RECOGNISING HOOF PAIN.
Most people only recognise hoof pain if the horse is limping, i.e. the horse is unilaterally lame, lame in one foot only. Most people have a much harder time recognising bilateral lameness, i.e. the horse is equally lame in both front feet, or both hind feet. In this situation the horse does not limp, so we need to look for other indicators of pain.
The trouble with hoof pain is that the signs can be subtle:
- Shortened stride
- Struggles when going downhill
- Poor or reduced performance
- Poor attitude to work
- Reluctant to go freely forward
- Back problems
- Muscle tension/ tightness (this could be in the neck, shoulders, back or hindquarters)
- Bad tempered or even aggressive behaviour
- Resistance to the bit
All of the above could also be due to back injury, ill fitting saddle, unsuitable choice of bit or other tack, tooth problems, poor riding and/or training and all of these things should be investigated. The problem for the vast majority of horses with bilateral hoof pain is that the hooves are seldom considered as the source of the problem. Provided the shoes stay on for a reasonable period of time and the feet look reasonably tidy it is assumed that the feet are healthy. The trouble is that horse owners, farriers and vets constantly see shod feet which are contracted, flared, collapsed heels, flat soled etc. These are considered to be “normal” and therefore healthy feet, but they are far from healthy.
As you search for the cause of the horses problems remember that something may appear to be the cause, but only be another symptom. For example you may discover that your horse has a sore back. Has he injured his back (perhaps he fell at a fence, or got cast in his stable), or has he been tensing his back muscles to ease the discomfort of sore feet. If it’s the latter then physiotherapy on his back will not give lasting relief without dealing with the hoof pain at the same time.
Here are some indicators of hoof pain:
Does the horse stand covering enough ground? The horses’ cannon bones should be vertical to the ground. Some horses stand in a way similar to a goat standing on a rock. This stance with the front feet too far back under the horse indicates pain in the back half of the foot. He may also bring his hind feet too far forward under his body to support more weight and try to relieve the discomfort in the fronts.
The photos above were taken 2 months apart. Removal of the shoes allowed improved hoof angles and comfort. The horse was then able to stand with more vertical cannons.
In the photo below the horse stands with all four feet too far under its body, and is also bending its knees to ease the discomfort in the back of its heels. This is termed "over at the knee" and is traditionally explained away as a conformational fault rather than a response to pain.
Standing with the front feet out infront of the body indicates pain in the front of the foot, commonly seen in laminitis (photo below).
When the horse continually shifts his weight from one foot to the other, he can’t decide which is more painful. I have observed horses stand doing this for some time unnoticed by the owner, then immediately appear sound ridden, he doesn’t limp because he is bilaterally lame (both feet hurt the same amount).
You might think that you would notice immediately if your horse went with a shortened stride. The trouble is that hooves often deteriorate slowly, over many years. So the stride shortens gradually and the rider gets used to it. If the short stride is pointed out the rider will reply “that is his normal action, he’s always been like that”.
TOE FIRST LANDING.
The back half, or heel area of the hoof contains the elastic shock absorbing structures; the frog, heel bulbs, digital cushion and lateral cartilages. When the hoof is placed correctly with the heel making contact with the ground first, these structures are able to absorb the concussion. If the heel area is sore due to contraction, poor development or frog infection then the horse will put its foot down toe first. The concussion created as the hoof hits the ground then travels up the leg, damaging joints and tendons further up. It also causes the deep digital flexor tendon to put excess pressure on the navicular bone risking the development of navicular disease.
If the horse was limping on one leg to compensate for pain in the other leg, we would say he was lame. A horse that moves with a toe first placement is compensating for pain in the back of his foot, so I also consider him to be lame. Unfortunately vets consider toe first placement to be normal. If it was treated as lameness, and suitable treatment was given (shoes removed) then horses would not go on to develop navicular syndrome and a host of associated injuries.
Assess your horse walking on a flat hard surface. It is acceptable for the hoof to land flat at walk, but it should land heel first in trot.