Understanding the Feral Horse Foot

by by Robert M. Bowker, VMD, PhD
(as published in Issue 1, Fall 2000 of The Horse's Hoof)

by Robert M. Bowker, VMD, PhD

During the first week of June [2000], a small group of horse enthusiasts were invited by the National Mustang Association to be a part of their annual gathering in southern Nevada. Drs. Bob Bowker and Barb Page, farriers Gene Ovnicek and Bill Murphy, and fourth year veterinary student Lori Bidwell and anesthesia technician Meg Schenck made the long trek to Nevada from Colorado in an attempt to observe and learn more about the foot of the feral horse in its natural environment with minimal influence from man!

“The radiograph is the forelimb of a standing (but tranquilized) feral horse showing the position of the coffin bone inside the hoof capsule. As with sound domestic horses the coffin bone is raised slightly at its caudal aspect (approx. 4-5 degrees).” Photo courtesy Dr. Robert Bowker

Their gathering consisted of gradually encouraging the 60 odd horses to come in for vaccination and worming, that normally have access to run free on several thousand acres during the year. Their task was quite an accomplishment considering that most horses prefer not to receive either treatment!

Anyway our group has been very interested for several years in understanding the complexity of the feral horse foot in an attempt to begin to apply some of the same principles that we can gain or learn from the feral horse foot to the domestic horse foot. We believe that if we are successful in listening to the feral horse foot and applying its "wisdom", then maybe the domestic horse has a chance to be successful in surviving in the domestic environment.

The feral horse foot is sculpted by an environment whether the horse runs on sand, grass or hard mountainous rocks. As these surfaces are very different in their texture and abrasive qualities, their influences on the wear and tear of the foot will obviously be different with the hard and more abrasive rock environment wearing down the sole and hoof wall at a much faster rate than that of a moist and grassy surface. The greater distance that a horse has to move in search of food will obviously be a major factor in the extent of the wear of the foot.

This idea, while not new, is often forgotten as many, if not most, people believe that there is only a single "mold" for the feral horse foot. The feet of the feral horses adapt to their surroundings in an attempt to dissipate energy and support the weight of the horse.

These feral horses in Nevada confirmed this belief as the feet are different from those feral horses present in the northwestern US in Wyoming. In Nevada the feet varied somewhat, but generally were slightly cupped with four points of contact on a flat surface. The bars were prominent with an extension of sole callus to the apex of the frog. A thin rim of sole callus was present on the sole at the toe region, too. The heel of the frog was very large and prominent, while the more dorsal (towards the front of the foot) cushion and apex were less well developed. However, the entire central area of the foot between the bars, callus over the frog was compacted with firm dirt.

In the northwestern US, many of the feral horses have more sole contact than those did in Nevada, with horses living on hard surfaces having a flatter sole with contact of the frog, bars and toe callus. These differences, although seemingly slight, are important as they indicate that the feet are different depending upon the environment that the horse is in.

Thus there appears to be not one but several variations of feral foot conformation depending upon the environment. Maybe each is correct for its own environment, but not in the other type of environment. Regarding the domestic horse foot, their feet will be very similar to the feral horse under these same conditions!

In the Midwest our study of barefooted horses that are ridden on a regular basis and trimmed "regularly" (range of 6-8 weeks to once per year!) have a foot not unlike that of the feral horse: namely the foot is slightly cupped with prominent bars and a callus extending to the apex of the frog. A prominent callus extends across the foot at the toe to mark the breakover of the toe. The hoof wall may or may not have much contact with the ground surface, but the ones that did were mainly too long, as the horses were usually on softer soils.

The frogs were quite large and supported weight of the horse when the foot was on the ground. However, the heel of the frog was not as large as that of the feral horse. We believe that the primary difference in the frog structure may be due to the relative distance of travel between the feral and the domestic horse, i.e., large versus short distances, respectively, in search of food, as well as the time committed to standing. However, in both instances the compacted dirt over the frog, bars and parts of the sole aided in the two groups of horses of supporting the weight and loads of the horses during movement.

In radiographs of standing (but tranquilized) feral horses, the toe was short, while the coffin bone was raised slightly at its caudal part. The heel was very large. These observations are not unlike that of the "good-footed" domestic horse!

Thus these initial findings are very encouraging in that once we have a better understanding of how the foot actually functions, many of these same principles, i.e., short toe, frog in contact with the ground surface, partial sole support, etc, can be applied to the domestic horse foot to improve its health and well-being! Our group is very optimistic that such a learning process is happening to us and hopefully to other equine enthusiasts throughout the US and the world.

(as published in Issue 1, Fall 2000 of The Horse's Hoof)

©2007 by The Horse's Hoof. All rights reserved. No part of these publications may be reproduced by any means whatsoever without the written permission of the publisher and/or authors. The information contained within these articles is intended for educational purposes only, and not for diagnosing or medicinally prescribing in any way. Readers are cautioned to seek expert advice from a qualified health professional before pursuing any form of treatment on their animals. Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.


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