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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