack the sole of the hoof as well as the frog, and causes a chalky, flaky appearance. The weakened tissue becomes a perfect host for other types of infection. Yeast generates a multitude of tiny spores, which embed themselves deep into the hoof tissues. This is why many spray-on treatments do not work to eliminate it, and a lengthy hoof soak in an anti-yeast agent is most effective (soaking allows deeper penetration into the tissues).
One type of non-toxic substance that is frequently used to combat yeast infections is Apple Cider Vinegar. I have found that horses who are soaked for 1 hour, once per week (1 part ACV to 6 parts water) have shown no recurrence of yeast infection. In addition, another good preventative is to fill an empty sprayer bottle with undiluted ACV and spray the hooves with it liberally 4-7 days per week.
While researching yeast infections in humans, I have found that probiotics (beneficial bacteria) also play a very important role in eliminating and preventing yeast infections. It may be beneficial, and certainly not harmful, to try supplementing your horse's diet with a sufficient amount of probiotics. It is my understanding that these beneficial bacteria will "eat" yeast. It may also be beneficial to break open capsules of probiotics and apply topically to the crevices in the hoof. If you happen to try this treatment, I would appreciate any feedback on it's effectiveness. Please remember though, that ACV will kill any probiotics you apply, so it is not cost-efficient or effective to use both products at the same time (either internally or topically). If you wish to try both products, use ACV first (for several weeks), then switch to probiotics to restore any beneficial bacteria that is lost during ACV treatment.
I recently added a 1/4 cup of ACV to my 40-year old Percheron's diet daily, for 2 months. Then, I discontinued the ACV and added a double dose of probiotics daily. The infection in his hooves appears to have cleared up well.
Pathogenic Fungi will only grow on damaged tissue (tissue that has been abraded, has a limited blood supply, is bruised or weakened, or already infected by yeast and/or bacteria). Fungus can invade any part of the hoof and is commonly found in the frog, sole, white line, and water line (inner wall). In the frog, it typically causes unnatural shedding or peeling of the layers of the frog. Fungus can produce a foul odor, and typically causes the tissues to become soft, flaky or "chalky" in appearance. The best time to check for fungal infections is during your horse's regular hoof trim, as fungus tends to cause the hoof tissues to shed in thick layers, of which can be observed by your hoofcare specialist or farrier.
If your horse has a fungus infection, it may be very beneficial to talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of your horse having a systemic yeast infection that is causing your horse's body to be weakened and susceptible to fungus. Fungi, like yeast, also produces a multitude of tiny spores of which embed deeply into the tissues of the hoof. The fungal spores are very difficult to destroy, as there are only a couple of known substances that are able to penetrate the thick, waxy coating of the spore to destroy it, without destroying healthy living tissue. Spray-on treatments for fungus do not work, the hooves must be soaked for a lengthy period of time in the proper substance in order for the liquid to penetrate deeply enough into the tissues of the hoof.
Unfortunately, with both fungal and yeast infections, the spores are shed from the hoof onto any surface the horse stands on, including stall floors, trailers, and barn aisles. All walking and standing surfaces the horse is exposed to should be treated (especially rubber mats). These surfaces can be treated with Lysol concentrate (brown 12 oz. bottle, has a yellow label), diluted according to the floor sanitizing instructions on the bottle.
If your horse has a fungal infection, the best treatment I have seen so far is a product called CleanTrax, of which can be purchased from Equine Technologies, Inc., by calling (978) 443-8078. It is extremely important that you follow the usage instructions diligently, and don't skip any steps or the treatment may be completely ineffective. It consists of a 90-minute treatment that includes soaking all four hooves and encourages treatment of the surfaces your horse frequently stands on. CleanTrax will destroy all bacteria, fungal and yeast spores it comes in contact with, and it does not destroy healthy hoof tissue.
There are two other treatments for fungus that I have heard about. Some people have used Borax, a laundry cleaning powder (20 Mule Team Borax, or Boraxo). It is available at some hardware stores. Adding approximately 1 teaspoon of Borax to a soaking boot filled with water appears to be the popular method of application (soak for approximately 10-15 minutes, up to 10 times). I have also seen recommendations by many farriers and veterinarians to use Lysol (brown 12 oz. bottle, has a yellow label, available from Walgreens), diluted according to the floor sanitizing instructions on the bottle (soak for approximately 20-30 minutes). However, with both of these treatments, I am unaware of any studies done on toxicity or the possibility of either solution destroying living/un-infected tissue, and the results from these treatments seems to be sporadic.
