I found a horse I really want to buy, but he has a club foot. Can it be fixed or managed, or should I pass on him?
~ Stacy A.
A club foot is an upright foot caused by a shortening of the tendon and muscle of deep digital flexor unit. The excessive pull on the deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) turns the coffin bone downward, loading shifts to the toe area, and the hoof changes shape in response. The classic club foot is upright and contracted, and there may be a fullness in the coronet area due to the forward displacement of the extensor process of the coffin bone and the second phalanx just above it. The hoof wall may show rippling and dishing in the front, and wider growth rings in the heels. However, club feet can vary quite a bit in appearance, and what they look like depends in part on the severity of the problem, and to a degree on the quality and timing of the hoof care they receive. Club feet are graded on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being a mild case that may be hardly noticeable, and 4 being severe.
Regarding the prospect you are considering, if his feet look healthy overall, he is sound, and there is not much visible difference between the club foot and his other feet, it is likely a low-grade club, which is not typically a major concern. In fact, many low-grade club feet are healthy and very functional. Higher grade cases may have limitations in terms of their ability to perform and to remain sound, but the majority of horses with lower grade club feet are able to lead quite normal lives with appropriate hoof care, and owners of grade 1 horses may not even realize that their horse has a club foot at all. Some horses with club feet have even been successful in high level competition.
Unfortunately, anyone who owns a club-footed horse needs to know that it is very easy for a hoof care provider to make a club foot worse with what might seem like the most logical thing to do – lowering the heels. While lowering the heels might indeed be called for, it has to be done with extreme care and with full understanding of the physiology and biomechanics of the structures involved. Far too often, well-meaning farriers will lower the heels too much, too soon, or without taking other critical measures (such as moving back the most forward point of ground contact, known as the “point of breakover”), the result being that they cause the deep digital flexor apparatus to tighten more in response to the increased tension placed on it by the “missing” heel, and the foot may get tipped further forward as a result. It is also important to understand that when a horse has a club foot, one or more of the other feet often develop low hoof angles due to compensation, and those feet may have more issues than the club foot.
As for how club feet get to be that way in the first place, there are several possibilities. Some cases likely have a genetic component, as certain bloodlines seem to produce more individuals with club feet than is typical. Most club feet start very early in the horse’s life, either as a congenital limb deformity already present at birth, or as an apparently acquired limb deformity that develops as a result of the foal’s tendons and bones growing out of sync. However, it is possible that some of the supposedly acquired cases already had the problem brewing when they were born, and it simply went unrecognized or was not manifesting observable signs at that time.
Many experts now believe there may also be a nutritional factor in some cases of club foot, citing overfeeding of nutrients and excessive caloric intake as the root problem. The thinking is that the too-rich diet causes developmental orthopedic disorders (DOD), and the pain from these problems leads to abnormal loading of one or more limbs, which then gets the club foot ball rolling. Adult horses can also develop a club foot as a result of pain or injury that causes alterations in the loading patterns on their feet.
If your prospect has a mild club foot that does not appear to be getting worse over time, it would something to be aware of and keep an eye on, but it is not necessarily a deal-breaker. A competent hoof care provider will know how to manage such a foot – most often by simply keeping the feet balanced individually and not worrying about trying to “fix” the club foot or make it match the one on the other side. However, you would definitely want to get a pre-purchase exam on this horse (always a good idea) and see what the vet has to say about the horse’s ability to do the job you want him for.
Susan Kauffmann is the lead author of ‘The Essential Hoof Book: The Complete Modern Guide to Horse Feet’. She has been an equestrian journalist, educator and trainer for over three decades.