Foot care and farriery conversations at Appleby Horse Fair
It was scorching hot this year at Appleby! Especially for the farriers trimming feet and providing the essential ‘pit stop’ service at the Fair. We also had a farrier – Dean Bland – at the Horse Information Stand on Salt Tip Corner. He gave a shoe modification demo which showcased shoe adaptations as well as new shoeing materials such light and durable plastic and aluminium shoes as well as pads that go between the shoe and hoof to add cushioning - all of which are shaking up the farriery world at the moment.
The demo drew out quite a number of off-duty farriers on their holidays – a reminder of the strong farriery tradition that exists within the Gypsy and Traveller community! This blog recalls some of the main conversations we had with them as well as lots of horse owners at the Fair.
(Picture caption: Shoe modification demo – there is a logic to cans … read on!)
Looking after horses’ feet is “as important as knowing how to change a tire”
Gypsy and Travellers have been caring for horses’ feet for as long as they’ve been travelling with horses and fully appreciate the old saying “No hoof, no horse”. Having a basic understanding of the foot and hoof care while living life ‘on the hoof’ in an age without mobile phones was as essential “as knowing how to change a tire”.
We heard some extraordinary stories of how the older generations worked with what they had at hand to help a horse in an emergency such as a foot abscess or injury – stories not for the faint-hearted! Of course, we also talked about how the hardy Cob – mix of Dales Pony, Draught horse and Welsh - was also bred, in part at least, for feet resilient to weather and work.
(Picture caption: Sharing experience at the Appleby shoe-making demo)
Taking a closer look at what’s going on inside the horse’s foot
Attracted by the horse legs, hooves and shoes at the Information Stand, the conversations with horse owners were often about the fundamental biomechanics of the foot – i.e. how it works. Getting to grips with how the hoof grows and how the skeleton and tendons are put together really helped people understand how a particular shoe, ground surface or level of exercise impacts on the horse.
“Ah see, that’s why I don’t need to shoe mine!” Remarked one lady whose farrier had recommended no shoes and: “So that’s what happens with laminitis,” said one lad who had heard of the painful foot condition but hadn’t seen how the pain is actually caused (see skeleton image below).
For those that were new to horses, the objects at the stand helped to show how horses’ feet are flexible and complex structures and how they are impacted by a range of genetic and environmental factors – many of which we have control over and can do to keep horses sound – for example ground conditions, nutrition and regular trimming and farriery attention.
(Picture caption: A closer look at what’s going on inside the horse’s hoof)
The hoof wall is like our fingernail – a durable, watertight structure designed to grow and wear away over time – acting as an armour to keep the skeleton and sensitive bits inside protected.
When a horse moves a tremendous amount of force is put through the legs and feet. These structures have evolved to efficiently absorb and dispel these forces. They flex and move just like a leaf spring on a cart, acting like a shock absorber to protect the bones and joints. It's no wonder that we call a cart without springs ‘a bone shaker’.
Video 1_ close up of a landing foot_FINAL from Rural Media on Vimeo.
(Video caption: A closer look at the impact of a landing foot - Video clip is courtesy of Imprint Equine Foot Care www.imprintshoes.co.uk)
Meanwhile the foot itself is an intricate piece of engineering made up of different components – like a three layered onion - with bone in the middle and the hoof capsule on the outside and the fleshy sensitive structures in between. The entire weight of the horse is carried by the bone column of the leg into the hoof where it is transferred across the sensitive layer of connective laminae to the hoof wall and down to the ground. The foot is effectively compressed between the mass of the horse and the resistance of the ground (shown in the diagram above).
The laminae essentially suspend the horse from the hoof capsule fixed there like Velcro while gravity pushes the horse’s weight downwards. The two layers of laminae – one (insensitive) attached to the hoof wall and the other (sensitive) connected to the bone – allow the hoof wall to grow downwards while the skeleton remains in place and secure. It’s these structures that cause pain when they are torn apart or weaken for a number of reasons.
(Picture caption: Damage to the laminae structures means the horse’s skeleton begins to come away from the hoof wall and rotates downwards under the weight of the horse)
A healthy, balanced, foot copes with these load forces. However in an unbalanced, overly long, unhealthy foot this ability is lost and these forces distort and crumple the foot, tearing the foot apart causing pain and bruising every bit as real as if we were to trap or tear off our own fingernails.
Farriery trends fashions at the Fair
Both the farriers working at the Fair and the ones we met enjoying the sun’s rays away from the forge described various ‘preferred styles’ of trimming and shoeing feet. It was easy to see them in the driven horses at the fair. Heavy shoes and long toes are a favourite amongst the high-stepping cobs in particular as well as a good number of the trotter-types on the flashing lane.
(Picture caption: Examples of preferred styles of shoeing at the Fair)
The farriers at the Fair described how this is a particular style that is desirable to Traveller horse owners almost exclusively. The style exaggerates the movement of the feet. In the high stepping cobs, the heavy shoes encourage an exaggerated lift and longer toe flicks the feet forward in an attractive way. A natural action is valued highly in the community and so this shoeing approach can make a horse worth more. Perhaps surprisingly though, it doesn’t achieve a faster or efficient stride.
