Whether a prospective buyer is looking at a horse on the sale grounds or at a private farm, one of the key inspection points should be the horse's feet.
“I prefer a well-balanced and fairly large foot over a small foot. It just makes physical sense that that foot will be able to disperse more energy as it goes into the ground,” said top bloodstock agent J. B. McKathan.
McKathan, along with brother Kevin, boasts a long list of successful sale picks, beginning with two near misses for the Triple Crown—Silver Charm, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1997 and Real Quiet, who won the races in 1998 and cost just $17,000.
For a dirt horse, McKathan steers away from big, “pie-plate feet,” which he associates more with turf horses. He also avoids small feet, which he describes as being shaped “like a fence post.”
Horses at sales usually are freshly shod, so telltale wear patterns on the hoof or shoe that normally would give a clues about the horse's movement will not be present. Buyers should pick up each of the horse's feet and inspect the bottom to see if a farrier has pared down or built up any areas, which could indicate an effort to change the angle of the hoof and the horse's way of going.
“You want the hoof to be naturally balanced and not look like it was worked on to make it perfect,” McKathan said.
Cosmetically preparing the hooves for the sale may include rasping off the growth rings on the outside of the hoof wall to create a smooth, glass-like appearance. Growth rings, natural protrusions on the hoof occurring at approximately 30-day intervals, are an indication of the foot's blood supply. If the buyer is able to detect where the rings were, they can be a clue to the internal structures of the foot.
“When we see very narrow growth rings in the heel and wider rings at the toe, we can rest assured that the heel blood supply is greatly compromised, but the toe is growing horn tubules and sole at a normal rate,” said renowned equine podiatrist Dr. Ric Redden of Versailles, Ky.
Growth rings at the heel that are narrower on the inside of the hoof than they are on the outside indicate a coffin bone that is listing toward the inside and becoming unbalanced. This lack of balance sets the stage for serious bruising, bone remodeling, and quarter cracks that plague too many top horses when they are at their peak, Redden said.
While holding up the leg, the buyer should look at the horse's foot to note hoof quality, symmetry of the hoof, and a healthy frog, while being aware of quarter cracks and cosmetic alterations.
Occasionally, an unscrupulous seller (or consignor) will try to slick one past buyers by having the farrier apply a synthetic sleeve (cuff) patched onto the hoof wall and covered with resin dyed to match the horse's natural hoof color. Like putty on a rusted car, eventually these cosmetic improvements become apparent, especially when the hoof begins to grow out.
One new Thoroughbred owner placed a frantic call to her farrier because she feared her recent broodmare purchase had foundered and was sloughing its hooves. She was partially correct. The mare had foundered—years before—and it was sent to the sale wearing cosmetically disguised cuffs over all four gnarled hooves.
Another horseman who had gotten a recently purchased two-year-old in for training was bewildered when the horse, who had been acting sore-footed, developed what he concluded were horizontal cracks a half-inch below the coronary band on both front feet. Never having seen such a crack, he asked his farrier to look at the horse's feet. The farrier quickly recognized that the horse had been fitted with cuffs that were beginning to grow out.
Both horsemen asked not to be identified.
Dr. Scott Morrison, head of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital's podiatry department, believes it is easy for a horseman to detect artificial hoof-repair material or adhesives on a sale horse. All the buyer needs to do is pick up the foot and look at it.
“Very few people at sales pick up feet anymore,” he said. “Some agents and buyers will. Hoof wall has horn tubules, which look like striations or vertical lines that run perpendicular to the ground. Artificial wall—acrylics, epoxy, etc.—will not have horn tubules and have a smooth, glassy appearance. If you run your hands down the coronary band, and the junction between the hoof wall and coronary band isn't smooth or it has a big wedge there where it looks like something has been added onto the wall, that's a pretty good indication.”
Some of the telltale signs of cosmetic alterations are a seam or a bulbous appearance to the hoof where a layer of cuff or patching material has been laid down. If the buyer is not experienced in spotting cosmetic alterations, one way to detect them is by tapping on the synthetic material. Plastic will make a different sound than a solid hoof wall.
“You can definitely change the way a horse goes or change its status dramatically with special shoeing and the use of adhesives, etc.,” Morrison said. “There are a lot of tools available, and there will be a lot more of them coming down the pipes as technology gets more advanced.”
Deception is not always consignors' goal, Morrison cautioned.
“I believe some horses require special shoes, even glue-on shoes, to stay sound as breeding stock and athletes,” he said. “Sometimes hoof wall repair and glue-on shoes are only used temporarily to grow out a damaged or broken piece of hoof wall. Occasionally, the need for these materials coincides with a sale.
“Buyers should take notice and detect these materials, so they fully understand what they might be dealing with on their future purchase. In many instances the use of these materials may indicate a temporary need or in others a chronic, more serious condition. In either event, many questions should be asked, and I'd recommend a veterinarian and or farrier be called to take a look on your behalf.”
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