EQUUS - - Career Chances For Older Horses -

Most new­born foals nat­u­rally stand very up­right on their slen­der lit­tle legs. As they ma­ture, how­ever, the ten­dons and bones may grow at dif­fer­ent rates, and a club foot may de­velop, usu­ally be­tween about 6 weeks and 8 months of age.

“We see it most of­ten in the fast-grow­ing young horses,” says Mike Pow­nall, DVM, a vet­eri­nar­ian/far­rier with McKee-Pow­nall Equine Ser­vices in Camp­bel­lville, On­tario. “There is short­en­ing of the mus­cle that at­taches to the ten­don that at­taches to the cof­fin bone. This causes an el­e­va­tion of the cof­fin bone at the rear of the hoof.” And, ul­ti­mately, the pres­sure pulls the hoof into a more up­right po­si­tion.

The good news is that far­ri­ers and vet­eri­nar­i­ans have a lot more op­tions for cor­rect­ing a club foot while the foal is still grow­ing. “The younger the an­i­mal, the bet­ter the re­sult and prog­no­sis for fu­ture sound­ness,” says Travis Burns, CJF, lec­turer and chief of far­rier ser­vices at the Vir­ginia– Maryland Col­lege of Vet­eri­nary Medicine. A num­ber of strate­gies can help to change the course of a de­vel­op­ing club foot:

• Mon­i­tor foals’ hooves closely as they grow. A first far­rier visit at around 2 to 3 weeks of age is an op­por­tu­nity to make sure the foal is off to a good start, but it’s also im­por­tant to con­tinue the exams ev­ery few weeks as he grows to catch any de­vel­op­ing prob­lems early. If the mares and foals are turned out to pas­ture and not mon­i­tored, a young horse may have a se­ri­ous club foot by the time he is brought in for wean­ing.

The early signs of a de­vel­op­ing club foot can be sub­tle. Iron­i­cally, the more se­ri­ous grade 3 and 4 cases can be ad­dressed more read­ily. “In one way th­ese are the eas­i­est ones to deal with be­cause they are ob­vi­ous; you know you must deal with them or man­age them right

away,” says Paul Good­ness, CJF,

Club foot of­ten ac­com­pa­nies con­gen­i­tal limb de­for­mi­ties, which are present at birth.

se­nior mem­ber of Forg­ing Ahead, a far­ri­ery group prac­tice in Round Hill, Vir­ginia. “By con­trast, some­times the milder ones are not no­ticed by the own­ers, so they are not ef­fec­tively con­trolled.”

• Pro­vide proper nu­tri­tion—not too much.

Club foot can ac­com­pany the an­gu­lar limb de­for­mi­ties that re­sult from de­vel­op­men­tal ortho­pe­dic dis­ease (DOD), a spec­trum of con­di­tions caused by overly rapid growth from a diet that is too rich in calo­ries and nu­tri­ents. “It pays to have a vet­eri­nar­ian and equine nu­tri­tion­ist in­volved in the di­ets of mares and foals and have the cor­rect nu­tri­tional plan,” says Burns.

In some cases, a de­vel­op­ing club foot may be re­versed by lim­it­ing the foal’s calo­ries to slow his growth. “If you can start treat­ing th­ese horses when they are very young, of­ten the mus­cles and ten­dons will re­lax a bit, es­pe­cially if you can slow down their growth and limit their ex­er­cise,” says Pow­nall.

Lim­it­ing a young horse’s ex­er­cise may be coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but it can help re­verse a de­vel­op­ing club foot. “You don’t want the foal run­ning around and get­ting stronger, and tight­en­ing the mus­cles and ten­dons,” says Good­ness. “You ac­tu­ally want the mus­cles to get a lit­tle weaker for a while, to re­lax the ten­dons. This can be done by keep­ing the foal more con­fined and re­strict­ing the diet a bit to slow growth. Usu­ally this is how we start deal­ing with the prob­lem in a very young foal, and it of­ten works well.”

• Bring in a vet­eri­nar­ian to ad­dress any con­cur­rent med­i­cal is­sues.

If your far­rier iden­ti­fies a de­vel­op­ing club foot in your foal, sched­ule a vet­eri­nary ex­am­i­na­tion to look for and ad­dress any un­der­ly­ing causes. Club foot may ap­pear in foals who con­sis­tently fa­vor one leg due to pain and/or mus­cle con­trac­ture in the up­per leg or else­where in the body—of­ten as a re­sult of DOD-re­lated le­sions or in­flam­ma­tions.

“This is some­times treated med­i­cally, with a dose or two of oxyte­tra­cy­cline or other med­i­ca­tions aimed at re­lax­ing the mus­cles and re­duc­ing ten­sion on the deep dig­i­tal flexor ten­don,” says Good­ness. “Oxyte­tra­cy­cline tends to re­lax tight mus­cles by in­ter­fer­ing with their chem­i­cal bal­ance. If done care­fully, this med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion can get things go­ing in the right di­rec­tion. This is why it’s best in some cases for the far­rier to work with a vet­eri­nar­ian.”

• Have the hooves trimmed fre­quently and ju­di­ciously.

Trim­ming the hoof to lower the heel needs to be done care­fully to avoid putting too much stress on the toe. “In young foals we try to phys­i­o­log­i­cally stim­u­late the foot to im­prove—by gen­tly low­er­ing the heel and do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to pro­tect the toe. It can be very tricky if a per­son is try­ing to lower the heel with­out caus­ing pain/ pres­sure or in­creas­ing the stress and strain on it too much,” says Burns.

“We want to make sure they don’t wear the toe away. When that hap­pens there is lit­tle to no re­sis­tance to the pull of the deep dig­i­tal flexor ten­don and the prob­lem just con­tin­ues to get worse,” he adds. “If the heel does not touch the ground after you’ve trimmed it, and the foal is walk­ing on his toe, you have trimmed it too much. It’s of­ten trial and er­ror to try and de­ter­mine what each horse can or can­not tol­er­ate.”

• Con­sider sur­gi­cal in­ter­ven­tion.

When med­i­cal treat­ment and trim­ming are not enough to cor­rect a club foot, a vet­eri­nar­ian may opt to cut the in­fe­rior check lig­a­ment, a short off­shoot of the deep dig­i­tal flexor ten­don (that at­taches to the sus­pen­sory lig­a­ment), in an at­tempt to re­lieve some of the pull on the cof­fin bone with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing the sta­bil­ity of the leg. “Some­time within the 4- to 8-month win­dow, if the foal has not re­sponded well to trim­ming or med­i­cal treat­ments, this may be a time to start think­ing about surgery,” says Burns.

After the in­fe­rior check lig­a­ment is cut, shoes are ap­plied to pro­tect the toe and in­crease the base of support. “The heels are low­ered to try to achieve a near nor­mal pal­mar an­gle,” says Burns. “Some­times shoe ex­ten­sions are used to pro­tect the toe or put the shoe where the foot would be if the toe has been worn away.”

Foals with more se­vere de­for­mi­ties—a club foot that is ver­ti­cal, at 90 de­grees, or even tipped for­ward—are more likely can­di­dates for this pro­ce­dure. “There are vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess with this ap­proach,” Burns says. “Ob­vi­ously, the more se­vere the de­for­mity, the more guarded the prog­no­sis, but it’s not un­com­mon for young horses to have the in­fe­rior check lig­a­ment desmo­tomy and go on to sound­ness. When a desmo­tomy is per­formed, those chances are re­duced slightly, but many of them do be­come sound enough for light rid­ing.”

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