Foal Hoof Care

Among the many factors that determine the success of a foal as a sales yearling or as 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 knowledge of a veterinarian (who specializes 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 might 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 begin at birth and continue 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, place an imaginary dot on the toe, coronary band, fetlock, top of the cannon bone, knee, top of the knee, and top of the 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 (parallel with the ground) and whether the hoof and pastern angles are the same--not broken forward or broken backward. Also note any swellings of the limb or joints.

Finally, watch the foal walk toward you 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 might 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 those first few months of life, more attention should be paid to the structural integrity of the foot (size and mass) than to its cosmetic appearance. The goals are 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 you need to trim foals on a monthly schedule are a hoof pick and rasp. The frog is left untouched to serve as a protective mechanism, absorbing and dissipating concussive forces. Since a foal's sole is very 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 stimulate 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 (with all sides contacting 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 might 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 among you, your veterinarian, and your farrier--are the keys to a sound, athletic horse in the future.

About the Author

Stephen E. O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS

Stephen E. O'Grady, DVM, MRCVS, was a professional farrier for 10 years prior to obtaining his degree in veterinary medicine. He learned farriery through a formal apprenticeship under Hall of Fame farrier Joseph M. Pierce of West Chester, Penn. After graduating from veterinary school, O'Grady did an internship in Capetown, South Africa. Then he joined Dan Flynn, VMD, at Georgetown Equine Hospital in Charlottesville, Va., as an associate for five years. Since that time, he has operated a private practice in Virginia and South Africa, with a large portion of the practice devoted to equine podiatry. He has published numerous articles and lectured extensively on equine foot problems. His web site is

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