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Early hoof care critical for foals
By Denise Steffanus
A foal’s feet in the uterus are encased in soft, pliable hooves to protect the mare from being injured when her baby kicks and during its struggle to be born. About an hour after it emerges, the foal stands, and its hooves bear weight for the first time.
Even during the first 48 hours of life, conformation of a foal’s limbs plays a critical role in hoof development. The soft hoof-covering gradually gives way to a harder, more durable hoof that is influenced by the angle of the weight-bearing force.
Most foals have knock-knees and toe out when they first stand, just to keep their balance. So, from the beginning, pressure is placed on the inside quarter of the foal’s hooves. As the foal grows stronger, it becomes more steady on its feet and more active.
As it romps around, the foal shifts the pressure to different points on its feet, and the even distribution creates well-balanced hooves. But this orderly development exists in a perfect world, and few foals are perfect. Most need help from a farrier.
Steve Norman is the longtime farrier for Ashford Stud’s foal crops in Kentucky. For decades, Norman also has been the regular farrier for a long list of stakes winners, including Horse of the Year Wise Dan.
Norman said two types of limb deformities affect development of the hoof: angular and flexural. Angular deformities create pressure on the inside or the outside of the hoof. Flexural deformities involve the ability of the foal to place its heel and toe evenly on the ground. A laxity in the tendon exerts more pressure on the heel; a contraction of the tendon exerts more toe pressure.
“With tendon laxity, that foot is not going to get enough pressure to spread out,” Norman said. “It’s going to start to shrivel up and become narrow and elongated because all the pressure is on the bulbs of the heel.
“You’ll see collapsing tendons more on the hind end, to where the foals are walking on their pasterns. On the front end, tendons are more likely to contract so that the foal is walking on its toe versus the heel, and that’s the start of a clubfoot.”
Norman typically does the foal’s first trim at two to three weeks of age, when the hoof is pointed and soft. He squares off the hoof with one or two well-placed swipes of the rasp.
“Squaring that toe is a very important first move on a foal foot,” he said. “If you don’t do it, the foal is going to break over either on the inside or the outside instead of in the middle of that foot to give it even pressure. Within a month’s time, you’re going to see a drastic distortion of a foot that’s never been trimmed. To say that you can’t remedy it – you probably can, but it might take longer, and it might cause some other problem. Squaring the toe is a really important move, no doubt.”
The squared toe gives the farrier two points to work with, one on the inside and one on the outside. If, as the foal grows, it has a tendency to toe in, the farrier can rasp off the inside point.
“This leaves a kind of natural extension on the outside of the foot,” Norman said. “What that does is try to make the foal break over to the center or a little bit more on the inside to where it kind of forces that foot out. If the foal toes out, [I will] square the toe and drop that outside point off to where the foal will break over on the outside.”
During the first two months of a foal’s life, the farrier should trim the hooves every two weeks; foals with a significant problem may need to be tended to every week.
Norman said the advent of Equilox and glue-on shoes has made the farrier’s job simpler when dealing with foals. Equilox is a strong resin adhesive that can be used to build up or even reconstruct a hoof wall.
“Before Equilox or glue came around, all we were doing was trimming the foot and living with it,” he said. “Now we can get a little more aggressive, a little more supportive with glue-on shoes at a very young age.”
Farrier and vet, working together
Resolving extreme angular or flexural deformities requires cooperation between the veterinarian and the farrier. The veterinarian may employ a high-tech Dynasplint to straighten the leg gradually, or he may opt for a surgical solution.
Dr. M. Phyllis Lose, author of the indispensable books “Blessed Are the Broodmares” and “Blessed Are the Foals,” believes she was the first veterinarian to perform an inferior check ligament desmotomy (cutting) to resolve clubfootedness caused by a flexural deformity. Her paper, published in 1981, was the first to document the procedure.
“I transected the inferior check ligament, just a little bit below the knee,” Lose said. “Within 12 hours, and even shorter than that, the foal would have its foot on the ground, and that would be the end of it. Those foals went on to become show horses or racehorses on the flat or over fences.”
For severe angular deformities, surgeons perform periosteal elevation (loosening the bone membrane), transphyseal bridging (screws and wires), or a new procedure that employs a single screw in the ankle.
“After surgery, we can keep supporting the foot or make the foot as natural as possible and let the surgery do the rest,” Norman said. “You’re definitely altering the limb when you do the surgery versus any kind of shoe we put on. But the combination of both can help.”
Norman said a good manager is essential in monitoring how a foal responds to surgery and corrective trimming.
“The manager is looking at the foal every day and seeing the change in foot pattern and how the foal is moving,” he said. “Between the manager, the vet, and the horseshoer, they can decide what’s best for the foal.”
One of the rarest anomalies seen in newborn foals is the presence of an extra leg. Fewer than a handful of this type of birth defect have been recorded, and only one involving a Thoroughbred foal.
In the 1970s, M. Phyllis Lose, the country’s first female equine veterinarian, was tending to the foaling mares at Maui Meadow Farm in West Chester, Pa., when one of its top Thoroughbred mares produced a filly with an extra limb attached to the splint bone of its left foreleg.
Lose recalled, “I said, ‘Uh-oh. What is this hanging on the inside of its little foreleg?’ I radiographed the filly’s leg and found a complete extra leg. It had a cannon bone, an ankle, a pastern, and a little foot.”
Decades later, Lose still is unsure if the extra leg was a remnant of a resorbed embryo or caused by a genetic flaw.
“I removed the extra limb, and it was forgotten,” she said. “The filly became a nice racehorse, and she was never affected by it. Her dam subsequently produced several foals by the same sire, and I never had another case like this, even with that same bloodline, in my 60 years of practice.”
Lose wrote about this rare event in her books “Blessed Are the Broodmares” and “Blessed Are the Foals.”