Friday, 3 October 2014

Troubleshooting for the barefoot horse

This is another of those posts which I've been meaning to write for a while but something else always comes up.

However it fits in quite nicely with the earlier posts this week on saddles and on the adaptability of the hoof so I decided to try and make time to put it up.

If you are having issues with your horse, have a look through and perhaps it might help a bit!

This is the number one reason in my experience why horses in the UK are footy, short-striding or sensitive on stones.

Funny old thing, if your horse sails through the winter months and is fine but starts to become less capable in March/April its probably not the hard ground nor the fact that "he is doing more work now the days are longer" :-) Equally if you've struggled for the last few months and your horse is now getting better - don't rest on your laurels come the Spring!

How to be sure
Often people don't believe me - in fact I didn't believe it myself when someone first told me I should consider whether grass was a factor in Bailey's footiness back in 2004 - but if you eliminate grass from the equation and your horse improves its a no-brainer.  Keep your horse off grass completely for at least 4 days and if he becomes more comfortable you know the answer.

You don't have to keep your horse in. The best option is to find somewhere grass-free to turn out - an arena, a yard, even a car-park. If you have your own place or a very helpful YO then you may be able to create a grass-free area by using wood chip, sand or anything else which will suppress grass growth. If you are careful with drainage you then also have a dry area for winter rather than a bogy field - bonus! Feed (soaked) hay or meadow haulage instead of grass and get it analysed for sugar levels if you have a particularly sensitive horse.

Alternatively you may be able to find safer grazing; old permanent pasture, organically managed land and scrubby areas of hillside are always kinder to hooves than artificially fertilised fields of ryegrass.

Failing that, try using a muzzle for part of the day (I know a few very greedy good doers who are successfully muzzled for the majority of the time) if your horse will accept that - its a better option for your horse than sore feet.

The good news is that once a horse has had healthy feet and been in consistent work for a year or so then generally their tolerance to grass sugars goes up, they can cope with more grazing time and your margin for error becomes much greater.

A trim can of course sometimes be beneficial to a horse but if your horse has problems as or soon after he is trimmed and was fine before then the trim has to be suspect number 1.

How to be sure 
Often owners will say something like "Well it can't be the trim because my trimmer is so lovely and sympathetic and anyway he/she only did a very minimal trim and tidied some flare so I don't understand why he is now footy on stones."

Sadly its possible to upset a horse's media-lateral balance with even a few gentle rasp strokes in the wrong place and this will make a horse footy. Obviously an aggressive trim can also really set a horse back. In both cases if a horse is better 2-3 weeks after the trim and was fine before the trim then the finger has to point to that.

Firstly let the trimmer or farrier know exactly what happened (in any event a trimmer or farrier who doesn't assess a horse's movement before and after a trim shouldn't be allowed near your horse). If they want to come back and try something different and less invasive then by all means work with them and let the horse be the judge of whether the next trim is more successful.

Alternatively - and this is often better for the horse and results in stronger, healthier hooves - allow your horse to develop self-trimming feet by giving him a regular programme of movement. This doesn't have to be formal exercise (though it can be of course) as long as it is consistent and involves some time each day on ground which is tougher than a soft field.
Poor biomechanics

This is another obvious one but a common cause of problems. A horse landing flat or toe first is a horse who is not fully extending his front legs. As well as having a shorter stride he is setting himself up for longer term problems as this way of going puts strain on the tendons and ligaments of the affected limb. This is something I blog about a lot  - there was a recent post last week for instance - so you can search for more about the anatomy if you are interested.

How to be sure
If you have got to the stage of having a lame horse then of course its a call to your vet and a lameness work-up which you need. However if your horse has had some time off or his work schedule has varied and you just want to check his landing then that's fairly simple.

Find somewhere with a flat, hard surface. Walk your horse and ask a friend to film him with the camera held still and no higher than his fetlock. There are lots of apps and software you can use to slow down the footage and with time and experience you can also learn to spot a heel first landing with the naked eye.

If you want to check his medio-lateral balance walk him towards the camera and film his front feet as they land. You want to see the front feet loading evenly on both medial and lateral heels, not landing on one side and tipping to the other.

A horse who normally has a good landing but has become slightly flat or has developed a slight medio-lateral imbalance may simply need a bit more stimulus to the frog and digital cushion. If so, then gentle roadwork can be a big help but monitor your horse carefully - he should feel comfortable at all times and be landing better within 2 weeks.

