Have a young horse who toes in a bit? Looking for treatment for an angular limb deformity?
If you’re a commercial breeder chances are you won’t just be calling your veterinarian about those issues. You’ll probably put in a call to your hoof specialist, too.
Getting a thoroughbred from foaling to a successful yearling sale often is a team effort, and farriers play a key role – not only in simply shoeing a young horse but also in influencing how a young equine limb grows.
“Farriers have a limited period in which to influence a foal’s development,” Kentucky vet Dr. Bryan Fraley said.
“The growth plates close from the ground up,” he said. “So, for deformities in, say, the pastern joint, which is very close to the ground, we have a very short amount of time to get on those – weeks to a month.
“Then, as you go up to the knee and the distal radius, we have until all the way up to yearling age. We’re usually focusing on the lower-limb problems early on and worrying about the upper-limb issues later, unless they’re very severe.”
Fraley begins examining horses within a week of being foaled. “Sometimes I’ll give them just a very light trim, if need be,” he said. “Then I try to look at them every two to three weeks until they’re a few months old, with light trimming.
“After three months, we stretch that out to about once a month. Foals change so quickly, and we’re usually looking for major conformational issues, things that are going to cause a major problem.”
Prominent Kentucky farrier Steve Norman noted poor conformation also can have a negative effect on the hoof. Norman’s work can be seen on USA Horse of the Year Wise Dan and at many prominent breeding farms.
“Conformation can distort feet,” he said. “What I call correction is maintaining that foot back to a natural balance.”
Some limb problems, such as a limb rotated outward, often improve on their own as a foal matures and grows. But a farrier, often working with a veterinarian, can provide help for other issues.
For example, a farrier can help lax flexor tendons – which can make a foal’s toes turn up and cause them to walk on their heel bulbs – by applying a heel extension that gives the foal extra support as the condition corrects over time.
He might be able to use a toe extension and/or heel wedge to aid a foal with contracted tendons. And Fraley said farriers have an arsenal of weapons against angular limb deformities, from hoof-trimming to extensions.
“In the mild horse, where we’re just trimming, there’s a rule of thumb that farriers go by,” Fraley said. “If the horse toes in, [we] trim in, and if they’re toeing out, we’re trimming out.
“That means if the horse toes in, we’re usually lowering the inside heel. That helps change the way the growth plate loads and, over time, allows that foal to help correct it. They have an auto-correcting mechanism in them anyway. Foals want to be straight, and we’re just trying to help them get there.”
That helps breeders, too, particularly if they’re pointing the foal toward eventual sale as a yearling. It’s a different story for home breeders.
“Even in the foal stage to weanling stage to yearling stage, if you’re going to keep them to race, we’re just going to trim the foot and try to get the best foot we can on that horse month to month and live with it,” leading farrier Steve Norman said. “We’re going to do some little, mild correction, but you’re just going to let that horse grow up and go to the races. For a sale, it’s all about making this horse look good and walk good for that particular day.”
But Norman warned that you can “over-correct” a yearling – creating a new issue as you attempt to solve an existing one – as some sellers and farriers learned several decades ago when aggressive trimming on toed-out horses was not uncommon.
“If you dropped the outside on a horse that toed out, when he moved, he would actually flip the hoof more in flight, so you’d have more action in flight, and that’s very offensive,” Norman said.
Buyers view too much action in flight as a less-efficient and ungainly stride and will penalize a horse for it.
But farriers can help a yearling owner tackle a surprising range of conformational issues. “If a yearling’s knees are bowing out that can sometimes be mitigated with lateral extensions that can support the knee.”
And Norman advises yearling buyers to do more than judge a hoof by its cover: Pick up a yearling’s hoof and look at the sole, too.
For sellers, Norman has some simple advice to improve a yearling’s general hoof condition. It has nothing to do with hoof oil, which Norman eschews, or with expensive supplements.
“Three weeks or monthly consistent trims to rebalance the foot,” he said. “Keep the horse healthy, and pick the feet out. It’s so simple.”