Hoof Care

Foal Feet Care

by Tom Berningstall
Handle your foals from day one. By the time a foal is four weeks old it should lead, stand tied, stand to be groomed, and—most important to those of us who have to trim its feet—stand to have its feet picked up. All four feet must be picked up, inspected, and cleaned daily. When time comes for the foal to have its feet trimmed, there's no need for a fight.

As a farrier I can tell you that none of us likes going to your farm for the sole purpose of getting beaten up by your ill-mannered, untrained equines. If you can't find 15 minutes a day to handle and train your baby horses, you have no business having baby horses. There I got that off my chest. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell at you.

I can never understand why people tell me they handle their young horses, but I can tell by how nervous and afraid the little ones are that the only handling they have had was a pat on the nose a couple of times, or worse yet, a beating. Please handle your foals enough so they think you're part of their daily life. Be firm only when you need to be, to keep you or the horse from getting hurt.

The condition of the foal's feet should be evaluated when the foal is four to six weeks of age. A veterinarian or farrier is the best source for this appraisal, but if you are independent-minded, here's what to look for:

All four feet should point forward and toe-out just a little. The knee and hock should be in line with the rest of the leg, from the point of the shoulder and the pin bone at the haunches to the bottom of the hoof. Babies are often cow-hocked and knock-kneed, which is normal to an extent. Over-correcting normal toe-out in babies by trimming the hoof lower on the outside often results in pigeon-toed adult horses.

The point of the frog should be centered in the sole of hoof. The hoof wall at the toe should be the same slope as the pastern when viewed from the side, with the foot on the ground and the horse standing and squared up. When you look at the hoof from the front, the hair line and bottom of the hoof should be horizontal.

The foal's hoof should look much like a full-grown hoof, just smaller. Take care of any twist or deformity as soon as possible. For this you may need professional help from a farrier or a veterinarian. With so many possible problems, and so many ways to solve them, sometimes we all need help from somebody else. For the health of the horse, it's okay to ask.

To trim the soft baby hoof, all you need are a sharp hoof knife and a rasp. The baby hoof will grow out in 5 to 10 months, to be replaced with stronger hoof growth requiring hoof nippers to be trimmed. Trim the hooves on a regular schedule. Every 4 to 10 weeks is normal, depending on hoof growth and wear. Two important rules: Don't cut the hoof wall deeper than the sole. Don't cut away the sole and frog—clean up ony the loose stuff.

Here's my method for picking up the front feet: Run your hand from the neck down the shoulder to the forearm, knee, and cannon bone to the fetlock. Most of the time when you lightly tug the fetlock, the foot will come up. For young horses in training or with stubborn equines, babies or adults, I press firmly with the tips of my fingers under the fetlock, just beneath the ergot, then release the pressure when the foot comes up. Most horses will respond to this pressure and give up the foot willingly. Remember that getting the foot off the ground is only half the training. Standing still on three legs to be worked on is the other half. Please practice.

On the hind feet, I stay close to the animal's side and, with the hand closest to the horse, run down from the flank to the inside of the cannon bone to the inside of the fetlock. I then pull the foot forward and walk it back. Sometimes I use slight pressure with my shoulder to shift the horse's weight off the foot I'm asking for.

While holding the rear leg in your lap, or the front foot between your knees, tap lightly on the hoof with a hammer or stone, as a farrier does while shoeing. This little exercise will get the horse accustomed to the feel and sounds of being shod.

I'm an advocate of not shoeing before the horse is two years old. Early hoof growth should not be restricted by shoes. If a horse has a problem that shoes can help, or if you are advised by a veterinarian, then shoeing is okay.

The youngest horse I ever put a shoe on was five weeks old. Its right front leg was badly twisted. Veterinarian Dr. Carlin asked me if anything could help. With this poor foal on the ground and tied up so it wouldn't hurt us or itself, I made a shoe with a heel calk on the inside and nailed it on, then put the hoof in a cast. It worked, but the shoe was left on only four weeks so as not to restrict hoof growth.

We are responsible for the care of our horses from their birth to their death. Good hoof care is one of the most important aspects of keeping a horse healthy. So get up off your rump and go out to the barn and play with your babies.

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F. Thomas Breningstall was a columnist whose work appeared regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Spring 1996 issue.

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