Clinical and Radiographic Examination of the Equine Foot

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

49th Annual Convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, 2003, New Orleans, Louisiana


Clinical and Radiographic Examination of the Equine Foot (21-Nov-2003)

R. F. Redden

Versailles, KY, USA.

1. Introduction Lameness is one of the most frequently encountered problems in equine practice. The foot is involved, either directly or indirectly, in the large majority of lameness cases, as it is the first line of defense for the animal. The health of the foot plays a major role in the fight or flight response that has preserved this noble species for several thousand years. "No foot, no horse" is an adage that has been used across the world for centuries. This indisputable statement encapsulates the importance of a healthy foot; yet we know less about the foot than about almost any other part of the horse, and it is the one piece of anatomy that is dependent on a lay profession for the preservation of its health and function.

Worldwide, farriers bear much of the responsibility for maintaining or restoring the health of the horse's foot. For centuries their knowledge and skills have been self-taught, without the benefit of a formal educational program. Their basic job description is to keep the foot healthy by using effective but primitive methods to control the ill effects of horn growth and of wear and tear on the hoof capsule, with little or no information about the effects of these procedures on the sensitive soft tissues, vascular supply, or bone. Veterinarians, on the other hand, have been taught anatomy, physiology, and basic examination techniques; however, they often have limited working knowledge of the foot and little or no farriery skills.

Both professions play important and complementary roles. Veterinarians and farriers alike are often asked to examine the foot for a variety of reasons, including developmental problems, gait analysis, lameness exams, and prepurchase exams. In many cases, the opinions that result are as diverse as the backgrounds and areas of expertise of the respective professionals. Combining the knowledge and skills of a competent farrier with the medical and surgical training of the veterinarian greatly enhances the diagnostic and prognostic potential of both clinical and radiographic examinations. Working together also advances the professional standing of veterinarians and farriers.

Clinical and radiographic examinations of the foot are simply discovery exercises. Numerous authors have described their methods and techniques in detail. But despite the vast amount of written material on the subject, obtaining meaningful information about the foot remains a challenge for veterinarians and farriers. The key is to use a disciplined, methodical approach that is designed to disclose and define the various normal soft tissue parameters, normal bone anatomy, normal hoof capsule anatomy, and how each component is interrelated. The protocol should also reveal the response of these structures to the forces imposed by ground contact, supporting tissues, and the horse's body weight.

Seeking and defining specific pieces of information in a consistent, repeatable manner for each foot, in each horse, greatly enhances the practitioner's understanding and knowledge bank regarding the vast range of normal-which is the real information you want. Whether examining a foot or a radiograph, look for all the normal areas first; what's left over points to the problem you seek. This simple approach effectively helps avoid misinterpretation, a common result of forming an opinion without sufficient diagnostic information; for example, making presumptions concerning the clinical relevance of a radiographic lesion without consideration of the history or physical findings.

2. Clinical Examination Regardless of the purpose of the examination, the physical exam is the most important aspect of evaluating the equine foot. The extent and nature of the exam must be tailored to the situation, however, taking into account the demands of the client. Good horsemanship, a good working knowledge of the foot, and some basic farriery skills are other prerequisites for a proper and safe examination.

A complete history which clearly describes the complaint complements the physical exam and adds context to any clinical findings. Listen to the history as you examine the foot, but do not jump to conclusions nor be swayed by the opinions or conclusions of others. Visually inspect the foot before picking it up, and feel the hoof capsule with your hands, noting its many unique characteristics.

Although certain generalities can be made, there is a range of normal for hoof characteristics which is influenced by the horse's breed, age, environment, and use. Considering the variability imposed by these factors, the range of normal can be very broad. The importance of understanding the variability in structure of the healthy equine foot lies in identifying subtle deviations from normal which are of clinical significance. These early distortions are easily missed if the normal parameters for a horse of that breed, age, environment, and use are not appreciated.

The following example details the requirements for adequately defining normal for a particular horse. Let us consider the forefoot of a 3-yr-old Thoroughbred horse, bred for racing but used as a noncompetitive riding horse in central Kentucky. That foot would probably have the following characteristics: a hoof angle between 50 degrees and 58 degrees, and a heel angle perhaps 15-20 degrees less; a relatively straight wall (i.e. no flaring, dishing, or bulging); width approximately 5 in. (measured at the widest point); mass of digital cushion 2-3 in. (discussed later); hoof wall thickness of 3/8-1/2 in. at the toe and the bars;a hoof wall perhaps one-half as thick at the quarters; a sole with a moderate cup (3-5 mm in height); a frog in contact with the ground (although it would also be normal for this horse to have a relatively flat sole, i.e., little or no cup, and a large, flat frog); and a hoof wall with a solid appearance and a glossy surface.

We must leave behind the "ideal" of the normal equine foot depicted by artists in veterinary and farriery texts for the past century or more. Hoof angles and heel angles do not match on any normal foot. And the "ideal" toe angles of 45 degrees for front feet and 50 degrees for hind feet are far from normal as they do not match the pastern angles. One must become a connoisseur of horses' feet and begin to build a personal data bank of normal for particular breeds, age groups, environments, and uses.

