Anyone who has spent any time with equines has undoubtedly seen club feet. A club foot horse is typically recognized and defined as having one front hoof growing at a much steeper angle than the other, with a short dished toe, very high heels, extremely curved wall and straight bars. The club foot is also generally much narrower than the other and will usually have a substantially smaller and sensitive frog.
Club feet are surprisingly common, with up to 60% of the domestic horse population exhibiting at least minor characteristics. Several theories address the potential causes, ranging from a genetic predisposition, to hoof or body injury, to improper trimming and/or shoeing.
It’s unlikely, however, that there’s only a single cause or contributing factor. As with many hoof issues, it is usually a “whole horse” concern rather than simply a foot problem. As more and more studies into the physiological function of the equine hoof demonstrate, hoof issues are often symptoms or reflections of other issues within the horse.
FIVE POTENTIAL CAUSES
There are several theories on what can cause a club foot to occur. Many stem from the understanding that situations limiting the range of movement in a horse’s limb can cause a hoof to grow more upright.
One of the more commonly accepted causes is the result of an injury, most notably supra-scapular nerve damage. The supra-spinatus and infra-spinatus muscles run along the outside of the scapula that holds the bone against the body. They offer flexibility to the forelimbs. When the motor nerve “controlling” these muscles is damaged, the muscles cannot contract as well, ultimately reducing movement in the shoulder and forelimb. This in turn can cause a hoof to grow at a steeper angle from improper biomechanics and wear.
This nerve can be damaged by a one-time event such as a sudden loss of traction to a foreleg that is extended and moving under power. If you view the withers and shoulders of a club footed horse from behind, you will often see that the shoulder of the club sided foot is usually somewhat smaller and falls away from the withers more steeply.
2. RIDER IMBALANCE AND ILL-FITTING TACK
This is another commonly overlooked cause of club foot. If the scapula cannot move freely under the saddle, either through a tight it or a pressure point causing pain, the horse will compensate for this in his movement. Many riders unintentionally load one stirrup slightly more than the other, which also causes imbalanced and restricted movement in the horse. Admittedly, if the horse is only ridden a few hours each month and enjoys otherwise unrestricted movement and exercise by living outside 24/7, this may have little effect. However, if most of the horse’s exercise happens under saddle, the effect on the hooves can be very dramatic.
3. PAIN AVOIDANCE
A horse moving in a certain way to avoid pain from any sort of trauma to the foot, or chronic abscessing or thrush, can contribute to the upright growth of a hoof. Something as “simple” as a minor thrush infection can cause enough irritation in the sensitive nerves within the frog to discourage the horse from landing properly heel first. This essentially “sends a message” to the hoof to grow more heel in order to protect those sensitive tissues, by lifting them further off the ground. This can certainly contribute to the development of a mild club foot, but is unlikely in itself to be a major cause.
4. IMPROPER OR IRREGULAR TRIMMING
This can significantly affect the growth patterns of the foot and contribute to hoof irregularities. Trimmers and farriers may create differences from one side of the horse to the other, depending on which hand they favor, or which side of the horse they traditionally start trimming on. If one side is habitually left even slightly longer than the other, the effect can compound after many trims. Some professionals allow the heels of a horse to grow unnaturally high and substantially beyond the level of the live sole, and others routinely trim them down so far that the healthy live sole is cut or rasped too much. Either approach will cause the hoof to respond in extraordinary ways and contribute to many hoof pathologies.
At times, often by the owner’s request, some farriers may exacerbate the problem by trying to match the look of the hooves. Allowing the smaller club foot to “outgrow” its actual size usually results in flares and moves the breakover of the foot further forward, which in turn shortens the stride and changes the movement of the limb. This causes the hoof to grow even more upright. It’s a vicious cycle!
Some horses are born with a more upright conformation, so it is often suggested that club feet are mainly a hereditary concern. This is usually only the case if the club conformation occurs bilaterally – that is to say, on both feet. Many argue that genetically upright horses are not nearly as common as is frequently indicated, and that a lack of proper trimming in young foals is more likely the cause. Even grazing stance (where a young foal habitually grazes with one foot forward) has been blamed for the development of a club foot.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT
A regular trimming schedule that reflects the needs and growth rate of the horse’s hooves will help keep him moving properly. It is much better to keep feet balanced by frequent trimming (every three to six weeks) than to ix or correct the balance each time at longer intervals. Resist the temptation of “false economy” trimming on an arbitrary eight to ten-week schedule, and trim as often as required by the particular horse and his environment to maintain balance. Many minor club feet respond favorably with a proper trim, and may even lower their angle accordingly if maintained on a regular schedule.
Resist the urge to have both feet “look the same”, and ask your farrier/trimmer to instead address the physiological balance of each hoof independently, striving for a balanced heel-first landing and proper breakover.
Finally, identify imbalances in either the rider or the horse’s movement, and address them as best as possible. Assess the whole horse, not just the hooves, and identify and treat any potential problems above the hoof first. Stretching, massage therapy and chiropractic treatments all help increase the range of motion, and along with trimming, can play an important role in the maintenance, prevention and even the correction of club feet.
JOHANNA NEUTEBOOM IS A PROFESSIONAL BAREFOOT TRIMMER AND CERTIFIED EQUINE SPORTS MASSAGE THERAPIST. HER COMPANY, BARNBOOTS.CA, OFFERS SERVICES DEDICATED TO HOLISTIC HORSE CARE, RESOURCES AND NETWORKING, EDUCATIONAL EXPLORATION AND SELECT EQUINE ADVENTURES. SHE SHARES HER LIFE WITH HER FIVE-YEAR-OLD FRIESIAN MARE, THE HALF BROTHER OF THE SAME AGE AND HIS OWNER, AND LIVES IN THE MUSKOKA REGION OF ONTARIO. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON HER SERVICES AND OTHER CLINICS AND WORKSHOPS, VISIT BARNBOOTS.CA.