© F. Thomas Breningstall
"I have a 5-month-old filly who started out being a little club footed on her left front leg," writes Cheryl Blackburn of Snohomish, Washington. "She tended to walk on her toe and started to get some toe separation. She also toes out in front. I feed her off the ground, because the affected foot is the one she always put back to eat. This filly is pretty big for her age.
We have been working with our vet and have been taking down her heel, which seems to help a lot with the angle. However, the hoof is now growing with a bow to the outside and a dip on the inside. Our vet is going to put on a side extension shoe to see if that will help. This filly means a lot to us and we want to do everything possible to make sure she doesn't grow up lame. Do you have any suggestions that might help, and are we doing the right thing?"
This column has had more letters on this subject than on any other. Club feet are becoming a major problem, and not just here in the States. I get letters about it from other countries, as well. As it happens, working with club-footed horses is one of my pet projects. The problem is more prominent in Arabs, then come Morgans, Quarter horses, and on down the line. It's starting to show up in heavy horses; I've personally seen it in Belgians.
Your vet is on the right track, but I would shoe with a toe extension and let the club foot grow out heel and toe, so the affected foot is longer then the opposite foot. Also stop feeding off the ground, because this makes the club side of the horse even weaker and wears the toe even shorter. Let the foal run free as much as possible.
"What do you look for when determining if a mature horse has a club foot?" asks Linde Wainwright of Camas, Washington. "I am leasing a horse and I think his right front foot is clubbed. The hoof starts out from the coronet band at a straight up and down angle, then flares out sort of dish-like. It is not immediately noticeable, and he seems to handle himself well and athletically.
"How can I tell if this is a club foot? What possible problems can I expect regarding a club foot, especially regarding sure footedness. I intend to have him vetted before buying. But before I go that far, I would like more education on the subject."
You didn't say if the flare or dish on your horse's foot was on the sides of the hoof or at the toe. If on the sides, then these are flares and not a club foot. Things to look for to determine if your horse has a club foot:
Clue #1. The flare is at the toe, not on the sides.
Clue #2. After rasping down the outside of the hoof at the toe, use a hoof protractor to measure the angle of the hoof. An angle of more than 60 degrees indicates a possible club foot.
Clue #3. With the horse standing on a hard surface, compare the heels of the front feet. The heel on the club foot will be higher than the other foot.
Clue #4. The club foot will be narrower then the other foot and the frog will be smaller.
Clue #5. Stand the horse up square, still on the hard surface. Move to the rear, looking over the back of the horse from the tail. Check the angle of the shoulders from the point of the withers down each side. If your horse has a club foot, the normal side will be big and rounded and the club side will be sloping and weak looking.
Other common things I see in club footed horses:
Clue #6. The horse stands with the club foot back and the normal foot out in front while grazing.
Clue #7. The horse leads with the normal foot most of the time.
Clue #8. The horse has a history of stumbling on the club side.
I have seen club-footed horses that never had a problem with unsoundness, and I have seen some club-footed horses that needed a lot of help.
As for what causes club feet, I think it is mostly an inherited imbalance. The club side is the short side of the horse, kind of like a table with a short leg--you know, the one you slip the matchbook cover under, so the table won't rock. Nature tries to make the short side longer by growing a longer heel on that side.
Most veterinarians think that cutting tendons and ligaments will help the problem. I have seen many a horse that still had a club foot after being cut. A club foot is a whole-horse problem, not just a hoof problem.
I have had good results treating club-footed horses. I try to make the toe and heel of club hoof longer than the other front hoof. I rasp the flare of the toe, then trim the heel down to get a good angle of less than 60 degrees. I don't try to make the two front feet look alike; at this point, that would be only cosmetic.
I shoe the club foot with a leather pad between shoe and hoof--like the matchbook cover under the table leg. I trim the other front hoof short, with an angle that matches the angle of the pastern. Sometimes I leave this hoof bare; or I'll shoe this hoof with a matching shoe, but without the pad. As the feet normalize and the club hoof gets longer, heel and toe, sometimes I can shoe the club hoof without the leather pad. Normalization may take anywhere from one to six months. I see remarkable changes in the feet, body, and attitude of these horses.
"I have a horse with a club foot," reports a reader from Loxahatchee, Florida. "I don't know its level of seriousness. Should I start correcting his foot, or just leave him alone? Eventually I would like to sell him and I think it will increase his value if his stance is correct. Someone told me once that horses are not born with club feet, that they are due to an injury in the shoulder. Is that true? My farrier has told me to leave him the way the good Lord made him. What do you think?"
A club foot can be a problem or it need not be a problem. I have treated many horses with club feet and have had good results over the years.
As for the problem being caused from an injured shoulder, that might be true in a small number of cases. Nony Storer of Victoria, Australia, told me of her mare that developed a club foot after having a serious injury that caused her not put any weight on the injured leg. Nony also told me of a stallion in South East Queensland that sired a lot of club-footed foals. I believe inheritance is the main cause of club foot. Club-footed horses should not be bred.
F. Thomas Breningstall is an AFA and MHA certified full-time farrier living in Fowlerville, Michigan. This article first appeared in Rural Heritage magazine and is reprinted here with permission.