Feet first

14 December 2023 Written by VRC

Horse feet can run into all sorts of problems, so a farrier is a vital cog in the industry. We take a look at some of the most common issues.

It’s a simple saying so old that no one is really sure who said it first, but it’s perhaps the most accurate thing ever said about the equine species.

No foot, no horse.

Think about the physiology of the animal, particularly the thoroughbred, and how it lives; this is a beast that spends the majority of its time on all four legs, standing on its four feet, walking, trotting, and galloping at speed.

The foot, or more specifically the hoof, is vital not only to its performance but also its basic wellbeing; a three-legged horse just doesn’t stand up.

If a horse is sore in a foot they won’t run anywhere near their best, and if it develops a more serious problem it can cause issues in other parts of the body, the bones, the joints, the shoulder, the stifle.

The idea of a farrier rasping away at a horse’s hoof with an oversized file before banging nails into is hard to imagine as a pleasant process, let alone a comfortable one for the horse.

But in the hands of a good farrier, the experience is more like a day spa treatment, with many farriers reporting that the horses love it, apart from the odd one that doesn’t.

The rasps and hammers might look a bit rough but it’s relative to the animal.

During their daily rounds of the racing stables they service, farriers see all manner of issues, from the minor to the catastrophic.

But the better they know the foot, the less likely it is that a problem will get out of control. A farrier is just like the trainer or stable staff or the vet and often sees the same horses nearly every day, so knows their feet inside out. They can tell when one is walking out a bit funny, and that there might be an abscess brewing. These are the most common hoof problem and can take four or five days for the infection to burst out.

A bit of dirt in an old nail hole can be enough to start an abscess, but once they burst, the recovery is almost instant. While not a major problem, they can stop a horse working which can really disrupt a preparation, giving trainers a headache.

Most hoof issues are preventable or at least easily treated and managed, but there is one condition that is very serious and sometimes even fatal – laminitis.

Laminitis is the inflammation of the laminae, which are a soft tissue within the hoof. The laminae interweave like fingers back and forth between the hoof wall and the coffin bone – the bottom-most bone in the equine leg – connecting the hoof to the horse’s skeleton, and holding the bone securely in place.

In the most severe cases of laminitis, the laminae can break down completely and the coffin bone begins to rotate and fall downwards through the hoof itself.

This is where teamwork becomes acutely important. Farrier, trainer, and vet work together quickly to stop the progress of the disease and then nurse the hoof, and the horse, back to full health. Following a bout of laminitis, many horses do not return to racing in order to preserve their health.

Just like human feet, horses’ hooves are different and varied and different horses require different care and treatment. Not all horses wear the same shoes and not every shoe suits every set of conditions.

A standard set of race plates last a horse in full training around three weeks, and are sold as individual sizes rather than in pairs – the same horse can have different size feet.

At the end of a racing campaign the farrier usually removes all shoes, or at least the back pair, before the horse goes to the paddock. It gives the hoof a chance to regenerate and ensures that a cheeky colt can’t deliver a steely kick to a mate.