Cracked Heels in Horses

By PetMD Editorial on Oct. 1, 2008

This condition is also known under the common terms "greasy heel," "mud fever," and the medical term pastern dermatitis. Horses that spend a great deal of time in wet, dirty environments may develop this condition. It is characterized by soreness and inflammation of the horse's heel and pastern, followed by the development of a sticky substance on its heel and the surrounding skin. After time, this sticky serum dries into a painful scab, which then cracks. This is a painful skin condition for the horse but rarely causes lameness.


  • Tender skin around the heel and pastern
  • Inflammation or swelling of the area right above the hoof and below the fetlock
  • Presence of red, raw skin on the back of the pastern, with serum or scabs depending on the stage of the condition
  • Cracking of the skin
  • Rarely lameness develops


The cause of cracked heels is the proliferation of bacteria around the pastern when the horse spends an excessive amount of time standing in wet, dirty conditions such as a muddy paddock or damp, dirty stall. Horses with feathering on the legs may be slightly more at risk for this condition, as the extra hair traps moisture and does not allow the skin underneath to properly dry. As this skin stays perpetually wet, bacteria from the environment grow and cause a mild, superficial skin infection that causes inflammation and the development of small sores that lead to scabs.


The symptoms listed above provide conclusive evidence for this condition. Experienced horse owners can often diagnose this condition themselves, however sometimes a veterinarian is needed to properly treat the condition.


The best course of treatment for cracked heels is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. This means keeping your horse’s legs clean and dry as best as you can. During periods of excessive wetness, such as the spring, daily cleaning of the horse’s feet and lower legs will help prevent this condition.

If the horse has developed this condition, again, keeping the lower legs as dry and clean as possible will help with treatment. At the start of treatment, bathing the affected area with a mild antibactieral shampoo with a drying agent will help clean the skin. After bathing, ensure that the leg is completely dry. If the horse has developed scabs, the bath is the time to remove these. Sometimes this requires sedation of the horse, since this can be an uncomfortable process.

Living and Management

After treating the lesions for cracked heels, keep the area clean and dry. Again, this will not only allow the antibiotic to function properly, but help prevent further bacterial infection from developing.


Remember that wet hair and skin are the main causes for cracked heels. Therefore, keeping a horse in a stable during inclement weather and ensuring that living conditions are clean and dry should prevent cracked heels. Additionally, if you have a horse with leg feathering, you may want to clip this excessive hair during wet weather to allow the skin underneath to dry.

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