Foal Hoof Care

Learn how you can help keep your foal's legs straight and hooves healthy with these tips.

From the American Farrier’s Association, an AQHA educational marketing alliance partner

There are many steps that need to be taken at foaling time and shortly thereafter to optimize mare and foal health, vigor and longevity. Horse owners who are raising foals should have an understanding of the importance of early hoof care and the continuous routine care necessary to optimize proper hoof and leg structure, performance and long-term soundness of their equine friend. Some foals may be born with major hoof and leg deviations that will require more than hoof-trimming techniques (these foals may require veterinary care or surgery) to minimize these deviations.

Amazingly, proper hoof trimming can adjust and improve minor deviations and, more importantly, maintain correct leg structure in foals born with adequately correct legs and hooves. It is equally amazing what neglect or lack of proper trimming will do to foals that have only slight leg deviations or even foals born with straight legs. Although there are few foals born with “perfect” legs, these tips will help foal owners address minor deviations and keep the perfect foal correct.

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The First Trim

Horse owners often wonder when to trim their foal for the first time. Some suggest that no hoof care is needed until the foal is a year old or even worse, until started into riding training. Waiting a year or even two is never acceptable when considering the welfare of the animal. Hooves get long, wear or break unevenly or, even worse yet, don’t wear or break at all, thus escalating leg strain and deviation potential. As the foal matures, bones harden and joints formalize making corrections impossible. All corrective trimming and efforts to maintain the correct form and function of the leg must be implemented well before the foal is one year old. Corrective trimming after a horse is one year old will usually cause more damage and leg stress over time than it will correct because the bone growth plates are closing (becoming inactive). The greatest successes are a result of early innovation and continued efforts to make corrections slowly with only slight adjustments each trimming. This will allow the limb to self correct as much as possible while causing minimal stress as the bones and joints are modified to a more correct, sound stance and structure. The foal should have its first trim at 3 to 4 weeks of age if the legs are fairly straight and normal. Earlier intervention should be applied if needed to make major adjustments. Remember, “the earlier the better” when it comes to trying to modify a deviated bony column.

As most foals are born with some deviation, early intervention helps maximize the success of corrective trimming efforts. When a foal is born, its hooves, particularly on the front, are fairly pointed. The point on the front feet aids in positioning and delivery through the birth canal, plus it aids in the tearing of the placenta upon delivery. Once the foal is born, the pointed feet become a liability. Due to the hoof shape, the foal is unable to break (roll over the toe when stepping) directly over the front of the hoof. This causes the flight path to break to either the outside or inside (most common) of the point, causing the foal to become toed in (pigeon toed) or toed out (splay footed). Neglect at this point allows additional wear during breakover, thus contributing to additional deviations if neglected. A point to remember: “All hoof and leg deviations from the ideal get worse with neglect of hooves and excess growth and can even become more deviated in their form and function.” -- Scott S. McKendrick, certified journeyman farrier

Correcting Minor Deviations

The square-toe system works well to maintain correct legs and to help correct minor deviations. Squaring the toe of a 3- to 4-week-old foal will counter the effect of the sharp toe (front or rear) and provide a straight and easy breakover position, thus helping the legs for a correct bony column structure without deviation to the inside or outside through improper wear. It is, however, possible to adjust the squared or rolled toe position slightly off center to the outside or inside of the hoof, depending on which deviation needs correcting. As a general rule, if the foal toes out, you will lower the outside half of the hoof wall (with nippers or rasp) and adjust your square toe slightly off center to the outside. If the foal toes in, you will lower the inside of the hoof wall on the bottom of the hoof and place the squared toe slightly to the inside. The off-center squares will encourage breakover in that direction and counter the existing wear that the current deviation is causing to the hoof. These adjustments should be made slowly with minor changes every three to four weeks, depending on hoof growth. Utilization of hoof epoxies (glues) may be useful and even necessary to help in correcting major limb deviations where trimming is insufficient to correct the flight pattern and leg stance. These epoxies can be used to build up the low (worn) side of the hoof, encouraging breakover to the opposite side. The use of half shoes, glues/epoxies, or wedged shoes may be necessary to correct deviations.

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Providing an accentuated breakover for the toe of a young foal, early in its life, will do more for the good of the horse’s legs than any subsequent trimming or shoeing after a year of age. Regular (every three to four weeks) trimming will maintain the good work started early and allow for solidification of the bony column in as straight and correct a line as possible. A general “rule of thumb” for care of the mature horse includes trimming the non-use horse every 10 to 12 weeks, trimming a barefoot horse in use every three to four weeks and/or trimming and shoeing the shod horse every six to eight weeks. Start trimming early and keep it up throughout the life of the horse, and you will enhance the longevity of the form and function of your equine friend. Remember, you will do the most good before the foal is a year old – so don’t wait! The AFA, through an educational marketing alliance with AQHA, is an acknowledged authority for professional development of farriers, providing leadership and resources for the benefit of the farrier industry and improving the welfare of the horse through continuing farrier education. Scott McKendrick, Dr. Kerry A. Rood and Dr. Patricia Evans contributed to this article.