Is My Horse Hard to Train Because of His Feet?
July 10, 2014
Written by: Keith Hosman
Written by: Keith Hosman
Does your horse stumble or trip a lot? Or pitch his head forward and down, almost to the ground in a sort of spoiled teenager fashion as he trots along? Does he take small, dicey steps in his jog and feel like he's reluctant to "move out"? Is the horse that used to be willing and fun now irritable? Are these things getting worse almost daily?
If your horse stumbles, cranes his head to the ground, takes halting steps, doesn't want to "move out," or has grown irritable, it might be that his feet are hurting him. Here's how to tell.
Your horse might very well be doing these things because his feet hurt. And if it's because his feet hurt, then see this as a sign that you need to get your farrier out more often. It might be that his every step causes pain because he's either due for a trim - or the spacing between his past trims has been too great - and now the both of you are paying the piper. As easy as it is for us to dismiss this rather boring aspect of horse-having, don't you do it. It's not going away and it greatly effects your whole horse for obvious reasons.
It might be that your horse is off because he's gone too long between trims and developed a flaring out at the bottom of his hoof that causes him pain with each step. (Sort of like when you pull a finger nail back unnaturally. More on this in a moment.) Flares are common and easily remedied with more frequent, quality hoof care. It might also be, however, that your horse has developed toes that are too long and heels that are too sensitive. His heels hurt and he's begun protecting them by landing "toe first." You need to know that, left unchecked, "toe first landings" will eventually put your horse out of commission totally. The good news is that this is also remedied by more frequent trims - but it's going to take more time to fix this - and the farrier may very well prescribe that your horse wear protective boots in order to give the "hoof capsules" a chance to heal themselves.
First, flare: Horses have evolved in such a way that their hooves are designed to grow down and be continually worn off by active movement from the horse as he travels mile after mile in the wild eating and running and doing what horses do. No need for farriers as long as they travel many miles each day. In complete contrast, however, when we keep a horse in a stall and neglect regular trimming, his body knows that hoof horn isn't being worn off - and it begins constructing thinner walls. It creates thin walls because weaker walls are more easily broken off. Further, these neglected hooves don't keep "growing down" or truly forgotten horses would be walking six inches off the ground. What they do is to flare out like a bell - and then eventually break off. (In more extreme cases, this natural defense can't keep up and the hoof will continue to grow till the horse can't even stand up.) When your farrier keeps your horse's feet trimmed with regularity, he's "fooling" the feet into thinking the hoof is being worn off in a natural fashion so the hooves remain nice and strong.
It's a pretty amazing system - but it can be painful when the horse takes a step and that flared-out section hangs first on a rock before the rest of the hoof lands on the ground. That rock, coupled with the horse's weight and movement, will cause the hoof "horn" to be pulled away from the hoof. The horse feels pain - and might very well end up with a crack or chip that only grows worse. Consider how many times this very thing is going to happen on an average training session. How many times would you bite into a sandwich with a bad tooth before you started acting in the same halting fashion as your horse?
Even the lay person can see "flare" for himself: Look at the top of your horse's "hoof capsule" there at the coronet/hair band. Reach down and wrap your thumb and forefinger around the hoof, one inch down from the coronet band/hair line in such a way that your blocking the rest of the hoof and looking at just this upper section. Now, pull your hand away. Does the hoof (at any point, all the way around) continue down to the ground at the angle you'd expect based on the first inch - or does it flare out? The flare you see is evidence that the hoof has been allowed to grow too long. There's your proof to yourself that you need to see your farrier more often. Depending on the severity, you might be looking at months - or give or take a year - for this to grow out and "reattach" so you can see that putting off that trim has lasting ramifications.
Tip: Teach almost anything to your horse with the "Clock Work Exercise." That's a chapter in the basic training book "What I'd Teach Your Horse" - and you can hear the whole section right now for FREE on audio when you click here.
Your horse might have bigger issues than simply a bit of flare. When a horse's hoof wall grows too long, it lifts the bottom of the foot off the ground and prevents other parts of the foot from helping to absorb impact, structures like the frog, bars and sole. This, of course, stresses out the very structure of the hoof because one "part" isn't supposed to do all the work. Hold your right sleeve with your left hand and pull the sleeve toward your elbow. This is what happens to the horse's feet as the horse "falls through" to the ground because the walls are too long and the other structures are not able to share the load.
For the frog's part, when the walls grow too long and lift it off the ground, the frog tends to shrivel up. The horse needs a good healthy frog because it offers protection from the outside world - but also because it (and the structure above it) helps absorb the impact as the foot strikes the ground. Your horse will land heel first (at gaits faster than a walk) when his feet are in good shape; he'll land toe first when his heels hurt in an effort to avoid pressuring the back half of his foot which is causing him pain. When he starts doing this, things go from bad to worse. A vicious cycle develops. With each step he takes, favoring his toe over his heel, the internal structures fall apart - literally. What happens is a long, flowchart-like sequence of events that all add up to a lame horse.
(Note that the frog can also cause the horse pain all by itself when it takes on an infection such as "thrush," so be ever-vigilant for evidence of nasty bacteria or fungus in this area in particular. If the frog becomes infected you might try using a 60cc catheter-tip syringe to squirt in a 50-50 mix of common athlete's foot cream and "triple antibiotic" ointment into the cleft. Do it daily to eradicate the issue. You can pick up both products over the counter at any pharmacy; get the syringe from your vet.)
Get your horse to stop now, not later. If it takes 2 seconds to go from a walk to a stop - multiply that by 8 when he's excited. Click here to read the "Hip-Shoulder-Shoulder" 3-part series of article - and get that stop the easy way!
If you take nothing from this article but one thing, learn that allowing your horse's feet to go unmaintained will do damage that takes a great deal of time to remedy. Any money you save by skipping trims will never be worth the "down time" the both of you will face to fix all this in the coming future. Find a way to get his feet done, even if it means learning how to do it yourself.
If you take two things, know this: Even the horse that's "out to pasture" needs to have his feet done in a timely fashion. Don't think "He's not doing anything but lounging; we can skip a trim or two." (I fell for that lame logic and it's why I'm writing this now, hoping to save you the same pain.) Pasture horses (brood mares, retirees, youngsters, etc.) need to have their feet looked after just as a working horse does.
The bottom line is that, as equestrians, we need to be aware of how our horse's movements (and attitude) can directly reflect what's happening "under the hood." Before blaming our horse for having a bad attitude or simply being a pill, we need to consider whether he's got a legitimate gripe. Make an effort to schedule some time soon with your farrier to discuss any issues your horse might have developed in the ring. Are your horse's movements being compromised for any reason he can see? A horse might be "off" for a myriad of factors that a farrier is best suited to spot, (some worse than what I'll describe here) so the consultation will surely be worth your time. Do it sooner rather than later because the more you allow things to deteriorate, the longer it'll take to fix -- and the more expensive it'll be.
Wanna teach your horse to drop its head and stay relaxed? When you're finished with this article, click here to read about the "Classic Serpentine."