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What is orthopaedic balance and how does it affect the horse?

  • Darrall Clifford
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All farriers are trained to look at the feet and balance them before placing a shoe on the foot. For centuries this is what has happened. But nowadays we know there is much more to hoof balance and soundness than just fitting a shoe.

When assessing horses that are showing signs of soreness or lameness the traditionally accepted approach has been to fit shoes to help increase break over as well as trying to change other aspects of the hoof flight. These methods do work on some horses, but not on all, and then it is only work for a limited time due to other related stresses that gradually accumulate in the body.

Farriers work hard at fitting shoes that would bring the point of break over back to where it looks as though it should be. Making shoes that appear to fit the natural shape of the hoof should then return the balance to the foot. All of this is to no avail as the hoof never fully improves and noticeable changes can be seen in the upper body, such as asymmetrical muscle groups.

When the internal hoof tissues are placed under stress, the biomechanics and musculoskeletal alignment of the upper body are affected and all aspects of limb and hoof flight change. Recognition of these influences in the upper body is needed to realise that the manner in which the foot has to be trimmed and shod. This rebalancing of the foot is the single most influential thing that would change the biomechanics of the foot and upper body.

The second most important procedure is a complete chiropractic treatment. Weight and energy is transferred directly through the limbs to the bone structure of the feet. The hoof capsule has to encapsulate the bones symmetrically or else the weight and energy cannot be transferred to the ground correctly. This incorrect weight transfer will cause the horse to change its flight pattern as well as its upper body muscles. Then long-term problems will manifest as hoof and / or upper body disorders, which will erode the performance of the horse.

To understand the complex structural and functional podiatry problem the podiatrist needs to identify the external pathology of the foot, looking at the texture – size – colour – shape and alignment of each section of the foot to ensure it is coping with the stress placed upon it.

Knowing how and why the problem has occurred and understanding the response of the horse is one of the keys to a broad range of equine problems. Clues to how the horse will cope with foot related issues are found throughout the entire equine body. Only a careful examination of the animal from a structural and functional perspective will reveal any changes in muscle tension – ligamentous tension and hoof pathology.

As the animal deals with dysfunction or imbalance it will develop subtle changes in movement patterns as it tries to avoid pain. If pain increases, there can be dramatic changes in behaviour as well as performance. There can also be changes in the loading of limbs from one side to the other, as well as from the front limbs to the hind limbs or a diagonal loading imbalance. With this loading imbalance, it increases the work certain muscle groups have to do and can cause muscle fatigue.

We need to take into consideration the role of muscle and ligamentous mechanoreceptors in the locomotion of the horse as well as the external and more importantly the micro-pathology of the foot to fully understand the issues afflicting the animal.

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