How to Manage the Club Foot: Birth to Maturity

A club foot can often be corrected with proper and early intervention, especially in young horses.
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Have you ever glanced at a horse’s feet and noticed that one of them looks, well, a bit off? If it’s boxy, upright, and maybe even a bit smaller than the other, you’re probably looking at a club foot.

This club foot hoof conformation is caused by a flexural deformity of the distal interphalangeal joint (DIP joint, also known as the coffin joint). Many people blame club feet on "contracted tendons," but this is a misnomer because tendons lack the ability to contract. Rather, a club foot results from shortening of the musculotendinous unit, causing hyperflexion of the DIP joint—more correctly called a flexural deformity.

With these terms defined, Steve O’Grady, DVM, MRCVS, of Northern Virginia Equine, described how to manage the club-footed horse during the 2014 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 6-10 in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Left untreated, a flexural deformity represents a significant risk for chronic lameness," he said. "If recognized early and given proper intervention, especially in the young horse, then correction is possible.”

When present at birth, veterinarians refer to this conformation as a congenital flexural deformity. The foal is unable to extend the distal (lower) limb joints, causing the limb to knuckle over to varying degrees. To manage this problem, owners should restrict affected foals to small paddocks and hand-massage the large muscle bellies above the carpus (knee). Applying full-limb bandages can also help the muscle bellies associated with the tendon to relax. If you don’t see any improvement within three days after foaling, O’Grady recommends having a veterinarian administer a dose of intravenous oxytetracycline (which binds calcium to encourage the flexor muscles relax) and a second dose if necessary in the next couple of days. “If the foal is able to walk around, then these generally resolve,” he said

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Written by:

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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