Monday, 5 December 2011

No foot no horse....

An old saying but still so true, I had my blacksmith here the other day and we were chatting about my youngster Amelie's dam, Cavalla. I had to retire her from competition at an early age when she went lame and it was attributed to incorrect shoeing. Ever since then I have taken a keen interest in the way my horses are shod. The farrier involved was, I hasten to add, not the one I use now.

Those of you who've been reading my blog may know that my first ever post was in fact about losing  Cavalla earlier this year (read it here). I bought her as a rising 5-yr-old and conformationally she was pretty good apart from slightly upright front pasterns but nothing that put me off buying her. She had good, tough feet and I had a Master Farrier shoeing her, so all was well - or was it? Over time it appeared to me that her toes were getting a bit longer but when I mentioned it my blacksmith reassured me saying that they were fine and that he wouldn't want to be taking any more off them. Not knowing as much back then I accepted his explanations - he was after all a professional.

By the time she was 9 Cavalla and I were enjoying competing regularly up to 1.20m classes. Then she started intermittently to go slightly lame on a front foot. Due to her age my first thought was that it was navicular however, further investigation led to a diagnosis of  degenerative joint disease or DJD, in the affected foot. My devastation at this news from the vet at the renowned Dick Vet hospital in Edinburgh was compounded by the fact that, in his opinion, the disease had set in due to incorrect shoeing for her conformation. To say that I was upset is to put it mildly, I had trusted my farrier to do a good job, but looking at the X-rays with the vet it was easy to see the damage that having a broken pastern/hoof axis leaving a long toe and unsupported heels, had done to the internal foot structure - poor Cavalla's pedal bone was at completely the wrong angle.

Foot balance is crucial
The vet explained that he saw quite a lot of this long toe/low heel shoeing and that it caused real damage but, he explained, some horses cope with it for a long time if they aren't working too strenuously or jumping bigger fences. My mare had been jumping fair sized fences regularly though and her favoured landing foot, which by far the worse affected, couldn't cope with taking the weight of her body plus the rider's time after time on an incorrectly angled foot. The prognosis was gloomy - although the vet explained, a lot could be done to slow further degeneration by completely rebalancing her foot.

Cavalla jumping as a 7-yr-old - she was quite extravagant over her fences.

Unfortunately this extravagance only exacerbated the damage done by landing on a badly balanced foot.

Cavalla was expertly shod at the vet school before she left - the farrier worked with her X-rays in front of him. She was fitted with special eggbar shoes to support her heels and her hooves were trimmed to be much more upright to suit the natural slope of her pasterns. In fact I was amazed at how short her toes were trimmed compared to previously. The farrier told me that for optimum results they would need to be shorter still but such major change had to be done slowly so as not to be trimming sensitive parts of the hoof and also to allow the underlying structures to resettle into the new balance. We were moving house at the time so I found myself a super new farrier and Cavalla was re-X-rayed twice over the next few months so he could see what was happening. This re-balancing was so successful that over the next year she became sound with shoes although she was never again sound without them.

What happened to Cavalla?
I retired her to the field and after a long discussion with the vet in Edinburgh I decided to breed from her as she was a talented mare with a superb, gentle temperament. Before you shout at the screen - but why would you breed from a mare with DJD? The expert vet told me that he considered the condition had been caused by incorrect shoeing and that there was, in his opinion, no reason why it would pass onto any foals. He did advise me though to check any potential stallions carefully for slightly more sloping pastern conformation. So that's what I did and Cavalla's story had a pretty happy ending - she went on to breed me a few super foals, who all inherited better pastern conformation and none of them have had any problems.

Cavalla was shod every five weeks for the rest of her life and in the end lived to the ripe old age of 21. It was only during her three years that her DJD started to bother her and this was at first eased by raising her heels on rubber riser pads between her shoe and foot and then later by a low level, daily dose of bute. When it became clear that the condition was progressing and pain relief was no longer working effectively I made the decision to have her put down. What I found most distressing at the end was that, apart from that one bad front foot, she was in rude health.
"It was a salutary lesson for me back then and one I have never forgotten. I am now incredibly fussy about the pastern/hoof angle in all my horses"

It was a salutary lesson for me back then and one I have never forgotten. I am now incredibly fussy about the pastern/hoof angle in all my horses and make sure that they are shod regularly, for their personal conformation, to ensure that they are never working on long toes, low heels. For some this means being shod as often as once a month if they have fast growing feet. I have had a super farrier now for many years and he looked after Cavalla for the last 10 years of her life, it was his care and attention that helped her remain sound for so long as an old lady.  He was also fantastic at replacing a thrown front shoe as soon as possible, as without it she was very lame and for that I am really grateful to him.

These days I like to take all my horse's back shoes off over the winter even if they are working and sometimes the fronts as well, if they have good feet, as I now believe it is important to give hooves a break from metal and nails and let the hoof structures work as nature intended. I am not evangelical about this though and there are certainly horses that need shoes to work comfortably, I have owned plenty myself over the years. I am just lucky at the moment that the horses I have, have good tough feet.

Listen to your instincts
So although there are some superb farriers out there, if you have doubts that yours isn't making as good a job of your horses feet as you would like, then don't be afraid to ask another recommended farrier to have a look - in my experience most are quite happy to give you their private opinion. I made the error once of not listening to my gut instinct with disastrous results for my horse - and that's not a mistake I will make again.

So here's to good farriers everywhere!

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