Beware of working a horse with a toe first landing on hard surfaces as this can put too much strain on the foot and leg.
Saddle or girth problems

If your horse is landing well, is on a good diet and is self-trimming then the next place to look is his tack.

For the reasons I posted about earlier in the week, saddles and girths can be a major cause of horses being short-striding or even unlevel, not to mention going hollow or tense.

How to be sure
Work your horse in hand and without tack and film him if possible. Take him out led from another horse, ideally, and watch his stride length and soundness and then work him on a circle.

Then do the same but this time with tack and a rider. Again, filming can be helpful because you can freeze frames to compare stride length.

Watch for the elbow being restricted by the girth and the shoulder being pinched by the saddle. A horse who moves nicely without tack but shortens up or hollows when ridden is likely to be a horse with ill-fitting tack.

Most likely a different saddle and/or girth! Look for makes which allow free movement of the shoulder and back and never, ever believe a saddle fitter who says the saddle is fine if your horse's movement is telling you otherwise!
Nutritional/metabolic issues

This is another important one. Unless the mineral levels in your grass and hay/haylage are perfectly balanced to what your horse needs (which is MASSIVELY unlikely) then you need to feed a broad spectrum mineral supplement. I've blogged about this before too, but there are very few on the market which contain adequate levels of copper, zinc and selenium which are key for hoof health.  

How to be sure?
A horse with inadequate levels of minerals in his diet will be flat footed, sensitive to tough surfaces and have poor faulty hoof wall. He may also have other health issues such as spookiness or dull, lifeless coat.

Feed one of the supplements in the link above PLUS additional magnesium or have your grass and forage analysed to formulate a bespoke supplement. If the horse improves with 2-3 months of consistent feeding then the problem is solved. 

If your horse's diet is as good as you can get it and you still have problems you should discuss with your vet having your horse tested for PPID/IR. 


BruceA said...

But denial is so much easier. :-) Sadly livery yard owners are not switched on to this and many people have no options open to them. Until yard owners accept that grass is a significant issue owners will continue to find it hard and will be greeted with contempt and ridicule when they try to do what is right.

Anonymous said...

Great post - it's important to look at this systematically, one thing at a time. Nicely written out and a good reference.

Anonymous said...

The only things I would add are that:

There are parts of the US where soils are selenium deficient, and selenium supplementation may be needed - US packaged feeds have selenium added but it's usually a very small amount as selenium can be toxic. If you do supplement with selenium, be very, very careful due to its toxicity - calculation of the exact dose your horses is getting from all sources is important.

Also, chromium can be helpful for the IR/metabolic horse. I use a custom chromium/magnesium/selenium supplement for two of my horses, but the third won't touch anything with magnesium in it, so he gets Chromium Yeast from Platinum Performance, which is a good substitute.

Anonymous said...

In the US, Biotin 800Z (not the one with yucca with packaging and name that's almost the same) is a good supplement for zinc and copper without a lot of other junk thrown in (like most hoof supplements).

Nic Barker said...

Hi Kate, Selenium supplementation is very strictly regulated over here - off the shelf supplements cannot include more than 2mg/day for the reason you cite. Many areas in the UK are low in Se but the levels in the supplements are adequate in every case that I am aware of.

We aren't permitted to use chromium as a supplement over here but there are reasonable levels of chromium in brewers yeast which many of us feed.

There are a couple of really good UK supplements which I list in the linked post so thanks for including US ones :-)

Nic Barker said...

I agree Bruce but its not always as bleak as you describe and if every owner is willing to help educate their YO it can make a hug difference :-)

At the end of the day its up to owners to create demand for grass-free turnout :-)

Unknown said...

I was thinking about UK conditions during my clinic in Poland two weeks ago. 99% of the horses on the yard are barefoot and do all the work any other amateur, all-round rider would do with their horse in England (hack over varied terrain - not very manicured at all!, school, jump etc). Their turn out is divided into dirt paddocks (where they are for most of the time and most live out for most of the year but deep winter when it's -20 to -30C or mid summer with +30C) and grass field (occasional turn out). I have never seen so many such good feet on horses at one place for a long time.
Their diet is very simple otherwise, mostly straights and mostly oats plus sugar beet!

It's interesting to observe before own eyes how environment and diet affects the hooves.