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Trimming Chestnuts on Horse Legs


I have two Friesian crosses. One is 1/2 Friesian, 1/4 Morgan, 1/4 Belgian. He has enormous, unsightly chestnuts. My other horse, 1/2 Friesian, 1/2 Morgan, had normal flat chestnuts. I sometimes remember to ask the farrier to trim Shadowfax’s chestnuts, but even then, he only cuts off a little bit and leaves an inch or more. They are rough and cracked and ragged. Do chestnuts have nerve endings? How much of them can safely be trimmed off? I would be worried about using a sharp enough knife in case of accidentally cutting his leg, so are there some kind of clippers that can be used? I’ve never seen any advice about this problem, and no other horses in our barn (about 30 of them) have these overgrown chestnuts. He is going to be shown this spring and I’d like him to look nice . Thank you! LF, North Carolina

Dear LF,

I love this question! Chestnuts are one of those things that no one ever talks about, and if you weren’t born into a horsey family, you may not know anything about them. I’ve always heard that chestnuts are the remnants of toes that horses lost during evolution. My anatomy book specifically says chestnuts are versions of footpads, the cushions on which animals walk. Foot pads are quite pronounced in some animals, such as bears, and less pronounced in other animals, such as dogs and cats. In horses, the foot pad is incorporated into the hoof as the frog. The chestnuts are described as “vestigial” knee and hock foot pads, meaning the structures have atrophied and become nonfunctional.

But that doesn’t solve your problem, because the darn things still exist and continue to grow. Thankfully the horse I have now has chestnuts that remain flush with his skin and hair. They don’t ever seem to grow. But the horse before him was a different story. His chestnuts could become long and sharp, almost like the spurs on a rooster, if I didn’t keep them under control! I used to peel them off after I gave him a bath, because they were softer then. But as he got older, the chestnuts seemed to grow more sensitive, and he didn’t even like me to touch them. Luckily, I stumbled upon an excellent way of encouraging them to fall off with hardly any effort on my part: put a little petroleum jelly on them. After a day or two—if they didn’t come off on their own—they’d easily fall off if I “accidentally” hit them with a brush during grooming.

Although I’ve never heard of using clippers on them as you suggest, I have had farriers trim them regularly (with a hoof knife, not nippers). And I did just read that some people prefer to sand or rasp them down. You’ll just have to experiment with what works best in your horse, because in some horses they’re quite hard and flaky while in others they’re soft and pliable (I will admit to having twisted them off, although my horse didn’t seem to appreciate this method). As long as you work within the chestnut’s layers, I don’t think you are going to hurt your horse or “quick” him, as you can with dogs when cutting toenails.

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Ask the Vet, Barn Skills

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25 comments on “Trimming Chestnuts on Horse Legs
  1. I’m wondering if there has been any new research or treatment in the area of Sweet Itch ? I have a wonderful Tenn Walker, but she suffers so every June – October. All I can find are the numerous “home remedies” from the many owners that have crossed this path, but nothing scientifically significant.

    • Sharon says:

      Joyce, I too have a horse that suffers from Sweet Itch. The only “remedy” I have found is fly spray on a regular basis along the crest of the neck, belly, and base of tail to prevent the flies that cause the irritation from biting or bring the horse inside during the day. I would also move my mare to a paddock as far away from the pond that was generating the flies as I’m told the flies do not travel very far. That seems to have worked well. If you can eliminate the standing water that the flies breed in (much like mosquitos), even better.

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Joyce, you’ve come to the right place! There have been a few research studies in horses that have shown supplementing with omega 3 fatty acids- such as those found in flax seed, chia seed and fish oil- may actually help support a normal response to inflammation in the body. One study in particular looked at horses suffering from sweet itch that were supplemented with flax seed, and those horses had a significant decrease in allergic skin response. If you aren’t currently supplementing your horse’s diet with omega 3’s, that is definitely something worth considering. Also, don’t forget fly protection such as sheets, especially those that offer a built-in insect repellent. Lastly, I’ve included 2 resources below, including a blog entry dedicated entirely to sweet itch! – Dr. Lydia Gray

      Skin Allergies: Sweet Itch –
      You are now Leaving Funky Town –

    • Amanda Austin says:

      Hi there – my mare has sweet itch as well and I’ve tried many things in the past few years to deal with it and stop the itch and I have found several things that work really well.

