Club Foot Horses: Uneven Hoof Growth Patterns, Treatments And Causes
The issue of club foot horses has come up so often in my career as an equine massage therapist that I felt it was time to bring attention to this very common problem. So many of my clients were not aware of all the misinformation out there with regard to this condition. Many farriers and veterinarians won't even recognize the truth of what I'm going to tell you in this article and that the vast majority of "club foot" cases are correctable through equine bodywork and natural trimming efforts. Most of you probably can't do the splits right now if you tried, but I'll bet after you're been worked over regularly by a sports massage therapist and stretched every day you'd probably come pretty close after a month or two. Your horse doesn't have to have special shoes or lifts, nor does it need to go through the rest of its life lame or with severely limited range of motion. I want to share with you some "not so secret" secrets to help your horse return to a more balanced state naturally and get you back on track to your performance goals.
Club Foot Horses Versus Uneven Weight Distribution
First off let's discuss exactly what a "club foot" is. This term is widely misused with regard to its use in horses with uneven hoof growth patterns. The term "club foot" actually refers to a congenital defect of the foot and according to The Free Dictionary, the medical definition is "a condition in which one or both feet are twisted into an abnormal position at birth…True clubfoot is characterized by abnormal bone formation in the foot."
In the horse, hoof growth is dictated in large part by weight distribution. If a horse puts more weight on the inside of a hoof, the blood is pushed to the opposite side of the foot causing faster growth and wearing down the weighted surface at a faster rate. With respect to the club foot, the heel of the affected foot grows faster and the hoof more upright in appearance due to most of the horse's weight being placed on the opposite foot. This can be due to either pain or a preference of "feeding posture" which they determine early on in life. You'll often see horses that graze habitually with the same leg forward. You'll notice that the leg that is most often back is the hoof that is more upright in appearance due to the constant pressure on the toe and contraction of the flexor muscles of the back of the leg. Over a long period of time, this constant contraction of the flexor muscles leads to a shortening of the soft tissue, putting pressure on the deep digital flexor tendon which attaches to the coffin bone, as well as increased bloodflow to the heel causing it to grow at a faster rate. Simply put "weight distribution dictates hoof growth."
Therefore, the term "club foot" in horses does not apply in these cases. Unless there is a bony deformity of the foot that is causing the bone to be misshapen, these cases are caused by soft tissue contraction from limited range of motion and/or weight bearing in the affected limb.
What Can You Do About Uneven Hoof Growth?
In order to determine the best treatment options for your horse, the first thing you need to do is determine the underlying cause of the hoof growth pattern. Get the help and insight of your veterinarian, equine bodyworker and natural hoof care practitioner. They will need to work together in order to get the best results. I have seen many occasions where the trimmer or farrier has been trying to correct the abnormal hoof growth alone to no avail. Since the problem is actually coming from a elsewhere in the body simply addressing the hoof angles is not going to help especially with more severe cases.
Once you've determined the source of the problem, your bodyworker and hoof care practitioner will need to work together to ensure the timing of trims corresponds to your bodywork schedule. You will gain the most benefit if your horse has bodywork and stretching within 24 hours of the trim. Your horse will also have better results without shoes during the therapy period, as the shoes will constrict the hoof and impede bloodflow to the neglected parts of the hoof as it tries to correct itself.
Depending on the severity of the underlying problem and the length of time the horse has been out of balance, your horse may need to have bodywork done several times per week and/or trimmed at more frequent intervals. The longer the horse has been out of balance, the longer it will take to overcome the muscle memory and the more frequently you will need to perform stretching exercises to override the bodies previous programming. There unfortunately is no majic pill or stretch that can be given or performed a couple of times and the problem is solved. It will require hard work and dedication on your part to affect positive changes in your horse.
Pete Ramey has an some great information on this subject on his website here. Also see my case study Weight Distribution And Asymmetrical Hoof Growth Patterns detailing a horse who had a shoulder injury as a young colt which severely limited his range of motion over many years and how we were able to affect positive changes and much needed pain relief for him.
Simple Leg Stretches And Massage Techniques For The Horse
Below are some simple massage techniques and leg stretches you can do with your horse that will help improve their range of motion. These can help get you started on the right path to making your horse more comfortable and more in balance. These will also help your horse hold on to the positive changes between equine bodywork sessions.
