The Skinny on Mule and Donkey Hoof Care – Cracks

Ever heard that mules and donkeys have tough hoofs and need no shoes or trimming? I have and many people I talk to have also heard this.

When I purchased my first mule, I was actually told they needed very little care, that they eat very little food, drank very little water and did not need any shoes or trimming.

These things are not true. In fact, I have been so disturbed by all the nonsense that you may have heard that I am working on a book called “Four Decades of Breaking Mule and Donkey Myths.”

In this article and the next one, I want to help you understand this thought – no hoof, no mule or donkey. I believe the donkey has the most imperfect hoof and conformation in the equine world. Cracks and contracted heels are the two major causes of lameness and other problems. In this article I will talk about cracks. My next article will address contracted heels. If you don’t do another thing to learn more about your mule or donkey, read these articles! They can make a difference in the soundness of your animal.

Talking Mule and Donkey Hoof Cracks

Hoof cracks happen for a variety of reasons. Some cracks are superficial and are actually more cosmetic than anything else. Others are serious and can seriously mess up the hoof. Some cracks are temporary and will grow out or heal. Others will be permanent and won’t ever completely go away. But cracks or no cracks, lameness or no lameness, inspecting and picking your long-ear’s hooves daily is the best way to detect problems early. I always recommend keeping your mule or donkey on a regular trimming/shoeing schedule, not only for balance and soundness, but to keep cracks from happening in the first place. I like to plan for farrier care no less than every 6 to 8 weeks.

So what is it that makes the difference between a hoof that cracks and one that doesn’t? Well, there are several possibilities. The environment in which your mule or donkey lives is the first thing that comes to mind. My donkeys live in the hot and dry areas of Arizona. I have students who have been bitterly complaining about wet spring conditions and mud this year. Mules in each of these extremes will face their own challenges. The mule in hot, dry conditions will need to hydrate the hoof without the help of his paddock, while the mule who stands in mud and wet conditions all day will have the potential for bacteria, thrush and other assorted fungal infections. So it is important to know your own particular environmental pluses and minuses and respond accordingly.

Examples of the adjustments I am talking about might include:

  • In a hot, bone dry environment, let the water trough run over when you fill it. Your mule can stand in the water for a bit. You can also let him stand in a stream for a little longer when you are on a trail ride.
  • In a wet, muddy paddock, give the mule a dry place to stand at least part of the time. Hose his feet and legs off when he comes in, and consider treating him for thrush routinely.

The front hoof is round and the rear hoof is oval in shape. The wider the heel, the healthier the hoof! The shape of the hoof and the conformation of the mule or donkey is largely genetic. While you can’t do much to change that, trims can be done accordingly, and consideration for the mule’s conformation will help you when considering shoes and trims.

Make sure that if you have a mule or donkey, your farrier is well versed in the normal anatomy of the hoof of a mule or donkey. Trimming like a horse simply will not serve your animal well. BALANCE IS CRITICAL!

Nutrition is pretty important when it comes to hoof cracks. Lots of people like to feed mules and donkeys less than optimal hay. I have even heard that you can feed donkeys straw. But without minerals and vitamins, amino acids and proper tissue building nutrients, you will not have a healthy animal. To be blunt, “garbage in – garbage out.” I have found that most mules and donkeys don’t need a hoof supplement if they are fed good forage.

Related to the idea of good nutrition is not to let your mule or donkey become too fat. Extra weight is a big strain on the hoof and can contribute to leg and hoof problems. Most mules and donkeys won’t eat themselves sick, but if they are left with nothing else to do and lots of grub, they can become fat pretty fast. Pasture is a smorgasbord and we all know we over-eat at those places! My rule of thumb is all night in a pasture, all day in a corral. I prefer a proper diet for each mule or donkey and they have no smorgasbord! I have an article on my web site, Mules Can’t Stand Prosperity. Have a look at my feed program and the results.

So now let’s talk about what you can do if your mule or donkey gets cracks.

Quarter Cracks

Quarter cracks often cause lameness. They usually start at the coronary band and extend toward the ground. They are full thickness and offer a lot of opportunity for problems. They can be caused by things ranging from improper hoof care or balance, an animal with toe in or toe out conformation or hoof overgrowth when trims are not done routinely. They can be related to injuries near the coronary band. Coffin bone defects can also lead to confirmation issues that result in cracks.

