Carl O'Dwyer
November 1999

The harness horse like any other breed of performing horse suffers from lower limb unsoundness, which in turn can and does hamper their performance.

We know that one of the main reasons for unsoundness in the lower limbs is due to the horse having no muscle below the knee and hock. The lack of muscle around such important structures as the horseís lower limbs means that the horses limbs are subjected to concussion and stresses that are far beyond what his anatomy was meant to take. Further to that we have our Standard-breds performing to a man made gait and travelling at enormous speeds over long distances, racing on small tracks and tight turns all of which increase dramatically the pressure and stress of the lower limbs.

On the market today is a large number of new products for horses feet all of which are anti-concussion based. There are polyeurothanes, aluminium, titanium, steel and many more that go into making horseshoes designed to elevate concussion and stress.

Looking at the lower limbs and its structures we need to appreciate the forces that the horse produces on each footfall especially on their front feet, as they have approximately 68% of their body weight over the front feet. It is claimed that a Thoroughbred in full flight with a jockey on its back produces 1000lbs per square inch in forces travelling in all four directions on each footfall. Whilst the Standard-bred does not carry weight on their back they race on much smaller tracks and tighter turns and generally over longer distances on tracks that range from granite sand to shell grit.

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Standard-breds donít have a set weight or specifically designed shoes in Australia as they can race in any type of shoe that the trainer feels will suit the horse provided they perform satisfactorily.

Shoeing of the Standard-Bred in Australia has generally been to a set pattern, namely to lower both heels of the front feet, and then lowering the outside of the front hoof to prevent knee knocking. The hind feet are generally lowered on the inside and shod with a side weighted shoe and trailer on the outside of the foot. This is to prevent the horse from cross firing. This I believe is preventative shoeing and not always in the best interest of the horses soundness.

On making a study of the well gaited and balanced Standard-bred it has been my experience that the horse needs to decide how its feet need to be dressed and should be shod with a plain shoe with good coverage of the base of the foot. I have found that when a horse is worked without shoes they will always wear their feet to the pastern angle. They will never wear the heels below the frog of the foot on either the front or hind feet. In fact if you work the horse until they have worn the hoof back to the sensitive tissue they will wear the hoof through the sole at the toe but will never wear the heels below the frog.

Most lameness in the Standard-bred came from their feet due to broken hoof and pastern axis. As the horse develops more speed, the more they need to land evenly and break over evenly as this helps to develop an even ark in the flight of the hoof from one step to another. Also the quicker the horse travels the more the stride is increased and the closer the feet travel towards the opposite leg, thus the need for protective boots that cover the inside of the knee and shin.

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When a horse has incorrect pastern / hoof angles and therapeutic shoes applied unnecessarily they will change gait slightly to compensate thus putting undue pressure on joints, knees, tendons, ligaments and their back, until eventually one of these areas start to break down thus shortening the horses racing career.

Shoeing is one area that the average trainer can improve the racing life of the horse, and in doing so allow their horses to earn more stake money. Due to many tracks being very hard most horses need a shoe that has good coverage and is lightweight can absorb shock and retain its shape. Trainers need to ensure that shoes are not left on horses feet too long as this allows the shoe to put pressure on the sole of the hoof causing such problems as corns, white-line trauma and sole bruising which can develop into quarter cracks.

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These problems can then cause the horse to hang in or out in races and generally race erratically, thus resulting in inconsistent form and possible unsoundness.

I see management of the horseís feet as crucial to the horse performing at its best over a long period of time. The importance of managing the horses feet needs to be instilled in our Owners and Trainers, in order to ensure that each competitor is able to perform at its optimal level thus maintaining the ongoing confidence of the general public.

Such management needs to begin at the foaling stage, with constant observation and attention throughout the horseís life. As an old adage suggests:


A good guideline to manage such procedures should be as follows: constant trimming, regular shoeing, applying hoof dressing, observing wear patterns etc.

My observation of a large number of horse owners and trainers is that they donít appreciate the importance of having their horses shod to a program. It is not always obvious that the horse is developing a soreness problem in the feet. By the time the hoof problem has fully developed, the horse has been transferring its weight further up the leg thus causing an overload to ligaments tendons etc.

White-line trauma is generally caused by shoes being left on too long and the hoof wall then growing over the shoes, forcing the wall away from the soft tissue. Such trauma would be comparable to putting a knife under your fingernail and lifting the nail away from the sensitive tissue.

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For example, with white line trauma the hard insensitive lanama starts to tear away causing the sensitive tissue to stress. This continues until a small crack develops in the white line and fills with foreign matter usually working its way further up into the white line. Eventually the horse will show some lameness especially if the hoof infects. The infection will generally continue to force its way up the hoof in the white line until it breaks out in the coronary band. Even when the infection has been cleared up you then have a fractured hoof wall that will take months to grow out.

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Corns are another area that can be eliminated by shoeing to a program and applying the right size and type of shoe. Again they become a major problem if they get infected as most infections in the hoof break out at the coronary band.

With both white line trauma and corns a bar shoe needs to be fitted so as to support the hoof capsule, the corn area needs to be cleaned out and treated, then packed with a suitable drawing agent.

Shoeing the equine athlete correctly is so important, horses that are shod to a regular program with continuos monitoring of shoe wear will have a long and generally trouble free career, enabling them to earn stake money over several years. Balance and rhythm are all controlled by the horses feet, so much so that when a horse is at its fitness peak after an intensive training regime, they can give their best over a hard and strenuous carnival, racing on a weekly basis.

The fit, sound and balanced racehorse will be relaxed, tractable and alert in its races. Consequently, such horses ensure that the driver or jockey is able to concentrate on the tactics of the race instead of focusing on preventing the horse from pulling or hanging while competing. Drivers and Jockeys are often the target of much criticism resulting from a horses bad performance, when in most cases some form of soreness is causing the horse to be erratic.

As explained previously, most soreness starts in the feet, yet through good management such soreness should be avoidable. I believe that the horse industry needs to increase its focus on this area as it is crucial to the industry that all horses should be given every opportunity to have a trouble free racing career, enabling each horse to maximise its potential.

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