Club feet / high low syndrome / grazing foot
I have seen many theories on club feet and what to do with them, most are wrong but the people putting them out there do not know how else things could be. They have tried to fix club feet but it failed, if they fail then the club foot must be permanent and unchanging, though it can get worse over the years.
OK if it can get worse why can't it get better?
It comes down to a number of sneaky little problems, you have to see them all to put the true foot back on the horse.
Dr. Ric Redden states that a club foot does not exist in the wild.
How is it that domestic horses are predisposed to club feet and why can't people fix them.
Club feet form in a couple of different ways, the most common being the grazing foot. This is where a foal at age 8 weeks starts to put one foot forward and one foot back to graze and within weeks the horse has a short musculature on one side and a high heel. This is amazing to watch how quickly it can form. If left untreated this is the foot the horse will have for life.
Another cause of club feet is a bad injury, this leaves the horse unable to effectively use a leg properly for a few weeks. This injury does not have to be in the foot or the leg, one case I am fixing suffered a neck injury at the horse trainers at 18 months of age. The pain in the neck from the injury was so bad the horse refused to use her left fore correctly. Now the horse is 4 we are starting to repair the club foot and doing very well considering the hoof wall was vertical at the start. Horses can suffer a vitamin/mineral deficiency that does cause muscles to contract causing the horse to rise up in the heels, this is a flexural problem and the cause must be addressed before fixing the hoof.
Burney Chapman an american farrier that taught other farriers, disputed the existence of a grazing foot, he then went on to explain that horses kept on pasture never got a grazing foot, so it must be the modern overfeeding of the mare? He had the answer in front of him the whole time but did not see it. The cure for club feet is distance, lots of distance. The horses biomechanics are designed to be pushed to their limits to achieve the true function of the bones, ligaments and tendons. The hoof capsule itself is secondary to the genetic design of the limbs, if you wear the hoof down to its finest tolerances you remove everything that interferes with the function of the limb. The new hoof will grown based on the functions of the true limb.
The brilliance of the horse's genetics is that it grows new hoof at the needed rate, so if the horse is pushed to its biological norm the hoof can only grow in the correct places as the junk is worn away.
Martha Olivo my mentor, really pushed one thing about horses and trimming. Movement, Movement, Movement, the ultimate trimming system is to push the horse hard, it will respond with the correct growth to protect itself.
Us as trimmers have a responsibility to understand what is excess to the horses needs and learn how to trim the hoof to fit the model of the horse running long distances and growing the hoof needed to match that work load. We have to mimic the natural action of long distance running to wear the hoof down, but we also have to be aware of the hoof that would grow back after that sort of work and leave those parts of the hoof that cannot grow quickly due to the fact that the horse has not done the miles we have trimmed into the hoof.
The trimmer is a poor substitute for miles of riding but it is better than not trimming. The thing to remember is that attached to those feet are bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles lots of muscles.
So why do people fail in rebuilding club feet, the true answer is distance, if you rode a horse every day for 6 months there is going to be no sign of a club foot. To emulate this you need to be aware of the whole horse and understand all the systems that are damaged by having a club foot.
A grazing foot is the first type of club foot, I have watched this form in my own young horses in a matter of weeks so I understand the suddenness of the onset, and that it may appear as if it was always there just waiting to be noticed. The grazing foot forms due to a lack of exercise, for example our paddocks are rarely big enough to allow a foal to exercise and stretch both fore legs to the same degree.
I have to be careful not to fall into the false labeling of saying the tendons are contracting, in the backs of peoples minds they understand tendons have no structural ability to contract only the muscle pulling the tendon contracts. For some reason when referring to hoof problems it always seems to be the tendons at fault not the hoof carer. I see this as an easy out, because if the tendons are at fault how is the hoof carer supposed to beat the system, so blame is laid elsewhere and the hoof carer can move onto the next horse.
