The Farrier’s Follies

In this, the third of a series of three promised articles – about no topic in particular! –, I shall be looking at the follies of the farrier.

What do I mean by that? Farriers consider themselves charged with treating ailments of the legs and feet – indeed, may jurisdictions consider that to be the case too. The strange part is that the farrier is not trained in medicine (a vet may be trained in farriery but that is another proposition), and yet he has a statute accorded no other lay person except in emergencies. This aberration has lead to a wide variety of misconceptions and poorly thought out actions practised daily in the ‘art’. That these actions are often sanctioned and rarely questioned by that group of professionals that should know better – the veterinary surgeons – is even more incredible.

Here are three cases where ‘the farrier knew better’!

  • Chios
    At 21, not the youngest of horses, Chios had been shod from very early on in his life. At the moment I encountered him, the farrier had been shoeing him with a special kind of shoe on the front right hoof.adapted horseshoe

    Here we see the adaptation made by the farrier, for reasons unknown to the owner! The ‘heels’ have been flattened out over a large area and we see also that the hoof appears to be considerably wider than its left counterpart (the view retains the position of the shoes relative to each other thus the right shoe is on the left).
    That the owner does not know the reason for such an adaptation always amazes me – I would always want to know why somebody had done something outside the norm; but on reflection, those brought up in a traditional riding school environment are very often discouraged from asking questions…
    On examining the horse, it was found that the front right heel was underrun, while the front left was normal. It is worth pointing out here that at least the farrier had only applied his ‘treatment’ to the one affected hoof, and not both; this is often not the case as we shall see later on.

    improvement of heel positionAt first glance, it would appear to many that the farrier was being astute by putting into place some sort of support for a hoof that is clearly not as it should be. All the more so when I recall the view of a major Dutch horse trainer that one of his horses had ‘low heels’ when they were clearly very seriously underrun and the resident farrier had done nothing about them. However, underrun heels do not require protective orthotics, they require active intervention to draw the level of the heel back to its correct location under the back of the hoof and here the actions of the farrier were seriously lacking. This seems to be a regular occurrence that rather than to actually intervene and eliminate the problem altogether, the farrier prefers to ‘protect’ the hoof while maintaining the status quo.
    Chios is currently at three months post de-shoeing and just six weeks since beginning actively to bring the heel back to its correct location and yet the improvements are already visible.

  • Nikola
    When I first met Nikola, he was ten years old. His owners are an Italian couple living on the outskirts of Brussels and they have had Nikola since he was three. A Freiburger, he is not the lightest of horses but Nikola’s general physical condition was good when I first saw him, however, he had been limping badly and ‘navicular syndrome’ had been diagnosed. As usual, the whole panoply of tricks had been called upon by the farrier but all this and four visits to equine specialist clinics had only resulted in relieving the discomfort for short periods. Each time, the problems rapidly returned and by the time I saw him, Nikola was clearly a depressed horse. There was no spark in him and everything seemed an effort.
    The latest treatment was not really any more than a displacement of the shoe from the previous intervention by the farrier but the most remarkable in my eyes was the application. Navicular syndrome had only been diagnosed in the front right leg and yet the farrier had applied exactly the same treatment to both front legs!
    My standard de-shoeing technique is to remove the rear shoes first, wait a week to ten days for the horse to acclimatize and then remove the front shoes. I proposed this technique to the owners but the husband immediately went into animated discussion with his wife who explained – or rather implored – that I should remove all the shoes now. The husband could no longer bear to see his horse depressed like this and, although it may be difficult at first, he would prefer his horse uncomfortable and recovering rather than depressed and waiting.
    The initial de-shoeing was uneventful and Nikola managed the first couple of weeks with little or no problem – and his depression was lifting with every day; clearly any discomfort he may have been suffering without shoes was better than the discomfort with. He was being taken for short periods of exercise on the tarmac roads to help toughen up his hoofs and this he seemed to relish too.
    But then the problems hit… A few days after my third visit, Nikola refused to move. I did not find out until my next visit when I asked what they had done… Apparently almost literally drag him out and around the roads for a ten-minute walk every day. For eleven days… I had warned that he might have some difficult moments but to bite the bullet and keep him moving. This they did religiously and on the twelfth day Nikola felt well enough to go for his exercise without being dragged.
    Interestingly, Nikola also suffered from an untreated underrun heel which we very rapidly managed to bring under control. And he has gone from strength to strength. His exercise became long rides in the forests around Brussels and his owner reports back that Nikola is a completely different horse; he is no longer tired after a short canter – nor even a long canter –, he shows no signs of depression, just curiosity (he loves going past the shops and attracting attention…) and his navicular syndrome? The question is really whether it ever existed as such. It is really a catch-all term for limping horses with no clear diagnosis. X-ray photographs are open to all sorts of interpretation and it seems that anything unclear in a diagnosis will be explained away by the merest foggy trace of nothingness on an X-ray photograph.