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Wonky Feet

How closely do you look at your horse’s feet? Seriously, when was the last time you squatted down to check how symmetrical your horse’s feet are? And are they as even as they were 6 months ago? 12 months ago?


Since setting up EB Equine, I have regularly noted how uneven and asymmetric horses’ feet are. Approximately 30% of routine, maintenance appointments, and 80% of horses with chronic, long-standing, lameness issues have asymmetric hooves. This can happen both in the front feet and in the hind feet.


Sure, it can be genetic (1), however, horses with asymmetric feet are likely to have shorter competitive careers (2). I think that this is fairly obvious, the hooves are an extension of the limbs, and the expression ‘no hoof, no horse’ consistently stands the test of time.


The chicken and egg conundrum


Asymmetric feet are kind of like wearing two (or four if all feet are affected) different shoes. The different angles, support, cushioning etc. will lead to abnormal standing patterns, subsequently more strain and tension through different muscles, less stability in joints and therefore increased risk of lameness.


On the flip side, if a joint, muscle, ligament or tendon is sore, the horse will stand in a specific way to reduce pain through that structure. Over time, this will result in abnormal hoof development, not only on that leg, but also on the other legs which have to bear more weight due to the sore leg.


But what if my horse isn’t lame?

I often ask ‘How sore does your knee have to be for you to have a limp?’ Horses are flight animals and exhibit signs of discomfort in a number of ways, through changes in facial expression (3) and posture (look at my other blog posts about the static assessment). Keeping on top of hoof shape can be an easy way of monitoring changes in your horse and addressing them early, before the horse actually becomes lame.


How do I do this?

As horse owners, so many procedures are done regularly to maintain your horse’s health - vaccinations, dental exams, worming, weight checks, farriery etc.


Keeping track of your horse’s hoof growth is quite simple (and free) - take photos at regular intervals. This can be at the beginning and end of a trimming/ shoeing cycle or every 3 months, as the seasons change. Keep a reminder in your diary. 4 perfect photos with your horse ideally standing square (contact your chiropractor if your horse struggles to stand square!) on a firm and flat surface can help you keep on top of any changes.


Try to ensure that your camera/ phone is at hoof height (you have to get down low) and that the device remains level and not tilted. Stay safe! The 4 photos consist of 1 per foot.


This photo is a perfect side on photo - although getting a ‘perfect’ shot can be extremely difficult, a handy trick is to line up perpendicular to the heel bulbs. Track changes in the angle of the dorsal hoof wall and heels.



Tracking can be done with special apps, like HoofmApp or a basic Angle Meter app. E-mail yourself the images. You can also take photos of the heel bulbs to make sure that the medial or lateral heel are the same length - differing heel lengths can be a sign of sheared heels and indicate uneven loading of the medial (inside) and lateral (outside) aspects of the foot, increasing risks of collateral ligament damage and uneven loading of joints.


Note the longer outside heel compared to the heel on the inside - this subsequently lead to this horse getting tight in its shoulder.

Really? Get on your hands and knees and when in a steady position, lift the outside of one (or both!) of your hands/ put the outside of your hands on coasters to raise them and feel where the tension goes!


Also note that this horse's shoe is tight - the edge of the hoof wall should not come over the edge of the shoe.




What is a perfect angle?


Although it depends on a few factors, especially the breed of horse, the ideal hoof angle is close to 53°. You must make sure that the horse is standing as square as possible, and not standing under itself - not camped under or over the shoulder - if at all possible.


There is some room for variation, however, horses with hoof angles at or below 46° or at or above 60° warrant further investigation.








So my horse’s feet are starting to become wonky, why?

So many factors affect your horse’s feet, including environmental factors (4), exercise (5, 6), farrier experience (7) and which is their dominant hand (8). It is therefore almost impossible to pinpoint a specific cause of why your horse is developing asymmetric feet.


My horse has/ is developing wonky feet, do I need to stop riding, start to panic?


NO.

In my experience, both sound and lame horses have asymmetric feet. Keep doing what you’re doing but seriously consider a few things.

  1. Discuss these changes with your farrier - there may be a simple explanation or fix.

  2. Appointment with a suitably qualified therapist - vet, chiropractor, osteopath, physiotherapist etc to try to pinpoint areas of weakness and develop a suitable strengthening and conditioning plan.

