Equine Foot Research In America

Back in the 1800s, the world really could have used a better hoof on a better horse. History tells us that breeders tried to comply, by including soundness as a criterion for reproduction. Veterinary medicine complied with treatments and prevention regimens for communicable equine diseases. Technology complied with standardized machine-made horseshoes and nails. Society complied with a new awareness of and concern for the plight of overworked, abused horses. But the horse itself, even in its great heyday and height of population in Western civilization, still stood on hooves poorly designed to accomplish the tasks demanded of them.

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Robert Bowker, VMD, makes a point to veterinarian student Kimberly VanWulten.

Even then, in a few scientific forges, research into the hoof and its structures was conducted. Researchers were determined to improve the way that hooves were shod, trimmed, and cared for, in the belief that they could improve the durability of hooves.

These men wrote about the horse's foot with such fervor, you can't help but read between the lines that they felt the hoof to be a golden mystery which, once solved, would enable horses to trot faster miles, gallop longer distances, or at least pull heavier loads through city streets.

In Dresden, Germany, Professor Anton Lungwitz of the (German) Royal Veterinary College attempted to build farriery into an engineering science. At London Veterinary College, Coleman and Clark operated a forge where they experimented on horses, hoping to prove scientifically their theories of frog pressure and wall expansion. And in Paris, veterinary surgeon Claude Bougelet countered the British with a defense of "the natural hoof."

Looking back, we can see that science, once it enters the hallowed doors of a shoeing forge, becomes a subjective process. The subtlety of trimming the foot, applying a shoe, or designing a shoe modification, can vary so greatly from one practitioner to the next that the history of equine foot science sometimes reads more like science fiction than factual study.

And yet, many of the unproven practices and beliefs of the 19th Century are still with us today, and the arguments still rage: Trim the frog or leave it natural? Cup the sole or leave foot mass? Is the horse meant to stand on its wall only? Is moisture good or bad for a hoof? Why are we still driving dreaded steel nails into the horse's foot?

Fast forward 100 years or so, and cross the ocean to America.

It's 9 a.m. in East Lansing, Mich. Anatomy professor Robert Bowker, VMD, and his graduate students are preparing a lecture on his recently published hemodynamic flow hypothesis of energy dissipation within the horse's foot. At the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, hooves are a hot subject, but the clinical treatment of lameness isn't the only foot game at this veterinary teaching hospital and college.

Bowker's slide lectures show the dissected feet of Standardbreds, Arabians, and even wild horses. He has carefully analyzed the relative construction of the digital cushion and lateral cartilages of enough specimens of different breeds to draw conclusions as to why Arabians have tougher feet than some other breeds.

Some of Bowker's pet projects are focused on the feet of feral horses collected for him by colleagues in the Western United States. (Federal Express has no idea what is in those boxes that arrive with a Montana post mark.) Bowker has just returned from a speaking engagement at a veterinary seminar in England, where he addressed an eager audience about the characteristics of American feral horse feet. Feet are in, and Bowker's natural curiosity has brought him scores of invitations to speak, to speculate, and to delve further into the anatomy of the foot.

Almost any sort of conjecture can pop out of Bowker's mind as he discusses the unknown realms of the horse's foot. One could spend a lifetime just observing and comparing the specimens in the Michigan State collection. Bowker probably wouldn't mind doing that. You never know what you might find.

Michigan State has a long, proud history of studying horse's feet. On this campus until the 1950s was one of several university-run farrier schools. Michigan State's instructor, Jack MacAllen, was an expert on draft horses. His papers on shoeing and hoof care for heavy horses have stood the test of time and still are read by horse owners today. Many of America's older generation of top Standardbred mechanics and saddle horse shoers learned their trade at Michigan State with MacAllen.

Down the hall and around the corner from Bowker, Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, looks to the future for her challenges. There'll be no outback of the American West or the nostalgic past of draft horses for this woman; bring on the gigabytes! Clayton, one of the horse world's few true hybrids--a horsewoman and a scholar--wants to rattle the cages of technology from her academic tower at Michigan State.

