As I slopped out to feed the horses this morning, I had to pause and make sure that the ever-present soul-sucking mud did not dislodge my boot. Grumbling at the muck and mud, I gave the horses a good morning rub and looked down at their legs and hooves. A sigh escaped, knowing that once again, the battle is upon us. Here in coastal Georgia, winter means mud, and mud seems to mean more incidences of thrush.
What Is Thrush?
Trush is the foul smelling concoction formed of anaerobic bacteria that invades soft tissue, creating (in horses) unhealthy frogs, pockets for potential abscesses to form, and in some cases, lameness. It also can be the bane of a horse owner’s existence.
It can be a mild case, where only the outer layers of the frog are affected, or a more serious case of deep tissue thrush, which works its way deep into the central sulcus of the frog. Once thought of as a compression device, or a shock absorber, the frog serves an important purpose as acting more as a wide rubber band, allowing for flexion in the hoof as the horse moves. This flexion, contraction, and expansion on weight-bearing allow for the energy created during movement to be dissipated up the leg of the horse.
When you have a bad case of deep tissue thrush that has invaded the central sulcus and far into the hoof, that wide, tough rubber band is damaged and unable to do the job properly. Often times, the horse will exhibit pain in the heel of the hoof, preferring to land toe-first rather than heel first. A toe-first landing allows the horse to somewhat avoid the above mentioned expansion and contraction in the heel, as it is quite painful. However, toe-first landings create numerous issues of their own and need to be avoided as much as possible.
Can This Be Treated?
Prevention is the best “cure”, but we can not always control the environment our horses' hooves are exposed to. There are quite a few commercial products available specifically geared toward treating thrush. There are also some common household items that can help in mild cases. A word of warning—please read commercial product labels carefully, and choose wisely. If you opt to go the household treatment route, please avoid using straight bleach as the caustic nature does more harm than good, as it creates a tremendous amount of necrotic tissue in the sensitive frog.
I have heard and seen some interesting treatments—from store brand mouthwash (used that one myself from time to time, and it did help), to a thorough scrubbing of the entire hoof with warm water and dish soap, followed by a good rinse with water. Apple Cider Vinegar is also one many people will reach for, but I have had poor results with it. Owners have also used liquid (injectable) antibiotics and soaked cotton balls or gauze pads, and packed them into the affected area, wrapping to keep it in place. Others have made a mixture of triple antibiotic cream, yeast infection cream, and foot fungus cream and packed it in much the same way as the liquid antibiotic.
Is Thrush Easy to Diagnose?
Generally speaking, yes. Once you smell tissue infected with thrush, you tend to not forget it. There are times though when that pungent aroma is not present and a case of deep tissue thrush, (located in the central sulcus of the frog and into the heel itself,) will go unnoticed and untreated, leading to a progressively more uncomfortable horse.
Ideally, when you look at the sole of your horse’s hoof, you should see a wide, fairly flat, very tough and fibrous frog, with no cracks or holes present. This healthy appearance should continue up into the heel area.
A frog that is narrow, with deep cracks in the center running from the heel towards the toe of the hoof, will also appear shrunken and not able to come in contact with the ground in any way. (Thus preventing the rubber-band style action from happening in the proper manner.) This is very much not a healthy frog, and you will have a horse with uncomfortable to painful hooves.
How Long Does It Take to Heal?
In most cases, with a good cleaning and a proper trim by your hoof care provider (eliminating any pockets for the bacteria to hide in), thrush will be fairly easy to vanquish. Deep tissue thrush takes a good bit more effort and consistency on the owner’s part and will take more time to clear up.
It is worth noting that movement is excellent in stimulating a healthy frog. Whether you simply hand walk over softer surfaces (such as grassy areas), or sand (slightly abrasive) to harder surfaces (such as pea gravel), all movement will help increase circulation, help build a tougher sole, and healthier, stronger hoof in general.
To Sum It Up
Check hooves daily and clean well if it stinks. Scrub it out and apply a treatment of your choosing. Maintain routine hoof care visits, so there are no places for the bacteria to hide. Movement is key!
Remember...No Hoof, No Horse!
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