Always warm up the soft tissue before performing stretches on your horse. You can actually cause injury to your horse if stretches are done cold, particularly if the soft tissue is very tight. I always start high on the horse and work my way down to the foot. For front legs, start at the withers, working down the shoulder and then down the backs of the legs. For hind legs, start at the top of the rump, work down the hamstrings, to the foot. For warm up before stretching, I will usually start with a soft stroke with the grain of the muscle and then move into a cross fiber friction moving against the muscle fibers to help break up adhesions.
Shoulder Extention Stretch – Ask for the horse's leg. While facing the horse, place your arm closest to the horse's body under the upper leg just in front of the knee. Hold the toe of the horse with the other hand and lift upward, making sure to lift with your knees rather than with your back. Keep your back as straight as possible so as not to strain your back. Try and hold that stretch for 20-30 seconds if you can.
Front Leg Extension Stretch – From the shoulder extension stretch above, you can drop into this next stretch as the hand positions are the same. It is important to support the horse behind the knee so as not to hyper-extend the knee. Facing forward, you should bring your outside leg forward like you are doing a lunge, push forward into the lunge until your arm holding the toe rests with elbow on your leg for support. Your arm closest to the horse continues to support the knee. While holding the toe, you will encourage your horse to drop into the stretch by allowing the heel to drop forward. This stretches the soft tissue along the back of the leg and pastern. Many people perform this stretch from in front of and facing the horse, holding the foot with both hands and pulling the horse's leg toward them. If at all possible try not to perform the stretch from that position as you can hurt yourself and your horse can hyper-extend itself. It is also not as effective a stretch since it doesn't encourage the dropping of the heel. Try and hold that stretch for 20-30 seconds if you can or at least wait for them to drop into that heel.
Hamstring Stretch – Ask for the horse's back leg. While facing forward, place your hand closest to the horse at the hock and the hand farthest from the horse at the toe. While supporting the hock, encourage the horse to bring the leg forward and at the same time supporting the toe. You want the horse to push downward with the heel (don't get your fingers stepped on!!!) while you hold the toe and allowing the horse to place the foot heel first to the ground. This is an excellent stretch for the hamstrings and all the way down through the pastern. Again, try and hold that stretch for 20-30 seconds if you can or at least wait for them to drop into that heel.
Depending on the nature of your horse's underlying problem, your equine bodyworker may wish to add additional stretches and exercises for you to perform with your horse. But these basic stretches are an excellent way for you to begin improving your horse's performance immediately and are effective for all horses and a great preventative measure. You can perform these stretches with your young horses as well if you see signs that they are becoming one-sided in their grazing posture. Nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem.
Please feel free to share your comments below. We would love to hear about your experiences and success stories. Share what worked for you (or didn't work).
Find resources for learning how to do basic equine stretching techniques and other tools on my Natural Horse Products page.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".
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Awesome info ! Thank you Lisa. I will share this with several horsey friends!
Thanks MarVeena! I appreciate your sharing this information.
Very useful information how to look after your horse. Great article!
I'm fascinated by what I read in your articles, Lisa, mostly as I learn the close physiological similarities in treating humans and horses alike. I never would have imagined …
Thanks Sharon! Yes, most people are not aware that animals can benefit in the same way that people do from bodywork and that they suffer from the same pain and soft tissue injuries as humans.
I am interested in the stretches to help a horse with one upright hoof and the opposite front leg has a slightly sprung knee and low heal.Thankyou. I Love your stretches and advise.
Great info, Lisa. Thank you.
Any stretches for a horse with a left front that turns in?
Thanks Karen! That would really depend on why the foot is turning in. Take a look at your horse from the front and check how the cannon bone comes down from the “knee” (not really the knee). Ideally it should be in the center. If it’s placement is slightly to the outside, this predisposes the horse to a toe-in because of the way the weight would distribute on the hoof. If it’s in the center and soft tissue is pulling it in, then using the same principles of stretching out the contracted muscles would apply as in the article. Massage and stretching of the medial (inside) soft tissue of the leg, transverse and ascending pectoral muscles might help. Abduction (away from the body) stretches, as well as good balanced natural trimming might help to keep it in check.
