Club Foot Horses

Club Foot Horses

This equine condition has a number of causes and effects.

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Honi Roberts

Club foot horse vs Normal:The hoof on the right is a classic club foot – a single front foot with a severe upright angle that can cause the heel to lose contact with the ground. It’s easily seen compared with the normal foot on the left. (Credit: Dr. Robin Peterson)


It’s like wading into slightly muddy waters when trying to explain the equine condition commonly known as “club foot.”

Its name is somewhat misleading. Its causes are not clearly defined. Some researchers emphasize its vague genetic component, others lay blame on environmental causes. Some describe it (not unreasonably) as your favorite barn buddy tottering around on stiletto heels.

With the help of Don Topliff, an AQHA judge, we’ll try to clear the waters by taking a look at the condition, what are believed to be its causes, and describe what can be done to mitigate its negative impact.

What Is a Club Foot?

“We should think of our horses as bilaterally symmetrical, not bilaterally identical,” Don says. “For instance, if you put a photograph of the left side of your face over a photo of the right side, it would not be exact, (but symmetrical).

“The same goes for our horses’ bodies: a small difference in the angles of their front feet is nothing to worry about,” he continues. “However, in a club foot, the affected hoof will appear significantly more upright. Dr. James Rooney preferred to use the term stelzfuss, literally, stilt foot.”   

The late veterinarian, Dr. Rooney, was an author and authority on equine lameness, as well as a director of the University of Kentucky’s respected Gluck Equine Research Center. According to Dr. Rooney, the equine condition referred to as “club foot,” does not equate to the common human birth defect known by the same name. Dr. Rooney said that it is incorrect to describe the condition as a contraction of the deep flexor tendon, as is common, because tendons do not technically contract and relax the way muscles do, they shorten. The commonly used phrase “contracted tendons” is often used to describe a shortening of the tendon or, in some cases, where the bone is growing faster than the tendon.

Equine club foot results when the tendons along the back of a horse’s limb shorten, causing a constant upward pull where they connect to the coffin bone and heel structure. It causes the heel to lose contact with the ground, and the horse will appear to be walking on tiptoe. When that happens, the coffin and phalanx bones begin to move out of alignment within the foot. It also may cause decreased blood flow to the foot, which results in thin soles that are prone to abscesses.

There are varying degrees of club foot: Generally, the greater the upright angle, the more severe the club foot. The normal range of hoof angle is 50 to 55 degrees, while a club foot might stand at more than 60 degrees.

“Equine club foot has several distinguishing characteristics,” Don says. “When the hoof angle of one foot is 3 to 5 degrees greater than its opposite foot, we begin to be concerned. In addition to a heel that doesn’t touch the ground, there may be a dished appearance and often a bulging coronary band.”

A radiograph is necessary for proper diagnosis. Taken from the side of the limb, it will tell your veterinarian how far out of alignment the coffin bone and the second phalanx bones (P3 and P2) are, and help the veterinarian and your farrier manage the condition.

Interestingly, Dr. Rooney’s studies revealed it is most often a unilateral or one-sided problem, and 70 to 80 percent of the time, it impacts the right front foot.

Unfortunately, there isn't a universally recognized way to classify the severity of club foot. If a horse has one foot with an angle 3 to 5 degrees more than the opposing foot, it is considered a relatively mild club foot. A larger degree of difference complicates treatment and increases future impact on your horse’s performance.

What Causes a Club Foot?

The reasons club foot develops are not completely understood.

“We know it is a multifactorial problem,” Don explains. “And while there seems to be a genetic predisposition in some bloodlines, we have no actual scientific evidence to support that observation.

“We do believe that there are environmental factors involved. For instance, if a foal grows too fast or is kept stalled from a very young age with soft bedding and little stimulation to his feet, it’s an invitation for problems to develop. Or if a horse is overweight, it can make an existing problem worse.”

Classically, club foot develops in foals under 6 months of age that experience pain or injury in their feet or growth plates. Because of the discomfort, they put more of their body weight on the opposite side. This lack of use triggers a shortening of the tendon on the injured side and eventual club foot. 

“It’s rare for club foot to develop in a skeletally mature horse, that is, past its 3-year-old year,” Don says, “although some mild cases might just go unnoticed until later in life or an older horse might develop club foot as a result of some other chronic lameness problem.”

Don had an informative experience with one client’s horses. For several years, he helped a ranch develop a program for raising top performance horses. The results of balanced nutrition and body conditioning had been quite positive.

It surprised him one year to get a call from the ranch regarding a sudden increase in structural problems in the ranch’s youngsters.

“I went to the ranch and discovered there had been a big change in routine for the mares and their babies, and it was creating leg problems,” he remembers. “Instead of living outside in large pastures, they were suddenly brought into stalls at 4 p.m. and kept inside until 10 a.m. the following day. They were only turned out for six hours.”

Why? Don was told that a new principal at the ranch was fearful that the foals would be attacked overnight by coyotes.

“So, the next morning, I watched the babies that had been cooped up for 18 hours go blasting out!” he says. “They jumped, bucked and kicked up a storm. Small wonder their growth plates were inflamed and sore. And when one limb is sore, a foal will put more weight on the other side, which may start the progression to a club foot.

