Good and Bad-Footed Horses

Some horses just have better feet than others, for no apparent reason. Before we can understand why, we have to learn what makes a horse's foot "better" or "worse" than the next one. Robert Bowker, VMD, PhD, of the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation at Michigan State University, presented his research findings on this topic at the 2003 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention.

Bowker, one of the foremost researchers on the structure of the horse's foot, discussed several characteristics that differ between "good" feet and "bad" feet in great detail. First, however, he defined what most consider a good, strong foot.

"In most discussions, 'good (foot) conformation' includes several variables such as thick-walled hooves that will resist drying and have 'normal' growth qualities," he described. "The sole should be thick enough to resist most external traumas as well as be shed normally. The bars should also be well developed along with the frog.

"However, these descriptions include only the external parts of the foot, specifically the visible structures, and little or no mention is ever made of the possibility that the internal structures of the foot may contribute to a concept of a 'good foot,'" he continued.

"We have simplistically defined a 'good-footed' horse as one that lives well into his 20s or 30s without any chronic foot problems such as navicular syndrome, whereas the 'bad-footed' horse is usually euthanized early in life or as a teenager because of a history of chronic foot problems," he said.

He went on to describe several differences between good and bad feet that he has observed in horses over years of study, discussing the contributions of genetics and environment. He noted that the various structures within the foot are all codependent on each other for proper function. When one or more is overstressed by poor adaptation to the horse's activity and/or environment, the other structures can be impacted by those failed structures. He cited adaptability to the environment as the key advantage of good feet.

"For the foot to be a good foot, it needs to be stimulated (by frog and sole pressure and weight bearing) in the right way," Bowker said.

However, no one has unlocked all the mysteries of the horse's foot. "The problem with anatomy is that the more you look, the more you see," he said. "Your eyes see everything, but your brain sees only a little, and a little more as you keep looking"

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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