Take care of the tender foot

Horse Health: Horses are far too good at disguising their generalized foot pain

We ask a lot of a horse’s feet, so we need to be able to identify when they’re a source of pain and discomfort.

As animals of prey, horses are adept at masking pain – especially foot pain.

Therefore generalized foot pain in the horse is often overlooked for its contributing role in equine lamenesses, behaviour and performance. Foot pain matters deeply to the physical health and psychic well-being of the horse that, at a primal level, relies on flight for a sense of safety.

Unfortunately, for many horses with generalized foot pain, their discomfort goes unrecognized, is poorly understood and remains unattended simply because the horse does not overtly limp.

Yet, the lack of structural integrity and poor qualities common to the hoofs of tender-footed horses will place them at a higher risk to incur hoof problems such as solar abscesses, stone bruises, flat soles, thrush, white line disease, laminitis, quarter cracks and flares, and thus overt limping. Of course any one of these problems has the possibility to occur as an isolated incident, however, this is rarely the case. Therefore, whenever a hoof problem/s arise in a horse it presents an opportunity to acknowledge and evaluate the overall health of the horse’s hoofs and address the shortcomings in the dietary practices, sensible movement, hoof-care practices, social interactions and environmental factors that may be contributing to the poor quality and weaknesses of the hoofs.

Horses with sensitive feet use their bodies in novel ways as compensation patterns in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of their sore feet. Consider how a small pebble in your shoe can create increasing discomfort throughout the body. Eventually in your body’s attempts to evade pain in the foot the discomfort is transferred to your knees and/or back, maybe even your neck and shoulders. Treatments which attempt to remedy the referred pain to your knees or back may provide temporary relief yet fail to address the originating cause of the pain in the foot. And so it is with the horse as well. If the original source of pain in the foot/feet is not addressed then any remedies which address musculoskeletal ailments in the rest of the horse’s body will be of limited value in their effectiveness to bring the horse comfort long term, and the pain will continue to plague the horse on a daily basis.

The presentation of the tender-footed horse is highly variable. The horse’s discomfort can be barely perceptible to the untrained eye and only becomes undeniably recognizable as the horse is asked to move across an unforgiving hardpan or gravel surface. Sore-footed horses will avoid or move across hard ground or gravel surfaces gingerly and/or with great care and deliberation. Although the discomfort in the feet goes undoubted when the horse is asked to move across the unforgiving surfaces its existence is generally discounted or dismissed when the horse’s footing changes to more forgiving surfaces such as sand arenas and pasture lands. The relief provided to the horse’s feet by the changing surfaces is highly diagnostic of an ongoing sensitivity and discomfort in the feet and warrants further exploration.

As a horse is placed into work, sore feet tend to become more apparent as the horse can no longer guard and protect itself with vigilance. Depending on the emotional constitution of the horse it may demonstrate its struggle with various behavioural presentations.

Horse owners may interpret this as “bad behaviour,” when in truth it is not bad behaviour. It is a fear of pain.

Some horses with chronic foot pain may dissociate and dull out while others will become aggravated and irritated acting out in unexpected and at times unmanageable ways. The horse with tender feet may appear resistant or guarded in their movements.

Conversely horses with tender feet may fidget and refuse to stand still or move with “hurry” in an attempt to ease the ache of a loaded foot/feet and find comfort. They may be less willing to move freely and engage in manoeuvres that will stress, torque, twist or reload or weight the hoof capsule. They may display this tenderness by swishing their tails or pinning their ears in response to the amplified ache and added discomfort of using their feet differently as they move through a change of direction or transition in gaits.

As the discomfort is magnified with the weight of the rider the horse may simply refuse to go forward or conversely overtly show their displeasure by bucking, rearing and/or bolting. Unfortunately the horse may be unfairly labelled as resistant, stubborn or poorly mannered when in fact it is finding ways to cope with its physical discomfort.

Horses in generalized foot pain may appear to be distracted and less responsive to the requests of their handler. They may dissociate and become dull. Their focus often becomes diffused with the presence of pain and thus they are less willing or able to engage in meaningful learning. The discomfort and distress in a horse with sore feet is often expressed in the dull and lacklustre look in their eyes.

The importance of foot health to the quality of a horse’s life cannot be emphasized enough. Learning to recognize when and if a horse is experiencing pain in their feet is instrumental in addressing the shortcomings in horse-keeping practices and husbandry that lead to generalized weakness in hoof quality and its ensuing painful condition.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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