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Foot balance

Our vet Claire has had a few cases recently that focus on foot balance and it’s often something that is overlooked as to how it can affect a horse's way of going. We asked her why it is so important to get right..

Horses are athletic animals and have evolved to run on just one digit – the equivalent of our third finger or toe. From the horses ‘knee’ and hock to the floor is the equivalent of our hand and foot. Having little muscle and therefore weight in the lower limb affords the horse the advantage of speed and agility. Evolving from the 4 toed Eohippus to the 1 toed Equus we all know today has led to certain challenges from a farriery and veterinary perspective in keeping horses sound for purpose. Thankfully the horse’s foot is a very sophisticated structure that is able to cope with the rigors of modern equine life, but we must also play our part in helping them remain comfortable.

When the foot is placed on the ground, weight is taken by the horn tubules and the laminae which interdigitate a bit like two pieces of Velcro, the foot will also expand slightly on contact with the ground, which combined with the frog, digital cushion and lateral cartilages act as shock absorbers. The laminae help secure the pedal bone in place against the pull of the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) – in cases of laminitis, the laminae become inflamed and effectively lose their grip, so the pedal bone is no longer anchored and the pull of the DDFT causes movement of the pedal bone within the hoof capsule.

Horse’s feet grow (6-10mm/month) and change shape, just like our finger nails. If we allow the toes to get too long, it will exert forces on the pedal bone and weaken the horn tubules. Long toes will cause a broken backed hoof pastern axis, putting increased forces through the tendons and joints – which over time can damage the tendons within the foot and higher up the limb and the joints can develop arthritis. If there is mediolateral imbalance (from one side of the hoof to the other) then there will be twisting forces applied to the structures within the hoof, again, leading to arthritis and damaging the tendons.

Trying to correct the foot balance of a horse is not going to happen overnight. A farrier cannot be expected to correct imbalances in one go and leave a comfortable horse afterwards. Changes have to be made over several shoeing cycles – your farrier will recommend the shoeing interval. If the shoes are left on for too long after your farrier has made corrections to the foot balance then you will be back to square one again by the time your farrier visits again. Ideally horses should be shod every 4-6 weeks which allows time for growth, but not enough time to create imbalances. Remedial farriery tends to require a shorter shoeing interval. Radiography (X-rays) are the gold standard for assessing foot balance as you are able to see the internal bony structures and how they’re positioned in relation to the external hoof capsule. It is important to note that it is not ‘us and them’ when it comes to the relationship between vets and farriers – if and when problems do occur, your vet will work closely with your farrier, using combined expertise to make a plan suitable for your horse to try and prevent injuries from occurring, or help horses recover from injuries that have unfortunately already occurred.

If you have any concerns regarding the foot balance of your horse please arrange a visit by one of our vets who will gladly make a plan with your farrier after assessing your horse. Please contact the practice on 01392 876622 (2).

The images here was a case that farrier Brad Greenham worked on with one of our clients. The pony is prone to laminitis, had started tripping and had developed very long toes with no heel support. Thank you for the excellent work he has done beginning the process of correcting the foot imbalances seen here. We look forward to seeing how the case progresses.

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