Introduction to working with an Equine Podiatrist

This article aims to give a flavour of what's involved in using an EP to look after your horse's hooves.

There is a significant difference between having a shod and an unshod horse. With a shod horse, you pay your farrier every few weeks to replace your horse's shoes and you more or less hand all responsibility for your horse's feet to the farrier. With an unshod horse, the division of labour is somewhat different. To understand why, you need to understand how management of the unshod horse works.

How horses' feet adapt in the wild

The horse has evolved to adapt to different environments. A horse living out all day, every day on hard, dry ground will develop feet that are designed to cope with that situation. In an arid environment (perhaps the most natural environment for a horse), a wild horse may have to move as much as 20 miles a day on rough, hard ground in order to find enough food. To cope with the wear this produces, a horse's hooves have to grow fast - growing an entire new hoof capsule in far less time than the domestic horse. The hooves also need a well developed mechanism for handling the concussive shock of constantly landing on hard ground, often at speed.

Sometimes a herd of wild horses will find themselves on softer ground - maybe moving for a period to lowland plains where the soil is wetter and the grass is lush. Here the horse doesn't need to search for food, so the daily mileage drops and the wear per mile reduces on the softer surface. Without the ability to adapt its hooves, the horse would soon be in serious trouble here. Without wear, the fast growing hooves would quickly become too long for comfort, eventually making it almost impossible for the horse to move at speed away from predators.

The key to the horse's survival in different environments is that the rate of growth of the hoof is controlled by the amount of pressure the hoof is under. A key tenet of Equine Podiatry is that "pressure is the stimulus for growth". The hoof capsule is actually made up of several interdependent structures (wall, sole, frog, etc.) and each structure is independently able to grow at a different rate depending on the stimulus it receives as the horse moves around. This means that not only is the horse able to adapt the overall rate at which the hoof grows according to need, but it can also vary the make-up of the hoof by growing different parts at different rates.

A hoof moving large distances on hard ground needs a thick wall and a tough sole, both of which grow fast. In contrast, with little movement on soft ground, the rate of growth is far less and the wall is much thinner so that it wears down faster. In addition, a thin wall can break away if it gets too long through too little wear.

The compromise of domestication

If you move a horse to a significantly different environment, then the hooves will adapt, but the process takes time (typically weeks to months depending on how big a change is needed). The problem with a domesticated horse is that we keep them on soft ground and/or in a stable, but we want their feet to cope with everything we can throw at them including road work, stony tracks etc. The horse's adaptation to the soft ground of a pasture or the lack of movement of being stabled is to grow a weak hoof that will wear away quickly. When we take such a horse out onto roads and tracks, the hooves will wear away too fast and the horse will become sore. This is perhaps the biggest challenge of domesticating horses in a country such as the UK where we can't easily keep our horses in their natural dry environment.

The traditional solution to this problem is to nail a metal shoe onto the foot. This provides an artificial structure that allows the horse to do the desired work. The horse can have weak hooves, but the metal shoes will provide the resistance to wear that we need. It has always been acknowledged that this is an imperfect compromise, but it is a compromise that has served humans well over the centuries and remains very much a valid option today.

The shoeless approach

The shoeless approach to domestication is significantly different. The aim is to provide the correct stimulus to develop structures in the hoof that are capable of coping with travelling significant distances on hard and uneven ground. Keeping a horse without shoes involves two equally important parts:

One important tool is the trim - shaping the foot so as to mimic the form it would acquire naturally on the terrain we want to work on. The aim of the trim is to direct the impact from exercise to those structures that we want to be well developed and away from any structures that we want to be less well developed. If your horse does enough miles on hard ground they will largely trim themselves to the correct shape.

Just as important is conditioning - working the horse on varying surfaces to provide the impact that will promote natural growth of suitable foot structures. This is very much like conditioning muscles. You wouldn't take an unfit horse and try to ride a 50 mile endurance ride. Similarly, you can't take a horse that has unconditioned bare feet and expect to do long distances on hard surfaces. The feet have to be gradually introduced to increasing levels of work, on increasingly challenging surfaces so that the structures of the hooves can develop correctly.

Horses that have previously had shoes on, or haven't done much work on hard ground, will need a transition period to become fully sound without shoes on all surfaces. The length of this period will depend on the condition the feet are in to start with. It may be as short as a few weeks or as much as six months. Where a horse has serious foot problems, it may take even longer. Usually, some ridden work can be introduced before transition is complete - especially if removable hoof boots are used.

