Small Feet, Big Responsibility: Hoof Care for Foals
A youngster’s hoof care lays the foundation for his future
Caring for a foal requires specialized knowledge, especially in one area: hoof care. Early care of the feet can greatly affect a foal’s monetary value, athletic prospects, and overall soundness, say our sources.
Some aspects of foot care can even impact a foal’s limb anatomy for life. “A lot of what you do (to the horse) as a foal is going to affect the animal as an adult,” says Stephen O’Grady, DVM, of Virginia Therapeutic Farriery, in Keswick.
What’s Normal in Newborns?
When a foal is born, he has all the hoof structures he’ll have for life, but they are immature, of course. Initially, in the uterus, the hoof is soft to reduce the risk of trauma to the mare’s reproductive tract. After birth it quickly hardens as the protective gelatinous perioplic membrane, or eponychium, retracts and dries out.
At birth, the hoof has a conical shape that tapers from the wider coronet to a narrow, pointed toe at the ground, says O’Grady. Much of the weight-bearing is at the toe until around one month of age. As the foal grows and the hoof develops, the hoof grows downward (distally) and its ground surface increases. O’Grady says exercise and trimming increase the foot’s ground surface area, and the trim moves that ground surface in a palmar/plantar (toe to heel) direction.
The First Exam
“I think all foals should have an examination performed by a veterinarian and a farrier within the first two weeks of life to assess limb conformation, examine their feet, and watch them walk,” says O’Grady.
Deviations can be normal for the foal initially; a veterinarian and farrier can determine whether any of these are problematic.
“When babies are born, they are generally a little bit toed-out, and that’s normal,” says John Sligh, CJF, a now-retired farrier in Alaska who worked with foals on Thoroughbred breeding farms in Ocala, Florida. “I don’t usually try to correct that because as the baby grows and his chest widens, those legs straighten right up.”
The hoof care team’s actions during an early exam are what can potentially affect the foal’s future limb and foot conformation. “As many limb abnormalities involve the joints, there is a small window of opportunity from birth to four months or so to correct many problems, after which it becomes more difficult,” says O’Grady. “You have a better chance to correct an animal if a limb deformity or foot problem is noticed early and addressed appropriately.”
For example, O’Grady says early diagnosis and conservative care can improve many angular limb deformities, such as carpal valgus (“knock knees”). Here, something as simple as controlling the foal’s exercise and later placing an acrylic extension on the hoof can be effective.
At the first trim, usually at a month of age, O’Grady says all that might be necessary is squaring the toe in the front with the rasp to remove the point so the foot can break over (the moment the heels leave the ground during movement) in the middle of the toe. On subsequent trims he recommends keeping the length of the foot’s ground surface trimmed to the base of the frog and not letting the heels grow forward. “You’re putting weight on a larger surface area; therefore, you’re stimulating the whole foot to grow stronger,” he says.
While Sligh says having the farrier out every 30 days after the first exam is adequate, checks every two weeks are even better, offering the farrier more chances to prevent problems from progressing.
In addition to detecting initial problems during that first exam, the farrier helps teach the foal to hold his feet up properly, says Sligh, who prefers to use two handlers with foals.
One person leads the foal up beside a wall and holds the foal’s head. While the farrier addresses the front feet, Sligh has the second person rest his or her hand on the foal’s rump to prevent it from moving away from the wall. When the farrier addresses the rear feet, the second handler simply holds the farrier’s tools.
“If you do this, you’ll make a far better horse out of him as far as cooperation goes,” says Sligh. “It makes for a lot easier foal to trim, and you can do a much better job on them, as well.”
The Vet-Farrier Partnership
O’Grady and Sligh both suggest foal owners find a veterinarian with an interest in farriery, especially foal hoof care, and an experienced farrier to coordinate foals’ care, even if it is only on a small farm that has a few foals born each year.
The veterinarian brings a knowledge of anatomy and physiology, along with the ability to diagnose and medically treat limb abnormalities. Meanwhile, the farrier’s focus is on the hoof’s functional and mechanical aspects and how trimming and farriery can affect the limb and foot.
Your farrier and veterinarian should strive to develop a collegial relationship in which they communicate well about your concerns and how to address them. “You’re helping the animal while helping the client,” says O’Grady.
He says many of today’s veterinary schools don’t teach extensive podiatry and farriery to students, so veterinarians often gain experience and expertise by attending continuing education courses and seeking hands-on training working with feet.
Sligh says another benefit to having the veterinarian present at the first exam is to take radiographs (X rays) of the limbs and joints as needed.
Mistakes to Avoid
O’Grady says many owners think their foals’ limbs and hooves look fine and turn them and their dams out in a big field right away. However, it’s vital to have foal limbs evaluated first.
“If you see something wrong with the limbs, you can limit that animal’s exercise, and this alone often makes a world of difference,” says O’Grady.
Never skip watching a foal’s movement before working on his feet. “How the foal walks and how the foot lands is giving you a prelude of what you’re going to do to the animal’s feet, if you’re going to do anything at all,” he says.
