Horses’ health, hoof and management
The majority of horse’s health issues comes from a wrong management that is strongly related to a poor client’s education and awareness. Even sometimes, the professionals that work in the horses’ field (veterinarians included) have been raised with the wrong concept of horse’s wellness and comfort. Everyone erroneously believe that the most common environment is the ideal one just because is what we are accustomed to it or it is the safest and most comfortable one. The problem is not simply the domestication itself but what we pretend from an equine and how it can react to environmental conditions that are so different from the scenario where ancient horses grew and developed.
Horses are nomadic beings evolved and designed to cover huge distances such as 15 miles a day seeking grass and water for likely 20 hours. The terrain they are used to is typically deserted, stony, ragged and covered by fibrous plants with low sugar. It is easy to understand the incongruity between those conditions and our modern barns and the way we grow up horses. They are confined in small areas with soft surfaces, fed with a hay rich in sugar, originally grown for livestock animals for milk and meat production. From a very superficial point of you it seems we made horses’ life easier… but does not mean it is healthier.
So how we altered physiology and drove many of horses’ diseases just keeping them in a luxury contest?
One of the greatest marker of horses’ health is the hoof. In order to understand how the environment can change the hoof’s structure we can watch what happens to a foal’s foot since its birth. Its digital cushion is full of neural endings that provide it sensitivity (fundamental for proprioception) and lipid tissue that protects the hoof from big mechanical insults. This structure is progressively remodeled in dense fibrocartilagineous tissue by moving with the herd for miles on uneven and hard surfaces: every step is a phase of pressure and release that promotes this structural change especially in the front half of the frog and so on the digital cushion. It becomes more solid and tougher. When the foal grows and gets heavier the neural endings are protected from an excessive stimulation thanks to its fibrocartilage and can fully express their sensory function. Even the frog becomes stronger and callous and the lateral cartilages get thicker. All these structures are designed to minimize the impact with the ground as the load is distributed on different parts. Therefore, the heels are the firsts to hit the ground gradually compressing the frog and flexing the lateral cartilages. There is no high impact zone of the foot and the hoof seems to roll on the ground like a tire and the foal floating on the ground.
In real life, the development of the structures of the back of the hoof is incomplete or inadequate as the terrain where the foal moves is soft and the quantity of movement is not sufficient to active the whole remodeling process. In addiction the weight load increases when we start to ride it before the digital cushion and the lateral cartilages are completely developed. A lack of protection of the digital cushion nerves occurs and the impact with the ground is painful. At this point, the biomechanics of the stride changes, the foot starts to strike the toe first to compensate and avoid pain. Thereby the toe wears more than the heels and the frog consecutively gets softer and with no callusing. Furthermore the development of the back structures stops. It happens that we shoe the hoof to alleviate the pain and stabilize the week lateral cartilages by lifting the frog and decreased its impact with the ground. The consequence is that we worsen the process of weakening of the lateral cartilages preventing the flexion of the capsule that is supposed to stimulate their development.
The aftermath of this situation is a higher risk of several issues such as:
- tender footedness
- decreased vascularization
- poor proprioception
- P3 rotation/ wall separation– within a hoof that strikes the heels first, the back structures adsorb and dissipate the energy: thereby P3 is not subject to the full initial impact force when is parallel to the ground otherwise it would collapse and become a sharp wedge sinking in the capsule with a huge stress on the laminae. At the end the risk of wall cracks, white line separation, descent of P3 and hoof capsule rotation increases. This happens because the connective tissue gets more vulnerable to diet’s mistakes or metabolic issues.
- Navicular syndrome
- Distal limb joint/tendon injuries
How can we prevent or solve this biomechanical aberration?
- Promoting a natural development of the back structures of the foot:
- Providing enough room to the foal or the adult horse and stimulating movement. We can build a so-called “paddock paradise” or a “track system” : a track composed by two fences wide 10 meters apart from the outside perimeter of the original one. We make a circuit where the horse is pushed to move around to seek the hay disseminated in small quantities.
- Changing terrain adding pea gravel (a 10 cm layer) where the stones are big enough to drain the rain, to stimulate the growth of the back structures and prevent the foot to sink and make it comfortable.
- Avoiding excessive heels trimming trying not to expose a thin and sensitive frog to strong impact with the ground and so pain. At the same time, the frog should have contact with the ground to be stimulated with pressure and release in order to develop adequately. In other words, we should have the heels lowest as possible without causing a compensatory toe-first movement because of the pain.
- Using boots and insoles or pads, which support the underdeveloped structures and provide the pressure and release requested without causing pain. They can be used when the horse is under saddle and taken off for barefoot turnouts.
- A low NSC diet monitoring the hay quality frequently
In conclusion, we cannot establish the wild original environment the horses were used to live but we can avoid huge mistakes, offering the best solutions for them, getting closer and closer to their physiological condition.