Proper early trimming done within a few weeks of birth, and then on a consistent basis, can help maintain correct leg and hoof structure.
When does my foal need his first hoof trim? The answer can vary considerably. Most people are concerned first and foremost with getting a healthy foal on the ground and caring for the mare. But once those first few days are behind you, it’s important to pay attention to the steps that will give you a sound, growing foal. One of these steps is proper early hoof trimming. I like to see foals for their first trim as early as six months, but some prefer to do it even earlier, at three to four weeks, particularly if corrective measures are required. Many of my colleagues agree and offer reduced rates for minimal early handling and trimming while the foal is still by the mare’s side.
When foals are born, their feet are pointed. This helps them travel through the birth canal and is important in the mechanics of birth. But once the foal is born, these pointed feet can actually
become a hindrance.
The pointed toe will stop your foal from being able to break over the front of the hoof, which can lead to tracking to the outside or inside, making him either splay-footed or pigeontoed. The more this is neglected, the more even the most normal and straight legs can be stressed. So the goal of our first trim is always to provide a straight breakover point on the hoof to limit the potential for deviation in leg structure. This is, in essence, a squaring of the toe. Generally, we pay more attention to the balance between toe and heels in a normal-appearing foal than from side to side, though a full evaluation is certainly beneficial.
It is also important that foals have a heel that’s low enough to promote development of the digital cushion and hoof cartilage. Without this development, lameness can result when the horse becomes an adult. If these structures do not get a good start from the beginning, the weakness can be permanent. Additionally, if the foal is able to fully use his hoof, particularly the back of it, he will develop nerve endings to help him know where his feet are. His stride will be more secure and he’ll have better circulation. If toe-first landings result from a lack of trimming early on, the horse may develop navicular issues later in life. Having your farrier work with your foal every few weeks while he’s at the mare’s side can not only help get him off to a good start from a behavioral perspective, but can prevent soundness problems with just a few passes of the rasp.
For foals that have hoof and leg deviations when they are born, early hoof trimming may be pivotal. Correction becomes increasingly difficult if too much time is allowed to go by. Veterinary care and surgery may be required in more extreme cases, but proper early hoof trimming done within three to four weeks of birth, and then on a consistent basis, can improve minor problems and help maintain correct leg and hoof structure. Solid, straight legs are the goal.
Also keep in mind that as a foal matures, his bones will harden and his joints will mature. The longer we wait to do any corrective trimming, the more the hardened bones and formalized joints will prevent subtle corrections from being effective. Once the horse is older, corrections will need to be more invasive and dramatic. If subtle, less traumatic correction is possible, the early trim route is the most desirable course.
As noted above, the squaring of the toe to allow breakover often helps maintain correct legs and assists with minor leg and hoof deviations. But it is also possible to further adjust this trim to correct the toed-in or toed-out foal. By making the breakover off-center, we can encourage the horse to turn his foot and gradually correct the bony leg deformity. Generally, for the foal who “toes out”, we can lower the outside half of the hoof wall with our tools and adjust the square toe slightly off center to the outside. For the foal that toes in, we will lower the inside of the hoof wall on the bottom of the hoof and place the squared toe slightly to the inside. In many cases, these corrections allow the leg to be gently corrected.
Correcting major deformities will require a vet, but providing an accentuated breakover point for the youngster early in life will go a long ways towards helping his legs. Those not willing to undertake this early intervention may find themselves with a much longer and harder road ahead to reach soundness and prevent long lasting issues.
Part of the team
Farriers are almost never at the top of the list when it comes to foaling considerations. But surely, once the first few critical hours have passed, the concepts of imprinting and handling the foal rise to the top of the “to do” list. Important in this phase is having the foal develop well, both physically and mentally. Providing an opportunity for the development of strong, straight legs is crucial, as is making sure the frog and hoof wall develop well. By assuring that the hoof is properly shaped, these goals can be met well – and met early. Share the good news about your new foal with your farrier! You’ll be surprised how s/he can help you guide and shape your new arrival into a sound and playful youngster.