Your veterinarian will evaluate your horse carefully. There will be visual evaluations, radiographs, perhaps ultrasound readings, nerve blocks and more until a suitable explanation for the issue is found. Along the way you're making decisions and paying the bills.
Depending on what the specialists find, you'll be given options for treatment or correction. Many structural issues are fixable with good hoof care or even surgery.
Many of the possible structural issues horses have or develop, along with potential fixes and preventions, were the topic of a recent seminar held at UW-Madison and presented by the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Elizabeth Santschi of The Ohio State University outlined a score or more of structural defects found in horses of all breeds and ages and outlined the causes, diagnostic processes, and many of the methods for helping horses and their owners repair or treat such maladies.
Santschi offered a long list of "carpal deviations" including rotation, offset knees, valgus, varus, toe in, toe out, knock knees, base narrow, base wide, sickle hock, post legged, and camped under.
"A combination of deviations is very common," Santschi said. "A young horse may grow out of some of the deviations but an older horse may need evaluation and treatment."
The first structural evaluation should take place when a foal is 3 to 4 weeks old. At such a young age, some of the potential problems are fixable with time and/or adjustments to hooves. At 3 months, however, the young animal will resemble its conformation at 3 years, and you can more accurately find and address structural deviations.
"No offense to the veterinarians here today, but I don't want to have my horses in the vet clinic getting corrective this and corrective that," said Brad Kerbs, an internationally known equine evaluator and judge. "Some of the horses we've seen today should never be bred."
While nutrition and performance can contribute to structural deviations, Kerbs said horse owners and breeders should do everything they can to assure their horses are structurally sound. When in the market for a new horse, do complete exams before you buy, and if you're breeding horses make sure you're not creating issues genetically.
"Conformation is not about criticizing or picking on a horse," Kerbs said. "It's to evaluate the horse. I think you should look first for what you like."
Kerbs explained that some parts of judging a horse for conformation are highly objective. You can take measurements to determine accurately the right lengths and proportions for the breed and age of an animal. Other evaluations are more subjective and involve close observation of how a horse moves and handles.
"Some of the more subjective measurements can be judged on a scale from one to 10," Kerbs said, "but it's not only about a horse that looks good, it's about the biomechanical function of the horse. I don't want to spend money on taking animals to the vet clinic. Just because a colt has two sound testicles doesn't mean he should be used as a stud."
Separating a genetic deficiency from something caused by injury or use isn't always easy, said Santschi. It's clear that structural abnormalities can make a horse more susceptible to certain conditions, but there often isn't a clear divide.
"Does form equal function? Absolutely," she said. "But there are things we can try to fix when we have concerns, and there are things we can't change. Are we breeding for conformation or function?"
What it boils down to is making an effort to breed sound horses. People in the market for a horse also need to take a close look at the prospect and come up with solid judgments based on the best and most objective information possible.
Altering what genetics have created is an expensive process.