Stress rings are easy to identify yet commonly overlooked. They appear as a ridge or groove that runs around the outer hoof wall, and parallel to the ground. These can range in severity from slight depressions to rolling hills that cover the wall.
What does this mean for my horse?
If your horses hooves have stress rings (growth rings) its a sign that the laminae (connective tissue) is under stress and cannot hold a solid connection from the top of the hoof down to ground level.
All too often owners ignore this sign (along with all the others) until it is too late. Your horse is telling you now that something is not right and it is your responsibility as an owner to take action. This rippled appearance is an indication of systematic stress which could be caused by a variety of influences.
Poor hoof function, overgrown horn, impacted bars, incorrect hoof loading, peripheral loading, skeletal misalignment, previous injuries, toxin overload, high sugar consumption, hind gut imbalance, periods of stress, changes in weather. All are contributing factors to the development of stress rings and has been linked to sub clinical laminitis. An experienced barefoot trimmer can help determine the cause.
Stress rings are a symptom of a deeper cause. As an owner you should take this seriously and seek the expertise of a hoofcare professional who understands the interplay of hoof structures. If left unchecked the hoof health will continue to decline and lead to further and deeper pathologies, which in some cases cause permanent damage.
How can I recognize it?
Stress rings are easily recognizable. But first it would help to have a basic guideline of what a healthy hoof should look like on the outside.
The external appearance of a healthy hoof is one that is hard, dense and without cracks or chipping. The hoofwall should run in a straight line from coronet to the ground and look smooth.
Stress rings are a blemish on a smooth hoof wall. You can see in the pictures to the left the ripple created runs the length of the hoof. It can be one ripple, thirteen ripples, twenty four ripples, lots of little ripples, big ripples, small ripples. They all have their own appearance, yet their affect is the same...
A weakened wall caused by an unhealthy hoof.
How can I help to see this healed?
The number one cause for stress rings I've observed is poor hoof function. Usually as a result of the horse carrying its weight on the wall of the hoof (peripheral loading) or due to overgrown bars (causing internal damage).
There is evidence to suggest the hoofwall itself is fluid. This means that once the hoof mechanics are corrected the stress rings will disappear without having to be rasped off, contrary to popular opinion. I personally vouch for this theory as I have seen it work time and again.
As a responsible horse owner your first priority would be to find a hoofcare practitioner who can identify and treat the cause of the stress rings, not just the symptom. Anyone can rasp away the outer wall, but to correct the actual hoof function is as much an art as it is a science.
They can also help you identify other factors that may be responsible for the appearance of stress rings.
Check your horses diet and if necessary adjust it to NHC guidelines.
Listen to and follow the advice of your barefoot trimmer. They are not responsible for correcting your horses hoof, you are.
How can I make sure this doesn't happen again?
As the horses owner you are responsible for the management and ongoing health of its hooves. These guidelines will help minimize the re-appearance of stress rings.
Stick to a regular trim schedule (3-5 weeks maximum).
Ensure your horses diet is in line with NHC guidelines.
Examine lifestyle and living conditions, and if any changes are necessary do what you can to make it happen.
Understand that periods of stress such as worming, transport, diet changes, and rapid weather changes can cause stress rings to appear. However, if the hoof mechanics are functioning correctly, stress rings on the whole will not be very observable.
Horses are dynamic creatures, and so is the environment they live in. Following these guidelines will go a long way in helping your horse develop not only a sound hoof, but a healthy one.