Spring is about to spring! Time to start seriously thinking about babies. And by that I mean horse babies. Before you know it, they will have to stand still and you will have to trim them. And cute as they are, they are often terrible at standing still and letting people do stuff to them, so we all need to work a little extra to make that first trim a success.
It Starts with the Owners
Owners should start working with a foal’s legs and feet as soon as possible to get them used to the idea that humans do weird things with hooves like touch them and pick them up. It’s often easiest to begin by touching legs and moving them around while baby is lying down. The biggest lesson for the foal to learn is to shift its own weight when asked. Teaching them to carry their weight on their other three legs is a lifesaver for the farrier.
Other good practice exercises include tapping on a foal’s hooves, picking them up, picking them out and asking the baby to stand on three legs for however long they can before they start to crumple like a house of cards. All of this teaches the foal what to expect when the farrier comes to call. Owners can even run a dull rasp lightly over baby’s feet to get them used to that sensation before you show up for the real deal.
When Should the First Trim Be?
Foals should be trimmed first when they’re 3-4 weeks old, and then routinely thereafter. This is especially important for babies who are stalled at night and turned out on softer ground. Scott McKendrick, Kerry Rood and Patricia Evans of Utah State University explain that foals are born with their front feet pointed, which is helpful when the foal is being delivered, but not so helpful afterwards. The pointed shape makes breakover difficult and can lead to deviations.
The first trim will help the foal maintain a straight leg structure and flight path by encouraging a correct and easy break over. Foals living outside on harder ground will naturally wear the points of their feet down, but 4 weeks is still an ideal time for a farrier to visit, evaluate the horse’s foot conformation and make sure its feet are on the right track.
Equine podiatrist Stephen O’Grady explains that while the first trim is crucial, there’s not a lot of actual work to be done (on the foot. There might be a ton of work keeping baby on the ground and in roughly the same location as where you started). Because the sole, bars and frog of the foot need to be left for support, the farrier’s job is basically to square the toe, remove flares, level the foot and rasp the hoof wall at a 90 degree angle. This, he says, “creates a raised, tough, rounded edge that is resistant to cracks.” Since there’s nothing really to take off of the ground surface of the hoof, you can do all of this with a rasp and let your other tools take a well deserved break.
To have a chance of correcting limb deviations and conformation issues, farriers must intervene early, before leg structures are set. Early intervention is also important so that changes can be made gradually without undue stress on joints. This needs a precise hand and a good eye – an extra pass or two with the rasp makes a big difference on tiny feet. You might need to make small changes every 2-3 weeks until the horse starts to correct itself. Take pictures and videos to keep a record of things as you go – it’s hard to see a real difference trim to trim. Owners should consult their veterinarians, in addition to their farriers, before starting any corrective work.
Okay Great, Now How Do I Keep It Still Enough to Trim It?
The first trim is often very exciting for both farrier and foal. Given that excitement is not the key to safety, how do you make it more boring for both of you? A few ideas:
- Routine is boring. Before you agree to trim a new foal’s feet, insist that its owner do the prep work mentioned above. At the very least, baby should be willing to have you touch its legs, shift its weight and pick up its feet for longer than one eighth of a second. Foals should never be tied, but their lessons should make them familiar with the concepts of waiting and restraint.
- Set yourself up for success. Plan your visit for a post-turnout time when mom and baby are a bit tired and the barn is quiet. Keep things consistent: have the baby’s usual handler lead and handle the baby like they usually do so everything seems like it’s business as usual.
- Prepare to accommodate. Even big foals are wee little creatures. Holding feet lower and more under the body than usual will keep baby more comfortable and therefore more onside with the whole project. Do a little work at a time and take breaks. Be patient if baby walks off a couple of times or pulls its feet away. The more relaxed everybody around the baby is, the more relaxed baby will be.
- Prepare to come back to do a second foot. The goal of the first trim should be to end on a good note. You might have had the additional goal of getting both front feet done, but it’s better to have one done and stop there than to push your luck and end up in a battle. Schedule your visit such that you could come back in a few hours, or the following day, to complete the work.
Planning and preparation will go a long way towards making sure you think the foal is just as cute at the end of the visit as you did at the beginning!
By: Cindy McMann
image 1: Wikimedia Commons; image 2: mike warren (Creative Commons BY)