I did use the Lysol soak on one of my own horses, and it appeared to clear up the infection (on the surface) with no ill effects, however, the infection did return in 2 months. So, although CleanTrax is more expensive and soaking time is more lengthy, I recommend it over all other products as I have seen more success with it than with Lysol.
Fungal and yeast infections can leave you running in circles soaking hooves and treating the ground on all areas the horses stand. It can be an endless cycle if not treated fully or properly. For example: if you diligently perform a soak-treatment and disinfect all walking and standing surfaces your horse is exposed to, but do not address the possible systemic yeast infection in your horse, he is likely to become re-infected within 2-4 months. (What a great example of wholistic care... considering "all parts" that are related to the "whole"!)
If it is not possible for you to treat the indoor ground areas your horse is exposed to (i.e. if you are at a boarding stable), you will not be able to prevent re-infection. In this case, it is wise to perform a 90-minute treatment of your horse's hooves in CleanTrax every 3-4 months to keep infection to a minimum. This may not keep your horse from becoming re-infected, however, it will minimize the damage that can be done by these pathogens. In between soakings, it may be beneficial to apply a daily spritz of an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal product such as Micro-Tek Medicated Spray (it is marketed for scratches, rain rot, and girth itch, and is available at PetSmart, feed stores, and most tack stores). It is also a good idea to apply a product like this immediately after hoof trimming, and request that your hoofcare specialist or farrier sanitize their tools with Lysol before using them on your horse.
Bacterial infections in the hoof are often known as "thrush". The specific bacteria commonly responsible for thrush infections is called fusobacterium necrophorum. "Thrush" seems to be the common term for nearly all hoof infections, but it is now clear that it is a bacteria, not a yeast or fungus. This type of bacteria is anaerobic, which means it thrives in dark, moist environments that have minimal or no exposure to oxygen. Thrush bacteria is a normal inhabitant of the gastrointestinal tracts of animals and humans, as well as animal feces and most soil samples. It is not possible to completely prevent exposure to the bacteria that causes thrush. However, it is possible to prevent the bacteria from becoming destructive to the horse's hooves.
Thrush most often infects the central sulcus of the frog, the collateral grooves and along the frog/sole junction. It causes a black, odorous, oily discharge which is seen on and/or around the frog. The foul odor can be detected while picking out the hooves. When the bacteria has been left untreated for a period of time, it can destroy enough tissue to cause soreness in the hooves. When left untreated for an extended period of time, it can cause bleeding, pus, inflammation and lameness. In rare cases, thrush infection can spread to the internal tissues, sometimes requiring internal antibiotics to eliminate. If you think thrush has spread to internal tissues (common signs are heat and inflammation in the hoof and/or leg), contact your veterinarian immediately.
Typically, if bacteria is the only type of infection that is involved, using a commercial product from your tack store should clear it up. However, I highly recommend using natural products that contain substances such as tea tree oil, which seem to work just as well. Avoid products that contain Formaldehyde (a biohazard, carcinigen, and very toxic), and products that contain toxic levels of copper and aluminum. READ THE LABELS!
Most hoof infections consist of a combination of one or more of the above pathogens. In most cases, yeast is the primary infection, and fungus and/or bacteria are secondary. If you are unsure of exactly what type of infection your horse has, it is wise to treat for all 3 types of infection. One example would be to treat with CleanTrax, then perform a weekly soak in ACV for several weeks, while disinfecting indoor floor surfaces and addressing any dietary conditions that may cause systemic yeast infection. Some horse owners prefer soaking again in CleanTrax 4 weeks later.
Several of my clients who are not able to disinfect the standing areas of the barn (due to the boarding environment, and exposure to many other horses who shed yeast and fungi spores on common walkways), have devised a maintenance plan of which does not necessarily destroy the hoof infection, but continually keeps it in check. They seem to have success maintaining a much lower level of infection by purchasing 2-3 empty sprayer bottles and filling them with a few different types of spray-on treatments (one with Lysol, one with hydrogen peroxide, one with ACV). Be sure to label the bottles accordingly. Alternate treatments each day you see your horse, so "day 1" would be Lysol, "day 2" would be hydrogen peroxide, "day 3" would be ACV, etc. You may find even more success by purchasing the Micro-Tek Medicated Spray and including it in your rotation. The process is: spray on liberally, scrub with an old toothbrush (make sure to get in all the crevices and under any "flaps"), and rinse/spray again with the same product. This seems to help the product penetrate deeper. I don't advise using more than one type of product on the hooves at the same time, you never know what type of reaction you'll get between the different chemicals.