Thank you for your question Karen, and I will make it a point to address this topic in an upcoming article, demonstrating the stretches that would be helpful.
My mares were both fine until I moved into a new area which the new farrier butchered both their feet. Now with a new farrier through the vet I use I am still having problems. My older mare is getting a club foot which is getting worse. She is lame all the time even with all the work he does. He has his a device that he measures the slope of the hoof and puts pads on. She has grown heel back but now has a almost bulging in the front part of the hoof. Hate for her to go through this and all the vet will say is 'yep, you have a club foot'.
Oh no! How devastating! Well, all I can say to that is a true “club foot” doesn’t just develop suddenly, it’s something they are born with and affects the actual bone. Now if your farrier messed things up and caused the horse to move in a way that was painful, the rest of the body has to compensate somehow and your horse may have developed shortened muscles and tendons on that limb because of it. There may have even been some injury involved to the tissues because of the bad trims. If you have a good bodyworker to help you, releasing and stretching the soft tissue on the back of the leg and up into the arm/shoulder area over time can help. Rubbing a linament on the leg and into the arm for pain relief and muscle relaxation like Ortho Sport or Ortho Ease may help as well. Please keep me posted on how your horse is doing. Sending prayers your way.
I recently was asked by the rescue ranch I volunteered at (before we moved away) to foster a 3 year old filly whom has club hooves. When I picked her up her front hooves are really clubed. I've not seen the x-rays but was told by the owner her bone is straight down. in her hoof. The hoof itself is very misshapen. Where it appears to curve inward & then comes back out towards botton. The 1 is some what of a slant to it. I've been doing research so that we can try help this poor fillly. I do have a natural balanced farrier who is also going to be working with me. When the owner got her delivered from Washnigton at 6 months she walked off the trailer with clubed hooves. She also has 1 back foot that is clubed but isn't nearly as bad as the front. The veternariany asdvised this filly never be road or used as a broodmare. I am certified in equine massage & hae advanced training in the Masterson Method, also I do some reiki & energy work. Any guidance that you could offer would be wonderful. I realize she may never fully recover but would like to see her to be able to move without being so sore. If you would like to see pictures I can email some to you. I myself after reading several articles (including yours) need to reevaluate what I see as a whole on the way she is carrying herself. I also have read an article of Pete Ramsey too which helped me delve in for more of a search on massage & stretching for club hoof. Thank you in advance for any information or help you can provide.
Poor filly! It’s such a shame that they did not address this when she first started to show signs of this as a foal! Perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten so bad! Whenever I work on a horse with any kind of upright hoof growth, I start with a thorough massage along the entire length of the leg(s) & triceps and then do this stretch – http://www.heavenlygaitsequinemassage.com/front-leg-extension-stretch-horse/. I may be a while before you are able to identify other areas of concern. For something this severe, it will definitely take a lot of commitment to consistency in your therapies and the work of a very good natural hoof care professional. I would recommend that you do this bodywork daily and make sure that you do a thorough session at least an hour before every trim. Trimming just a little bit every 2-3 weeks is sometimes easier on the horse to help them adjust. Joint mobilization work at the pastern will also be very important. I hope you are able to make a difference for this poor filly.
Hello, I have a 17 month old filly that has started getting a club foot and I'm worried after reading about all this. Can the stretches beneficial on the young horse aswell. Do horses always get worse? That I know of she not had an injury. I'm thinking born with it. Are horses with club feet ever ok as riding horses?
It may just be what’s called a “feeding toe”. Check this article here specifically addressing this issue in young horses 🙂 http://www.heavenlygaitsequinemassage.com/bodywork-foal-prevention-issues/
I have a 16 year old paint with angular leg deformity. I had seriously contemplated euthanasia about a year or so ago because he was having a lot of pain issues. My farrier introduced me to stretching exercises to help with his mobility. Between those exercises, strict trimming regemine and a new vitamin supplement my baby is living a much happier life. I love the time i spend with him doing our daily routine of grooming and stretching! He has gone from lame to able to handle light trail rides or jaunts around the neighborhood. He still has some bad days but those can be managed with minor pain medication.
That’s SO great to hear and very encouraging for others that may be facing the same or similar situation! Thank you so much for sharing Elaine 🙂