Rural Heritage Village Smithy

Sand Cracks
by F. Thomas Breningstall

"I am the proud owner of a blond sorrel mule named Dixie that I bought about four months ago," writes John R. Rumsey of Morehead City, North Carolina. "I don't think Dixie had been cared for very well. The first thing I noticed was that she had cracks on the bottom front of all four hooves. The cracks on the front hooves were much worse than on the back hooves.

"I immediately started cleaning and conditioning her hooves, and have continued to do that for the past four months. I have been using Vita Hoof conditioner and am on my second gallon.

"Her back hooves have cleared up nicely and don't have any more cracks. Her front hooves continue to have problems. I had the front hoof cracks down to about 1/4" at one time, but her right front hoof has now developed a new crack that I measured at 1".

"I measured the length of her hoof wall, as you demonstrate in your video, and it is 3". Using a hoof gauge as you recommend in your video, I found that the angle of her front hooves isn't anywhere the near 60 degrees. The front feet are 51 degrees and the back feet are 53 degrees.

"The new conditional hoof looks like it has grown down about 1.5" to 2" and this new 1" crack is below that. This crack is approaching the new conditioned hoof and seems to be turning to the side. I hope that this is a sign that, as her properly cared for hoof grows closer to the ground, the cracks will begin to get smaller.

"I have had a hard time getting a farrier to come and see Dixie. I haven't bought a pair of nippers because I wanted to make sure I was trained to use them before attempting to cut off any hoof wall. All I have done is trim the sole with a hoof knife, and rasp the bottom of the hoof wall a little bit. Since watching your video three times I think I might be ready to proceed with trimming.

"One more question about Dixie's hooves. When I watched your video and you were trimming the mule's sole, I noticed that the sole cut easily and was a nice ivory color. The bottom of Dixie's sole is white (ivory) near the hoof wall and in toward the frog for, say, 1/2" or so. But the sole on the bottom of her foot surrounding the frog and outward is a gray material. The gray sole is as hard as cement and doesn't trim easily with the hoof knife, like the surrounding outer white-colored sole. I am afraid to trim in this area until I understand why it is a different color and why it is so much harder.

"Oh, one more thing. I was reading that biotin as a food supplement aids in eliminating hoof cracks, so I have ordered a 10 week supply from the vet supply company. Is this an effective treatment, together with what I am already doing? Would putting shoes on Dixie's front feet help?"

I would like to have known Dixie's height and weight, what type of work she does, and the conditions under which she is kept (stalled, bedded, turned out on grass, rocks, mud, soft or hard dirt), her diet, and her age. This information would help me determine appropriate care for her feet.

The cracks are called "sand cracks" (I don't know why) and are maybe caused by any, all, or some of the following: poor nutrition, poor hoof care, poor working conditions, feet too dry, feet too moist, founder, laminitis, fever, stomping flies, heredity, and injury to the coronary band at the top of the hoof. Each has a story of its own.

The best I can tell from the photos (which were not clear enough to reproduce here), Dixie has a (horizontal) fever ring about 1" up from the ground surface of the right hoof. Above this ring the hoof wall is in good shape. Below this ring the hoof cracks. In this case I think the cracks will grow out in time, with your help, John.

The crack turned when it reached the ring because that part of the hoof wall is the weakest. To help stop a crack from going up the hoof wall, make a perpendicular notch about 1/8" deep at the top of the crack with the edge of your rasp.

Also notch out and clean the bottom of the hoof on both sides of the crack to take weight off the hoof in this area and help keep the bottom of the crack clean. When you trim the hoof, round off the edge of the hoof wall all the way around the outside edge about one-third the thickness of the wall.

The hoof and the pastern angle looks okay to me at 51 degrees front and 53 degrees rear. Check the front of the hoof and pastern angle by holding your rasp against the front to see if the leg is parallel to your rasp. If it looks good, check the angle with your hoof gauge and write it down for your records. Then measure toe length, from the hard hoof wall on top to the bottom of the hoof wall at the center of the toe. (The hoof wall at the hair line is soft; that's okay. This area is called the "coronary band.")

The color change on Dixie's sole is due to pigment change and should be of no problem. Or it could be just old dirty sole that will shed off. Be careful when trimming off any sole—if it doesn't flake off, leave it there.

When cleaning and conditioning, be sure to coat the sole, frog, and bulbs of the hoof, as well as the hoof wall. For best results, wet the feet with water before you put on the conditioner. Maybe in time, water a couple times a week is all you'll need to fend off dryness.

Biotin is a good food supplement, but it will be about a year before its full benefits appear, since the hoof regenerates from the top down as it grows out. A well-rounded diet is best. Check with your veterinarian for Dixie's diet needs.

As you can see, treating something even as common as hoof cracks can, and does, take a lot of knowledge on the part of the farrier. Dozens of hoof problems exist, and they have hundreds of treatments. It's no wonder the owner has trouble finding all the answers. I've been a farrier for over 20 years and I still learn something every day. Thank you for your interest in my work, and good luck.

Treating Sand Cracks


F. Thomas Breningstall is a full-time farrier living in Fowlerville, Michigan. His column “Hoof & Hammer” appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column was in Spring 1997 issue.

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16 April 2012 last revision