The Thrush Puzzle
Horse owners probably hear the word thrush second only to the word horse. It seems that people have accepted thrush as normal part of their horses hooves and care routine. Spraying caustic chemicals on their horses feet, lamenting the horrible smells and seemingly making very slow progress.
Thrush isn’t normal through. It’s an infection. It can and often does cause lameness or worse, navicular syndrome. Trimmers can tell you they probably have atleast one case of navicular syndrome caused by thrush, that they are working on right now. Yes, I do fall into this category.
We know thrush is bad, but why do owners continue to throw caustic chemicals on their horses feet instead of tackling the real issues? Is it lack of knowledge on the farriers/trimmers part? Or, are owners just so used to hearing the trigger word that we just fall into old habits, that time after time, don’t work.
Thrush is more about nutrition and ‘correct’ movement than about topical treatments and environment.
Now, that is not to say environment and treatments should be discounted while dealing with thrush, as they are important in combating these infections. New research is showing that they are really quite secondary.
So let’s talk a little about these 4 factors and their misconceptions.
Nutrition: It seems to me, that there is a disconnect with this subject. If we see thrush for what it is (a chronic infection of soft tissues) would we not address nutrition for that? I think any human with a chronic infection will look to nutrition and medication to help treat them. A lot of people assume that feeding a bag of a national brand feed will provide everything their horse needs. It’s just simply not true, no matter what that bag says. Your hay, your pasture, your horses age and breed, your region, your climate and even your water play into your horses nutrition. So if you are battling chronic thrush have a conversation with your farrier/trimmer or vet about your horses nutrition.
‘Correct’ Movement: I always put quotes around correct because as an owner turned trimmer I realized there is a difference, and it’s a big one. You will see me reference the old verbage that a horse has 5 hearts often. Each hoof acts like a heart. The soft tissues in the caudal (back) part of the hoof respond to pressure, pumping blood in and out of the foot as the horse walks. You can already sense how important movement is by that fact alone. Without blood flow, bringing nutrients and oxygen to the tissues of the hoof, there is no repair of damaged tissues or infection fighting while blood cells; which brings the healing process to a halt. Now we need to clarify ‘correct’ movement. Correct movement indicates that the horse is using their foot ‘correctly’. Now there is debate in the community on this topic, but generally correct movement means the horse lands heel first. Some people argue the horse should have a flat landing, but we can all atleast agree a toe first landing is not acceptable. Correct movement involves using the caudal part of the foot, to act as a heart, moving blood through the foot. Thrush can be so painful that it often causes a horse to compensate and land on other parts of the foot; be it medially (inside) laterally (outside) or unfortunately toe first. Not only are those horses suffering the pain from the thrush infection, they are also damaging their muscles, ligaments and bones. They need the soft tissues to absorb force and move nutrients through the hoof.
Topical Treatments: Topical treatments are needed to help combat thrush but they don’t preceded movement and nutrition. You should never use a product on your horses hoof that you wouldn’t use on yourself. Caustic treatments tend to only make things worse. Why? By definition caustic material means “able to burn or corrode organic tissue by chemical action.” This means everything, the fungus and bacteria causing the thrush, the dead tissue being consumed by those bacteria and fungi and even the live tissue of your horses hoof. We need that live tissue there to support the correct movement and bring nutrients to the hoof. The other thing about using caustic chemicals is that in killing those live tissues we have created a smorgasbord of now, dead tissue for that bacteria and fungi to eat and multiply. So reach for a non caustic thrush treatment.
Environment: Thrush bacterium and fungi are naturally found in the soil but wet conditions paired with lots of organic matter make it plentiful. Making sure your horses have the first three things on this list will typically solve most of the thrush cases out there. Environment is still important even though it’s last on my list. Your horses hooves cannot tolerate standing in saturated organic matter. They were not designed for that and subsequently deteriorate. The moisture softens and weakens tissues of the foot making them more prone to infection. The organic matter harbors thrush bacteria and fungi and usually is acidic (ie caustic, see above). Giving your horse a dry place to stand in or better yet move in is important although it is not one we can easily control certain times of the year. It may take some investment monetarily but your horses health is worth it.
In summary, all 4 of these factors are pieces of the puzzle and all 4 should be considered, as all are interrelated. Nutrition feeds the hoof, correct movement provides the nutrition, non caustic topical treatments and providing a dry environment assist the two former for a quicker recovery.