By Stephanie Ruff
Applying consistent management practices and watching closely for problems can help even horses with less-than-ideal feet lead sound and productive careers
Many horse owners spend an extraordinary amount of time fretting over their horses’ feet, believing soundness is impossible because the animals’ hooves don’t match those depicted in anatomy textbooks. So says Maryland-based farrier Darren Greaves, CJF, who notes that the “ideal” foot is quite rare. In most cases, Greaves stresses that deviations from optimal angles and shape are not the end of the world. Rather, with consistent, proper care farriers and horse owners can manage most hoof types, and horses can function successfully in their designated capacities.
Greaves and Scott McKendrick, CJF, of Trenton, Utah, share the very basics of seeking hoof balance and recognizing common foot problems.
Striking a Balance
A balanced hoof allows the horse to travel across the ground better, and this hoof balance is a farrier’s primary concern when trimming and shoeing. Make sure the horse is standing square on flat, level ground while you evaluate hoof balance. Good foot balance (although it will vary among each individual horse) consists of:
- Equal medial/lateral size and shape (the foot’s inner and outer quarters, or edges, land evenly when the horse walks);
- Anterior/posterior balance, in which the foot can be divided evenly at the widest part of the hoof from front to back;
- A straight hoof-pastern angle (there’s a straight line from the pastern down the front of the hoof wall);
- Easy breakover (the toe is not too long and is squared, rounded, or rolled to allow for easier movement);
- Adequate heel support (if shod, the shoe extends to the end of the hoof wall to support the back of the leg); and
- A hairline (coronary band) that is parallel to the ground.
For maximum soundness, providing regular hoof care is a must. Generally speaking, horses that are not being ridden or are in light work can be trimmed every 10 to 12 weeks, but performance horses need regular hoof care every five to seven weeks. Of course, each horse is an individual and situations are unique. McKendrick points out factors that can influence trimming and shoeing schedules:
- Age Younger horses typically grow hoof wall faster than older horses;
- Climate Hooves grow slower in the cold winter months;
- Nutrition Horses that do not consume adequate nutrition grow less foot;
- Environment Hooves of horses kept in soft, grassy pastures exhibit less natural wear than those of animals kept on hard, rocky ground; and
- Exercise Regularly exercised horses tend to have healthier hooves.
The “Not So Ideal” Foot
Hoof imbalances, if not addressed, can lead to soundness issues. “All hoof and leg deviations from the ideal get worse with neglect of hooves and excess growth and can even become more deviated in their form and function,” McKendrick says. Greaves adds that hoof imbalances result from both foot and conformation defects. He says veterinarians and farriers can work to improve and possibly correct hoof imbalances in young horses caused by conformation defects within the first year of life. By the time the horse is 1 to 3 years old, he notes, more damage will be done in the long run by trying to “fix” the defect than by simply managing it.
Two major types of imbalances arise in hooves: First, the long toe-low heel imbalance is fairly common among all types of horses. In this case, the broken-back hoof-pastern axis (when the pastern is more upright than the toe) shifts more weight onto the heel and makes the hoof more prone to heel bruising, navicular (bone) problems, and/or deep digital tendonitis. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s common to see high heels with a dished toe appearance in young horses; these might be true club feet or more simple hoof imbalances. Careful trimming can help bring these feet into better alignment, but it might not fix the problem entirely.
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