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By Stephen E. O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS

Among the many factors that determine the success of a foal as a sales yearling or a mature athlete are management decisions about its feet and limbs during its first four months of life. Because a solid foundation for performance in the future begins with foot care in the foal, many leading breeding farms use programs that combine the skills of a veterinarian (with an interest in podiatry) with the skills of a farrier. This joint venture allows an earlier and more accurate diagnosis, treatment and prognosis of foot problems. Although this type of preventive program may be time-consuming, if it corrects a foot or limb problem and increases the athletic potential of even one animal, it is a worthwhile investment.

Evaluating the Foal 

Careful observation and record-keeping begins at birth and continues throughout the foal’s development. The physical appearance of a foal’s limbs and feet at birth should be recorded, along with changes that occur as he or she grows. When examining the feet and limbs, an imaginary dot system works nicely. Starting at the ground surface of the foot, an imaginary dot is placed on the toe, coronary band, fetlock, top of cannon bone, knee, top of knee and top of forearm. By connecting these dots with an imaginary line, it is easy to see if and/or where a deformity exists. In the ideal situation, the dots should form a straight line when viewed from the front.

Next, view the foal from the side. Check to see if the coronary band is level, or, parallel with the ground, and if the hoof and pastern angles are the same--not broken forward or broken backward. Also, any swellings of the limb or joints should be noted.

Finally, watch the foal walk toward and away from you. Because this can be difficult, as they seldom walk straight, walk the mare along a fence or wall and let the foal follow. This part of the examination checks for any lameness that may be present, the arc of the foot flight, how the foot breaks over at the toe and especially how the foot contacts the ground. Foals should be observed walking each time their feet are trimmed. 

Trimming the Foal 

Unless your veterinarian suggests otherwise, foals should have their first trim around one month of age and remain on a monthly schedule. In these first few months of life, more attention should be paid to the structural integrity of the foot (its size and mass) than to its cosmetic appearance. The goal is to promote the growth of thick, durable hoof wall; ensure maximum sole depth to protect the white line and coffin bone; and establish a strong heel base. These three factors—strong hoof wall, adequate sole and solid heel—are vital for future soundness.

In most cases, all that is necessary to trim foals that are kept on a monthly schedule is a hoof pick and rasp. The frog is left untouched to serve as a protective mechanism, absorbing and dissipating concussive forces. Since the sole in a foal is extremely thin, it is also left untouched to provide protection to immature developing structures in the foot. Removing as little hoof wall as possible and simply shaping and smoothing causes it to become thicker and more durable.

The objective in trimming foals is to achieve balance, that is, to encourage the foot to land flat, or contact the ground evenly. Careful thought should be given before using corrective trimming procedures on a foal with a limb deformity. Since the problem is generally a conformational deformity of structures above the foot, changing the balance of the foot may lead to other problems. Careful examination of a foal’s limbs at birth and throughout its first few months--along with accurate record-keeping and a good working relationship between you, your veterinarian, and your farrier—are the keys to a sound, athletic horse in the future.