A foot bruise doesn’t sound serious. And in terms of long-term consequences, it’s usually not. But to your horse, it’s definitely a different matter. Bruised feet are extremely painful.
Usually the term “bruise” refers to the sole, but any of the soft-tissue structures in the foot can be bruised. Bruising is caused by anything that delivers a significant direct blow or shearing force to the live tissues of the foot. Road founder (laminitis caused by excessive work over hard surfaces) is really a “bruise” of the sensitive laminae.
Horses with overly long toes may develop bruising, visible as a pink-to-red discoloration, at the white line and in the immediately adjacent sole. This is caused by excessive shear on the laminae in the area pulling the insensitive laminae away from the sensitive laminae, a local laminitis.
The most prevalent type of bruising, however, occurs when the horse steps down on a hard object or is forced to work over a rocky, hard surface. Horses with flat feet are more prone to sole bruising, but bruising of the frog and heel can occur in any horse, especially one with long toes that cause the heel area to bear more than the usual amount of weight (see heel problems, September 2000). Excessive paring out of the sole during trimming will also predispose a horse to sole bruising by removing too much of the tougher, dead sole tissue.
If you are riding your horse and she steps on a rock that causes her to limp the rest of the way home you probably don’t need help with diagnosis. However, more often than not bruising does not cause dramatic pain until the next day or so, working up gradually to a significant level of pain with continued work on unyielding surfaces.
Just picking up the foot and looking at it usually won’t tell you anything. Most horses have enough dead sole layers on their feet that a bruise is not visible until the sole is pared away to some degree.
There may also be bruises hidden under the shoes. Heels and frogs do not have visible bruises either. Examination with hoof testers will usually be positive over bruised areas.
If the horse is extremely lame, the vet will likely do X-rays. If these are negative or unchanged, you will be given a diagnosis of a bruise or possible abscess.
If the shoes are pulled, feet trimmed and hoof tested and there is still no obvious indication of bruising vs. abscess, the diagnosis will remain up in the air. In general, abscesses make the horse more dramatically lame, even three-legged lame, in a higher percentage of cases than a bruise, although even this is not always true. In any event, treatment is basically the same.
If you know your horse stepped on a rock or other hard surface and was immediately sore, you should treat him by cold-water hosing/soaking and iced poultices for the first 24 hours. After this, warm soaks (with or without Epsom salts), compresses and warmed poultices gently encourage circulation, which aids in removing the blood and healing the tissues. This will also encourage any element of infection to break open and drain. Ichthammol to the soles can be used instead of poulticing.
We especially like Hawthorne’s Sole Pack, available in individual packs or a tub. This is a pine-tar-based treatment with a poultice consistency that stays in place well, does not dry out and is soothing to soles, frogs and heels. Be prepared for a long haul, though. Bruising can take two to three weeks to resolve.
You can’t prevent your horse from ever having a bruised foot. However, you can help avoid the situation by being sure the soles are not excessively pared, especially in hard-working horses or horses turned out on hard ground. Horses with flat feet or tender/thin soles may benefit from a sole-toughening product. Venice turpentine (available in most tack stores) used nightly works well.
Another product that does an excellent job of toughening soles and relieving pain from superficial bruising is Bonaseptic’s Tuf-Foot. This product was first compounded in 1935 to help hunting dogs with paw “tenderfootedness.” It contains natural balsams and works great on horses’ feet, too.
If needed, tender-footed horses, or horses still recovering from a bruise, can benefit from the use of full pads and shoes.
A foot bruise diagnosis is often made after everything else is ruled out and assuming the pain is due to a bruise. While the owner may be relieved the problem isn’t worse, the horse is still in pain. You must be diligent in providing nursing care. For prevention, avoid hard, rocky surfaces and consider shoes with pads for thin-soled or tender footed horses.
Contact Your Local Tack Store Or: Hawthorne Products 800/548-5658; Bonaseptic 888/883-3668.