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.
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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.
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.
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