Many young horses, unfortunately, do not receive the hoofcare they need and deserve. Typically, hoofcare starts “late”, as in the horse may already be a yearling or later, and is only done sporadically.
The reasons can be manifold:
- the foal has not been handled enough to actually get its hooves done.
- it’s not doing any work, so it doesn’t need its hooves done
- what could possibly be wrong? It’s a young horse!
- The profit margin in breeding, for many horses, is not that great, so any extra cost is being minimised.
- the horse is not lame, so it doesn’t need hoof trimming
- let “nature” take care of it
- too many foals on the place and it becomes a time issue to get around to do the hooves regularly enough
- and so on
The problem with this is, that typically in most domestic environments, the stimuli that promote a poor hoof are greater than those that promote a good hoof. Consequently, the hoof heads in the wrong direction. When the time comes that the horse is supposed to get started under saddle, its hooves struggle to withstand the sudden demand.
It really should go without saying that any biological system needs to adapt to its stresses placed upon it. A young horse to be started under saddle, should be on a programme that gradually increases the workload, prior to being sent to the person starting the horse. This allows the musco-skeletal system to respond accordingly, including the hooves and their connection to the pedal bone.
Sadly, this is often not the reality and the workload is typically increased from 0-100 in a matter of days. The developing and growing horse then may struggle physically with the new demands placed on it, and often, so do the hooves. The common demand, the horse needs to get shoes put on, so it can do the work it is being asked to do.
The person understanding such biological processes, however, implements a developing programme to get the system (horse) sufficiently prepared to be able to safely meet the demands that are place on it.
As far as hoofcare is concerned, this means trimming should start as soon as there are signs that the hooves develop in the wrong direction. Trimming should be sufficiently frequent, so the hooves can develop to a strong and robust hoof.
What if you have a 4-yo that is to be started, that already has hoof problems? This a common reality. A person may have bought a young horse that already has developed hoof problems as a result of the points raised above. In this case, the priority should be to start developing more robust hooves with better integrity as soon as possible. After-all, the hooves are the foundation for anything else to follow. As part of the hoof development, the movement quantity and intensity should gradually be increased. While this helps with the hoof development, it also helps with the development of the rest of the horse, aka connective tissue, bone density, lung and cardio-vascular capacity. Depending on the starting point, it may take a good year before the horse has some good strong hooves. At this point, given the fore mentioned underlying development programme was implemented, your horse should be ready to be started under saddle.
See the examples below:
This 4-yo has significant coronet distortion, see curved coronet line in the photo on the left. From there you can see how the hoof wall at the side of the hoof tries to grow down straight and then is pushed outward. This type of deformation is referred to as flare. A flared hoof wall no longer maintains a tight laminar connection to the internal structures, but rather is a sign of white line problems and poor integrity of the hoof. Those white line problems may or may not be visible at sole level, depending on how the sole horn is distorted. In other words, it is entirely possible to have white line stretching in the hoof that is hidden by a flared sole covering it up. The circle indicates a bottom-up toe-quarter crack at the exact point where the coronet is pushed upwards. The excess tension in the hoof wall, the result of the hoof deformation, causes the horn tubules to separate from each other at the highest stress point and we see it as a crack.
On the right, 18 months later, the hoof wall is a lot more relaxed and the flare has grown out. The horse now has a hoof with much better integrity, aka connection of hoof wall and pedal bone. From a hoof’s point of view, this horse is now ready to be started under saddle.
This 4-yo below (see images on the right), has had “barefoot” hoofcare, but, sadly has very distorted hoof capsules. This horse struggled to stand still on his front hooves when asked to stand on a single front hoof as is needed for trimming. Its gait was “toe heavy” as the horse tried to unload its uncomfortable back half of the hoof.
Again, we see the typical distortion of the coronet (curved upwards) and wall horn tubules that are converging to the toe. The hooves are longitudinally contracted. The collateral grooves of this horse were at least twice as deep as they should be.
Compared to the previous example that showed poor integrity and flare, this one is the opposite and is a very contracted and “tight” hoof.
The images on the left, just over 4 years apart, show a much more relaxed hoof capsule with wall horn tubules that run more parallel to each other. Until this point the regrowth between trims has been disproportional in the mid part of the hoof, which affected its function and ability to further de-contract. Considering the relative young age of this horses, this has been a considerable time frame due to a complex hoof problem and not the most optimal supportive boarding situation.
Even foals at the age of 4 months can show significant hoof deformations. Ideally, they get addressed much sooner than that. Basically, when you notice the hooves heading in the wrong direction, then it is time to work on the hooves. When caught early, the trimming needed is usually quite small, since the internal structures are not yet deformed. By the time the foals is 4 months old, however, the internal structures can already be deformed as well, and it takes a bigger effort to correct the hooves again.
The hoof below clearly shows the first regrowth from when the foal was born. Due to lack of movement, ground stimulation, and wear, the regrowth is very deformed and longitudinally contracted. This is a typical scenario that leads to underrun heels with quarter flares initially, and eventually toe flares.
The hoof of the 4-months old below is setup to become a club foot. Already, the heels are long and the hoof is upright with a short “stubby” toe. Additionally, the foal has already started the grazing pattern with this hoof placed back and the other front hoof out front with most of the weight. Once this habit is for formed, it gets harder and harder to break it, so longer it is present. The hoof at 15 months later shows a less distorted hoofcapsule and the horse is no longer grazing with this foot back all the time. The formation of a club foot could be prevented.