Simply put, horses and mud don’t go together. Horses evolved in hot prairie environments. They’re happiest when their feet are planted on firm, dry ground. If their hooves and skin are continuously exposed to mud and moisture, bad things tend to happen.
It would be great to eliminate mud completely from your horse’s life, but that’s not going to happen. So the goal is to avoid mud when possible and, from a health perspective, efficiently manage any issues that arise. Leaving aside the potential for injury due to falls, there are a number of health challenges commonly associated with muddy conditions and wet hooves.
Horse hooves exposed to moisture for an extended period of time can soften and become prone to sole bruising.
This foul-smelling fungal infection occurs in the horse’s frog. It causes pain in both the frog and surrounding sensitive tissues.
White line disease
While white line disease is a widespread condition, it appears to be more prevalent in moisture-laden environments. It occurs when bacteria or fungi infect the space between the multiple layers comprising the hoof wall, sometimes resulting in lameness.
When hooves are soft and permeable, sand, small stones and other foreign debris can penetrate the sole of the foot, resulting in infection. This stimulates the horse’s natural defence mechanism wherein white blood cells surround the invading material and an abscess forms. The horse then begins experiencing pain, especially when putting weight on the hoof, and dramatic lameness often results.
Mud Fever/Pastern Dermatitis/Greasy Heel/Scratches
A multifactorial problem with many names, yet few straightforward solutions, mud fever is a frustrating syndrome seen in horses exposed to excessively wet or muddy environments. It may be caused by viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic infections. Heavy horses are particularly susceptible (potentially because their feathered legs can trap dirt and moisture), and the hind limbs are more commonly affected.
Tendon and ligament damage
When crossing muddy terrain, especially if the mud is deep, your horse is at risk of twisting its legs unnaturally. The result can be injury to its delicate leg tendons and ligaments.
Tips for dealing with mud
Avoiding prolonged exposure to muddy conditions is the most effective way of reducing your horse’s risk of contracting many mud-related diseases. An easy way to lower exposure is to refrain from turning your horse out when the ground is muddy. Try using an indoor arena instead. Your goal should be to reduce the amount of moisture on your horse’s skin and hooves. To do this, you should regularly pick out your horse’s feet when coming in from the paddocks. Also, it may be helpful to use a towel or blow-dryer to dry off the legs and feet. These efforts will help introduce oxygen into the under-ventilated areas of the feet and legs, helping kill the anaerobic bacteria responsible for many of the diseases mentioned above.
For some horses, exposure to even modest amounts of mud can cause skin and feet conditions. A proper diagnosis of the particular condition affecting your horse will lead to appropriate management and treatment. In some cases, corticosteroids may be added to the treatment regimen to reduce inflammation and improve clinical signs.
In our practice, we’ve had a lot of success treating pastern dermatitis (mud fever) with a veterinary product called Panalog, which combines an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory and an antifungal. We have our clients thoroughly clean (using chlorhexidine soap) and dry the area of the limb that is affected with dermatitis, and then liberally apply the Panalog ointment to the skin. This is an extremely effective strategy for combatting mud fever.
Like it does every year, this spring will bring with it plenty of mud and accompanying challenges. Be attentive to your horse, particularly to its feet. If you notice any moisture-related health issues cropping up, call us immediately. Don’t let small problems grow big because they could undermine your horse’s health and interfere with the time you spend together riding and performing.