No Foot, No Horse

foot_bvcBook 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.milkliedown_bvc

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.

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No Foot, No Horse — 10 Comments

  1. The too rich feed cause makes me think of gout.

    Though I’m not sure if contemporary medicine considers a rich diet the actual cause of gout these days. I don’t know much about gout beyond it’s very painful!

    Love, C.

    • Gout is excess of uric acid in the system. Can cause ongoing low-level fibro-type pain, and of course blow out into full-on OW, often in a toe.

      Not the same technically, but you’re right, it’s kind of similar in terms of what it does. Inflammation, circulation problems, pain.

    • The nearest human equivalent is diabetes – and the same management (low carb diet, avoiding spikes, gentle aerobic exercise) is indicated for both.

  2. Interesting blog. To tell you the truth, I had forgotten about it, but I’ll add it to my follow list considering that I write almost exclusively in medieval settings. I also have your book. I know a fair amount about horses since I grew up riding, but that’s quite different from being truly horse dependent although it does save me from some of the worse of the peculiar misconceptions some people put into books.

    I am having problems with deciding how the medieval knight I am currently writing about would handle a particularly aggressive charger (most knights in fact rode chargers rather than destriers except occasionally in jousting). They were more “maneuverable” which is a big advantage when you don’t want to get killed which is one of a knight’s aims. Being able to get your horse to make a fast turn often saved your life.

    Anyway, I’ve never been around an aggressive animal so I would be interested in advise on how one handles an animal who, for example, decides to bite or kick. While I am tempted to simply have Sir James hit him up the side of the head with a fist or something of the sort, I suspect my readers might not react well and he’s the hero. LOL

    • Well, at the time he probably would do that, but you’re right, a hero in a book written for a modern audience would have do something different. With aggression, the first question is what causes it. Hormones (since knights rode stallions)? Stallion fight, possibly over a mare? Or horse has issues with old abuse? Pain–bit or saddle fits badly?

      Stallion handling is an art of its own. One thing is to be scrupulously fair. Another is not to meet aggression with aggression. If stallion pulls or fights, don’t pull back. Soften body language, give-take on lead or bridle. If he’s off his head because there’s a mare in heat and/or a rival stallion, you have have to get a whip or a strap and drive him off–he’s not thinking about anything at that point but his hormones. All his brain cells have migrated southward. Then you do what you have to in order to get everybody safely out of there. (We had stallion escape when wind blew gate down yesterday–he went to visit the new gelding. The new, very big gelding. He was able to be lured away with food, which was rather miraculous. Sometimes it takes a long whip and me being Amazon of Death to head him off. I won’t actually hit him, I’ll just be very big and scary and much more alarming than whatever he’s after.)

      For biting or kicking–stallions are more likely to bite, mares to kick, but both sexes will do both. Stallions will bite for dominance–lunge and grab. Block him, pop him off. Old trick: carry nail in your fist, so if he bites, you “bite” back without actually making a move. A steel gauntlet might work, but beware of getting your fingers crunched by those viselike teeth. Must stand ground but not push into his space/become aggressive or he’s going to win. He may literally (and this has happened) rip your arm off. But, if you flinch off, he’ll also “win” and may pursue.

      It can be scary to stand still with half a ton of angry horse coming at you. You may have to get out of the way to stay alive. Step sideways, get behind a barrier, whatever you need to do.

      For kickers, I carry a long whip. Let them run into it, don’t go after them. Let them punish themselves. Try to stay as calm and un-angry as possible. Just matter-of-factly deal with the situation and move on.

      Correction: the three-second rule. Instant, clear, as soon as they correct, calm down and move on. Can defuse or distract, turn a whirl and kick into a lateral movement in hand, or block a bite with a fistful of reins or a whip handle and just move on with the exercise.

      Aggression is usually based on fear, sometimes anger, but at base it will be to some degree defensive. Horses attack because they feel you will attack first. Or you’re between them and their mare or baby–or their food. You have to stay safe and have to correct or stop the behavior, but getting all macho and hammering on them just makes it worse. If the horse flinches and submits now, he’ll blow up later, or his spirit will be broken and he’ll be useless in battle. You want him fighting for you, not going deadhead on you.

      I have warhorses–Lipizzans. Their mindset is not standard prey animal. They will go toward scary things about as often as they’ll run away–and if that bomb doesn’t blow them up, the next time it lands, they’ll probably not be terribly upset. Startled, but they can be literally bombproofed. Good horses to shoot off of, and to ride into a battle; and the stallions are much calmer and less reactive than the mares, testosterone fits aside.

    • What Judy Said, but also:

      – for a horse that bites, you tie them short. You can use crossties that are fixed where the horse’s head is at rest, which makes it impossible for him to turn the head and snap you while you’re grooming and saddling. Most horses will bite under certain circumstances – when you groom them, when you tighten the girth – and be fine otherwise, so as long as you leave a headcollar on (and if he bites when you enter his stall, keep him tied up) you’ll be fine. Or rather, the groom sent in to deal with him will be fine 😉

      – if you hold the noseband of the headcollar – and maybe, if the horse is *really* bad, the handle of a whip in your other hand – you’re extremely unlikely to be bitten, however furious the horse is. Move him forward, give him something to do, distract him.

      – there are three forms of ‘biting’ and they often have different causes and need different approaches. There’s snapping – the horse turns their head, often with flattened ears, and clicks their teeth next to you. Most of the time, this looks vicious, but the horses in question are _mortified_ if they actually connect – it’s a vivid form of communication, and I’ve always found it useful to listen to what they dislike and otherwise ignore it. You need to know a horse well before you _can_ ignore them, but experienced grooms often do. Next, there’s the open-mouthed lunge where the horse uses the weight of their head to connect – this is painful, it can draw blood, but it’s comparatively harmless. Last but not least, there’s the true bite, where the horse grabs you and takes a chunk out of you – I’ve found it reasonably rare, even among ‘biting’ horses – but you don’t want to be at the receiving end of it.

      – as for kicking, shod horses do vastly more damage than unshod horses, so if you can, pull the back shoes, and always stay very close to the horse in question. They can still bust a kneecap if you’re right next to them, but the chances of serious injury are comparatively small. Very often you’ll receive more of a shove than a kick. If the horse gains a couple of feet between you and them, they’re MUCH more dangerous. I once was kicked by a horse that was about a length ahead of me – he took exception to another horse, let fly, and I had an inch-and-a-half gash in my thigh that bled for three days running – I was VERY lucky that day.

    • When I was taking riding lessons, two of the horses with the worst reputation for biting were actually very ticklish. If you learnt to handle them without tickle (tickling?) them (or at least minimize it), it was a complete personality switch. As individuals they were of course not ticklish on the same areas, or in the same manner, so some experimenting was necessary. With the mare it could help to tell her how much you sympathized with her while you did those things that could not be avoided, like brushing her muddy belly. The gelding wanted long, slow and hard brush-strokes. It was very easy to impress beginners after I learnt how to handle those two horses! 🙂

      Sometimes it is something different – one time I went into the stall of the ticklish mare, she was in such a bad mood, I decided I did not want to touch her. Neither did I want to retreat – that wood have been failure. So I decided to pretend I had entered her stall to wipe off the mist on her window. I suddenly had a very interested mare, in a good mood, who thought I was her personal magician. She had been angry at not being able to see out!