The importance of that branch of veterinary surgery dealing with diseases of the horse's foot can hardly be overestimated. That the animal's usefulness is dependent upon his possession of four good feet is a fact that has long been recognised. Who, indeed, is there to be found entirely unacquainted with one or other of such well-known aphorisms as: 'Whoever hath charge of a horse's foot has the care of his whole body'; 'As well a horse with no head as a horse with no foot'; or the perhaps better known, and certainly more epigrammatic, 'No foot, no horse.'
Without taking these sayings literally, it will be admitted by almost everyone that they contain a vast amount of actual truth. This allowed, it at once becomes clear that a ready understanding of the diseases to which the foot is liable, the means of holding them in check, and the correct methods of treating them should figure largely in the knowledge at the command of the veterinary surgeon.
In the very great majority of instances the horse's ability to perform labour is the one thing that justifies his existence, and to that end the presence of four good, sound feet is an almost indispensable qualification. And yet how many circumstances do we see tending to militate against that one essential.
Even in colthood the foot, if neglected, may become a source of trouble. Unless periodically examined and properly trimmed, its shape is liable to serious alteration. From that in which it is best calculated to withstand the effects of the wear it will be called upon to endure in after life, it may become so changed for the worse as to seriously affect the animal's value.
In the matter of feeding, too, trouble is likely to ensue. Particularly is this the case where the colt shows points of exceptional merit. He is 'got up' for show, and the feet are likely to fall victims to the mismanagement that frequent exhibition so often carries with it. An extra allowance of peas, beans, wheat, or other equally injurious food is given. The result is a severe attack of laminitis, and an otherwise valuable and promising colt is permanently ruined.
Exposed as it is, too, to injury, the foot of a young horse, even at grass, is frequently the seat of injuries from picked up nails, stakes, or other agents which, unless detected and carefully treated, may terminate in a troublesome case of quittor and incurable lameness.
With the passing of colthood, and the coming into effect of the evils of further domestication, the troubles to which the foot is open become more numerous. Foremost among them will come those having their starting-point in errors of practice originating in the forge; for, in spite of attempts at their education, smiths, as a class, are as yet grievously unversed in even the elementary knowledge of the delicate construction of the member that is entrusted to their care.
This fact has been dilated on in books devoted to shoeing, and in the prefatory note to the last edition of Fleming's manual on this subject we find the following statement: 'The records of all humane societies show that, of prosecutions for cruelty to animals, an overwhelming majority refer to the horse; and of these, a large proportion are for working horses while suffering from lameness in one form or other.
'So frequent are such cases that observers have concluded that their prevalence must result from some specific cause, and, not unnaturally, attention has thus been directed to the various modes of management practised in relation to the horse's foot, to the manner of shoeing, and, in particular, to the way in which the foot is prepared for the shoe.'
It must be remembered, however, that although harm in the forge may frequently arise from culpable roughness or carelessness, such is not necessarily always the case, and that quite as much injury may result from careful and conscientious workmanship when it is unfortunate enough to be based upon principles wrong in themselves to commence with.
It so happens, too, that shoeing, in itself a necessary evil, may be responsible for injuries in the causation of which the smith can have played no part. Take, for example, the ill effects following upon the animal's attendant allowing him to carry his shoes for too long a time. In this case the natural growth of the horn carries the heel of the shoe further beneath the foot than is safe for a correct bearing; in fact, anterior to the point of inflection of the wall. The shoe, at the same time, is greatly thinned from excessive wear. Result, a sharp and easily-bended piece of iron situate immediately under the seat of corn. Pressure or actual cutting of the sole is bound to occur, and the animal is lamed.
Again, apart from the question of negligence or otherwise on the part of the smith or the animal's attendant, it must be remembered that the nailing on to the foot of a plate of iron is not giving to the animal an easier means of progression. The reverse is the case. In place of the sucker-like face of the natural horn is substituted a smooth, and, with wear, highly-polished surface. Slipping and sliding attempts to gain a foothold become frequent, and strains of the tendons and ligaments follow in their wake.
As, however, this treatise is not intended to deal with the art of shoeing, the reader must be referred to other works for further information. In addition to Fleming's, there may be mentioned, among others, Hunting's 'Art of Horse Shoeing,' and the very excellent volume of Messrs. Dollar and Wheatley on the same subject. Leaving the forge, we may next look to the nature of the animal's work, and the conditions under which he is kept, for active causes in the production of disorders of the foot. From the yielding softness of the pasture he is called to spend the bulk of his time upon the hard macadamized tracks of our country roads, or the still more hard and more dangerous asphalt pavings or granite sets of our towns. The former, with the bruises they will give the sole and frog from loose and scattered stones, and the latter, with the increased concussion they will entail on the limb, are active factors in the troubles with which we are about to deal. Upon these unyielding surfaces the horse is called to carry slowly or rapidly, as the case may be, not only his own weight, but, in addition, is asked to labour at the hauling of heavy loads. The effects of concussion and heavy traction combined are bound primarily to find the feet, and such diseases as side-bones, ringbones, corns, and sand-cracks commence to make their appearance.
Again, as opposed to the comparative healthiness of the surroundings when at grass, consideration must be given to the chemical changes the foot is frequently subjected to when the animal is housed.
Only too often the bedding the animal has to stand upon for several hours of the twenty-four can only be fitly described as 'filthy in the extreme.' The ammoniacal exhalations from these collected body-discharges must, and do, have a prejudicial effect upon the nature of the horn, and, though slow in its progress, mischief is bound sooner or later to occur in the shape of a weakened and discharging frog, with its concomitant of contracted heels. Lucky it is in such a case if canker does not follow on.
Observers, too, have chronicled the occurrence in horse's feet of disease resulting from the use of moss litter. Tenderness in the foot is first noticeable, which tenderness is afterwards followed by a peculiar softening of the horn of the sole and the frog. What should be a dense, fairly resilient substance is transformed into a material affording a yielding sensation to the fingers not unlike that imparted by a soft indiarubber, and as easily sliced as cheese-rind.
Lastly, though the foot is extremely liable to suffer from the effects of extreme dryness or excessive humidity, especially with regard to the changes thus brought about in the nature of the horn, it is perforce exposed at all times to the varying condition of the roads upon which it must travel. The intense dryness of summer and the constant damp of winter, each in their turn take part in the deteriorating influences at work upon it.
Though this subject might be indefinitely prolonged, this brief résumé of the adverse circumstances to which the foot of the horse is exposed is sufficient to point out the extreme importance of its study to the veterinary surgeon. So long as the horse is used as a beast of burden so long will this branch of veterinary surgery offer a wide and remunerative field of labour.