Horses feet are actually a lot more interesting than they look!
They are very clever pieces of anatomy that have to be able to support and cushion the weight of an animal weighing 500kg or so and their rider as they travel over a variety of terrains at high speeds.
As with any complex piece of equipment which is asked to deal with a complicated task, it can fail and when that happens, the vet or farrier is called in. Every week we deal with several lame horses and many of them will have foot problems.
Since the foot is so complex, a whole spectrum of problems can develop.
Abscesses are possibly the most common foot problem. A stone or a nail can puncture the sole of the foot and start an infection. Pus from the infection is trapped within the hoof and the resulting pressure causes great pain and results in lameness. The abscess may need to be found using hoof testers which put pressure on areas of the hoof to localise the pain and then the abscess drained by pairing the hoof using a hoof knife. A poultice is a dressing applied to the hoof which will help to soften the area around the abscess to help drainage.
Another common foot complaint is laminitis. The laminae is the structure which bonds the hoof wall to the bone inside called the pedal bone. Laminitis happens when the laminae become inflamed and the hoof and pedal bone start to detach. Since the laminae support the weight of the horse, any weakening can have disastrous consequences as the pedal bone can rotate and start to sink thorough the sole of the foot. The causes of laminitis include excessive carbohydrate consumption, hormonal imbalances, stress and trauma.
It is very important to act quickly if laminitis is suspected to prevent permanent damage. X-rays will confirm the position of the pedal bone and medication can be used to give pain relief, reduce the inflammation and increase the blood flow through the laminae. Special shoes can be made by a farrier which will help to support the pedal bone and the farrier will work very closely with the vet to ensure that the shoe is custom made to the horse’s exact requirements.
Laminitis is still a very serious condition but with modern treatments and diagnostics and close partnership with the farrier, many laminitic horses can be managed successfully.