I also have problems with people saying that muscles never change length and that the number of cells never changes in muscles or tendons. In reality these structures do change but only in response to long term status quo, if a horse has a club foot for a long time then yes the tendon will be shorter than the other leg, the muscle will be shorter and the ligaments and muscles holding the leg to the body will be all messed up making the horse sore all over. This will lead to changes in bone shape and density in the long term all due to the fact the hoof carer missed the original problem. The horses proprioceptors tell the muscles how much to contract to achieve a functional motion of a limb. As the heels rise up the muscle gets used to a limited range of motion this then stops the horse extending fully on the high heeled leg meaning that the load to strain the tendon and muscle is removed.
So with the young horse that is growing fast, the muscles are happy to not have to break and grow new cells to match the new length of bone on a weekly basis. The wild foals exercise routine of grazing for 10 mins then running for 10 mins and finally sleeping for 10 mins, is converted into grazing for 10 mins then sleeping for 20 mins. This trains the body into believing that the muscles do not need to be equal as a good percentage of the time the foal is standing unequal. Hence the formation of the grazing foot, the solution is simple trim regularly and trim the heels to match. Until the foal grows a neck long enough to not have to stand in the scissor stance it is a battle to keep the foot correct, this is not a huge problem because every step the foal does take is in the correct frame this means the development of bones, muscles and tendons is driven by correct hoof form they do not get an easy work load.
A foal developing is always growing new cells, the trick is to make sure that the influence of the hooves is equal on the body, this is emulating the foal running upto 30miles a day in the wild.
The other trigger to club feet is the acquired injury, a bad injury that is painful enough for a horse or foal to unweight a limb is going to trigger a club foot as the heel is not taking those massive impacts with the ground and wearing to the correct height. My same foal that had a right fore grazing foot got pined under a fence as a yearling in an accident and stripped the flesh off his right hind to the bone in some places. Within weeks the horse had a clubby hind foot to match his grazing foot. The same reasons apply, no longer was he using his hind leg properly and the muscles were asked to pull hard and maintain a tension to keep the foot from impacting the ground. So the learned rang of motion for these muscles was from contracted to partially contracted, there was no extension from reciprical muscles extending the leg to full extension and due to pain no where near enough movement or weight bearing.
I have seen horse suffer from tenotomy surgery to undo this so called tightening of the tendon, this flies in the face of the medical idea that the tendons are not the cause of the shortening only a symptom. So I have to ask what is the reasoning behind treating the symptom and not the cause. I cannot fathom it and having worked on horses with these tenotomies I can only see it as disasterous. We have a fantastic lady here in Australia known as the "bone lady". Sharon May-Davis is an astute study of equine anatomy and she has shown that as soon as you damage the tendons they try and support themselves by bonding with any nearby tissue, this may include other tendons, ligaments and bone. Then end result of this surgery is a damaged support structure that is now connected to structures it should never come into contact with. So you have now turned a minor problem of an unstressed muscle into permanent damage to the limb.
The best treatment for these so called contracted tendons is to massage and exercise the muscle as it is the root of the problem. Your massage specialist can show the horse owner specific stretches to help the horse adjust to your new trim. If you then trim the heels down on the upright foot in conjunction with the massage and exercise the hoof will stay the correct shape as the horse recovers from the injury and starts to use the leg normally again. From my observations it takes 1 year for a 1 inch change in muscle and tendon length, so if you see a change occur in a few weeks you can be sure that it is a temporary change and with good management it will return to the true form as the horse heals. If you do not fix the heel height the changes to skeletal alignment can bring on more and more problems. The feet are key to keeping to skeleton right while the horse is not moving much, while the skeleton is key to keeping the feet right through long distances. An amazing balancing act but one that has served the horse for millions of years.
