by Suzanne Bush
No foot, no horse. It might be one of the most over-repeated and under-appreciated axioms rattling around in the cluttered subconscious of every horse owner. These days, the equine foot is getting a lot of attention, and will be the headliner at the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Focus on the Foot seminar in Columbus, OH in July. Last December, the AAEP convention in San Diego featured a session on the science of farriery. At the heart of all this attention to the equine foot is the recognition that the partnership of farrier-veterinarian-horse owner is essential to every horse's health. The goal of perfecting that partnership has attracted advocates from every discipline.
"At one time the farrier was the veterinarian," says Michael Wildenstein, resident farrier at Cornell University. "Then at some point vets and farriers separated." As the two professions followed separate tracks, Wildenstein says that communication between them was not a priority. "But recently there has been a really profound change in the communication process between vets and farriers." This change has been all to the good for horses as well as those caring for horses, he says.
The farrier is frequently the professional who sees the first sign that something might be wrong with a horse. "The farrier is the main one dealing with the hooves," Wildenstein says. "We lift them, we look at them, often we can detect stiffness or the beginning of an arthritic condition." Wildenstein says that he would not diagnose a pathologic condition, but he does point out hoof changes that need attention from a veterinarian, such as abscesses, lameness, etc.
Eric Nygaard, incoming president of the American Farriers Association, says that the quality of the farrier-veterinarian relationship reflects the quality of care the horse ultimately receives. "We discuss the case and we both give our diagnosis, prognosis, whatever; and come to a happy medium," he explains. "The bottom line here is the horse. Is the horse happy? If the horse is happy the owner is happy. The horse will tell you whether you did it right or not." Nygaard says that many times the first attempt at correcting a foot problem with shoeing doesn't work. But he says that if the veterinarian and the farrier approach the problem with open minds, they'll find the right solution.
Better communication, more forums for sharing ideas, more engagement of horse owners—all these things will improve the overall care of the horse. But there are other factors that are changing the way farriers work: science and technology. The days of the village smithy are gone. Even so, many of the tools of the farriers' trade have not changed all that much. But today, science and technology are reshaping the game. And the horse is the beneficiary.
Patrick Reilly, Chief of Farrier Services at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, is also Director of the school's Applied Polymer Research Laboratory. The parallel tracks in Reilly's domain speak volumes about the current state of farriery. "We're incorporating new materials. I don't mind commenting on the innovations of Rob Sigafoos and the use of adhesives to glue shoes on feet. I think that's the single most important advancement in the (farrier) science in the past 100 years."
Sigafoos, Reilly's predecessor at New Bolton, was one of the leaders in promoting glue-on shoes and studying new adhesives and space-age polymers for hoof repair. He holds the patent for a glue-on shoe, and has worked on some of the most high-profile equine patients in the world, including Barbaro. Reilly says that there are other innovations outside the Polymer Research Laboratory that are reshaping the way farriers work.
"We have some new projects we're working on, most notably an in-shoe force measuring system, with the object of quantifying the effects of shoes. We're coming up with ways we can measure and quantify how a bar shoe is different from a regular shoe. How changing a trim we can balance the foot. We all know what a balanced foot is, but we all have a way of doing it differently." He says they're also using digital photography to record changes in the shape of horses' feet.
Reilly, Nygaard and Wildenstein agree that the farrier has a unique perspective on equine health, and that the horse is always the winner when the farrier and the veterinarian work together. "I think one of the things we talk to the students here about is that the farrier perspective can be a bit unique," Reilly says. "All of these pieces fit together. The effect a farrier has on the well-being of a horse is extraordinary. I think we're finding more and more recognition for just how important a role we play." He's a member of the Northeast Association of Equine Practitioners (NEAEP), a group that includes veterinarians and farriers.
The group was formed to give equine practitioners a voice at the state and regional level in veterinary care issues. Equine care is unique in the grand scheme of veterinary care, and the sheer volume of small-animal practitioners overwhelms large-animal practitioners in state Veterinary Medical Associations (VMA). NEAEP is meant to ensure that relevant topics and issues are addressed at conferences and in the legislature.
With national and regional conferences focusing on improving care for the equine foot, and with the increased emphasis in veterinary schools on incorporating farriery into the curriculum, it's likely that veterinarians and farriers will have few obstacles to communication in the future. "I see more farriers working actively in clinical veterinary situations," Reilly says. He believes that the science and technology that are reshaping all facets of equine care are emerging from places where veterinarians and farriers are working and learning together. "As farriers we can do a better job of advancing our profession, but at the same time a lot of the science that is there for the veterinarian community comes out of New Bolton Center."