I am not surprised at anyone being struck aghast at the bare mention of small feet as regards the horse; for with them is associated the idea of contracted heels, with the frequent accompaniments to such feet-corns, thrushes, chronic lameness, internal inflammation, navicular disease, and a long category of ills that feet are heirs to.
But here let me observe that persons are apt to be too apprehensive of mere small feet, for let me re mark they may be very sound ones, nor at all indicative of, or the result of, any of the diseases I have mentioned, or of others equally to be dreaded. The mule and the ass have both peculiarly-formed feet. A horse being mule-footed conveys at once the idea of what his feet are like, nor to those conversant with such matters does it convey any idea causing a decided rejection. The Arab has usually mule-like feet; yet I should be inclined to say the Arabs were particularly sound as to feet. I am the more emboldened to state such opinion from the following circumstance.
Some years ago, a friend of mine wrote to me requesting me to purchase a couple of racehorses to run in India. His letter ran thus: "You know as well as I can tell you the kind of horse to run with success chiefly against Arabs or horses bred here, where they run what your English racing ideas consider long distances, and that at high weights. All I tie you to is, they must have feet of cast iron to stand the ground we have to train on."
This, coming from a man accustomed to keep race horses in England, I think, proves far more than any opinion of mine, that Eastern horses, though owning small feet, must usually have sound ones; for I never heard that foot-lameness was prevalent with them.
Persons not judges of the matter may, perhaps, act judiciously in rejecting at once a horse with tendency to small feet; that is, if they intend to purchase on the somewhat precarious test of their own opinion and judgment. But the difference is so great between a small foot and a contracted one, that I should consider a mere glance at either sufficient to satisfy the opinion of any man possessing any knowledge of the matter. Size has, in a general way, little to do with contracted feet; a horse may have a foot as big as a dinner-plate, and still have what we call a contracted foot; whereas, to further make use of the dinner-service figuratively, he may have a foot as small as a butter-boat (that is, supposing it to be the old-fashioned one of an oblong square), and have no tendency to a contracted foot-in such case he would be mule-footed, but with the heels showing open and wide. It is but rarely we find a horse with his foot contracted altogether, for in such case some internal chronic disease must have long existed that would have rendered the animal more or less lame. But contracted heels are a disease of daily occurrence, and these a horse may have, though his foot may be large to unsightliness. Persons are apt to imagine that the lameness incident to contracted feet arises from the wall of the foot pressing upon the sensible portion inside it. This eventually may possibly be the case; but, supposing it to be so, it is the internal parts of the foot withering from some disease that causes the crust of the heels to follow. Let the internal foot retain all its juices, vitality, and consequent size, to support the heels and keep them expanded, the heels would of themselves have no tendency to contract. It is not, therefore, the heels that are the offending party, but the internal part the unfortunate one.
Persons on seeing a horse with a narrow foot, whether contracted or not, are apt to set it down invariably as arising from the effects of bad shoeing.
That it in very many cases arises from improper treatment of the feet is quite certain; but it is not the actual shoe we must blame for ill consequences, but the improper paring the foot in wrong places, that produces the mischief when any arises. The shoe has little to do with the matter, that is, with narrow heels; for, be it remembered, the nails do not, or at least should not, come far back enough to confine the heels. It may be said: "But the nails confine the sides of the foot." This I admit they do; but a horse's foot is not made of strong wood like a box, so that, if the sides are nailed tight, the extreme ends are equally confined; but, if that box was made of wood thin enough to be yielding, though you nailed the sides of a certain way as firmly as you wish, the ends would be capable of expansion to a certain point. So I conceive it to be with the foot of the horse. The wall or crust is, to a certain degree, of a yielding substance, so that, although we may confine the toe and sides by nailing, the heel has room enough to expand if it has a tendency to do so, or, at all events, to retain its natural width, while the internal part of the foot is able to support it, and is not weakened by injudicious use of the drawing-knife, or, worse still, that of the buttress-a tool now nearly exploded from all but quite country shoeing-forges, where the practice is chiefly among cart-horses.
Having, I hope, from what I have said, in some degree rescued my friends the shoeing smiths from the indiscriminate blame thrown on them as accessaries to every species of contracted feet, let us see if we cannot find some one or something more meriting our accusations. So long as men ride horses on made roads properly or improperly, or so long as they ride them in other situations, calling on them for exertion for which we have no reason to suppose nature ever intended them, so long will the animal be subject to diseases unknown to him in a state of nature; among these, those incidental to the feet is one, and I think I may say the most prevalent. Internal diseases often do not lame perceptibly for a long time after their incipient existence. Horses will often become, to a certain degree, even absolutely lame, without its progress being detected, until it is, comparatively speaking, too late; in all probability internal fever in the foot has long existed, sapping and drying up its vitality, till, in figurative comparison, it is like the withered kernel of the nut, with this difference: the nut is surrounded by a hard shell capable of retaining its original form without support from the inside, whereas the foot of the horse is not, and consequently follows the gradual diminution of the internal fabric.
Shoes have been made with a tendency to (as it were) force open or widen the heels; such shoes, if they fulfilled the promises made for them (which, with the weight of a horse on them, I very much doubt) would be proper enough as an adjunct: but the use of them was beginning "at the wrong end of the stick." First endeavour to remove or palliate the cause of contraction of the feet, viz., internal fever and consequent disease; endeavour to restore vitality, and get, if possible, the wholesome juices of the foot to animate its dried and withered state; then, indeed, an expanding shoe, in addition to our other efforts, may be of some use. But it must be clear that, supposing we could force the crust and heels back to their original formation, unless we could so cure the disease as to give the internal sensible part of the foot a disposition or capability of expanding also, the forcing open the heels would incurably lame the horse. Various have been the inventions to cure the dire disease of contracted feet; various the tortures the animal has been put to with the same intent-all of which, in a general way, have lamentably failed.
I may have occasion again to touch on this complaint, and the modes employed to endeavour to remedy it; and in mentioning so far as I have its fatal effects, I have done so to show my readers that I am quite aware of the serious consequences of contracted feet, so am, perhaps, one of the last men to underrate anything bordering on such malady; and, knowing what I do of the disease, though I do not object to a naturally small foot, I have as great a horror as man can have of a contracted one.