Recently named to fill the McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine, Hilary Clayton has the energy of an airliner revving for take-off. This woman is going places, doing things, and making a difference, even though she has had barely a year to move back to America from a sabbatical at Utrecht in The Netherlands. She habitually arches an eyebrow and punctuates conversations with a crisp, "Well, why not?" or an occasional, soft "Why do you think that is? Be sure to tell me when you find out." (Not if you find out, but when!)

Bowker and Clayton don't cross paths much. Even though both are studying the foot, they are doing it through academic pursuits with separate orbits. While Bowker the anatomist seeks to understand the foot from inside out, Clayton seeks to unravel the biomechanical nature of the horse's foot in motion. How does it break over? How do the timing and ease of breakover in the foot affect the perceived quality of a horse's gaits or performance? Are dressage horses performing the gaits we think they are, or are some able to fake movements with exaggerated timing invisible to even the most watchful judge's eye?

Clayton's favorite tool is not found in most university clinics; it is the high-speed video camera. Funded to document and analyze performance at some of the world's premier competitions in the past ten years, Clayton is able to break down a horse's performance to single frames. She can't find a horse in the world who can do a canter pirouette with complete suspension. She stares into a video monitor, always finding the telltale foot planted, or the horse moving forward slightly. Is the horse betrayed by its center of gravity, a victim of its own mass? She wants to find out.

Clayton wants to see where the feet are, at all times, in relation to the horse's center of gravity. Her key tools are video and accelerometers or strain gages. Her platform has been specially modified for equine gaits, to compensate for extreme loads at high speeds.

Working with her staff engineer and co-researcher Joe Lanovaz, Clayton has developed unique processes to analyze her video and GRF data. Some of her research combines sensors and analytical video to study the horse in motion on the veterinary school's "Mustang 2000" high-speed equine treadmill. She has joined forces with human and canine biomechanical researchers at Michigan State to form the Center for the Study of Mammalian Biodynamics.

Clayton wants to find a turn of foot, a few split seconds of brilliance that can be labeled the "gotcha" of superior athletic ability in a horse that separates it from all others.

"Hilary's Meeting"

So convinced is Clayton that the foot needs more study that she summoned some of the world's leading researchers in foot science to East Lansing in October 1997. The "McPhail Dressage Chair Symposium on the Equine Foot" was sponsored by St. Croix Forge, a leading U. S. horseshoe manufacturer. Hoof-research personalities eyeballed each other curiously, finally face to face.

"Hilary's meeting," as it has come to be known, probably succeeded because of its lack of structure. Researchers who choose to study the foot of the horse are an independent-minded group. As each researcher made his or her presentation of current research projects, Clayton listened eagerly.

The outcome of the first meeting has been a networking among research centers, and a comfortable informality among individuals. Communication links among the research centers has been a priority, and researchers have been invited to perform studies at each other's facilities, or take advantage of other facilities' equipment or data banks.

"We're all working toward a common goal," said Clayton. "Our aim is to update each other about what each of us is doing and the resources we have available in our respective labs, so that we could find ways to collaborate. This type of communication is important in a world where technology changes on an almost daily basis."

Texas A&M

David Hood, DVM, of Texas A&M University's new large animal clinic, is different somewhat from the Michigan State researchers in that he can reach out and touch a living horse's foot whenever he pleases. His goal, in fact, is to keep that foot alive.

Research, particularly in the area of the horse's foot, often involves post-mortem examinations or simulation of natural forces in the foot using a hydraulic press or video analysis of moving horses, often on a treadmill. But for Hood, a herd of living, breathing foundered horses is a reality. These are horses which need to be fed, need to have clean stalls, and need to be monitored for changes in blood flow, hormonal changes, or hoof capsule irregularities.

A small sign reads "The Hoof Project," and for every live subject in Hood's studies, a cold, lifeless piece of machinery is in place to document, analyze, or process the information the horse gives to him. Assisted by a league of dedicated assistants and graduate students, Hood has brought his back-lot laboratory to the attention of leading funding institutions around the world. At the same time, it has gathered a mixed crew of veterinarians, engineers, and information technicians, all of whom seem to have a place in their hearts for the horses, and are able to equate cold numbers to living hooves.

