Trainer Magazine

Trainer Magazine - the horse racing magazine for the training and development of the thoroughbred racehorse. Europe and North America.

Developing the young foot

TRAININGWeb Master
  I remember my first yearling and two-year-old-in-training sales at Keeneland, Woodbine, and Tattersalls. To my untrained eye, and despite tracing backwards through the bloodlines, each and every horse appeared sound and fit, looking like a million bucks. Although few horses ever actually sold for that amount, every inch of those young racehorse wannabes was gleaming from nose to toes. Even their feet were buffed and polished as perfectly as a pair of Usher’s coveted shoes.       Possibly because young horses for sale are primped and preened to the gills, few potential buyers actually ever pick their feet up to inspect them. Instead, buyers tend to focus on joints and throats, using the extensive repository to review joint radiographs (X-rays) and scoping prospects’ throats.       “The horses in the September (yearling) sales are simply glamorous, including their feet. I would estimate that only 10% of buyers ever actually pick up at foot at those sales,” remarks Sam Christian, a Kentucky-based farrier servicing several top-level operations such as Shadwell Farm.       In general, the expectation appears to be that if the throat and joints are clear and the young horse appears straight, their feet must also be in good condition. While some horses may have hidden surprises once their party shoes are removed (indicating that some of those fancy feet are in fact simply mutton dressed as lamb), Mark Dewey, a highly sought-after racing farrier, attests this is not generally the case.       “Nowadays, most of the farm vets and farriers working on young thoroughbreds for sale that I collaborate with, like Sam Christian, do a great job preparing these horses’ feet and straightening them out to maximise their sales value. Still, when they come to the track as two-year-olds, there is some work to be done,” says Dewey. Over the span of his 40-year career, Dewey has worked “behind the scenes,” so to speak, helping horses like 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man streak to success.       Dewey’s comment of course begs the question, what changes need to be made and how do these fancy feet hold up once they hit the racecourse? Are young thoroughbred feet properly prepared for meeting the grueling training schedule they must quickly become accustomed to, or are they simply…bling? As in, fashionable and attractive but with limited functionality?       Transitioning to the Racecourse       Dewey says, “Most farriers on the farms have got the feet in decent shape by the time I see these young horses at the track. The most problematic situation for me is that sales horses are shod to correct their limbs, to straighten them out. When I get them, I go back the other way and put their feet back in line with their limbs. The farriers on the farm are trying to make them as straight as possible for sale, but that approach is not conducive to soundness down the line. If the horse has turned out knees then they need to have their feet turned out.”       Christian concurs with Dewey’s summation, saying, “I shoe for a completely different purpose than Mark. My purpose is to prepare young horses for sale, and for that purpose, the focus is on conformation.”       He adds, “I give 100% to getting a nice foot on the foal and giving each and every foal the best chance at a racing career.”       Christian examines foals for the first time anywhere between five days and two weeks of age. Right away, he watches them walk and identifies what problem(s) need addressing. Toeing in, for example, is a relatively common condition Christian sees and immediately takes steps to correct.       “I examine each foal every two weeks. It is amazing how quickly foals change and how quickly they can get away from you if you don’t assess them frequently. The greatest chance we have at correcting them is when they are young,” Christian explains.         Addressing Underslung Heels       Once they get to the racecourse, a major problem facing young thoroughbreds in training is the heel. An underslung heel (referred to as underrun heel in some areas) is defined as a foot in which the angle of the horse's heel is at least five degrees less than the angle of the toe. In a healthy hoof, the toe and heel angles should be very close. In other words, the heels are low and the horse often appears as if he is standing on the bulbs of his heels.       “Farriers are frequently accused of cutting the heels off, contributing to the underslung heel, which is not true. We actually try to leave as much heel on as we can,” Dewey explains.       Recall that horses, like most humans, land heel first. Day in and day out during training, the heel takes a bit of a beating, which is only amplified during breezing and racing.       “It is hard to keep heel on horses when a thousand pounds keeps pounding down on such a small object,” summarises Dewey, adding, “The reason horses get crush and underslung heel is because as it grows, the heel tends to roll in, then crushes. If that happens then we see lameness and heel abscesses.”       The goal, says Dewey, is to cut the toe, pull the shoe back, and actually grow the heel.       “As a blacksmith you need to find a balance between too much and too little heel, and it can be hard to recognise when a heel is going to roll over and crush,” Dewey admits.       The “Thin” Thoroughbred Foot       Another factor causing strife for some trainers and farriers is the inherent “thin” nature of the thoroughbred foot. Their thin walls and soles combined with standard hazards of their profession put them at risk for bruises, quarter cracks, lameness, and lost training days. Dewey notes, however, that this isn’t a new problem.       “The thoroughbred industry has long been faulted for breeding horses with bad feet, and I don’t feel like this statement is true. I see the same feet today that I saw 40 years ago,” Dewey says.       After decades of dealing with so-called thin thoroughbred feet, farriers have amassed an armamentarium to better trim, shoe, and balance, including glue-on shoes.          “As these young horses get going, we like to use glue-on shoes to avoid the nails. These shoes provide the benefits of a bar shoe without the actual bar,” notes Dewey.       On the flip side, sometimes it’s better to go rogue and pull the shoes entirely.       If you’re not convinced about the potential benefits of dipping your horses’ toes in the sand, all-weather, or turf, take a peek at Bill Casner. The owner, former trainer, and breeder is well known for keeping horses barefoot, including Well Armed, who won the 2009 Dubai World Cup by 14 lengths. For more information on Casner’s philosophies, refer to Issue 38 of North American Trainer (available at  http://trainermagazine.com/articles/bill-casner-breeder-owner-trainer/2015/10/26?rq=bill casner ).       Dewey and Christian are also no strangers to horses going barefoot.       “Not every horse needs to have his shoes taken off, but in some cases it could be a good idea to take shoes off for a short period of time,” Dewey notes.       The example Dewey provided described a horse that was not overtly lame but just not striding out, strongly suggesting that the feet were the root of the problem.       “When you take the shoes off these horses, they usually get worse for three or four days, then slowly get better. It can take anywhere from two to four weeks or more to improve, and if the horse is good you can leave them like that for a while. When you do finally put shoes back on, we usually get a good four or five months before they start getting sore again. That said, not all horses will do this…club-footed horses for example will not be able to go without shoes,” describes Dewey.       “The trick is, trainers need an experienced farrier to help make this kind of decision,” he advises.       If the Shoe Fits….       Neal McLaughlin, assistant trainer to his brother Kiaran, agrees with both Dewey and Christian that finding the right fit for a horse must be approached on a case-by-case basis, treating every horse as an individual. Further, McLaughlin believes that the blacksmith, both at the farm and racecourse level, must be included as part of the horse’s caretaking team with minimal micromanagement.       “I view myself as a facilitator between the veterinarian and blacksmith, and together we change horses,” says McLaughlin. “It is only through experience that I learned to hire qualified people and let them do their job. A trainer’s relationship with their blacksmith is not like an employee-employer where you are dictating what you want them to do.”       McLaughlin adds, “Sometimes it’s easy to blame the blacksmith for anything that goes wrong. A lot of us in this game, we have big egos. We think we have all the answers, and I’ve learned the hard way through lots of head-butting and mistakes that hiring skilled people and creating a team is the best way to go. Wayne [Lukas] was a team guy and Kiaran came under him and learned that as well. Sometimes you need to be patient because when it comes to feet, it sometimes gets worse before it gets better.”           Putting the Best Foot Forward       “Despite having completely different purposes in terms of shoeing, we all work together, even when a horse gets sent back to the farm for some time off,” summarises Christian, adding, “Keeping young horses sound is far from formulaic.”       In other words, finding the right group like McLaughlin, Dewey, and Christian who are all focused on best practices and collaboration, is much like the classic Footprints in the Sand poem. The best trainers assemble an elite group of caregivers to carry the young, developing horse, leaving only one set of footprints in the sand until that horse is ready to create his own footprints.

