With the club footed horse, the first thing to understand is that the horse has a deformity and as such it is always going to need a high degree of hoof maintenance, for the term of its natural life. To identify the club foot we must know what is considered ‘normal’ and then compare the difference. When a normal hoof is in balance, the front of the hoof wall will be in line with the front of the pastern, whereas in the club foot this straight line is broken from the coronet down to the toe, and the heel appears much higher.
There are many reasons why horses are afflicted with one or two club feet; some are born that way through genetics, and most owners will vigorously deny that this trait was ever present in their bloodline, however when historical photos of previous generations are studied it will show up three or four generations back. Another group of these club footed horses is simply the result of hoof or leg injuries, and then there is a small group who have very upright pasterns and are thought to have club feet because of misunderstood trimming in leaving the heels too high.
The foal born with a disposition to display a club foot should be given a few weeks to see if the condition improves to normal; if it fails to develop a correct angle by the age of four weeks you can assume that the deep flexor tendon is still contracted. This will be causing the heels to grow high and the toe to become short or stumpy, thus the heels need to be lowered as much as possible, down to the junction of the widest point of the frog to help get the frog into ground contact and this will need to be repeated every two weeks. Despite all these efforts you will still be likely to end up with a club footed adult who requires high maintenance for life.
It is amazing how horses can adapt their action to get around a handicap such as a club foot. Many of them go on to be top performers with no hint of lameness even though they are stepping slightly short on that leg.
Injuries to the tendon or heel bulbs which cause the horse to point its toe and rest the heel off the ground for any length of time will often cause what looks like a club foot, and if this is not corrected quickly it can develop into that conformity.
The club foot if not correctly balanced will cause problems such as contracted frogs and heels, lameness from the high heels causing concussion from landing too early, which also causes neck and shoulder and back strain. If it is shod it will often forge or over reach and pull shoes off.
To achieve balance in the normal hoof, find the active tip of the frog (which is where the frog meets the live or clean sole), then mark a point 19mm back from that point – this is the centre of balance in the hoof. The sole must be concave from the frog out to the hoof wall. The hoof wall must be of an even thickness (approximately 4mm). The measurement from the outer toe wall to the centre point of balance can now be used to determine exactly where to trim the heels to, for example if the toe length measures 6cm from the centre then measure six centimetres in a straight line down the middle of the hoof back to the heel. When these two halves of the bottom of the hoof are equal the hoof/pastern angle will be parallel and an x-ray will show the front of the pedal bone will be in line with the front of the hoof wall and the bottom of pedal bone will be raised by about five degrees at the rear from being ground parallel.
In the club foot because the deep flexor tendon is contracted, the x-ray will show that the pedal bone angles are quite different, the front is not in line with the hoof wall, the tip is pointing down and the rear part is much greater than five degrees. Put simply, the heels will need to be lowered and any flare corrected at the toe. To achieve this, follow exactly the same procedure as for a normal hoof balance i.e trim the sole, correct the toe thickness and length, then use this measurement to tell you where to lower the heels to; this should also now put the frog into ground contact which is critical to the prevention of contracted heels and correct blood circulation in the hoof.
In the occasional event where the toe of the club foot has been so worn away that it is squared off and thus not measurable, reverse the process, lower the heels to just above the widest points of the frog, then measure from a straight line across the new heel buttresses to the 19mm point of balance. This measurement will show where the actual toe should be; if shoes are to be fitted, that is where the front of the shoe must be and the rear of the shoe must fit exactly at the new heels.
The club foot can be difficult to maintain, because it is usually contracted in the heels and has very little angle to its side walls. It is a mistake to leave the shoes wider so that the hoof will spread, as this only invites the shoe to be pulled off during work or play. The best you can do is to balance the hoof correctly which will keep the frog down on the ground which will prevent heel contraction. Also don’t use a shoe which is too thick and heavy as it will put unnecessary stress on a fragile hoof wall.
The important thing to remember is that in a foal, early recognition and appropriate action are vital, and that a club footed horse is a high maintenance horse but managed properly will still do his very best for you. From a farrier’s perspective, my advice to the breeders and owners is to be very selective and cull out bad conformation.