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No foot, no horse, as the saying goes

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01 January 2015, at 12:00am

MARION McCULLAGH in her third report from the 2014 BEVA congress reports on a session which looked at the interaction between veterinary surgeons and farriers and how they each have important roles to fill

“FOOT and Farriery” was the title of a morning session at the 2014 congress of the British Equine Veterinary Association. Sponsored by The Horse Trust, it was chaired by Professor Stephen May of the RVC.

In the late 17th century, the “Age of Enlightenment”, “reason” was in the ascendant. Farriery was practical, it was a skill based on tradition. The early vets were farriers but then reason, or science, moved into the field and veterinary surgeons evolved, relinquishing the farriery side of their profession.

Early veterinary surgeons had a bad press for their intellectual aspirations: “The sons of farriers make the best practitioners; medical men the worst.” One of the pioneering works was written by Michael Harward, an Englishman working in Dublin. He published good, empirical science. His book came out in 1673 but it only ran to one edition and now it is a rarity.

Conversely, a farrier named Markham published a collection of quack remedies that was so popular that it ran to 21 editions. John Boyd Dunlop practised in Belfast as “veterinary surgeon and farrier”. He is credited with the invention and the development of the pneumatic tyre. The rancour between vets and farriers was long lived and the need to improve communication between them still has some way to go.

Farrier training: where are we at?

Chris Pardoe, of the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the RVC, gave his views on “Farriery training for vets and veterinary training for farriers, where are we at?”

Chris is a working farrier who both trains and examines students and he reiterated Stephen May’s historical perspective saying that, “The trades of farrier, doctor and dentist, animal or human, were considered one and the same in the18th century.” Now, with separate professions, each needs to respect the skills and knowledge of the other.

A new graduate vet may feel overawed by an experienced farrier. This is not surprising in the light of the information that the RVC gives only four lectures and a half-day of practical farriery training throughout the undergraduate course. Shoe removal, paring out a foot and using hoof testers are taught as essential skills.

Over the last 10 years, however, farriery students are taking on a huge increase in veterinary knowledge: anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, appreciation of x-rays of the lower limbs and gait analysis. Their remedial shoeing skills have a foundation in theory as well as the techniques learned from master farriers. The examining boards for farriers always include a vet.

In the USA and Europe, farriers are an integral part of veterinary colleges. Chris believes that every veterinary college should have a forge and a farrier to teach horse shoeing.

He made the comment that farriers studying for a higher degree have no institutional backing, unlike those in the veterinary profession. This theme was taken up by Professor Renate Weller, who also comes from the RVC, in her paper “Evidence-based farriery”.

Evidence-based practice combines the best, relevant research with clinical expertise to the benefit of both the patient and the owner. The tradition of farriery, where skill and knowledge passed from master to apprentice, worked well up to the First World War but by the 1960s the working horse population had shrunk and farriery knowledge had diminished with it.

Plenty of information

There were three small books and one magazine which was shared with agricultural engineers. Now there is plenty of farriery information in books and magazines such as Forge magazine or the American Farriers’ Journal and electronic resources such as www. hoofblog.com but as yet, it is not peer-reviewed and often subsidised by commercial interests.

Peer-reviewed material is what benchmarks “scientific” publication and the material on farriery is mostly not peer-reviewed. However, with the development of higher degree studies in farriery, more farriers are undertaking research and so a body of evidence is being created, putting the farriery side of things into the scientific establishment.

Alan Wilson, also of the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the RVC, delved further into the complexities of foot and farriery in his paper, “Biomechanics of the foot: why do they go lame?”

He pointed out that the horse has evolved to move fast and very efficiently thanks to having long tendons, one digit and a speciallyadapted hoof. These tendons get hot, reaching 44ºC at the gallop and the weight on the specialised hoof can reach one ton. The horse’s leg has elastic properties and it vibrates.

Training v. injury dilemma

With this information, one goes back to the dilemma posed by training versus injury. Partly thanks to the extreme specialisation of its locomotor system, the horse is operating near the limits of the possible when it is galloping and jumping.

Training enhances performance but injury that appears to be accidental or due to fatigue can be caused by an accumulation of damage which has built up as the horse is stressed by the training process.

Biomechanical studies explore the forces that various activities generate and explain how they affect the hoof. The impact of landing is reduced by “slip” where the hoof slides a little on the ground. Slip is reduced if the horse is jumping on an uphill gradient. Studs and styles of shoeing are employed to influence slip. Then the foot is fixed as the load of the limb passes over it and then it breaks away from the ground and goes into swing phase.

Tendons and hoof interact to achieve this; the strain on each of the digital flexor tendons can be altered by changing the angle of the hoof, if necessary, by applying wedges.

Knowing the mechanics of what goes on inside the hoof adds to our understanding of how some lamenesses progress. In laminitis, the rotation of the distal phalanx acts like a heel wedge reducing the load on the deep digital flexor whereas in navicular disease the pain in the heel results in a contracted deep digital flexor, toefirst landing and potentially increased concussion.