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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Video: Fix My Crooked Foal! Reality Time for Horse Breeders, Skill Time for Surgeons and Farriers

It's that time of year. The 2011 foal crop is here and breeders are looking at them under magnifying glasses. What have they bred? Will this foal make it as an athlete in the long run?

In the short run, will he or she sell at a yearling sale?

Making a foal look and move like a future athlete is a controversial part of horse production. Many foals are born with problems, so corrections are often made. Some are left to see if time, weightbearing and chest or muscle development will compensate for the appearance of a bow-legged or knock-kneed conformation.

Double-click image to view at larger size; image strictly copyright HC Biovision and Hoofcare Publishing

Many would say that corrections should have been made in the selection process of matching broodmares and/or stallions instead of later, in the foals, but the prevalence of conformational defects in so many breeds would make selection based on ideal conformation a daunting task, particularly since a horse's original lower-limb alignment may have been surgically altered to some degree.

In 2011, a sire or mare's true conformation may be better seen in the foals he or she produces than in the legs he or she stood on when breeding publicity photos were taken.

This is the time of year when veterinarians and farriers find themselves holding squirming foals and truly working together to decide what should or shouldn't be done to straighten the appearance of the lower limbs. These are important decisions.

The same principlws used to improve the limb alignment on a valuable Thoroughbred or show horse foal can be used to intervene when a foal is born with more severe  defects. Surgery and special shoeing probably saved this foal's life. (Photo from the Wildenstein Photo Library, thanks to Michael Wildenstein.)

Knowing the bloodlines, knowing the breeders, and most of all, knowing the anatomy and growth schedule of the lower limbs are the keys to success. What might work at one farm won't work at another. What might work on a Quarter horse might not work on a Friesian.  And what works at one clinic or hospital might not work at yours...but you know what worked on this foal's half-brother, or you remember its dam, or you know the farm staff is going to diligent about caring for this little guy (or not).

The video team at Thoroughbred Times caught a typical moment with a surgical team at Hagyard Equine Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky this spring. This brief two-part video follows one foal from evaluation through minor surgery and application of a lateral hoof extension aimed at bringing a toed-in foot back into line with the limb.

Part 1: Identifying toe-in conformation with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute's Dr. Michael Spirito

Part 2: Periosteal elevation of the fetlock and application of an adhesive lateral extension on the toed-in foal's foot.

And what if the foals weren't corrected? Toed-in, toed-out, club-footed foals grow up unaltered in the fields of breeders without the budgets of business-oriented breeders. Most people feel strongly that correction early in life gives a foal a chance to bear weight correctly and therefore develop normally so that, as an athlete, the horse has a better chance of running. And winning.

But would they have straightened out on their own, without the pressure of yearling sales for racehorses and in-hand classes for show horse yearlings?

There's no question that the correction has to be done at the right time, before the corresponding growth plates in the area of the deformity close. Wait-and-see is a decision of its own. Conservative trimming techniques can sometimes be enough. A tiny extension like the one shown in the video can be used with or without surgery, and surgery, as shown in the video, can consist of conservative periosteal elevation or more elaborate screw insertion to impede development on one side of the bone.

The idea is to help the foal, and give it a chance to be the best athlete it can be, considering the legs it was given.

To learn more: Read Dr. Ric Redden's overview of foal conformation problems and definition of terms.

Read British veterinary surgeon James Tate describes periosteal bridging and elevation techniques on the website of trainer Mark Johnston.

Still one of the best resources ever: Hoofcare + Lameness "Baby Boom" special issue on foal limb conformation, correction, glue-on shoes, medial and lateral extension shoes, club feet, anglular limb and flexural deformities. $15 per copy. Email Hoofcare office to order or call 978 281 3222.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site,, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to  

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Anonymous said...

I love this website! I can get so much advice and learn a lot too. My foal had some leg problems, and I came here and learned what to do and how to cure them. Thank you!

Heidi Meyer said...

In most cases, unless you have a severe turn or joint deformation, corrective trimming and appropriate turnout/exercise have straightened many of the foals I have worked on/seen with toe in or toe out issues. Remember, the upper body also has a play in this game. Shoulder development doesn't finish til almost age 5, so torquing something too early can cause just as many, of not more issues. Grazing stance has a huge impact on how these babies will grow/change over those first 3-4 yrs.....over correcting can interfere with natural widening of the stance and set the young horse up for more degenerative issues in his/her joints when they start to straighten/heft out. The rush to get these babies "perfect" before age 3 sometimes overrides the need for nature to just be allowed to develope at it's own pace.