So what about the "other guys" club foot, well first thing to do is to ascertain the original trigger, was it a grazing foot, was it an injury then find out what surface the horse is kept on. Check the horse over for what muscles are damaged, I am lucky enough to be an equine masseuse as well as a trimmer. All other trimmers and shoers out there should either learn massage or get their hands on a specialist that understands their work. You really should not touch a hoof until you understand the muscles bones and tendons. Since trimmers and shoers have got away without this important knowledge for centuries I can't stop them overnight but I still implore them all to find a massage person to work with and learn from. Once you know how badly damaged the skeleton and muscles are you can look at the hoof. Always keep in the back of your mind that this is a lack of exercise problem that would not have occurred in the wild. The first consideration is that these sort of horses should be kept in a bare dirt yard or have very flat areas set up around the shade, water and waiting areas. This will help the muscles stretch to fit the new hoof, if the horse has sand or grass the heel gets subtle support and the muscles get a reprieve. If the horse has been clubby for many years due to bad hoof care then you have to do it in monthly steps aiming to remove the heel in steps. Once the heel is trimmed the horse will need a few days rest as the muscle matches the new heel height. I have heard it said that removing all the excess heel is safe but I feel it will make it too painful for the horse to move which was the root cause of the problem. Don't kid yourself into thinking a club foot is OK to leave on a horse, the pain relief a horse gets from fixing a high / low pair of feet is amazing and the damage to the skeleton and muscles can be relieved.
Remember Fact Number One, wild horses do not have clubby feet, this means that an injured horse that cannot use a hoof for a while, will quickly have to stretch muscles to achieve the mobs roaming of 30 miles a day. Within a few months the injured leg will have full range of motion and the hoof will look like every other hoof because the work load will make it so.
I will say this over and over again, learn about muscles or get yourself a massage specialist and you will achieve so much more than trimming alone.
Now I will tell you about a trick to watch for in clubby feet. The key to fixing the worst of clubby feet is not always the heel height but more the height of the coronet at the quarters. If there is a massive rise from the heels to the quarters then a level line to the front of the coronet you have to scoop the quarters like mad. The reason behind this is that if the coronet is low at the heels the solar corium is close at the heel. With the rise in the quarters you can find the sole is thicker in front of the bars and out to the quarters.
Earlier this year I struck a founder/clubby foot case that was being looked after by a US Educated shoer that was very interesting. After contacting the best people including Dr. Rooney from around the world and getting their opinions on photographs the owner found me via a Equine Chiropractic specialist who thought I could fix the clubby foot. He checked the muscles in the shoulder and figured the damage was new and getting worse. I saw the X-rays then looked at the hoof in person, it was getting worse, but the question was why?
This left me thinking for a long time, every time I looked at the hoof I could not find a natural way for it to get worse. I asked the owner what the history was, and various vets who had seen the horse wanted to do tenotomies, one Veterinarian decided it might be a problem related to a possible founder incident so asked that the heels be trimmed short, as the tendon was getting shorter.
I slowly came to the conclusion that the new damage had to be man made but it took a mental leap to figure out how it was done. I checked my suspicions with the owner and she confirmed that the shoer was trimming just the heels. This was leaving the heels slightly off the ground but bringing the quarters into higher pressure causing them to rise upwards. This rising of the quarters is linked to the back of the pedal bone and the force is so great that it is pulling the pedal bone away from the front wall.
I heavily trimmed the quarters and the sole underneath as the damage being done by the old trim just had to be reversed, In 3 weeks the hoof had returned to a much more normal shape. The owner was a bit bemused by my approach to the hoof shape and the trimming process because she had never seen the like before, but in 3 weeks I had achieved more than anyone else had ever done. Trimming the heel does not just mean the heel buttress, it means understand the back half of the hoof and shape in an appropriate scoop to lower the back of the pedal bone. Every part of the hoof interacts with every other part, when trimming set your mind to observe and learn the connections however subtle they may be.
The other problem with a horse having a club foot is that it tends to over use the opposite leg giving it a very low heel and a long toe. This foot would need as much attention as the high heeled hoof, more about keeping the forces within the normal bounds for a hoof so it does not stretch.