By their own definition, The Hoof Project is "an unofficial association of basic and applied scientists from a number of different fields who have a curiosity or interest in the foot of the horse. The term unofficial implies that we are not a formal group recognized and funded by some administrative body within the university, nor have we ever had a formal group meeting."

The results from The Hoof Project research, however, have created a body of new information unequaled by any similar group in the world. Whether testing over-the-counter topical products that claim to add or preserve moisture in the hoof or creating a computer model to study hoof physiology or analyzing the keratin content of a hoof horn tubule, The Hoof Project attacks each challenge with confidence that they can find an answer to questions that hadn't even been asked until people like themselves came along and formed the questions.

UC Davis

If you are a horse living in the United States, there's a good chance you live in California. Compared to other states, California is overflowing with horses, of all breeds and types. Luckily for them, the state of California takes its horses seriously, and research is a priority. Two centers produce most of the state's horse-related research: University of California at Davis, home of the state's largest agricultural and veterinary programs, and California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, where an active sports medicine research group thrives.

Racehorse feet initially put the University of California at Davis on the foot research map. The State of California funded efforts to analyze the breakdown of horses on California tracks, and see if any correlation might exist between the breakdown and the type of shoes worn by the horse.

But research at Davis goes much deeper than the statistics of racehorse breakdowns and shoe type. Led by the dynamic focus of Susan M. Stover, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVS, an orthopedics laboratory is taking a long hard look at the foot and its relationship to other structures in the horse's limb.

In spite of the abundance of horses outside her laboratory, Stover, like her colleagues in Texas, is creating a computerized simulation of the horse's foot. Working with Italian researcher Laura Zarucco, Stover is studying not just the hoof capsule, but the ligaments and tendons that communicate to and from the foot from higher up in the limb.

Meanwhile, back at the track, Stover will monitor 150 "real" horses by examining their shoes on a weekly basis. Interviews with trainers will gather data on musculoskeletal injuries and attempt to assign risk factors for horses racing with certain shoe configurations.

Stover is as rooted in musculoskeletal reality as Clayton is in technology, as Bowker is in gross anatomy, and as Hood is in functional studies. She carries the impetus of former UC Davis researcher Roy Pool, DVM, who worked tirelessly to understand navicular disease and all joint diseases in the horse. Count on Stover's group of researchers in sunny California to contribute to the body of knowledge about the coffin joint, about stress fractures, and about foot problems in the racing Thoroughbred.

Other Research Centers

Our tour of foot research centers in the United States is a bumpy one from this point. Several veterinary colleges are fortunate to have staff members who conduct ongoing clinical research that contributes to the wealth of clinical information about the foot.

At the University of Minnesota is Tracy Turner, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS, and his projects on navicular disease. He is using innovative diagnostic techniques like thermography.

Don't pass by Fort Collins, Colo., where a study by Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, Diplomate ACVS, of the joints of the horse are so advanced that human researchers are seeking his information, instead of vice versa. Does the coffin joint have different parameters from other joints in the limb? Will PSGAGs--oral and intravenous--be used preventatively to protect horses from degenerative joint disease? Stay tuned.

Pockets of research on the foot also are being conducted at Louisiana State, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Tufts, Missouri, Washington State, Oregon State, University of Illinois, Purdue, Tennessee...wherever, it seems, researchers are looking for a challenge. Whether pursuing a clinical solution to a foot problem like navicular disease, or agonizing over some of the Big Questions that keep Bowker and Hood awake at night, these dedicated individuals are working without enough funding, without enough support, but with the appreciation of owners who have watched their horses suffer, and not been able to find any answers as to why.

And one can go abroad, where place names like Upsaala, Utrecht, Queensland, Newmarket, Vienna, Berlin, and Alfort are world capitals of foot research. The Internet is bringing the world closer together, and opening the foot research community to sharing data and dreams.

One dream that all share is that an army of young scientists will have their curiosity piqued by the persistent mysteries of the foot, so that the legion of researchers will grow. To realize that dream, funding for foot research must take priority, and horse owners, researchers, and veterinarians must be willing to train more cautiously and breed for more athletic soundness.

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at www.hoofcare.com. Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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