The process can be grueling, but the long-term destructive capabilities of hoof infections can be devastating.
After the infection is gone, how do you regenerate hoof tissues that were weakened and/or destroyed by the infection?
The best thing you can do to help your horse regenerate lost tissue is to allow him to have sufficient movement on appropriate terrain (dry, firm, clean). Movement allows for optimal blood flow through the hooves, which speeds up growth and the regeneration process. Frequent, physiologically correct hoof trims aid the process even further.
I would not suggest blindly adding a hoof supplement to your horse's feed. You may end up giving your horse too much of a nutrient that he may not even be deficient in. Hoof supplements only work if your horse is deficient in whatever ingredients the supplement includes. The best way to determine if your horse has a lack of a certain nutrient is to consult with your veterinarian and, if needed, run blood/hair/urine tests as well as hay and water analysis. Your veterinarian will also be able to tell you what nutrients are deficient in the soil in your area of the country. This way, you won't waste money on supplements that will do nothing for your horse, or make the problem worse.
There are several types of natural products that can be of topical benefit to help regenerate tissue, including aloe vera, calendula, the essential oils of lavender and cypress, and others. The hooves can be soaked, sprayed or packed with these products to assist and speed up the healing and re-growth process. If your horse has a deep crevice in the middle of his frog, you can apply one or more of these natural products to cotton balls that can be pushed up into the crevice for a longer-lasting effect.
If the frog has tattered edges, your hoofcare specialist or farrier can trim the edges smooth (although some long-standing infections will have destroyed enough tissue that it is not possible to do this without over-thinning the tissue and causing soreness). Tattered edges can be irritating to the horse when these edges rub against each other (especially in crevices), many horse owners have reported that application of a diaper rash ointment in the crevices helps to alleviate this irritation. I personally prefer to use Young Living's Rose Ointment, or their Animal Scents Ointment. Both products are very soothing and healing to all injured tissues. Visit my Essential Oils Section for more information.
You can also talk with your local herbalist, homeopath, or holistic veterinarian about additional natural products that can help.
There is a lot of new information available relating to hoof infections, however, there are still many questions left unanswered, and many horses who just can't seem to fight the infection well. I will continue my research and observations and will continually update this page as I learn more. I also hope to begin adding pictures of the different types of infection in the future.
Some of the resources that we utilized in order to write this document...
First and foremost, I'd like to thank my many, many wonderful clients who have tried nearly every product out there and reported the effectiveness of these products to me. It helps to know (by large numbers) what works and what doesn't. Although this is still an unfinished process, we are continually learning from them!
Next, Dr. Alfred Fox, Ph.D., a trained microbiologist that has been performing studies on equines and bovines on the causes and treatments of hoof and sheath infections. He has been a wealth of knowledge and has cleared up many of the myths that are circulating around the internet, magazine articles and books regarding hoof infections. He is the President of Equine Technologies, Inc., the company that sells CleanTrax. You can contact the company by calling: (978) 443-8078.
The Thrush_Busters Yahoo! Group has also played a large role in the research of thrush infection in hooves. The members met in January 2005 to discuss thrush and developed a paper with information on the causes, symptoms, treatments and prevention of thrush. You can view this document in the group's "files" section:
Lastly, The NaturalHorseTrim Yahoo! Group has been a wonderful resource for all types of hoof discussion. The group contains over 2000 members (horse owners, veterinarians, hoofcare specialists). You can search the group messages for the words "thrush", "fungus", or "yeast" and you'll find a lot of information that is based on experience.
Other websites and articles that were considered during the making of this article:
Marjorie Smith, Natural Hoofcare Advocate -- BareFootHorse.com
Northern Virginia Equine, Stephen O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS --
"Background on Thrush / the Hoof's Self-Cleaning Mechanism"
American Farrier's Association, Danvers Child, CJF --
"Thrush: Beyond Cleaning Stalls"
Horsekeeping Books & Videos, Cherry Hill -- "Treating Thrush"
The Horse, Michael Ball, DVM -- "Phew! Stinky Feet!"
Horse Illustrated, Kara L. Stewart -- "Something Foul Afoot"
The information on this site is not meant to diagnose or prescribe for you. This information is not intended to be used as medical advice and is for informational purposes only. Cheryl McNamee-Sutor is a certified mentor hoof groom, wholistic bare hoof specialist, horse trainer, reiki practitioner, and an educator and distributor of therapeutic-grade essential oils; NOT a licensed doctor or veterinarian. If you are sick, injured or otherwise unhealthy, please consult with a licensed doctor.