First published in European Trainer issue 58 - July - September 2017

Click here to order this back issue!

I remember my first yearling and two-year-old-in-training sales at Keeneland, Woodbine, and Tattersalls.To my untrained eye, and despite tracing backwards through the bloodlines, each and every horse appeared sound and fit, looking like a million bucks.

Although few horses ever actually sold for that amount, every inch of those young racehorse wannabes was gleaming from nose to toes. Even their feet were buffed and polished as perfectly as a pair of Usher’s coveted shoes.

Possibly because young horses for sale are primped and preened to the gills, few potential buyers actually ever pick their feet up to inspect them. Instead, buyers tend to focus on joints and throats, using the extensive repository to review joint radiographs (X-rays) and scoping prospects’ throats. “The horses in the September (yearling) sales are simply glamorous, including their feet. I would estimate that only 10% of buyers ever actually pick up at foot at those sales,” remarks Sam Christian, a Kentucky-based farrier servicing several top-level operations such as Shadwell Farm.

In general, the expectation appears to be that if the throat and joints are clear and the young horse appears straight, their feet must also be in good condition. While some horses may have hidden surprises once their party shoes are removed (indicating that some of those fancy feet are in fact simply mutton dressed as lamb), Mark Dewey, a highly sought-after racing farrier, attests this is not generally the case.

 CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!