In a recent article I warned against buying a used car with a bent frame. A vehicle with a bent frame will never really be right on the road. I described one type of “bent frame” in a horse. That was the condition known as heaves. Another horse to avoid if you intend to ride or drive is one that has obvious signs of some specific foot problems.
Whenever you are evaluating a horse, always stand several feet back. Front and side views are best for foot evaluation. From the front visually check to see if the front feet are the same size. At the ground level they should be the same circumference. You won’t have to measure. This is a difference you can see at a glance. If one is markedly smaller, it is an indication that the horse has had a long standing lameness issue. If the horse has consistently been putting less weight on one leg, that foot becomes smaller. Within a few months of going sound, the feet will again be equal in size.
While in front, take a look at the circumference of the foot at ground level and compare it to the circumference at the coronary band. The ground level circumference should always, always, be greater. If it is not larger at the bottom than at the top, that horse, even under minimal work, will go lame. These narrow footed horses tend to be mincey gaited and reluctant to stride out.
The side view of the foot may reveal other problems. First, look at the foot angle. Draw an imaginary line through the middle of the pastern. That same angle should be carried in a smooth, unbroken line through the foot to the ground. If the angle of the foot is lower than the angle of the pastern it can mean a couple of things. The horse simply might have extra long toes and be way overdue for a trim. It can also mean that the horse does not grow a good heel. If the horse goes barefoot, it means constant shortening of the toe to try to maintain angles. If the horse is shod, you may have to use degree pads to get the angle corrected. Horses with chronically lower heels are hard to keep sound and are an expense to maintain.
If one of the feet looks more upright (higher in the heel) than the other, this
could be another deal breaker. If the angle is so high that the coronary band is jutting forward, you are looking at a club foot. It’s difficult to keep a club footed horse sound. Any experienced farrier will tell you what a headache they can be to trim or shoe. Only X Rays will reveal exactly how the bones of this foot are aligned. It’s best to avoid a horse with a foot with an upright conformation.
The side view is also best for evaluating those ripples or rings on the surface of the hoof that run around the hoof wall. They are as normal as the annual rings seen on the stump of a cut tree. Just as a woodsman can interpret rings on wood, the rings on a hoof also tell a story. Major feeding changes or a period of an extended fever will change the ring thickness. An example would be the thicker ring that becomes evident a couple of months from when horses go out on spring grass. It takes almost a year for rings to move from the coronary band down to the ground surface, so there are literally months of history written in them. The important thing to remember is that the rings on a normal horse will be parallel to the coronary band from the front of the hoof all the way back to the heel. If the rings start off parallel and then slope acutely downwards toward the ground as they approach the heel, put your money back in your pocket. Rings like this are most often a sign that the horse has had at least one severe attack of laminitis (founder). This disease seems to weaken the feet so that further attacks are common. If you suspect this condition, don’t purchase without a set of X-rays to evaluate the coffin bone. If this animal has a marked tendency to put his heels down first as he walks, its time for you to walk. By all means, have an examination performed by your veterinarian before buying a horse. However, if you spot one of these “bent frame” items yourself, my advice would be to eliminate that particular horse from your shopping list.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM