Dealing with stone bruises
This time of year many ranchers are gathering and working cattle, often in rocky terrain. Stone bruises are a risk when horses are traveling in rocks or on gravel roads.
Trauma to the inner tissues of the foot beneath the horny sole can rupture small blood vessels, creating a bruise. When the horse steps on a sharp rock, for instance, the crushing of blood vessels between the sole and the coffin bone causes bleeding – and pressure that creates pain. The horse may be reluctant to put weight on the foot.
A mild sole bruise may merely make the foot tender; the horse may travel fine on soft ground but “gimp” on gravel or rocks that put more pressure on the sore spot. A mild bruise may heal, or become worse if the horse continues to strike the sore area on rocks.
With a heel bruise, the horse puts more weight on the toe. If it’s a front foot, he rests the foot with the knee forward to decrease heel pressure. A hind foot will be cocked up, resting on the toe. A horse with a bruise in the toe area will land on the heel and favor the toe. Hoof testers can help locate the bruise; the horse will flinch when the bruised area is pressed.
If the sole is pared a little with a hoof knife in the tender spot, a reddish or bluish discoloration may appear. There may be spots or streaks of blood in the bruised area. A serious bruise may abscess and require treatment – opening and draining the abscess, soaking the foot.
An abscess usually resolves quickly after being drained and treated, but the hole in the sole may take several months to fill in with new horn. During that time, the horse is vulnerable to reinjury if he travels on rocky or uneven ground. He should not be ridden unless the hole can be covered with a hoof pad or special shoe to protect it while grows new horn. If the hole is right behind the toe (an area commonly bruised), a farrier can add a piece of metal to a steel shoe to cover the hole.
A sole bruise is vulnerable to infection if there’s a crack to the outside, allowing bacteria to enter. If the resulting abscess is not opened to drain, it causes pain (lameness) and may eventually break out in the heel area. There may be heat and swelling above the foot. There is risk of damage to inner structures of the foot if the abscess is not treated and has to travel inside the foot to find a place to break out.
A bruise at the angle of the bars (where hoof wall and bars meet) is called a corn. Corns are often caused by shoes too small or too narrow or left on too long. Repeated concussion in this area may cause bruising. If the hoof wall starts to grow down around the outside of the shoe, this puts pressure inside the hoof wall at the bars, where the shoe is pressing, and crushes the tissues.
Horses with crooked feet may be trimmed excessively in an attempt to balance the foot, putting more pressure on one area – which may cause bruising. A sole trimmed too deeply when a horse is shod may make it more susceptible to bruising.
Some horses are always “tender” when freshly shod, and may need to have iodine or a sole-toughening product applied to the sole for a few days. Others, especially flat-footed and thin-soled horses, tend to bruise easily unless shod with hoof pads.
If a horse has shallow or flat feet, or long toes, a bruise may occur near the tip of the frog – if the edge of the coffin bone bruises the inner sole. A sharp rock can create a bruise anywhere on the sole. In some horses with thin soles, bruising may become chronic, eventually causing inflammation of the coffin bone (and permanent lameness). The coffin bone is only about 3/8 inch away from the sole in a normal foot, so a thin sole doesn’t give it much protection. The sole can also become too soft from too much moisture or bathing the horse. A soft or brittle sole (from too much wetting and drying) can bruise easier.
If the horse is lame from an abscessed bruise, a vet or farrier can pare the sore area in the sole with a hoof knife to open it so the pus, blood and serum can drain out. The foot can then be soaked or poulticed to draw out any remaining infection.
Antibiotics are usually not much help for a sole abscess, since this area is not well reached by blood circulation. It is best treated locally. Daily soaking (for 3 or 4 days) usually clears up the infection so the bruise can heal. The foot should be bandaged between soakings to keep the opened area from becoming contaminated.
Even though the infection clears up quickly, keep the foot bandaged or in a protective boot to keep out dirt until the hole begins to fill in with new horn. Once the horse walks sound again and the area is healing, a shoe and hoof pad can keep out dirt and protect the hole until new horn regrows, or use a special shoe that covers the hole.
A mild, fresh bruise can sometimes be alleviated by standing a horse in crushed ice to reduce swelling and inflammation in the foot. If the bruising does not create an abscess, this ice treatment may be all that’s needed to relieve temporary soreness.
Bruising can also occur in the hoof wall – if the hoof strikes a rock (or a fence rail when jumping) or kicks a solid object. A bruise in the wall can be seen in a non-pigmented hoof but not a dark one. A red stain in the white line (usually discovered later when trimming the foot) is indication of a past injury that is growing out.