Building a Foundation Foot Care in Foals

Stephen E. O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS

Among the many factors that dictate the success of the foal as a sales yearling or a mature athlete are decisions and management concerning feet and limbs during the first four months of life. This is the time when hoof care helps to produce a foundation for his/her future athletic career while influencing the growth and angulation of the limb above the hoof.

Many leading breeding farms have developed foot care programs that utilize the skills of a veterinarian with an interest in podiatry and a farrier working together as a team. The veterinarian uses his medical and anatomical knowledge while the farrier utilizes his technical and mechanical background. This joint venture allows a faster and more accurate diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of foot problems. Problem or suspect foals are examined on a monthly basis and followed through weaning. Many subtle problems can be detected early, leading to immediate correction. If this program corrects the limb or increases the athletic potential of one animal, then it becomes cost effective. The major drawback with this type of program is that it can be time consuming.

Evaluating the Foal

Good record keeping is very important. Records are designed for the individual needs of the farm and should reflect the physical appearance of a foal's limbs and feet at birth and all minute changes that occur with development. Foals should be observed walking each time they are trimmed. I prefer to observe the foal walking before I examine the feet and limbs. Watching the young foal walk is difficult as they seldom walk straight toward you. A suggestion would be to walk the mare along a fence or wall and let the foal follow. Observe the foal as it walks toward you and as it walks away from you. What we are looking for here is any lameness that may be present, the arc of the foot flight pattern, how the foot breaks over at the toe and especially, how the foot contacts the ground. When examining the feet and limbs, an imaginary dot system works nicely. Starting at the ground surface of the foot, an imaginary dot is placed on the toe, coronary band, fetlock, top of cannon bone, carpus (knee), top of carpus and top of forearm.

When these dots are connected with an imaginary line, it is easy to see if and/or where a deformity exists. In the ideal situation, the dots should form a straight line. However, one must be careful to rule out the presence of a rotational deformity. In this case, both knees face outward leading to a toe out or splay-footed conformation, yet when the dots are connected they form a straight line. Next the coronary band is observed to see if it is level or parallel with the ground (a good indication of balance), the hoof/pastern angle is noted from the side to determine if it is aligned and not broken forward (flexure deformity) or broken backward. Any swellings along the limb or involving the joints are noted and recorded. Each deformity is noted and scored on a scale of 1-5. Grade one is very mild whereas grade five is severe. The above examination enables us to evaluate the feet, limbs and movement in a systematic manner.

Trimming the Foal

In the first few months of life, more attention should be directed toward the structural integrity of the foot (foot mass) rather than to cosmetics. The important factors here are to promote the growth of thick, durable hoof wall, to ensure maximum sole depth in order to protect the tender, vulnerable white line and developing third phalanx (coffin bone) and to establish a strong heel base. Keeping in mind that mass of foot--which is defined as strong hoof wall, adequate sole depth and a solid heel base--is vital for future soundness, very little horn wall should be removed from these foals in the first few months. It is the author's opinion that a hoof pick and a rasp are the only tools needed to trim foals that are kept on a monthly schedule. By having the foal walk entirely on the hoof wall, the hoof wall is consistently loaded which makes it become thicker and more durable. This is achieved by not removing as much hoof wall length from the foal and allowing the margin of the horn wall to project just beyond the sole. Young foals that are trimmed frequently and very short develop thin fragile hoof walls.

My method of trimming foals may differ from the traditional but it is efficient and my results have been extremely rewarding over the years. The foot is cleaned with a hoof pick and only loose, shedding areas of the frog are removed. Otherwise, the frog is left untouched. The unaltered frog acts as a protective mechanism because it has the ability to absorb and dissipate concussive forces better. Moreover, it is felt by many that by leaving the frog intact, the proper width between the heels will be maintained. The surface of the frog should be level with or below the heels of the hoof wall, not above them. Trimming the heels lower than the frog so that the frog projects above them for the purpose of creating frog pressure, does not keep the heels wide, may lead to bruising and is in no way beneficial. In like manner, no sole is removed from the foal's foot with a hoof knife. The sole in a foal is extremely thin and all the protection possible is needed to protect the immature developing structures above. Removing sole is a primary cause of bruising in foals and can lead to flexural deformities (contracted tendons) as a result of the pain. On many farms that have continued problems with upright hoof angles and clubfeet, the problem can be traced to their trimming practices. The health of the foot throughout the animal's life is based on a good solid heel base. The heel base includes the hoof wall at the heel, the bars (which together form the angle of the sole) and a nice wide frog. The bars are needed for support and to establish this strong heel base. The heels are trimmed flat and the hoof wall at the toe and quarters is then lowered as necessary using a rasp placed at a 90o angle just in front of the white line. When the desired amount of hoof wall is removed, the outer sharp edge of the angle is removed by running the rasp around the anterior portion of the hoof thus creating a nice rounded edge. This will help to prevent cracks and chips in the hoof wall. This method of using the rasp also leaves the hoof wall a little higher than the sole causing the hoof wall alone to bear the bulk of the weight when the animal moves. This stimulates the wall to grow thicker and become stronger (foot mass). From our earlier examinations, our objective is balance i.e. that the foal's foot lands flat. If the foal's foot does not contact the ground evenly, we may want to adjust the anterior-posterior balance (front to back) or the lateral to medial balance (side to side). If one lowers the inside or outside wall past balance (level), it should not be any more than 2-3 millimeters at one time. Trimming at two-week intervals may be useful in this situation.

The age-old theory of lowering a toed-out foal on the outside and lowering a toed-in foal on the inside may be harmful rather than beneficial. The cause of the foal turning in or out is rarely in the foot. The problem is generally a conformational deformity in the structures above the foot; therefore, when you lower one side of the foot past balance, you distort the hoof capsule, place abnormal pressure on the growth plates and overload the joints on the side that is being lowered. This can be proven radiographically a few days after trimming. This is why the initial examination is so important to determine where the deviation originates. Foals are born with a hoof angle of up to 60o. There does not appear to be any reason why we have to be in a hurry to lower the heels unless a conformational fault exists. The heel is trimmed with a rasp until the outer wall and the bar are above or level with the frog. Again, our objective from the start is to create foot mass-strong hoof wall, depth of sole and a good heel base.

I recommend starting to trim foals at one month of age. All that may be necessary at this time is to square the toe to force the foal to break over in the center of the foot. Many foals at this age may break over on the outside or the inside of the toe.

Rotational deformities are very common, especially among narrow-chested foals. The leg alignment is correct in these cases but the entire limb is rotated outward; therefore it is a positional defect rather than an angular defect. As the foal moves, it is quite noticeable that the outside hoof wall of the foot lands first. These foals should be trimmed level and not have their feet lowered on the outside wall. In cases where the inside heel has been driven upward due to impact (sheared heels), we lower the inside hoof wall slightly. Corrective trimming does not offer favorable results in the malpositioned limb, as this deformity must be corrected in flight and to date, no form of therapy offers this feature. Therefore, maintain balance (keep level), be patient and encourage chest development through exercise. As the chest fills out, the elbows are pushed outward, rotating the limb inward.


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Flexure Deformities in Foals Building a Foundation in Foals - Part II

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