Overtrimming can also be an issue. “Foals don’t grow a lot of foot, and the foot they produce is immature horn and structures, so you don’t want to remove too much foot, especially off the ground surface,” says O’Grady. “I use nothing more than a wire brush and a rasp when trimming foals.”
He also advises against sedating a foal for foot care. “If you start sedating a foal, that foal does not receive the experience to understand that they are going to have farriery done every month and it should not be an unpleasant experience,” he says, adding that it can lead to having to sedate the foal every month and even into adulthood for hoof care, which should be discouraged. It is also unnecessary for a farrier to be rough with a foal or use a twitch, he says.
Sligh says the biggest mistakes he sees include:
- Not having farriers out frequently enough;
- Using one handler instead of two; and
- Farriers being too rough with
He says these mistakes can lead to much more difficult horses to handle in the future and into adulthood.
Common Foal Hoof & Limb Issues
Flexor Tendon Flaccidity
Excessive laxity (looseness) in the deep digital flexor tendon, which runs down the back of the leg, can cause flexor tendon flaccidity.
This results in the foal standing on his heel bulbs, with his toes raised off the ground. O’Grady says veterinarians and farriers most commonly see this in pre- mature foals (born before 320 days of gestation); dysmature foals (born 320 days or beyond), which are foals born exceptionally small; or sick foals. However, he says its cause is not completely understood.
“You want to treat these foals early and not wait until the animal is a month old (for the first exam), because then you’re going to have a deformed foot going forward,” says O’Grady.
However, Sligh says many foals’ weak deep digital flexor tendons will self-correct as their muscles develop and they gain strength. For those that don’t self-correct, he uses glue-on shoes to extend the heels for one or two trimming cycles.
O’Grady prefers to add heel extensions made of custom-cut plywood. Extensions provide the digit with stability and allow the muscle-tendon unit to shorten and be- come stronger. He says you should restrict these foals’ exercise to a small lot or pen with firm footing for one hour twice a day.
It usually takes seven to 10 days for this condition to correct if the farrier applies extensions when the foal is around 3 to 4 days old. At this point the toe should be in contact with the ground, and the muscle-tendon unit should continue to gain tension. O’Grady does not use any type of composite (e.g., acrylic glue-on) on a foal’s foot before 3 weeks of age.
Flexural deformities have been traditionally referred to as ‘contracted tendons,’ ” says O’Grady. “The primary defect is a shortening of the deep digital flexor musculotendinous unit, rather than a shortening of just the tendon portion, making ‘flexural deformity’ the preferred term.”
Treatments for flexural deformities, which can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired (usually by 2 to 4 months), depend on the severity and structures involved. Therapy can range from restricted exercise, medication, and bandaging and splints to diet changes, physical therapy, trimming, and, in severe cases that won’t resolve with other treatments, surgery.
“This is definitely a problem for which you need to involve a veterinarian, because nobody can take a contracted tendon and stretch it,” says Sligh.
While the vet might treat with medication (such as tetracycline to relax the muscles and tendons) or by cutting the check ligaments (which attach to the deep digital flexor tendon just below the carpus, or knee, and prevent excessive lengthening of it), Sligh says he typically places an extension in the toe of the shoe to help the foal stay flat on his foot.
“Most of those babies I would put a tip shoe on if they were older, 6 or 7 months old, and they had a contraction, because they’re going to wear their toe off when they’re like that,” he says. “If you put a tip shoe on, it will at least prevent them from wearing their toe off.”
Angular Limb Deformities
An angular limb deformity is a deviation of the limb at a joint away from or toward the midline. The deformity is caused by one side of the growth plate above the joint growing faster than the other. A varus deformity generally involves the fetlock, with the digit moving inward (medially) toward the midline. A valgus deformity usually involves the carpus, with the limb deviating outward (laterally) away from the midline. A rotational deformity occurs when the limb is straight yet rotated laterally. This is more prevalent in foals with narrow chests. You and your foal care team must determine whether a toe-in or toe-out conformation originates from the limb or the foot.
O’Grady cautions against lowering one side of the hoof to correct a rotational deformity, despite published recommendations in veterinary literature.
“I believe in level feet,” he says. “I’ve never felt that you could lower one side relative to the other side where it was going to be helpful or make a difference. By lowering one side of the foot, all you’re doing is changing the plane of the foot from lateral to medial, which can be detrimental, as it may affect the limb above the foot.”
Sligh works to correct toeing out or toeing in a little at a time on each visit by balancing the hoof capsule, but he doesn’t stress too much because it’s impossible to get the leg completely straight.
“Sometimes people try to overcorrect them the first one to two months of their life, and you can just create a nightmare doing that,” he says. “You have very soft bones at that point, and you can actually create a crooked horse that wouldn’t normally be crooked.”
The bottom line of foal hoof care is to take it seriously and have it done often—preferably with a coordinated effort between a knowledgeable veterinarian and an experienced farrier. “It’s the most important time of a horse’s life as far as its feet go,” says Sligh.
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