At the demo, we were discussing this with farriers, many of whom find it difficult to suggest to owners that a more rounded toe and balanced foot might be in the interest of the horse. Many Traveller horse owners choosing this style may not realise that the impact this has on the horse goes beyond just the action it creates and can actually cause problems for the horse.
Long feet put a strain on the flexor tendons by delaying the ‘break over’ – the point at which the weight of the horse transfers over the landed foot and lifts the heel off the ground. When a foot is ‘well balanced’ it moves through a perfect arc around the coffin joint (see diagram above) at the centre of its rotation like a perfectly round wheel arcs around the axel on a cart, but when the foot is unbalanced it’s like having an oval or square wheel – not very comfy!
Simply put, if you increase the toe length then more strain is loaded on to the tendons, increasing the risk of permanent changes in the foot, tendon damage and tearing of the laminae (what’s known as mechanical laminitis).
We can evaluate balance externally by watching how the foot lands, loads and takes off – whether it travels in a perfect arc. It’s the mark of a good farrier if they ask to see a horse move to get a good assessment of balance.
Long feet in unshod horses - do they really matter if they don’t ride or drive?
We also talked a lot about unshod horses. Farriers working at the Fair also agreed that for lots of in-hand, unshod ponies they only get trimmed up for the occasion – or in a few rare cases where the feet were really long – not at all.
So we chatted about this with owners and some people understandably asked: “Do long feet really matter in horses that aren’t doing too much work?”
(Picture caption: Hoof trimmings taken off by farriers at Appleby)
Well, of course the negative effects of long untrimmed feet – tendon damage etc mentioned above - are greater for driven and ridden horses who work more intensively but, even the horses doing no work have feet under the same fundamental forces when they are moving about. As the old adage goes, “No hoof, no horse” - every horse should be comfortable on their feet. In fact the effects of long feet on the very strength and structure of the foot can cause pain regardless of the level of work.
One way of thinking about it is considering the difference between putting a brick on an empty coke can versus putting a brick on an empty coke can with a bashed side. What happens?? The coke can with the bash crumples under the weight of the brick while the perfect can is able to hold the brick up. When toes grow long the pressure is uneven and causes the hoof wall to weaken in places which just gets worse over time (that’s what the cans in the first photo were there forJ!).
While it might be tempting to ‘take length’ off a foot in preparation for an event or exercise, one trim won’t get a foot back on form. In fact it can take lots of extensive and expensive farriery to get the feet back right once the feet have become deformed. Just think about trying to straighten out a crumpled coke can (especially while the weight of a horse is bearing down on it!).
[image 7: Annotated image of long feet problems]
(Picture caption: Like the tip of the iceberg, there’s always more going on below than what is visible on the surface)
What are the benefits of first rate farriery?
Farriery is not just about length of toe of course. As well as identifying problems in the quality of the hoof that may make it more vulnerable to injury or infection and lameness – it also improves soundness and comfort of the horse by identifying and correcting poor conformation such as crooked inward pointing toes and twisted lower limbs.
Like us, all horses are put together differently which means that one foot, leg, or skeleton is not the same as the next. When horses move at a faster pace their stride changes and imperfections can lead to injury where one foot clips another (made worse when a horse gets tired, of course). Hence the need for the various exercise boots on the market to protect against ‘interference injuries’ such cause by brushing or over-reaching – a full spectrum of boots could be seen in use on the flash at Appleby for example.
Whilst boots offer great protection and they may be needed despite good farriery attention, regular farriery is also about getting the foot to ‘land and load’ evenly. Many ride and drive horses that do roadwork are likely to develop adverse wear to their feet over time because of imperfections in conformation. So we chatted to lots of owners about the ways farriers select a shoe and can adapt it so the foot lands and takes off evenly from the ground.
In essence, the foot moves in a straight line, uninhibited by the other limbs or an indirect movement that curves rather than goes straight. Ultimately the horse is quicker and less likely to cause itself an injury through clashing legs.
If you are interested to find a farrier in your area you can visit http://www.farrier-reg.gov.uk/find-a-farrier/
Suffice it to say … we had a lot of great conversations about horses and hoof care at Appleby Horse Fair. If you have any questions about anything you have read or any general questions about horse care please visit https://www.redwings.org.uk/advice/hoof-care – or give us a call 01508 481008 or email email@example.com
Look out for the next blog in October! – update on worming
Some top links for more information
More about farriery http://www.farrier-reg.gov.uk/home/
Redwings Laminitis Leaflet https://www.redwings.org.uk/sites/default/files/Laminitis-Leaflet.pdf
More about Dean Bland and his work http://www.wellequine.co.uk/
If you have questions about the work of horse charities at the Fair visit http://www.newc.co.uk/
By Andie Vilela, Education and Campaigns Manager at Redwings Horse Sanctuary