Some of these quarter cracks might bleed or become infected, causing considerable pain. You will clearly need the help of your farrier and your veterinarian to sort out the cause of the crack in this case and make a plan to resolve the lameness. X-rays may also be needed. They can show if there is a foreign object that is contributing to the crack or if there is some underlying bone defect. But no matter what, you need to sort out the likely culprit in this situation and do your best to fix it. Without a solution, your animal can be chronically lame.

Cracks Related to an Abscess

A hoof abscess can cause cracks. If your mule or donkey has an abscess and the infection drains from the coronary band, a small horizontal crack called a cleft might appear at the hairline. Usually, these clefts will grow down the hoof wall with no problems as long as they are kept clean and reasonably dry. Your farrier may recommend some antiseptic solutions to help keep them clean.

Cracks Related to Delayed Trims

Some cracks will occur at the ground level if the mule or donkey is left without proper farrier care and the hooves overgrow, flare or are “self trimming” with the aid of the environment. Rocky conditions might result in chips or cracks of the hoof that is not as hard as it might be. Most of these cracks are relatively harmless unless part of the hoof wall is lost. They should be tended to with a proper treatment schedule.

Treatment of Cracks

What can your farrier and veterinarian do to help treat the problem? First of all, determining the cause of the crack is the most important piece of the puzzle because it can help prevent recurrence. Sometimes it is a combination. Other times, it is clearly due to a particular concern.

An experienced vet will do a lameness exam. He or she will watch your long-ears move – in all gaits. Confirmation will be the focus, then the vet will turn to the issues we have previously discussed. What are you asking the animal to do, and in what conditions does the creature live. Is your farrier experienced at trimming mules and donkeys? Is the schedule adequate? Have you been feeding your mule or donkey appropriately? Perhaps supplements will be suggested.

The next step will be to fix or at least stabilize the crack. Your farrier and veterinarian might have particular methods they recommend for different types of cracks. Balancing Mr. Donkey’s hooves so his weight is evenly distributed over his hoof is important to let the hoof work the way God intended. In some cases trimming the foot is all that’s needed to remove the crack or to get the mule or donkey on the road to recovery. Other times corrective shoes or other treatments are needed to make the crack stable. There are implants and materials that can be used to bridge cracks. Heck, they can even bridge the crack with some wire lacing that involves drilling holes and making a shoe lace type effect across the crack using small screws as anchors.

Your farrier can use a patch material to glue or fill hoof cracks, as well. Some of these polymers or acrylics are very strong. But these fills are not a great plan if the crack is bleeding or infected. The problem must be addressed first as you don’t want to seal the problem inside the hoof – it can actually make it worse though we might feel better about the way it looks. What your farrier chooses to use must fit the circumstances or it will solve nothing.

Graveling

Hoof cracks can also come from small gravel stuck in the white line area of the hoof. This gravel slowly works its way up inside the hoof. The gravel can actually travel all the way up to the coronary band and break out there. Figuring this one out is generally not too tough.

There is also an infection that can get in the sensitive parts of the hoof and undermine the sole. This kind of infection is due to a piece of sand or dirt introducing bacteria into the white line area and it affects the inside hoof wall. This one is a little tougher to figure out than flat out graveling. But lots of times, if the farrier places a close nail and allows the introduction of the contaminant, it will travel up and the hoof will abscess at the coronary band.

I can tell you that graveling can also take place near the bars instead of the white line. In this case, the mule stays off of his heels and walks like a ballerina – on his toes! The mule or donkey will be markedly lame and may even look like he broke something. This is a really scary scenario because the leg is swollen, the mule has a fever and the animal is extremely lame.

So if your vet asks you if your mule or donkey has recently been shod, he suspects that a nail introduced bacteria into the inner hoof structures. Treatment will depend on the extent of the problem. These cases generally don’t resolve without the help of your vet.

If you see a crack, be prepared to answer these questions from your vet or farrier.

  • Does it start at the ground or the coronary band?
  • Is the mule or donkey lame?
  • Was he or she recently shod?
  • Have trims been kept current?
  • What condition is the mule or donkey living in?
  • Any other symptoms like hoof odor, bleeding, pus, etc?

You won’t need to call the vet or farrier with every crack – but if in doubt, call.