      While of course preventing the bugs from biting them in the first place is the best course of action because it eliminates the problem entirely, that’s very difficult to do – at least entirely! My mare gets the sores along the midline of her belly, I check her belly daily and put diaper rash cream on it – it soothes the itch and helps heal the skin. I add in some pure peppermint oil into the diaper rash cream as thats a great anti-itch oil and she loves it when I put the cream on! Within about a week of putting it on daily they start to heal up and regrow hair! If they are scabby, I wash/sponge her belly then scrape off the scabs (she lovesss this) and then put on a cream I have gotten from my vet – it’s a mix of three creams and they use it for mudfever as well but he has suggested I use it for the sweet itch. It’s a miracle cream for healing the infection type thing that causes the pussy/scabby appearance. Once they’re no longer scabby I switch to putting diaper rash cream on them until they’re totally gone 🙂

      SUPER CHEAP and EFFECTIVE methods I’ve found work great!! My mare was so itchy at the beginning of the season, and as soon as I finished putting the diaper rash cream with peppermint oil on her belly she was soo relaxed and stopped constantly kicking at and trying to bite her belly. I highly suggest you give this a try and recommend it to anybody else whose horse has sweet itch! I wish I would have known about this years ago when I first bought her!

      When her mane/tail get itchy, I wash it with head and shoulders (leave it sitting there for a few mins before rinsing out) and inbetween washes I put a mix of baby oil and the blue listerine on the areas where she’s itchy (it soothes the skin and the alcohol in the listerine kills the bacteria causing the dander and/or itch in the first place). She has completely stopped itching her mane and tail since I’ve started doing this! Works like a charm, and they smell nice and pepperminty afterwards 🙂 the oily look is completely GONE the next day and it’s impossible to tell I oiled her up the day before! 🙂

      Give these things a go, I really hope they work as well for your horse as they have for mine!

      • Thanks guys for the info. Let me let you in on what I’m doing and we’re having fairly good luck this year. I use Freedom 45 fly treatment every 2 weeks. She’s in the pasture, which because of all the rain we’ve had, we’re keeping it cut short, but I feed her 1/2 scoop of Total Equine Horse feed with 1/8 – 1/4 cup of flax seed daily. After she eats, I comb her mane and tail really good, give her a good brushing, while checking for any new sores. Usually along the mane, and under the belly. She gets Decadron 5mg IM every Mon and Thur. I mix up equal parts of triple antibiotic ointment, hydrocortisone cream, and vaseline and coat any sores I find. Usually by the next day, she’s cleared up. It’s just a never ending process. I have found that the spray hydrocortisone that you get in the pet dept at your local Wal-Mart works real well getting thru the hair to the tail area. I have to keep her mane cut to keep her from scratching bald spots, but she has a really pretty neck so that’s ok. This is what’s working right now, but am hoping for something simpler to keep her comfortable. Thanks again guys !
        Joyce and Angel

  2. Crystal Kinnunen says:

    You are not alone with having the only horse who grows ugly chestnuts. Draft horses and crosses it is very common to have large long chestnuts and they can have long ergots that need to be clipped as well. I have used hoof nippers for years to cut the ergots and chestnuts off without any problems.

  3. Lauren says:

    My clydesdale/quarter horse mix has the biggest, flakiest, ugliest chestnuts in the world that look like you could just peel them off, but I’ve always refrained from doing this as I didn’t want to hurt him or do something I shouldn’t. Thanks for the advice!

  4. Diane says:

    Be careful, it is possible to quick your horse even to the point of bleeding. I was using a hoof knife to take down the chestnuts on my spooky green mare and she jerked at something causing the knife to slip and go deeper into the chestnut than I had intended. Took several months to earn her trust and get her to stand calmly again while I trim them.

