As horse owners, all we want is the very best for our equine friends. But sometimes, despite our efforts, our horses develop health issues.
One common issue that affects horses is cracked heels. Cracked heels horses occur for a number of reasons, but they’re treatable.
Here’s a guide to give you a thorough understanding of this equine skin condition, how to treat it, and, most importantly, prevent it.
What are Cracked Heels in Horses?
Cracked heels, also called greasy heel or pastern dermatitis, is a skin condition that affects the lower legs of horses. It’s usually seen in horses that spend a lot of time in muddy or wet conditions. The condition typically starts with soreness in a horse’s heel and pastern. This is then followed by a sticky substance forming on the skin.
Over time, this substance will dry, forming a scab which then cracks. When the scabs fall off or are removed, you’ll be able to see cracks in the horse’s skin. This is why the condition is called ‘cracked heels.’
What Causes Cracked Heels in Horses
Cracked heels are primarily caused by a horse being in wet, muddy conditions for a prolonged period. When a horse’s lower leg is constantly wet or exposed to wet conditions, it creates an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive, which then leads to the skin being infected.
Another major factor is the horse’s living conditions. For example, a muddy paddock or a damp stall that hasn’t been properly cleaned can increase the risk of equine cracked heels developing. Even a muddy gateway can expose the horse’s feet to excess moisture.
Signs & Symptoms of Cracked Heels in Horses
The initial signs of cracked heels in horses can be subtle. You might notice that your horse’s skin around the heel and pastern is tender and inflamed. You could find the area right above the hoof and below the fetlock (joint) to be swollen.
As the condition progresses, red, raw skin appears on the back of the pastern. Serum or scabs could also appear depending on the stage of the condition.
Eventually, the skin then starts to crack. But, it’s worth noting that cracked heels rarely cause lameness. If cracked heels aren’t spotted quickly enough, more scabs can develop and eventually cover a larger area.
Best Treatment for Cracked Heels in Horses
Treating equine cracked heels involves a few basic precautions and steps. The first step is to keep the horse or pony’s legs as clean and dry as possible. Bath the affected area with a mild antibacterial shampoo or a warm antiseptic solution. Pair this with a drying agent to help clean the skin. After bathing, you have to make sure that the horse’s leg is completely dry.
If scabs have formed, do your best to gently remove them during the bath. This could require sedation as it can be uncomfortable for the horse.
Finally, you can generously spread a coating of equine antiseptic healing cream on washed and dried cracked heels. This antibacterial cream can help soothe irritated skin and speed up the healing process. Ensure you keep the area clean and dry after treatment to prevent further infection.
And that’s how to treat cracked heels in horses, simple and nothing to panic about.
The Curious Vet gives a very good explanation on identifying and treating the problem.
How to Prevent Cracked Heels in Horses
As they say, prevention is always better than cure. This is definitely the case for cracked heels in horses.
To prevent cracked heels, you have to keep your horse’s legs clean and dry. To achieve this, you might have to keep your horse or pony stabled, during wet weather conditions or ensure that their living conditions are clean and dry.
If there’s lots of feathering (thick hair) on your horse’s lower leg, you might consider clipping this during wet weather to allow the skin underneath to dry. Although thick hair can help keep your horse’s feet and legs dry, even a fairly hairy horse can retain moisture.
Horses with lots of feathering, white legs, and pink skin are a lot more susceptible to cracked heels. White legs and pink skin are much more likely to get sunburn, this can irritate the skin and make it easier for cracked heels to develop.
Regularly applying a light coating of baby oil can also help create a protective barrier against wet, muddy conditions.
What is mud fever?
This is a condition that’s also a form of pastern dermatitis. Most of the time, horse owners refer to cracked heels as mud fever when the irritation is happening higher on the horse’s legs. But this isn’t necessarily incorrect given that it’s a non-scientific term. The measures to prevent mud fever are effectively the same.
When is a hoof crack serious?
Minor hoof cracks occur relatively often but, on rare occasions, a hoof crack can be serious. If the crack appears to involve any structures other than the hoof wall, it could become a more significant problem. If you’re unsure about a cracked heel or it’s visibly causing a horse discomfort, have it evaluated by a vet.
Do cracked hooves hurt horses?
Yes. Severe cracks can be painful for a horse and, if left untreated, can lead to lameness.
Can I put Vaseline on my horse’s hooves?
Yes. Petroleum jelly is frequently used by horse owners to provide a protective barrier on horse hooves. This technique is commonly used in snowy, muddy, and wet conditions. Do note that this is largely a preventative measure.
How long does it take for a horse hoof to heal?
The healing time for a horse’s hoof depends on the severity of the condition. For example, a mild abscess may heal in a few days or a week but a severe one may take weeks or months to heal.