You've heard it before: "No foot, no horse." Although it sounds trite, and it's a no-brainer, the fact remains that you can't overestimate how important the feet are to soundness, movement and attitude. Chronic foot pain leads to alterations in gait as the horse struggles to find a way to be more comfortable, and few things are more likely to dampen enthusiasm for work than having constant pain that you can't escape.
Because more weight is carried on the front feet, most hoof problems occur in front. When there is severe pain in one leg and the horse is limping around, anyone can see it. Mild-to-moderate pain in both feet is another story. This is especially true if the pain comes slowly. The changes can be so gradual that they're easy to miss. Symptoms include:
Symptoms of hind-foot pain may include:
• Toe-first landing.
• Pain going up a grade on the lameness scale.
• Pain when jogged off after standing with the toe elevated on a block.
• Positive reaction to hoof testers with pressure applied across the heels or from frog to quarters.
• Long, contracted heels with a poorly developed frog (may also be the cause of hind-foot problems).
• Abnormal Stance. There is a tendency for horses with heel pain to stand under themselves, with their feet back more toward their belly rather than directly underneath. The reverse holds for horses with pain along the toe/front of their foot. However, this isn't absolute. The individual horse may stand either way regardless of where the pain is.
• Weight Shifting. Sore-footed horses may "tread," shift weight from one foot to another, or, pointing feet in front of them. Alternately, they may decide it's best to move as little as possible and will be rooted in place for prolonged periods of time.
• Elbows Out. Horses with foot pain will sometimes stand with their elbows pointed out. This is often associated with atrophy of the triceps muscle, the large muscle above the elbow.
• Rigid Head Carriage. Horses with foot pain will often carry their heads either higher than normal, or extended unusually forward and low. The normal head movements present at the walk and canter are reduced.
• Shortened and Stiff Stride. "Choppy" and "wooden" are terms that usually describe how a foot-sore horse moves. Many horses with hoof pain also move low to the ground, in a shuffling-like gait. At the most extreme, the horse will have a "walking on egg shells" look.
• Stumbling or Tripping. Because they move low to the ground, stumbling or tripping may occur.
• Preference for Soft Ground. This is almost universal with foot-sore horses but may be less noticeable if they are shod. When on hard ground, there is both more concussion and more vibration. Most of the weight is carried on the walls, so the walls spread slightly and the sole drops.
• Shoulder, Back, Hind-End Stiffness. Nagging foot pain leads to the horse carrying his entire body in a stiff and guarded way. There's less swing to the back, and weight is often shifted to the hind legs more than normal, both when moving and standing. Many horses with nagging front-foot pain are diagnosed as having back or hock problems, treated for that to no avail.
• Reluctance to turn sharply or travel in a tight circle. These movements shift more weight to the leg on the inside of the turn and can increase the horse's pain.
• Ear pinning, "bad attitude." Can you blame them?