The Seat of Pain When dealing with a lame horse, most authors consider the physical exam simply a means of reaching a diagnosis, i.e., of giving the problem a name. While this approach certainly satisfies one of the goals of the exam (to identify the problem), years of experience as an equine podiatrist have made me very aware that most owners want a fix and could care less about a diagnosis. As I'm going through a lameness work-up, I focus on identifying the area(s) of pain rather than specific pathology. Dividing the foot into two halves, front and back, then dividing further into quadrants (medial and lateral, front and back) offers a simple way of isolating the specific area of inflammation or seat of pain (Fig. 1, A and B).

Figure 1. (A) Imagine dividing the foot in half.

Figure 1. (B) Then in quarters.

Dividing the foot into four basic zones helps me determine whether the components in each zone fit within the range of normal for that particular animal. With my understanding of radiographic anatomy (again bearing in mind the range of normal), I visualize the bone and associated soft tissues superimposed over the hoof (Fig. 2). Any finding that falls outside the range of normal is considered relevant, as it contributes to the dysfunction of the foot as an integrated unit and thus probably plays a role in the current lameness problem.

Simply cleaning the ground surface of the hoof can reveal areas of possible concern. (Fig. 3). Each of these areas is a map of a potential problem: examine each thoroughly before moving on. Remember to look for all the normal areas first, and what is leftover often points to the problem that you are attempting to identify.

Figure 2. Visualize the bone and associated soft tissues superimposed over the hoof.

Figure 3. Simply cleaning the ground surface of the hoof can reveal areas of possible concern.

After a quick visual exam, I palpate, using thumb pressure to locate areas of increased sensitivity along the coronary band, the bulbs of the heel, and even over the sole on thin-soled feet. Hoof testers should be used with great care, because inappropriate use causes the horse to anticipate further pain and show an exaggerated response to even light pressure.

When applying hoof testers, use a very soft touch. All that is needed to identify areas of increased sensitivity is just enough pressure to cause slight movement of thin horn (e.g., the sole in a thin-soled horse). Also be aware of how you are holding the horse's leg. If, by positioning the limb between your knees so that you are comfortable, the horse is made uncomfortable, you may elicit a response that has nothing to do with the foot.

It is easy to abduct the limb too far when placing the horse's lower limb between your knees. To avoid this situation, note where the horse's body in relation to the foot when you first pick up the leg. Try to maintain that orientation when placing the limb between your knees-i.e., put yourself where the foot is or have someone hold the limb for you (Fig. 4 A-D).

4A 4B

4C 4D

Figure 4. (A) Note relaxed position of foot.

(B) Position yourself to horse’s relaxed position.

(C) Avoid abducting limb for your comfort.

(D) Proper stance when using hoof testers.

The Failing Structure Distinguishing the abnormal area(s) allows me to identify which part(s) of the system is failing and affecting the integrity of the whole. Simply recognizing the failing structure(s) as the primary problem-the underlying cause of any secondary bone and/or soft tissue disease-gives new meaning to the discovery exercise and places new emphasis on the findings. Following is an example of this concept. Race horses, or in fact any speed horse, with less than 10 mm of sole, zero or negative palmar angle (the angle of the palmar margin of PIII relative to the ground surface), loss of cushion mass (see below), obvious medial-lateral imbalance, and a history of foot pain are often diagnosed with navicular disease, pedal osteitis, or bruised feet. Any of these diagnoses may be correct and the associated pathology may be contributing to the present lameness. However, more important is the fact that the essential protective function of the hoof capsule and the shock-absorbing features of the cushion network are seriously compromised, and the cumulative effects of these failing systems are now of paramount importance.

The "diagnosis" in this case is thus, multifaceted. However, it can be simplified by describing the situation as one of mild, moderate, or excessive horn loss associated with mild, moderate, or excessive compromise of the soft tissues. Instead of being focused on a medical diagnosis (which may well be challenged by another veterinarian or farrier) and a quick fix to satisfy the immediate demands of the client, identifying the failing systems allows the focus to be placed on a solution, which in this case involves restoring the much-needed hoof mass.

Figure 5. Use thumb and finger to guesstimate depth of digital cushion.

The depth of the digital cushion can be estimated by placing your thumb in the shallow depression between the heel bulbs and placing the index finger of the same hand on the center of the frog (Fig. 5). In light breed horses with strong, healthy heels, the distance between thumb and fingertip is in the range of 3-3.5 inches.

6A 6B

Figure 6. (A) Typical Thoroughbred hind foot. Note coronary band relationship with the ground. (B) Front foot, American Saddlebred. Growth ring patterns, coronary

band conformation, heel tubule angles, toe angles, and horn quality offer insight to sole depth, palmar angle, and overall state of balance.

When this distance is well short of the normal range, one can expect to see evidence of soft tissue compromise radiographically. This simple observation, coupled with noting the slope of the coronary band relative to the ground, also allows an estimation of sole depth and palmar angle.

Figures 6 and 7 illustrate how these observations correlate with radiographic findings. Note the difference in slope of the coronary band, angle of the horn tubules at the heel, and depth of cushion between the two horses (Fig. 6A, 6B). Compare these photographs with lateral radiographs of the same feet (Fig. 7A, 7B).

7A 7B