“Medicate me,” pleads a four-year-old campaigner’s raw heel bulb. “The hind foot doesn’t mean to grab that quarter, it just does.”
“Feed me,” cajoles a young filly’s chipped hoof wall. “I need more nutrients.”
Glue me?’ suggests the thin-soled three-year-old stakes horse. “You know I hate the pressure of those nails.”
Every hoof has a story to tell, and trainers who learn to listen may prevent weak or diseased hooves from compromising a horse’s ability to train or start. An experienced horseman knows the signs of trouble, but the trick is in making sure that the stable crew knows, too, so that early signs can be tackled before they become major problems.
One of the biggest problems for horses in the racing game is that they are part of a sub-set of the horse population that is known for having thin walls, thinner soles, frequent cracks and slow growth. You could call it “racetrack normal”, but it’s not normal for a horse. And it can be overcome.
All across North America, some trainers are refusing to accept the status quo, and are using new solutions to try to both keep their horses’ hooves healthy and to prevent debilitating cracks, abscesses, bruises and hoof disease.
Here are 15 pro-active tips to get the horses in your care to put their best feet forward when their names appear in the racing program next to yours.
1. Educate the barn staff. Whether it is taping up photos of sprung shoes, thrushy frogs and stone bruises in the tack room or actually sending them to a seminar, consider it a good investment. They don’t have to be able to diagnose a wall separation; they need to know what’s normal and what’s not, and when to let a trainer know that a horse’s hoof needs a look.
2. It sounds obvious, but you should try to hire the best veterinarians and farriers in the area. Let both know that you are concerned about the condition of the hooves and want to avoid problems.
3. Be there when the farrier is there. Look at the horse’s feet with the shoes off, after the soles have been cleaned. Learn to look for wall separations at the heels and bruises on the sole and wall that may be invisible when a shoe is on. Let the farrier know if a horse had a problem in the past.
4. Know the horse’s conformation and how it might affect both the way the hoof grows down from the coronet and how the horse moves. The conformation may be faulty enough that, if the horse isn’t carefully and frequently trimmed and shod with compensating a deformity in mind, the horse will interfere, especially when fatigue sets in the stretch.
5. Keep notes on hoof problems and cross-check them with your training book. If the rider complains that the horse didn’t want to switch leads, check which side the resistance is on, and evaluate the lower limbs accordingly. Is there a pattern? Is the horse more willing to change leads after the shoes have been on a while?
6. Learn to read shoe wear. Is the shoe wearing evenly or is there a radical difference from the inside to the outside, or is the toe worn through while the heels look new? These are signs that the horse is landing unevenly or standing in the stall in an unusual posture.
7. Don’t expect all the horses in a barn to be on the same shoeing schedule. A few trainers want to shoe each horse the morning it will race, but what about the horse that has much longer gaps between races? Each horse will vary in the speed that the wall and sole grow, and any horse with an uneven hairline at the coronet or a limb deviation needs to be kept on an optimum trimming and shoeing schedule so it is training exactly the way you want it to race.
8. Consider the environment. Find out if all the trainers use the same bedding supplier, or if they find that some horses do better on straw or shavings or some alternative. Do you need stall mats? Are all your horses lying down to sleep? Do your stalls flood after a storm? Did your horses’ feet suffer last year when you stabled at this track, too? You might not be able to control the hoof growth, but you can control environmental factors that might affect it.
9. Get your worst-footed horses out of their stalls for more of the day. If your training center has turnout paddocks and walkers, give priority to the worst-footed ones, as long as they’re sound. New tools like vibration platforms are touted to help accelerate hoof growth at major tracks and farms. At the very least, devote extra time out of the bandages for your horses when their legs can be rubbed. Use a toothbrush or not-too-rough brush gently on the coronet to stimulate blood flow to the foot.
10. Re-think how often you bathe your horses and discuss with your farrier if some or all of your horses’ hooves seem spongier or are more “shelly” than others at the training center. Dry legs thoroughly before leading a horse into a stall. Don’t bother with hoof dressings or creams if you’re just going to hose it off.
11. Remember that hooves grow from the inside, and ask yourself if the digestive system is absorbing all the nutrients in feed and supplements, or if medication might have affected the absorption of some nutrients that the hoof needs. Is each horse drinking plenty of water?
12. Teach your barn staff where the nearest ice machine is, and that cold-hosing is not the same as ice. When a horse shows heat in his feet and a strong pulse at the back of the pastern, get him into ice boots or tubs up to the knees or hocks. If it worked for Paynter (Zayat Stables’ top American three-year-old of 2012 who battled back from laminitis), it might work for your horse, too.
13. Invest in x-rays if the horse has a foot problem and keep them for reference. If a new horse went through a sale, ask if its radiographs are available. Look for changes in the thickness of the sole and wall and the orientation of the coffin bone. Leave the diagnosing to the vet and the solution to the vet and farrier; make sure that they communicate with each other, not through you.
14. Glue-on shoes are now widely available, but your farrier may not be trained to use them. If he or she isn’t motivated, suggest a training course, or contact a glue-shoe manufacturer and ask for a one-horse referral in your area.
15. Are all your horses wearing the same shoes? Consider that there are a dozen companies making shoes and each makes a dozen or more models. Rim pads and lined shoes or a different style of nail might make a big difference to one of your horses. Let your farrier know that she or he is welcome to make suggestions.
It sounds like common sense, but most trainers are so busy with performance books and race entries that the foot doesn’t attract their attention until the horse is lame. Hoof care can and should be a pro-active program instead of damage control.
Fran Jurga specializes in equine lameness through her company, Hoofcare Publishing; she writes Fran Jurga’s Hoof Blog at www.hoofblog.com.