  3. Foot balance radiographs - it is obviously impossible for anyone to know the exact position of the bone within the hoof and although remedial trims based on the changes you are tracking can help, X-rays remain the gold standard in assisting your farrier.


If wonky feet predispose my horse to lameness and time off, can I be even more proactive to ensure that my horse stays comfortable?

Earlier, we discussed how horses’ routine care involves routine vaccinations, dentals etc. Foot balance radiographs could be a mainstay in their maintenance care, especially in horses with a history of tendon injury, foot pain (including navicular syndrome and arthritis) and chronic lameness. If done regularly, they can also help to track arthritic changes in the coffin, pastern and fetlock joints, sidebone etc.


But I already spend so much money on my horse, this is just another expense.

Slightly off topic, but when I go to my dentist for a check up, they take a couple of X-rays of my teeth. My teeth generally aren’t sore, but they want to look at the tooth roots, and try to decide whether they need to be proactive before I am in pain. Although there is a cost associated with this, it is outweighed by the fact that if they are proactive, as I am less likely to be in pain, off work, and need more expensive emergency dental work. Everyone is different and has routine appointments at different intervals, based on the general health of their mouth and diet.

Foot balance radiographs serve the same purpose - ensuring good balance will decrease risk of lameness, therefore limit pain, poor performance, time off and expensive vet bills.



This horse's foot balance is not too bad, however, the pedal bone's solar surface is parallel to the sole. There should be a slight angle of about 1.5°. This can be done with a wedge or pad through remedial farriery. This horse would otherwise be further predisposed to other pathological conditions, such as navicular disease.





So foot balance X-rays are a fool proof way of keeping my horse sound forever?

No. After my routine dental appointments, there is nothing stopping me from tripping down the stairs, out of the building, and cracking my front teeth.

Multiple other causes of degenerative disease and arthritis will cause some discomfort in your horse, but maintaining a solid and balanced base (the feet) can go a long way in limiting how sore the other issues make your horse.


Conclusion


Looking at your horse's feet only takes a few seconds and recording changes takes a few minutes. This can lead to a dramatic reduction in expensive lameness investigations and time off rehabilitating. As so many factors effect foot growth, addressing the wonky, different feet can be tricky and require close collaboration between you, your farrier, vet and chiropractor.


References


  1. Ducro, B., Bovenhuis, H. and Back, W., 2009. Heritability of foot conformation and its relationship to sports performance in a Dutch Warmblood horse population. Equine Veterinary Journal, 41(2), pp.139-143.

  2. Ducro, B., Gorissen, B., Eldik, P. and Back, W., 2009. Influence of foot conformation on duration of competitive life in a Dutch Warmblood horse population. Equine Veterinary Journal, 41(2), pp.144-148.

  3. Dyson, S., Thomson, K., Quiney, L., Bondi, A. and Ellis, A., 2019. Can veterinarians reliably apply a whole horse ridden ethogram to differentiate nonlame and lame horses based on live horse assessment of behaviour?. Equine Veterinary Education, 32(S10), pp.112-120.

  4. Hampson, B., de Laat, M., Mills, P. and Pollitt, C., 2013. The feral horse foot. Part A: observational study of the effect of environment on the morphometrics of the feet of 100 Australian feral horses. Australian Veterinary Journal, 91, pp.14-22.

  5. Peel, J., Peel, M. and Davies, H., 2006. The effect of gallop training on hoof angle in Thoroughbred racehorses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 38(S36), pp.431-434.

  6. Faramarzi, B., Thomason, J. and Sears, W., 2009. Changes in growth of the hoof wall and hoof morphology in response to regular periods of trotting exercise in Standardbreds. American Journal of Veterinary Research, 70, pp.1354-1364.

  7. Kummer, M., Gygax, D., Lischer, C. and Auer, J., 2009. Comparison of the trimming procedure of six different farriers by quantitative evaluation of hoof radiographs. The Veterinary Journal, 179(3), pp.401-406.

  8. Ronchetti, A., Day, P. and Weller, R., 2011. Mediolateral hoof balance in relation to the handedness of apprentice farriers. Veterinary Record, 168(2), p.48.

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