A long time ago, in the late 1960s in fact, I was the proud owner of a little Brunk-bred Morgan mare named Confetti. She was a wonderful horse who learned, in her late teens, to excel in western pleasure classes against the best and who was sweet, friendly, and loving besides. She did, however, have one failing: she was predisposed to thrush. In those days with no Internet to help me search for remedies, I simply followed my vet’s advice: treat it with Coppertox and keep her stall as clean as humanly possible. It was an ongoing and often losing battle. If only I knew then what I know today.
Thrush is a bacterial and/or fungal disease of the hoof involving the frog and sulci (the grooves flanking the frog at both sides and in its center; the center sulci is also called the cleft of the frog), characterized by thick, black smelly discharge and an atrophied frog. It was once thought to be caused by keeping horses in filthy conditions but we now know there are a number of contributing factors and even the best cared-for horses can get thrush.
A healthy frog is broad and fleshy. Its width at the base should be at least 70% its length. It represents a load-bearing surface that helps absorb concussion. When it comes in contact with the earth it expands, pushing debris out of the sulci at its borders.
An unhealthy frog is atrophied, recessed, and smaller than it should be, so it has limited contact with the ground. As it atrophies, sulci deepen, allowing dirt and debris to accumulate in the groves, creating the sort of anaerobic conditions in which bacteria and fungi thrive. To learn more, peruse these great resources.
Treatment begins with a farrier trimming away any loose, diseased frog tissue. Deep, serious thrush that bleeds or causes lameness should be seen by a veterinarian but milder cases respond well to DIY treatment. Keep in mind that not all treatments work with every horse, so if the one you’re using doesn’t get results, try something else.
Commercial thrush treatments usually work but there are side effects: many are harsh and kill new, healthy tissue along with bad. If you use a commercial product, follow the instructions exactly. More is not necessarily better.
DIY remedies are generally liquids (easily dispensed using plastic ketchup or mustard squeezers, reused dish soap dispensers, and sprayer bottles), salves, and soaks.
Consistency is important: clean the hoof every day. Dig out all debris, right down to the bottom of the sulci; scrub the bottom of the hoof lightly using a stiff brush; wash and dry the hoof; then apply your treatment of choice. Liquids and salves are usually applied on a daily basis, with soaks administered every few days.
Make your own liquid treatment applicator by wrapping loose cotton firmly around the head of a hoof pick. Soak the cotton in your treatment, then swab the sulci and cleft of the frog as though you were cleaning the hoof. Keep replacing the soiled cotton with new and swabbing until it comes out nearly as clean as when it went in.
A good way to apply salves is through a disposable syringe or a 60cc catheter tip syringe. Reused paste dewormer tubes work well for especially thick concoctions, as long as the tip reaches the bottom of infected sulci. You’ll usually need to pull out the plunger of any of these items and top load thicker mixtures using a flat utensil like a butter knife, Popsicle stick, or tongue depressor.
Cotton balls saturated with liquid treatments or salves can be packed into the groove of the frog and both side sulci, covered with a disposable diaper secured with duct tape or a boot, and left until the next day’s treatment.
Soaks can be used with other remedies, usually 2 or 3 times a week for 20 – 60 minutes at a time. To administer them, stand your horse’s foot in a Fortex rubber bucket or pan, or use a soak boot.
(Keep in mind that I haven’t personally tried some of these; they were gathered by Googling the Web)
- 50% water mixed with 50% hydrogen peroxide or white vinegar
- Borax powder paste made by moistening borax powder with water; or create a soak solution by adding 1 tablespoon borax to ½ gallon of water. You’ll find borax powder in the laundry products aisle at the supermarket)
- Raw honey
- Over-the-counter fungal cream
- Cow mastitis cream or salve (Tomorrow® works better than Today® for thrush; both are available at most farm stores and come packaged in easy-to-use applicators)
- Sugardine paste made by mixing 1 part povidone iodine solution (Betadine® is a good one that you can get from your vet or buy at farm stores or at department stores like Walmart) with 1 part sugar
- Honeydine; made like sugardine except by replacing the sugar with raw honey
- Povadone iodine diluted 1 part iodine to 8 parts water
- Chlorhexidine diluted 4 parts antiseptic to 1 part water
- A paste made by mixing 1 part athlete’s foot cream (1% Clotrimazole) with 1 part triple antibiotic ointment, Bacitracin, or Neosporin; generics cost less and work just as well
- Tea tree oil at the rate of 10 drops oil to 16 ounces water
- Paste made by mixing 1 part zinc oxide cream with 1 part athlete’s foot cream (1% Clotrimazole)
- Antibacterial mouthwash
- Soak for 20-45 minutes in 1 part apple cider vinegar and 3 parts water (some horses are sensitive to ACV, so watch for negative reactions)