    Some horses have a chestnut that easily flakes off in layers, but this mare has very tough fibrous ones that don’t seem to have layers at all, and they’ll jut out for inches if I leave them untended. Even if softened with oil/water you can’t just twist them off.

  5. Diane says:

    To add another question – why would some horses be missing their chestnuts?

    I have a 25-year old Icelandic horse who has tiny chestnuts in front (maybe 1/4″ wide, 1/2″ tall) and is completely lacking chestnuts on his rear legs.

    (I know it’s not a breed-specific thing, as my two other Iceys have very prominent chestnuts.)

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thanks for your question, one we’re sure many folks have been scratching their heads about. It’s true, some horses simply don’t have chestnuts, and we’re not sure if anyone has figured out why. Count your blessings that you have one less area to manage! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  6. Laura says:

    My APHA mare doesn’t have chestnuts on her hind legs. That always gets comments from my vet and his staff. We joke that my mare is just more highly evolved. How common are no chestnuts?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Thanks for your question, one we’re sure many folks have been scratching their heads about. It’s true, some horses simply don’t have chestnuts, and we’re not sure if anyone has figured out why. Count your blessings that you have one less area to manage! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  7. Jola says:

    I have an Irish Draught that has 3 ‘normal’ chestnuts and 1 with an entirely different anatomy. It does not grow in layers but in pillars that jut out horizontally. If I let it grow, it looks like the geology of southern Utah laying on its side. I’ve been using a pair of sharp pruning shears to try to keep it in check. I snip one very small part at a time but I’ve still drawn blood being over an inch away from the surface of the skin. It’s a never-ending struggle.

  8. bettylion says:

    I learned as a kid to put Hooflex on them (the gooey sticky hoof dressing, since we always had it around), which is the same idea as petroleum. If you do it for several days in a row, they will either fall off on their own, or you can gently pick at them and they will crumble and flake off very easily. I like to ‘moisturize’ chestnuts on a regular basis to keep the problem minimized, because I always sort of pictured them getting caught on something and ripping, ouch.

  9. Mary Loring says:

    I have a 12year old Halflinger gelding, he too has large chestnuts.
    I just keep putting baby oil on them. When they soften up they just rub off.

  10. Paula Scott says:

    I use a bot knife which has a very finely serrated edge and I “saw” them off. You just have to be cautious to not go too deep and make them bleed. I have only had that happen once and it bothered me more than it bothered my mare =o)

  11. Carolyn says:

    I have always just used sissors.

  12. April says:

    I always clipped them with the hoof nippers when they got a hoof trim. Never drew blood and they never realized I was doing it.

  13. Marcy says:

    Jelly is a bad idea when you have horses with feathers. Do you have a different suggestion for feathered breeds?

    • SmartPak SmartPak says:

      Hi Marcy, thanks for asking. If jelly isn’t an option you could try a different, dry method such as using a rasp to try and sand them down, or your farrier may even be able to help pare them away with a hoof knife.You’ll just need to experiment a bit with different strategies to find one that works well for your horse! – Dr. Lydia Gray

  14. Jacquelyn G says:

    My Percheron/TB cross has huge chestnuts, too. I keep them under control with good ol’ Bag Balm … very similar to petroleum jelly … sold in a square, green, tin can. After a couple of applications, they soften up and become easy to gently peel away. Your horse will let you know if you’ve gone too deep, so be careful and take it one layer at a time.

  15. Sophie says:

    I always peel my horses chestnuts and on day it made him bleed is this normal????

  16. Olivia says:

    Chestnuts are actually like a scab. When a goal is in the womb, it’s legs are stuck together in pairs (front and back) so they don’t hurt themselves or the mother. Most horses should have them but it may just depend on the breed. My thoroughbred tends to knock his own chestnuts off when they get too kind so I usually don’t have to worry about removing any.

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