“This result was man-made,” Don concludes. “If the foals had been left outside, the amount and intensity of their play would have been less. Generally, developmental problems in horses raised outside and on hard ground are much less frequent than those (that are) kept stalled.”

Treatment for Club Foot in Horses

Club foot can be managed successfully with a cooperative effort between owner, veterinarian and farrier. This is especially true if the efforts commence before irreversible damage and lameness have occurred.

Diagnosis with the help of a radiograph will reveal severity of bone displacement. Unlike laminitis, where the coffin bone rotates away from the hoof wall, with club foot, the coffin bone and the hoof wall remain aligned; the angle of the entire foot becomes upright. 

“In the best-case scenario – mild case, caught early – proper farrier care can have significant impact,” Don says. “Horses adapt well, and with an appropriate trim or shoeing, a mild case may be treated without surgery.”

He also stresses the importance of consulting a veterinarian and farrier who are experienced in successful treatment of the condition, because the wrong treatment can worsen the condition.

For more severe cases, check ligament surgery is routinely recommended. The procedure is commonly done under local anesthesia, with the patient standing. The deep digital flexor tendon and the check ligament are resected to lengthen them, which lowers the heel. After surgery, the patient is put on stall rest, but daily hand-walking is prescribed. On average, full recovery takes approximately five or six months. The veterinarian and farrier must consult closely on progress and treatment.

There are also more complex shoeing techniques that are sometimes substituted for surgery, including the insertion of heel wedges to provide support for the raised heel. Depending on the severity of the case and the diligence of the caretakers, this technique has varying degrees of success.

With all club-footed horses, regular farrier care is essential to keep the toes short and the hoof angle consistent.  

An owner should always have the veterinarian follow up, to see how successful a remedy is. Soreness, while the horse is in motion or bruising of the sole (which may be thinner than normal due to lack of blood supply), is cause for concern, and may require a change in the course of treatment.

As with any medical challenge, every club foot is unique. The best treatment is one developed specifically for your horse by experienced professionals, and meticulously maintained throughout the horse's lifetime. 

Can Horses With a Club Foot Be Ridden?

The impact a horse’s club foot has on an owner’s show aspirations depends on the class chosen and the successful management of the condition.

“It definitely impacts a halter career,” says Don Topliff. “About half-a-dozen years ago, AQHA rewrote the halter rules, and without mentioning club foot specifically, we raised the importance of skeletal correctness. With that, we encouraged judges to place more importance on feet and legs, and pay more attention to that area.

“The reality was, when a judging system rewarded horses while overlooking certain problems, it resulted in more of that problem in future generations of horses.

“But as a consequence of the rule change,” Don continues, “the industry adapted, and there has been real improvement. If I was presented with a horse today that had a noticeable club foot, there would be a severe deduction because in conformation classes we’re trying to preserve the ideal type for the breed.”

However, regarding performance classes, Don points out “we don’t judge a horse’s conformation. It’s stated in the (AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations) that judgment is based strictly on performance. So, especially regarding mild to moderate cases of club foot that are managed by your veterinarian and farrier, if the condition doesn’t negatively affect your horse’s performance, you can certainly be successful.”

Queenie, 1945 racing world champion, was reported to have a right front club foot. (Credit: AQHA file photo)

Famous Horses with Club Feet

Queenie, a 1937 mare by Flying Bob and out of Little Sis by Old DJ, was the 1945 racing world champion. Richard Chamberlain, the Journal’s senior writer, recalls that her right foot was reportedly clubbed.

Not only did the fleet bay triumph on the track, but so did her produce. Nine of her 10 foals earned their AQHA racing Register of Merit. They included: Rukin String by Piggin String (TB), 1953 racing champion 3-year-old colt and racing champion stallion, and 1953 racing champion 2-year-old colt; Joe Queen by Joe Reed II, stakes winner and track record-setter at Centennial; and Gunny Sack by Piggin String (TB), the Rocky Mountain Futurity and Derby winner.

It’s also worth mentioning Assault (TB) by Bold Venture and out of Igual by Equipoise, foaled on the King Ranch in 1943. Varying accounts have him stepping on either a survey stake or a pitchfork as a youngster, resulting in a deformed and club foot.

Later, as he streaked around the track, he was dubbed the “Club-Footed Comet.” Assault (TB) earned everyone’s respect in 1946 when he won the Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, to become the seventh Triple-Crown champion in history and the 1946 horse of the year.

He lived out his retirement on the King Ranch. Largely sterile, he sired two registered foals out of Quarter Horse mares, the fillies Baby Face Rita and Pomada.

About the Source

AQHA judge DON TOPLIFF, Ph.D., is the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Angelo State University and a former professor of animal science and associate dean of the College of Agriculture, Science and Engineering at West Texas A&M University. In his career, he has coached more than 200 students on horse judging teams that have won more than 17 national titles. Along with AQHA judge Jim Heird, Don has been responsible for teaching AQHA judges on conformation at the annual judges’ seminar.