Why do horse owners spend so much time and effort in nurturing and pampering the last few inches of the horse’s leg, reading never ending magazine articles about the hoof, attending clinics about hoof care, reading blogs and even arguing about the best approach to care of the stubby little piece of anatomy? Why do people, such as myself, dedicate a large portion of their lives and careers to the care of the equine foot?
The equine foot or hoof is the source of about ninety percent of all equine lameness. Problems of the foot provide us a fair share of lost riding hours and aggravation. The foot is a complex system, perhaps the most complex portion of the equine locomotor system. The equine foot is the first line of defense against the rigors of the outside world.
Every stride, each footfall, the system at the far end of the equine leg provides several critical functions. The foot provides shock absorption to protect itself and the rest of the body from some of the accelerations and impacts. In addition, the foot provides traction, durability and agility. Through an intricate system of both hard and soft tissues the foot also deals with the irregular and often challenging nature of the terrain.
While the rest of the musculoskeletal system takes advantage of many levers and springs to endure locomotion, the hoof must rely on a compact and almost rigid structure. Within the protective case of the hoof capsule there is a co-operation between the bones, tendons, ligaments, soft tissues and even the blood itself, that allows the foot to survive and thrive. The hoof capsule is cleverly structured to allow for both strength and suppleness. The geometry of the capsule allows for flexibility even though the substance of the capsule is quite rigid.
Even the circulatory system cannot get away with performing only the relatively simple function of providing nutrients and oxygen to the critical tissues of the foot. Blood and the vasculature are also responsible for thermoregulation between the horse and the outside environment. As if this wasn’t enough to ask, the blood also acts in cooperation with other structures within the foot to function as a sort of hydraulic shock absorber.
If we can even begin to grasp the mechanical marvel that is the equine hoof, we will begin to understand that any modification that we force upon this structure will in many ways compromise it’s function. The greater our understanding of the foot, the greater the chance that we will be able to protect its’ function.
Mark Silverman DVM, MS
Sporthorse Veterinary Services
1288 Calle Maria
San Marcos, CA 92069