Thoroughbred Makeover Diary: First Things First, ‘No Hoof, No Horse’

Arktikos needed significant work to balance his front feet when he arrived as well as time to let down in both mind and body. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

This month I am backing up a bit to talk about a vital issue that needed attention before Arktikos could begin his retraining and start the journey to the Thoroughbred Makeover.

Taking on a Thoroughbred off the track can have many challenges. The first challenge that everyone faces is helping a horse that has been in intense training and consuming a high-octane diet transition to a different lifestyle. Looking beyond that universal need, there often are other issues that need attention before one can begin to retrain their horse for a second career.

The image at the top is Arktikos minutes after arriving at the White Horse Community Center in White Haven, Pa., where I train and teach. This was in July 2019. At this point in time, he had been on pasture rest for several months and was three weeks out from being gelded. He was still lean and tucked up with tight muscling over his frame. He needed time to adjust to a new environment and let down in both mind and body.

Upon taking a closer look, I discovered that his front feet literally looked like they belonged to two different horses, neither of which would have wanted that foot. Below are shots of his front feet before removing his shoes.

Arktikos' feet before: right hoof, front view, left hoof. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

Arktikos was taken out of race training because it was discovered through ultrasound that he had a 40% injury to his left-front suspensory ligament. It’s not hard to understand why when looking at the imbalance between his front feet. While the left front was long with a high angle and a serious case of seedy toe, the right front had under run heels that were crushed and an extremely long toe. 

Imagine wearing a Birkenstock on your left foot and a stiletto high heel on your right foot. Now imagine trying to walk or run with those different shoes on. Arktikos moved with a distinct dip in his movement. He actually looked like he was lame even though he was not. Before I could do any kind of under-saddle retraining, he needed to have his feet cared for and balanced as well as some body work to address the imbalances in his body that had occurred as a result of the imbalances in his feet.

“No Hoof, No Horse”

A horse’s feet are his foundation and their state and balance affect everything inside and above. If the foundation isn’t solid, all kinds of other problems will arise. This was going to take time and skill to correct.

I am very lucky to have a highly skilled and patient trimmer-farrier on my team. Jennifer Farley, owner of Hoof’N’Round from Blairstown, N.J., trims all the horses at the White Horse Community Center. She is a master at barefoot trimming and constantly staying up to date in her profession through seminars and research. Trimming a bare foot is entirely different from trimming a hoof for a shoe. If it is not done properly, the hoof will not hold up to work or even turnout. Done properly, the feet will hold up; it’s a much healthier state for the feet, allowing them to expand with movement as they are naturally made to do.

A barefoot horse engages with the ground through their entire body in a different way than a shod horse. Many styles of boots are now available for use on hard or stony ground if needed. Jennifer has worked wonders with a number of horses at White Horse. I knew Arktikos (“R2”) was in good hands with Jenn as she began the long, slow process of transitioning him to bare and balanced feet.  

The process is paying off with Arktikos. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

Jenn began the process of bringing back his left front toe and slippering his heels to help them grow down instead of forward. At the same time, she was trimming out the seedy toe little by little and reshaping his left front. Then the foot required soaking with salts and treating with medicated mud to stop the seedy toe from progressing to allow the hoof to grow down healthy.

These changes do not occur in one trim. It takes about one year to grow a hoof from the coronary band at the hairline to the ground. There is only so much hoof that can be trimmed at each session and changes in angle need to be made gradually as they affect the angles of the bones in the foot and up the leg as well as in the spine. Not only are there changes occurring in the bone alignment, the soft tissues must adjust to the changes in the bone structure. Each trim occurred at an interval of about five weeks with an incremental change each time. I trusted that they would improve.

I did very little riding at this point. The few rides we did were mostly at walk just to introduce the concept of the leg aids and contact. Mostly, I did some lunging, ground handling and body work, and cared for his feet. I had to be patient and trust the process. It was hard to see a difference for several months but Jenn was making progress.

There was enough improvement by the spring of 2020 that I was able to start riding and retraining R2 from the saddle. His feet were not completely balanced yet but they were well on the way. He still traveled with a dip and looked lame starting out at the trot. I had a lot of work to do to balance his body, but this was now possible with a more even, solid foundation.

The pictures of R2’s feet below were taken two weeks ago. Patience and time are paying off.

Arktikos' feet after: right hoof, front view, left hoof. (Courtesy of Bonnie Stetson)

R2 is now able to move much more evenly and is becoming more balanced and responsive with each schooling session. I now have a horse because he has his hooves.

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