The advantage of the shoeless approach is that it allows the horse to function as close as possible to the way it has evolved to. For example, the natural shock absorbing function of the hoof works at its best without a metal shoe attached. Research shows that a shod horse walking on tarmac experiences 80% more concussion than an unshod horse trotting on the same surface. Similarly, we're finding that the horse's natural ability to heal itself can work to its full potential only when the hooves are not shod. The result is better movement and a healthier horse. There is additional work involved and it involves a more proactive approach to managing your horse's feet. If you want to go the shoeless route, then you can no longer completely delegate care of your horse's feet to a specialist. As an owner, you will have to be prepared to take an active part in day-to-day care and conditioning of your horse's feet. And that means having a working understanding of how those feet work and how to care for them.

This is why owning a shoeless horse is so different from owning a shod horse. Even if you pay a professional trimmer to trim your horse every few weeks, you are still, as the owner, responsible for your part of the management - the care and conditioning. This is as vital to success as the trim.

What does an Equine Podiatrist do?

An Equine Podiatrist (or EP for short) is a specialist in equine feet. A qualified EP has studied the anatomy and science of the equine foot and understands how it works and how to influence its development by use of both trim and environment. This can be useful to owners who want to work their horses without shoes, but it can also be useful for horses that have 'problem' feet that have not responded well to traditional remedial farriery (whether the intention is to remain unshod or return to shoes once the feet are healed).

What can you expect from an Equine Podiatrist?

The first thing an EP will do on arriving at your yard is question you about your horse, how he or she is kept and any relevant history. Equine Podiatry is an holistic science and it is important that the EP has a full picture of the lifestyle of the horse. Foot problems can originate from a wide variety of causes including poor diet, inappropriate turnout or exercise regimes and even poorly fitting saddles!

The EP will want to see the horse move (usually by trotting him/her up on a hard surface). This can be extremely useful in identifying imbalances and also any pain or discomfort the horse may be suffering. The EP will then trim the horse's feet. This is typically done using a rasp and a hoof knife, although other tools may be used in specialist situations. After the trim, the EP will want to see the horse moving again to see what effect the trim has had.

The EP will also assess your horse's feet and give you an indication of how they are doing. Typically this includes a 'usability' score. This score gives a rough indication of what your horse is capable of doing unshod at that point and also provides a way of measuring progress.

Finally the EP will give you recommendations on how to manage the horse until the next visit. These recommendations may include changes in diet, changes in exercise, treatments for infections, etc. Your EP will also advise you if your horse has any problems that might need the involvement of a vet.

A typical first visit may take up to two hours per horse. Subsequent visits will normally take up to an hour. An EP will normally expect to visit roughly every four to six weeks. This may be more frequently than you are used to having horses shod, but to maintain high performance feet it's important to keep the feet in the correct shape. This is especially true where remedial work is in progress. Where a horse is doing significant work on hard ground, the trimming frequency is likely to be decreased.

The EP may vary this routine in certain circumstances - for example, it doesn't make sense to ask the owner to trot up a horse that is in a lot of pain.

What will an Equine Podiatrist expect from you?

Perhaps the most important part of the relationship between an Equine Podiatrist and a client is communication. It is very important that you fully understand what is expected of you by the EP - so if you are unsure, you should ask questions. Similarly, it's very important that you clearly tell your EP what has happened since the last visit. For example, an EP will want to know all about diet (including supplements), turnout and stabling arrangements, typical use, your future plans for the horse, etc. If any of these things change after the first visit, you should let your EP know. Your EP will also want to know about the history of the horse - including any medical history. If your horse's feet have been X-rayed in the past (especially recently), then copies of these X-rays will be most helpful in guiding the EP's work.

Your EP will ideally need a clean and flat area of hard-standing on which to work as well as somewhere with a hard flat surface to trot the horse up. Where possible the horse should be ready with clean, dry legs and picked out feet when the EP arrives. Obviously this is going to depend on the facilities you have available, the weather, etc. Your EP will need someone to hold the horse during trimming and to trot the horse up.

If your horse has any behavioural problems (biting, kicking, rearing, etc.), it is helpful if you can let your EP know. EPs are trained in horse handling and will endeavour to work with problem horses without causing undue stress to the horse or using inappropriate methods of restraint. In exceptional circumstances an EP may refuse to trim a horse if he or she considers that the situation is becoming dangerous for either horse or EP. In such cases, an EP will normally be happy to work with your behaviourist, vet, etc. to try to find a solution to this problem.

At the end of a visit, your EP will talk you through what needs to be done in the following weeks. The recommendations (which you should be given a written summary of) will typically cover a number of areas such as diet, exercise programme, infection control, etc. It is very important that you are happy with these recommendations and are able to carry them out. If there is anything that you do not understand, do not agree with, or do not feel you will be able to follow, then you should discuss this with your EP. Following these recommendations is as important as the trim.

© 2005-2006 Richard Vialls