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Hoof care key in preparing yearlings for auction
Have a young horse who toes in a bit? Looking for treatment for an angular limb deformity? If you’re a commercial breeder, many farriers say, 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, said Dr. Bryan Fraley, a veterinarian and farrier whose Fraley Equine Podiatry is affiliated with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky.
“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 his clients’ horses within a week of their births.
“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.”
“You have to be aggressive in a time frame, and then you have to back off and just maintain and try to get the best foot you can on that horse,” added Steve Norman, a longtime farrier whose work can be seen on reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan and at many prominent breeding farms.
Norman noted that poor conformation also can have a negative effect on the hoof.
“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 homebreeders.
“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,” 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’d 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, Fraley said, that sometimes can be mitigated with lateral extensions that can support the knee. Another issue farriers might be able to improve: club feet.
“Milder club feet we can improve with shoeing, where more severe cases tend to be check ligament, so that’s surgery,” Fraley said. “For milder clubs, we can use spreader shoes. There are two components to a club foot. They are usually more upright, which is the thing owners usually notice, but they’re also usually narrower. So, we’re often asked to help the upright hoof/pastern axis, help the clubbiness, and then to help spread the foot.”
For issues like club feet, Fraley said, the trend toward polyurethane shoes has been a boon.
“The shoe itself is flexible, and we can place a heel spring into the shoe itself to help open up feet, whereas in years past, we’ve been using handmade hinge shoes,” he said. “Now, because of the polyurethane, the entire shoe is flexible, and we’re able to use the shoe itself to spread the feet.”
These treatments can result in a permanent solution to the club foot, especially in milder cases, Fraley said.
Polyurethane shoes also have another use in the sale yearling, noted Fraley.
“There are a couple of different types, but one most people are familiar with is the Polyflex that Curtis Burns invented, and people are asking us to glue on the first set of shoes before the sale shoes so that the yearlings’ feet are protected while they’re being lunged and walked. It protects them so that come sale time, we have a perfect foot to nail to.”
Savvy yearling buyers can tell you tips for spotting corrective hoof trimming (one is to notice whether the horse’s coronet band is level; a slanted one can indicate that the horse has been trimmed to offset an issue). 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.”
Thanks for this great article, which is true of all horse breeds, whether the horses are headed to sales or not. We need much more research into the development of hooves and legs and when/how/if intervention should be done. However, I would like to protest the short-sighted practice of perfecting conformation in the hope for a higher sale price vs truly needed correction for helping the horse to stand and move to insure a long, sound future. More articles on hooves and legs, please!