A Farrier for over sixteen years, Dean Bland is the founder of welfare consultancy company Well Equine which helps organisations and individuals support the lives of working equines around the world.
The equine foot is composed from a large collection of intimately relating anatomical structures. To simplify down this picture we can talk about three basic layers. Bone in the middle, hoof capsule around the outside and in-between all the flesh like connective and shock absorbing structures. These three layers reflect the form and shape of the adjacent layers and as such the foot is a lot like a Russian Doll.
It’s position tells us a lot about it’s role. Situated at the bottom of the limb it’s first role is to support the weight of the horse above. Secondly being the part of the horse in contact with the ground surface it’s there to provide grip and traction the horse needs to move. There’s a tremendous amount of force associated with this movement so it’s third role is to protect the limb from all that force by dissipating that force effectively. Allowing itself to be deformed under load and then spring back once that load is removed. A bit like a Tennis Ball would if we stood upon it.
"A healthy, strong foot can undertake these functions efficiently., but it’s position exposes it to a wide range of issues that can effect it’s health and lead to lameness. So it is for good reasons we say no foot, no horse..."
A healthy, strong foot can undertake these functions efficiently., but it’s position exposes it to a wide range of issues that can effect it’s health and lead to lameness. So it is for good reasons we say no foot, no horse and in this article we going to explore those issues. So lets take a look.
ACCIDENTAL TRAUMA: Bruises and Penetration Injuries
The position of the equine foot understandably makes it particularly vulnerable to accidental trauma. Striking objects with enough force that either that force damages the structures within or physically penetrates the outer hoof. If we think of hoof as a specialised layer of outer mammalian skin it’s easy understand this trauma. Anyone that has walked across a beach with bare feet will know what it feels like to tread on a sharp stone or worse for that stone to cut you. The same thing is happening here. We see the same dramatic onset of lameness and sensitivity to pressure. The lameness tends to dissipate over a period of days but we should look to help that process by preventing further trauma, reducing inflammation and treating any penetration with effective wound care.
BACTERIAL AND FUNGAL INVASION: Thrush, White Line Disease and De-lamination
The equine hoof is specialised layer of outer mammalian skin. Just like our skin it’s quality and health can be effected by whole range of factors. The domestication of the companion equine means that environment and management have a massive effect. With habitual exposure to bacteria and fungus leading to a deterioration in strength and functional health. We only need to think about how our skin would react to the same exposure to understand the issues involved.
When we see this happening we need to review our management and the environment and make positive steps to effect every factor in our control. If we don’t this invasion can become chronic and then the weakened foot can succumb to the opposing forces placed upon it leading to the issue we’re going to discuss next.
"Cracks, Flairs, Corrugation and Crushing are all evidence of a foot struggling to deal with the opposing forces placed upon it."
ADVERSE FOOT MORPHOLOGY: Cracks, Flairs, Corrugation and Crushing
These issues are all evidence of a foot struggling to deal with the opposing forces placed upon it. Instead of these forces being effectively dissipated they become adversely concentrated and start to breakdown the structure and health of the foot. We can think about it like slow motion origami, with these opposing forces folding and tearing the foot apart.
As we’ve said the foot is being compressed between the weight of the equine above and ground below. So the position of that foot during the loading phase and the properties of the ground surface have a huge influence to the position and magnitude of those opposing forces.
If we don’t identify these adverse forces and develop a strategy to address them their affects can become established and lead to the next issue I’m going to discuss.
SECONDARY PATHOLOGY: Degenerative Joint Disease and Repetitive Strain Injuries
We said right at the beginning that one of the functions of the equine foot is to protect the limb by effectively dissipating the opposing forces associated with movement. When that function becomes compromised those opposing forces can start to affect the other structures involved in the biomechanics of limb and equine core, the musculoskeletal system. A huge driving factor in the ongoing functional health of these structures are the forces placed upon them through the repetition of movement. When these forces become excessive or adversely placed these structures can become fatigued and just like bending a plastic ruler over and over again they become repetitively strained and then break.
As a Farrier I’ve witnessed just how traumatic and life changing it can be when a horse breaks down. The impact that this can have not only for the welfare of the affected equine but also the wellbeing of their owner. Taking on the role of primary carer the owner undertakes a journey every bit as traumatic and life changing, whilst they rehabilitate their much loved companion equine. But If we wind back the clock we can see that potentially the origin of this was an issue much more innocuous and easily addressed.
So when we see our horses affected by these issues. When we see the strength and functional health of their feet deteriorating, my guidance would be to act early. Find the opportunities to have the conversations we need with our farrier, and work together in partnership to support the welfare of our companion equines and our own wellbeing.