We know that ground conditions can be detrimental to horses' limbs, but what effects do they actually have and what are the signs that something is wrong?

Hard ground-associated injuries

• Concussion and jarring

• Bruised feet

Splints

Tendon injuries

Laminitis: not all cases are due to fat ponies being overfed; some are seen in the summer months as a result of concussion, which traumatises the sensitive laminae

• Sore shins: this is a common problem in racehorses, but it is also seen in other animals working on hard ground. The signs are swelling to the front of the cannon bone, which may lead to fractures within the bone if the horse is not rested

Signs that a horse is jarred up

• A shortening of the stride: a horse may lose the swing and spring in its step as it tries to minimise jarring when its feet hit the ground

• Increased tension: muscles change their function on hard ground to help stabilise the lower limbs and reduce concussion. This means they reduce their ability to work independently and compromise overall performance

• Refusing: jumpers may be reluctant to land after a fence, so may start stopping when they have never done so before

• Flattening and rushing over a fence: to minimise concussion on landing the horse adjusts its technique to prevent it landing so hard

The farrier’s view

Conformational faults are highlighted when a horse has to cope with hard or variable ground. Horses with poor foot conformation, such as low heels or thin soles, will feel the effects of hard ground more than horses with boxy or upright feet.

Farrier Ian Hughes says: “The climate in this country has become wetter, so when we do encounter a sudden dry spell, horses’ feet suffer because of the abrupt change in conditions.

“Also, people are doing less roadwork and more work on synthetic surfaces. Consequently, horses’ feet are a lot softer than they were 20 years ago.”

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Advances in farriery mean there is plenty we can do to help protect horses’ feet against the effects of variable ground.

“I’m shoeing a lot more horses now with bar shoes and pads,” says Ian. “Technology has moved on and this has allowed us to provide the means to give the horse more support.”

This article was first published in the 4 June 2009 issue of Horse & Hound magazine