Feathered Feet

Feathered Feet

Feathered Feet

By Ruthann Smith
© 2011, Ruthann Smith, All rights reserved.
Originally Published in Gypsy Horse Journal

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Feathers Driving

Focusing on your horse's foundation will help enhance their performance and provide the basis for a happy, healthy partner.

No hoof, no horse. Our friends' fine feather can protect skin, but can also readily perpetuate and exasperate problems. Here are elements to consider when caring for the feathered foot.

Feather Facts

Fungus, bacteria and infection thrive under feathers. Hair holds in heat, moisture and impurities. Something as simple as manure or sweat on the skin can make small abrasions become infected. Once it starts, the feathers offer a hospitable environment for cultivating problems. Michael Wildenstein, certified journeyman farrier and Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Farriers of Great Britain, has done extensive and groundbreaking research. He suggests, “Mechanical stress created by excessive toe length, laminitis, poor management or injury can predispose horses to a collection of environmental contaminants.”

Feather covers hooves. Generally we think of hoof disease on the bottom of the hoof. However, at the top of the coronary band, skin from pastern tucks into the coronary groove and actually extends inside the hoof, to the bottom of it. On the inside of the hoof wall, it is called the pododerm. That inner layer, called the dermal laminae, becomes the solar corium at the bottom of the hoof. There, it is the soft ring where nails are inserted to secure shoes. So, if the skin under feathers is infected, the condition can travel down to the bottom of hoof. Likewise, fungus can be driven up into the hoof.

The single most important thing you can do to promote healthy hooves is to keep them, and the surrounding skin, clean. Stone bruises, thrush and white line disease are largely preventable. If a stone is removed from a hoof promptly, you can often avert soreness. Researchers believe most hoof disease that involves exposed damage is fungus and bacteria- based. They thrive in the dark moisture of dirty legs, hooves and stalls.


If your horse has an abscess, soak the hoof in a tub of hot Epsom salts to draw out the infection. Even though the infection involves some swelling, giving the horse phenylbutazone is the worst thing you can do. A better idea is to turn the horse out. The infection needs to move out of the hoof. Let him walk. This will help it run it's course. “Bute” will only thwart the healing cycle.


Let's imagine the most common and seemingly innocuous condition. Say your horse has a little thrush. It is a necrotic process that eats tissue and smells a bit. It may take a while to affect more sensitive structures. The frog is the weight pad. But, the issue is bigger than cushioning the foot. Every time the horse takes a step, as the hoof hits the ground, all the blood exits it and is pooled in the coronary band. When the foot is lifted, blood rushes back in. So, thrush can inhibit circulation.

Kelly McGhee, an internationally renowned farrier who has shod and shown world-class draft horses over decades, emphasizes the threat this poses. He explains, “When compression is compromised on wide feet with big frogs, horses are not only uncomfortable with this increased concussion, a normally sure-footed charge becomes unstable. Horses with seemingly innocuous hoof disease can lose confidence and become more aggressive. In this way, thrush can even lead to using harsher bits. Meanwhile, ligaments can become strained, compromising suspension. If the instability leads the horse to hit the ground with a bent knee instead of the toe or flat foot, more severe lameness can follow. If hoof disease forces the hoof to spread, blood does not enter the foot properly each time it is lifted, so it begins to atrophy.” Michael Wildenstein, resident farrier at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University agrees, “Fungi can consume the insensitive sole, leaving little or no natural protection.”

Now you can begin to understand how a seemingly superficial and common condition can have a ripple effect that impacts not only the horse's comfort and confidence, but also your relationship. A sound mind is contingent on a sound body.

Feathered Feet

Feather gets the attention and the glory, but it is imperative to care for the hooves that hide under the feather as well.

Treating Problems

Wildenstein has tested the efficacy of various approaches to treating hooves. As a result of his research, he makes recommendations. Soaking laminitic or abscessed feet with chlorine dioxide will prevent serious fungal infections. The foot should be bagged so gases can affect spores. The use of iodine on the sole can also help to reduce fungal infections. Additionally, hot seating horseshoes in the application will eliminate the fungi between hoof and shoe. This decreases the risk of transporting fungal spores into the hoof wall via the horseshoe nail. Properly placed shoes will protect hooves from breaks and splits that provide access for fungal spores.

