Book View Cafe and the Horseblog wish you all a happy Labor Day (US) and a happy first Monday of September (everywhere else). To celebrate, we’ve dug in the vaults and found a post of particular relevance to what your resident Horseblogger will be doing on the farm this weekend: namely, helping to rehab a horse with foot issues.
We’ll be talking more about this in a future blog. Meanwhile, enjoy the show. (And don’t worry: the horse we’re working with has not foundered and will be just fine, with care and management, for many years to come.)
This is the first installment of a long-running and intermittent series: “Umpzillion Different Ways to Kill or Maim Your Horse.” It’s a bloody-minded topic, but the mind of a writer is often bloody. There must be Tension, there must be Conflict, there must be Alligators. And in any world that relies on the horse for transport, the safety and well-being of the equine is critical. Remember the old rhyme about the missing horseshoe nail and the lost kingdom–that butterfly in Venezuela has tough competition there. And then there’s the king who tried, unsuccessfully, to trade his kingdom for a horse.
It all rests, literally, on a hypertrophied middle toenail. No foot, as the banner says, no horse.
The horse is, by its structure, designed to stand upright on all fours. There is some mythology about how a healthy horse will never lie down, but that’s nonsense. A horse will stand for up to 23 hours a day, and can sleep standing up–his knees have a locking mechanism that keeps him from collapsing when he falls asleep. He will however lie down to rest, and even go flat for up to 45 minutes. Note how the enterprising baby grabs a snack while mom is grabbing Z’s.
Still, that’s just a few minutes out of every day, and it can’t be more than that. The weight and bulk of the horse is such that if he lies down too long, he suffers excessive stress to the internal organs. This is especially true if he lies on his side rather than up on his sternum. If he gets cast–caught upside down against a wall or other obstacle without means to right himself–the weight of his organs may actually suffocate him as his massive digestive system presses against his lungs. A cast horse is one of the more heart-attack-inducing sights for a horse person, and is a signal for immediate and decisive action to get the horse back on his feet.
Those feet, as you can see, are critical for the survival of the horse. For the purposes of fiction, we don’t need to to get into the arcana of equine pedal anatomy or its rarer pathologies. The main problems that can bring your fictional kingdom down are fairly straightforward and can be played for maximum drama.
Say you need to slow down your chase and/or put your character in danger. If she lives in a culture or milieu where horses are shod–this is not universal; do your homework, or trust me, some eagle-eyed reader will call you on it–the horse can pull a shoe. This can range from fairly minor, with minimal damage as the nails drop or pull out of the hoof, to serious-to-catastrophic if the hoof gets torn apart and/or the horse trips on the dangling shoe, falls, and breaks his leg or his rider’s neck.
Even if the damage is minor, the horse now has an unprotected hoof that has not been toughened by constant contact with the ground, and he’s off balance thanks to the missing weight and bulk of the shoe. If he’s not lame to start with, he soon will be. The solution (apart from stopping and replacing the shoe, which will require the character to pack along a selection of blacksmithing supplies–a hammer, file, and nails at minimum), if the character has thought ahead or if she has time and access to materials, is to put on a leather (or in a contemporary setting, rubber or vinyl) boot that will keep the horse going until it can get the shoe replaced.
In a milieu in which horses are not shod, the leather-boot option may still be available. If that fails, or if the horse is barefoot as a matter of course, he may get a stone bruise. This will lame him quickly, and the lameness will get worse as the bruise develops. Sooner or later, if the bruise is severe enough, an abscess will form. When this happens, the horse will be three-legged lame, and may become so very quickly. The slow solution at that point is to soak the hoof twice or more per day in an attempt to draw out the infection. If that doesn’t work or if you’re in more of a hurry, you’ll have to dig out the abscess with a knife–with suitably gross and smelly results. Relief is usually rapid, as long as no vital interior parts are affected. Clean out the hole with something appropriately disinfectant, pack it with sterile packing, and wrap it. Change wrappings and re-treat daily.
Which, on the fly, is probably not happening; a lame horse is a dead horse. If he’s valuable enough, he might be treated on site and removed (with care or in a horse transport) to a safe place where the treatment can continue. There are plenty of plot possibilities there.
Even without bruising or abscess, a barefoot horse without hoof protection can go lame by sheer attrition. Long travel on hard or abrasive ground will wear the hoof down faster than it can grow back. A healthy hoof grows about half an inch in four to six weeks, and will grow faster with regular exercise and good nutrition. A really hard, really merciless rider on brutal ground can wear his horse’s feet off in a night. This means abrading the hoof wall (which is a quarter to half an inch thick in general) off the toe, and wearing down the soles until the sensitive tissues underneath are exposed. The pain at this point is acute, and the horse, unless treated fast and carefully, is done for.
The same applies to a shod horse, though it will take longer to wear the shoes down to nothing. At that point, his feet will start to wear off as well.
The big bad, the one you read about but don’t often see explained, is founder. The technical term for this condition is acute laminitis. Follow the link for the technical details. For the writer, the main points to remember are that the circulation in the hoof has broken down, the horse is increasingly lame, and if the situation is allowed to become worse without treatment, the bone will come through the sole and the horse is dead.
There are numerous causes for this condition. Some that work for the writer include
- Overfeeding of rich feed–rather like poisoning the horse, or killing it with kindness. This one is sadly common, and frequently happens to ponies, because their metabolism has a poor tolerance for highly concentrated feeds or lush forage.
- Excessive exercise on hard or abrasive ground (road founder)–the classic “He foundered his horse escaping from the horrible villain.”
- Side effect of illness or injury, including uterine or other infection in the mare after foaling (foal founder). This can happen when the horse has a traumatic injury, such as a broken leg, and is put in a sling. If he doesn’t kill himself thrashing to get out of the sling, or re-break the leg once he’s on his feet, his feet themselves may collapse due to the stress on his system, and the horse will founder. This is what happened to the famous racehorse Barbaro.
Many foundered horses can be treated, especially if the setting is contemporary, and can, with time and care, recover enough to be usable. In an older setting, without radiographs and ultrasound or advances in shoeing and trimming technology, the prognosis is trickier. Old horsemen could spot the signs of founder (useful for your scene at the horse fair or the sale barn): a particular stance with the front legs propped out in front to get weight off the heels, and in chronically foundered horses, hooves with a pattern of horizontal ridges or rings, often with a dip in the middle where the laminae have collapsed. They might treat the horse or pony by standing him in a pond or stream or in cool mud to soothe the pain and heat and help the damaged circulation. They would definitely discontinue whatever caused the problem: take him off the rich grass, put him on stall or paddock rest after the long hard ride, or treat her with what medicines they had for infection.
None of this will do any good however if the hooves have totally collapsed. That’s the end for the horse. No more foot, no more horse.