Sunday, March 03, 2013

Take care of those feet!

Dogs and cats can adjust to the loss of a foot. Horses? Not so much.

Without sound feet and legs, the horse is history, said Kevin Nelson of Bristol Veterinary Clinic. And trouble with hooves is among the most common of all equine ailments.

"With as much as has been studied and written about hooves, we're still learning," Nelson said. "It's the most frustrating topics veterinarians have to deal with."

Determining what exactly a "normal" hoof is supposed to look like is actually part of the frustration. There isn't any uniformity because no two horses are the same and no two horses are ever in the same category of use.

"We can take MRIs of horse hooves and what we find is a huge range for normal," Nelson said. "And to make it more complicated, we've (humans) created most of the problems we do find."

Nelson described the situation in a horse's hoof as like a person standing all day on his middle finger. There's one bone (coffin bone) encased in a flexible hard shell all attached and wrapped up with other bones, ligaments and muscles like so many strips of Velcro.

"The hoof itself flexes like a spring when the animal moves," Nelson said while speaking at the recent Keeping Your Horse Healthy seminar as part of a bi-state Extension horse conference. "When something seems off with a horse our rule of thumb is that the problem is in the hoof until you can proveIt' otherwise."

Further adding to the frustration with hoof care is the range of potential crossover problems. Physical conformation, diet, injuries, seasonal changes, how the horse is used and an even longer list of items can involve the hoof.

"Human neglect, ignorance, abuse and just being naive can all come into play," he said. "And once a horse has laminitis it becomes a survivor. It's never really cured because there's always potential for a relapse so we manage these horses rather than try to cure."

Horse owners can take precautions to reduce the potential for laminitis. Nelson said to take it easy with feed changes. With spring pasture just around the corner, he advised people to be wary of the fresh, lush grass with many horses. Nelson reported that every spring he sees a wave of foundered horses that went out of the barn and onto lush pastures.

"Exercise is probably the best preventive therapy for all horses," he added. "A well-managed diet and routine exercise go a long way. Often, fitness alone will improve laminitis."

There are, of course, trauma types of injuries with punctures leading the list. Hooves are like nail magnets and that's a leading cause of hoof injury. Keeping pastures and barns free of debris is the best medicine.

Nelson urged people who breed horses to be more aware of what is being passed on. Good conformation in the first place will prevent many issues with feet. He said horses are now often bred for traits that have little to do with good feet and legs.

And there are the many weird things done to horses to make them look better, or perform differently in the show-ring. Some practices can verge on abuse and there are a few things that are in fact banned. It's also important to match the horse to the types of activities that suit the animal. "A Quarter horse with tiny feet probably shouldn't run cross country, for example," he said.

Finally, Nelson suggested that horse owners work with a team of professionals. The team should include a top-notch farrier, a veterinarian, someone good with animal nutrition and all the trainers and stable owners involved in the animal's life.

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