“No hoof, no horse” is an axiom all horsemen know well. If a horse has a hoof problem, it's going to affect performance, no matter how fit and healthy the horse.
Despite the importance of a horse's feet, sales companies do not list feet X-rays in their “required views” for the repository. Required views, as specified by “Keeneland Repository Digital Requirements for 2018 September Yearling Sale,” are 38 radiographs (horses of racing age) or 36 radiographs (all other horses) showing specific aspects of the knees, fetlocks, hocks, and stifle, taken within 21 days prior to the sale. The most common issue buyers look for in joint X-rays is a defect in the cartilage, osteochondritis dissecans (OCD).
In horses purchased to race, past trauma to the hoof such as a chip or a fracture may not make the horse lame at auction, but it could become an issue once the horse is in training. Broodmares with chronic hoof conditions could require costly special treatments to keep them comfortable, with the threat of the condition possibly worsening with each pregnancy, limiting their reproductive years.
In 2014, such a situation was the subject of a high-profile lawsuit by Summer Wind Farm in Lexington against Coolmore, Ashford Stud, and Eaton Sales. Summer Wind claimed its $2.1-million broodmare purchase, Love Me Only, had laminitis at sale that was concealed by the sales agent. (The jury could not reach a decision in the matter.)
Farriers may be able to address a significant problem and even disguise it to make the horse appear sound temporarily for prospective buyers. The farrier may alter the appearance of an unhealthy hoof by applying a synthetic sleeve (cuff) patched onto the hoof wall and covered with resin dyed to match the horse's natural hoof color. Eventually these alterations become apparent, but after the period to rescind the sale has expired.
Bloodstock agent Kim Valerio said it makes sense that radiographs of feet should be part of the required views.
“I don't understand why we have 38 radiographs of all the joints in their legs, but minus the most important aspect, their feet,” Valerio said. “No foot, no horse. Why wouldn't we do that, too? I don't get it. I would prefer that we have a couple of radiographs, at least of each front foot.”
In those radiographs, Valerio said she would be looking for any abnormalities so she could address the issues, should she decide to buy the horse.
“I would be looking for basically whether or not the foot is a solid density of bone, and I'd look for spurs in the coffin joint, because that will bother them. I'd also want to know if the horse had a wing fracture,” she said. “I'm not against horses with radiograph issues. I just want to know what I need to deal with when I buy them, because I want to turn them out as long as they need if they have something to heal.”
Dr. Jeff Berk of Equine Medical Associates in Lexington regularly works the sales doing pre-purchase examinations. He's a member of the Consignors and Commercial Breeders Association, and he has served on the board of the National Association of Two Year Old Consignors and moderated the Purchase Exam at Public Auction Forum for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
Berk said the inclusion of feet in the required views is unnecessary because foot abnormalities are uncommon in young horses. Bottom line, it depends on the comfort level of the buyer.
“Everything you do at a horse sale is buyer beware,” Berk said. “Everybody has a comfort level when they're playing the odds of what the likelihood is of finding a problem in any given area. If somebody said this is now the norm that we require foot X-rays, I don't think anyone would kick about it. It hasn't been traditional, but the point is well taken. We do occasionally find a foot problem, but I do think it's relatively rare. But I wouldn't mind if it was part of the set.”
More Likely in Broodmares
California bloodstock agent Gayle Van Leer agreed foot abnormalities in young horses are uncommon, but she sees the issue more often in broodmares sold at auction.
“Right now, the only vetting on mares is are they pregnant or not, and that's really the bottom line,” Van Leer said. “So if I see one that I'm suspicious of her feet, I'll just keep going and take that one off my list, because if it's a big giant maintenance issue, you may be on borrowed time with that horse.”
In young horses, Van Leer said sophisticated buyers can recognize when a farrier has attempted a fix.
“You can make them look perfect, but when they walk away from you and you look at the frogs of their feet, and the frogs are going a completely different direction and their legs are wobbling and flipping out one way or another because that's not the natural structure of their feet, it's pretty easy to see.”
Dr. Barry Eisaman of Eisaman Equine in Florida said he and his wife Shari have bought and sold “a ton of horses” at sales over the past four decades. He remembers when repositories were first instituted, and foot X-rays were part of the requirements.
“I think it produced plenty of confusion about seeing changes in feet that are probably normal for young horses and over-interpreting that. So at some point after they were requiring the feet, they stopped requiring them,” said Eisaman, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary college. “There are some buyers who really value seeing those X-rays of the feet, and usually they take their own films of the horses they're interested in.”
Eisaman said X-raying the feet of broodmares and other older Thoroughbreds makes more sense.
“If someone is buying a mare and the feet look like maybe she foundered a little bit sometime in the past, it would be nice to see [X-rays],” he said. “But, then again, when selling breeding prospects or pregnant mares, there are no radiographs required, so you'd be going into a whole new realm of 'Should you require feet?' ”
Eisaman said if he were asked if foot X-rays should be required as part of the required views for young horses, he'd probably say “no.”
It is important to add that the use of the sales repository is voluntary, but if a consignor opts to participate, it must provide all the minimum required views, as specified by the sales company.
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