Kelly McGhee likes to share that penicillin can effectively treat thrush. First, wet gauze or cotton with the antibiotic; then, squirt it on the hoof and pack it into the corners with the cotton.

Feathered Feet

Keeping skin and hooves clean promotes soundness. When picking hooves, be sure to direct the hoof pick away from your face.

Proven Programs

McGhee insists, “Your best prevention is the hoof pick.” Michael Wildenstein agrees, “Because a horse depends on the integrity of the hoof wall to stand or move, the focus here is prevention.” He notes that horses that are not stall bound seem to have better hoof condition, as they have better circulation.

Vigorous daily grooming also enhances your horse's defenses. Currying and brushing stimulates natural oils and exfoliates to release them. This not only fortifies skin, but also strengthens hair that in turn protects the hooves. Keep with the basics. Groom daily and well, before and after work.

For bathing, it is important to choose products carefully. Know that anti-bacterial soap will not kill fungus. Some medicated shampoos will, but may also strip the skin of natural oils, leaving it vulnerable and promoting problems. Look for an all-in-one shampoo that eradicates irritants with nature's best antiseptic and anti-fungal, tea tree oil. It is important to use only tea tree oil specified as medical or pharmaceutical-grade, preferably from Australia and not China. Be sure it is rich in aloe vera and Vitamin E. Avoid sodium chloride (salt), a common ingredient that depletes skin. These aspects of your all-in-one shampoo will allow for gentle cleansing, and killing of irritants without compromising the skin's own defenses. It is also important to use a soap that is pH balanced for horses, for quick and clean rinsing that does not wash away natural protective oils. A quality shampoo conditions by enriching roots, strands and skin, rather than just sealing them. If you choose your products well, you'll need far less products and time, while experiencing less problems and enjoying superior coats, feathers, manes, tails… and even hooves.

Wet skin is soft and prone to micro-abrasions. Fungi enter them, and scratches ensue. Be sure to actively protect legs and hooves after bathing. The best way is to keep legs dry. Common methods are toweling and bagging. The first is old-fashioned drying. Which also increases circulation and naturally protective oils. Feathered horses can also be dried by having the horse stand on a grain bag with sawdust. The soft sawdust is pushed up into the feathers to absorb the moisture. The bag keeps sawdust collected and clean at the feet. McGhee insists, “Top horses never get scratch. They are considered too valuable so they always get proper care. Routines for drying legs are consistent and stringent.” Regardless of the method, be sure to promptly and thoroughly dry legs and feather.

Sound Horses

Gorgeous feather can be the source of great joy. Rely on sound daily grooming routines to keep skin, hair and hooves clean. That way, you can enhance your horse's beauty as well as promote a great attitude and soundness.

Bio Pic

Ruthann Smith has spent a lifetime studying sound horsemanship- both as a groom for top international horses and as a renowned braider. Quietly twisting manes atop a ladder, she watched and learned in some of the best stables in the world.

As her passion for great grooming grew, Ruthann became focused on researching, collecting and sharing the best practices of the world’s keenest horsemen. Ultimately, Ruthann used her vast experience to develop exceptional equine grooming products to help raise the bar of horsemanship.

The knowledge she dispenses and the products Ruthann developed solve age-old grooming issues. Making quality horse care easier, they have received the highest honors in the equine industry*. Her Lucky Braids for Top Turnout coat care and braiding products are the best, most versatile, cost-effective and easiest solutions available on the market today.

Now Ruthann offers her LOVE, LOVE Guarantee. If not totally thrilled with a product she developed, Ruthann will refund you in full, regardless of where you purchased it.

It’s her life’s mission to empower horses by educating, motivating and equipping their people to be true horsemen. You can access Ruthann’s tips at: The Grooming Resource on LuckyBraids.com, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and her Horsemanship Clinics.

*After testing 350 products, Lucky Braids All-In-One Horse Shampoo was named product of the year by Horse Journal, the “Consumer Reports” of the industry. They also named Lucky Braids Shampoo and Top Pick for greys and whites. Lucky Braids specialized braiding yarn also got stellar reviews.