CAUSES OF CLUB FOOT

EQUUS - - Career Chances For Older Horses -

Most cases of club foot de­velop in foals. Although the spe­cific causes are not fully un­der­stood, sev­eral fac­tors, alone or in com­bi­na­tion, may be in­volved. Club foot of­ten ac­com­pa­nies con­gen­i­tal limb de­for­mi­ties, which de­velop within the mare’s uterus and are present at a foal’s birth. Ac­quired limb de­for­mi­ties de­velop later, if a foal’s bones and ten­dons grow at dif­fer­ent rates. “Of­ten there is a nu­tri­tional com­po­nent,” says Travis Burns, CJF, lec­turer and chief of far­rier ser­vices at the Vir­ginia–Maryland Col­lege of Vet­eri­nary Medicine. “Foals need a well­rounded, bal­anced diet that does not go beyond the nu­tri­tional re­quire­ments.”

A diet overly rich in calo­ries and nu­tri­ents puts young horses at risk for de­vel­op­men­tal ortho­pe­dic dis­or­ders (DOD), a col­lec­tion of bone and joint ab­nor­mal­i­ties in­clud­ing os­teo­chon­dri­tis dessi­cans (OCD), sub­chon­dral bone cysts, physi­tis and other se­ri­ous prob­lems.

The pain from any of th­ese con­di­tions can cause a young horse to load the feet in an ab­nor­mal way that en­ables a club foot to de­velop. “Of­ten the club foot or feet are sec­ondary to OCD le­sions in the shoul­der, for in­stance,” says Burns. If it’s painful for the horse to put weight on that limb, the flexor mus­cles even­tu­ally con­tract and pull the heel up, and the horse puts more load on the toe. With less wear on the heels, they grow longer and cre­ate the up­right foot.

Ge­net­ics, too, may play a role---club foot seems to de­velop more of­ten in cer­tain fam­i­lies of horses. “There prob­a­bly is a ge­netic com­po­nent but I also won­der if it’s partly man­age­ment,” says Mike Pow­nall, DVM, a vet­eri­nar­ian/

far­rier with McKee-Pow­nall Equine Ser­vices in Camp­bel­lville, On­tario. “If the mares are all foal­ing at the same farm and get­ting the same feed, there may be some en­vi­ron­men­tal causes such as nu­tri­tion.”

In fact, all of th­ese fac­tors may work to­gether: A horse ge­net­i­cally pro­grammed for fast growth, who also gets ex­cess nu­tri­ents, may ex­pe­ri­ence de­vel­op­men­tal prob­lems that lead to dis­com­fort or pain, all of which cre­ates a club foot.

“Some years back I had the op­por­tu­nity to work on a num­ber of horses that were sired by a very popular lo­cal Thor­ough­bred stal­lion dur­ing the 1980s and early ’90s,” says Tia Nel­son, DVM, a vet­eri­nar­ian/far­rier from Val­ley Vet­eri­nary Hos­pi­tal in He­lena, Mon­tana. “About 75 per­cent of his off­spring ended up with a club foot on the right front. Th­ese were colts and fil­lies that I’d seen from the time they were born. With all of them, the club foot ap­peared quickly, be­tween one trim­ming and the next, when they were about a year and a half of age. I know there was a ge­netic com­po­nent be­cause that par­tic­u­lar stal­lion pro­duced a lot of foals that ended up this way.”

Nev­er­the­less, Nel­son adds that mul­ti­ple fac­tors may have been in­volved in th­ese horses’ prob­lems: “I think it was a pain re­sponse. I think what hap­pened is that they had OCD in their el­bow or shoul­der, and be­cause of the pain from those bony le­sions they avoided putting full weight on that limb.”

Club foot can de­velop in ma­ture horses, too, for sim­i­lar rea­sons---any in­jury or chronic pain that causes a horse to con­sis­tently fa­vor one foot can lead to con­tract­ing and short­en­ing of the mus­cles and ten­dons (specif­i­cally the deep dig­i­tal flexor ten­don and mus­cle ap­pa­ra­tus) in that leg, even­tu­ally pulling the foot into a more up­right po­si­tion.

“I watched one young Paint horse be­come club-footed through the course of a sum­mer,” says Nel­son. “He also started buck­ing. I fi­nally looked at his sad­dle and saw that it was very badly twisted. When this horse was rid­den with a dif­fer­ent sad­dle, he didn’t re­sist and he didn’t buck. When his owner got rid of the sad­dle with the twist, this horse went back to nor­mal in his at­ti­tude, and his nor­mal hoof growth re­sumed.”

In­fre­quent or im­proper trim­ming may also lead to, or worsen, a club foot in horses of any age. Trims that leave a horse’s feet mis­matched or un­bal­anced may leave him with an un­even stride and/or a rough gait that causes him to con­sis­tently lift his heels and place weight on his toes in a way that, over time, forces the hoof horn to grow faster at the heel than at the toe.

DIS­TORTED: Se­vere cases of club foot can cause se­ri­ous de­for­ma­tions in the hoof, in­clud­ing a deeply dished hoof wall, a very high heel and widely di­ver­gent growth rings.

OP­TIONS: No one treat­ment is “best” for a club foot, but most cases can be im­proved with skilled care. Many horses with a mild club foot have pro­duc­tive ca­reers.

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