The old adage "No Hoof, No Horse" has never been truer than in this day and age. Whether our horses jump higher, ride the trails longer, or perform at a higher level, they are doing more for us than ever. We also have begun keeping our horses in the stall more than ever. These factors plus many other management issues put more stress on our horse's feet. Therefore, balancing your horse's feet has become more of a factor in promoting good performance and long-term soundness. The optimum balance comes as the horse's weight is distributed equally over his foot.

Farriers have always relied on their eyes to estimate angles and foot alignment, but now with the use of digital radiographs (X rays) we can accurately assess the alignment of the bones of the lower limb and foot. Proper communication between the veterinarian and farrier is key to maintaining long-term soundness in your horse.

Any horse can benefit from having a veterinarian perform a few survey radiographs of his feet. Typically, the horses that require radiographs are those that have unmatched feet or an abnormality in their feet. Upright feet, club feet, low heels, or feet that toe in are examples of abnormalities that should be radiographed.

Generally, veterinarians take two radiographs of each foot--one lateral (from the side) and one dorsopalmar (front view, termed DP or AP)--which provide two different views of the bones. A veterinarian can examine the lateral and DP radiographs to visually assess hoof imbalances. The DP radiographic view should be assessed for joint alignment, foot symmetry, and medial and lateral balance of the lower limb (below the fetlock). Veterinarians also look at the radiographs to assess the length of both of the medial and lateral hoof wall. Excessive length on either side can affect the rest of the limb by compressing joint spaces, causing more stress on collateral ligaments, or causing osteoarthritis. Veterinarians also use this view to assess the amount of joint space in the coffin, pastern, and possibly the fetlock joints, as well as any difference in the joint space size between the medial versus the lateral side of the joint. A misalignment is characterized as the narrowing of one side of the joint space. Over time this imbalance can cause an increase in the size of the one of the collateral ligaments of the joints. Collateral ligament enlargement in the coffin joint limits the space in the hoof capsule and so it can cause chronic pain. The undue stress caused by collateral ligament expansion on the limb also can lead to injuries of other soft tissue structures within the leg and hoof.

On lateral radiographs, veterinarians also look for bone alignment, heel length, toe length, and sole depth. We are again focused on the straightness of the line drawn down the pastern and the coffin bone. The alignment reveals whether a horse has a broken hoof axis. Ideally, this alignment of the pastern/coffin bones should be parallel to the hoof capsule. If the lines are not parallel (as is the case in the above right radiograph) the horse most likely has a broken hoof axis. This angle and the alignment of the pastern/coffin axis in a parallel fashion can be corrected by raising/lowering the horse's heels with corrective shoeing. The alignment between the coffin bone and the hoof wall should also be assessed. The slope of the heels can be seen on the radiograph and can be used to determine whether the heels are underrun (when the angle of the horse's heel is at least five degrees less than the angle of the toe).

Radiographs can illustrate any imbalance problems in a horse's feet for the veterinarian and farrier and can help them clearly define the shoeing needs of the individual horse. Using radiographs, they can work together as a team to improve your horse's current soundness and high-performance longevity.

About the Author

Heather Farmer, DVM

Owner of Equine Performance Veterinary Practice.

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