The Club Foot

Q: After seeing the conformation of several weanlings at a sale recently, I noticed that my weanling had a strange-looking foot. On closer examination of his leg, his foot seemed a bit boxy. Will I still be able to sell him at the sales next year, and will he be able to perform as an athlete? My veterinarian said it sounds like he has a club foot. What does this mean?


Donna Dixon Woodall

Compare the "clubbed" left front foot of this horse to his other front foot. Once a horse reaches musculoskeletal maturity and is already performing as a successful athlete, radical attempts to make the foot appear normal should be avoided.

Club foot is defined by the UC Davis Book of Horses as "a flexural deformity of the coffin joint resulting in a raised heel; not to be confused with the club foot deformity of humans."

The foot will initially exhibit a bulge at the coronary band, and the heels will have a contracted appearance to them. In addition, the hoof wall fails to expand when it comes in contact with the ground, resulting in the loss of flexibility in the soft tissue surrounding the coffin joint. The hoof wall at the toe develops a dished appearance and the tip of the coffin bone more prone to injury.

Major factors believed to be involved with clubbed foot include genetics, diet, DOD (and its related causes), or other causes of lameness resulting in pain and a reduced weight bearing on the foot.

The number one cause of a clubbed foot is genetic, with OCD problems falling as the second-leading cause, and a distant third cause being a bad case of ephiphysitis.

This condition usually is discovered in young horses when they are about four to six months of age. The earliest signs usually are seen as a prominent coronary band and an increased (more upright) angle to the hoof. Eventually, the dorsal wall of the hoof will become dished and the walls will begin to grow exceedingly long.

If detected early, hoof trimming and the correction of underlying causes may improve the outcome once the horse reaches musculoseketal maturity. If the horse is already performing as a successful athlete, radical attempts to make the foot appear normal should be avoided.

As with any disease or illness, there are varying degrees of severity and the best course of treatment will depend on the individual involved. Early forms of this condition might require frequent trimming programs for the hooves in order to lower the heels and protect the toe so it does not excessively wear down. In long-standing cases of club feet, surgery might be required if the horse is lame. Surgery will address the needs of the foot as well and aid in lowering the heels. Application of a composite material to the toe will aid in protecting the hoof from further digression.

In some cases, the use of oxytetracycline will aid in the "relaxation" of the tendons involved; however, these results are temporary. Besides being temporary, the use of oxytetracycline on foals which are also back at the knee--a problem often seen in horses with a club foot--can make that problem worse.

In severe cases, using a surgery which transects the inferior check ligament along with the use of oxytetracycline will yield fair to good results, depending on the severity of the club defect.

The diagnosis of a club foot is not necessarily a "death sentence," which is what many people are conditioned to think. There are several well-known horses with club feet which have gone on to very successful athletic careers. When a horse is diagnosed as having a club foot, immediate and aggressive treatment should be used. This immediate care might allow you to stop the condition before it develops into a severe case. Early detection of a club foot also is key to the successful treatment of the problem; the earlier it's detected, the earlier aggressive treatment can begin and the better the odds are that the horse will go on to a successful athletic career.

About the Author

Robert Hunt, DVM

Robert J. Hunt, DVM, practices at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee in Lexington, Ky.

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