Horses and roads/Chapter 11



Brittle hoof is so common that all perhaps are alive to some of the vexations it causes. But only when it gets very advanced is it taken in hand, and it is then treated by some kind of ‘hoof ointment,’ joined to ‘stoppings’ of various kinds, with a blister, mercurial ointment, or a stimulating liniment applied over the coronet. The first two only aggravate the disease.

Mr. Douglas says: ‘The rules for keeping a horse’s feet healthy, and preserving the horn, are to use nothing but water to the hoofs—either as a cleanser or an ornamenter; and never allow horses to stand upon litter during the day. Grease or tar, by shutting up the pores in the horn, prevent the natural moisture from reaching the surface out-wardly, and the air from circulating inwards—consequences which act upon the horn with ruinous results.’ Lieutenant-Colonel Burdett has, within the last few weeks, expressed his opinion of grease in somewhat similar terms. Another equally baneful habit is ‘stopping’ the hoofs with hot greasy mixtures or cowdung, under the idea of softening them or cooling them. This idea works wrong end first; for stopping and greasing heat the horn, whilst soft horn is not desirable; tough, dense, springy horn is the right kind of thing, just such as Nature supplies when she is not interfered with. As to the blister, mercurial ointment, or stimulating embrocations (which latter the stableman will call ‘oils’—a name that has always carried great weight with it amongst his class), in the words of Mr. Fearnley, ‘all they can do is to cause a splutter of vitality in the part.’ What is the use of a mere splutter of vitality? That which is wanted is a renewal of vigorous and lasting vitality, not dependent on the irritation caused by the continual application of drugs.

There is another way of treating brittle hoof, called the ‘water cure.’ The horse’s shoes are removed, and he is put to stand on the bare stones or bricks. Folded flannel is then fastened round the pastern, but allowed to fall over and cover the coronet and hoof; the flannel is kept well soaked with cold water by day. As it cannot be kept wet and cool by night it is best to remove it the last thing, or otherwise it will heat the foot instead of cooling it. The horse must be walked out twice a day (removing the flannel for the time) over a smooth hard road. In a few days the top of the hoof will begin to lose the harsh, dry, shrivelled, scurfy appearance it had hitherto presented, to assume one of plumpness, roundness, fulness, and glossiness, which appearance shows that some important change is taking place. It (the coronary band) is now becoming restored to a healthy condition, and fit and able to secrete healthy horn, which it will straightway set about doing. The exercise on hard roads should now be daily increased—the application of the wet flannel still be continued.

The groom will not like the look of the coronary band, as he is so unaccustomed to look upon a healthy one. But he will be still more disgusted when he sees, a few days later on, that the shiny appearance which he so much distrusts is extending itself down the hoof, and then he will be ‘sure as them feet is a rottin’ off.’ Grooms have been heard to say so, with the addition of a few words not exactly complimentary to their masters.

The coronary band has been restored to health, and the proper secreting power has been recovered, the removal of the shoe having permitted freedom of circulation, which has been further encouraged and stimulated by exercise, whilst heat has been kept down by the cold water. This plentiful supply of healthy blood is assimilated by the coronary band, in its passage through which it is by ‘the wonderful chemistry of Nature’ converted into plasma, which afterwards becomes hard horn. The treatment must be continued until the shiny horn reaches the ground.

Brittle horn cannot be satisfactorily repaired; it must grow out, and be replaced by horn of an opposite character, and this is the way it is done. The disease may again be produced by the same course of action that first brought it on. When this is resumed, and the horse again begins to suffer, they say that he has never been cured.

Mayhew says: ‘Nothing can be practical if there be wanting the desire to embody particular directions.’ It is found that nearly every one who tries this course of treatment is inclined to have his horse exercised either in a field or on the grassy sides of the roads, instead of on the hard. This is a mistaken theory. On the grass the hoof receives too little friction or attrition. Mr. Douglas says: ‘From the moment a horse is foaled, we either keep him in grass fields soft to tread upon, or in warm stables standing upon soft straw, and then we are surprised that his hoofs should become dry and brittle, instead of keeping moist, tough, and hard. In the Orkneys, in the mountains of Wales, the wilds of Exmoor and Dartmoor, many parts of the continent of Europe, and in a considerable portion of the rest of the globe, horses run about over rocks, through ravines, and up precipitous ridges, unshod; yet all this is done without difficulty, and to the evident advantage of their hoofs, for these animals never suffer from contracted feet, or from corns, sandcracks, &c., until they become civilised and have been shod.’ Another writer, a Devonian, says: ‘Dartmoor is not a great wild flat, as many suppose; but, on the contrary, it is for the most part a continual succession of very steep rough hills or “tors,” and rugged “combes,” strewed with granite rock and stones. Yet in spite of all, besides the bogs and chronic state of rain, the herds of ponies gallop fearlessly along the rough steep sides of the combes, or down and up. It is a pretty sight to see them, especially in the spring, with the foals by their sides.’

Mayhew says of the shod horse: ‘As the shoe alone rests upon the earth, of course the hoof lacks needful attrition.’ The attrition or friction caused by exercising the unshod animal on hard roads is salutary to the whole foot, because it acts as a natural stimulant to circulation and secretion, not causing a ‘mere splutter of vitality ’ that is of no lasting worth, but making the horn ‘to thicken and accommodate itself to its task, like the skin of a blacksmith’s hand.’ Youatt says: ‘The horn answers to the skin of the human foot.’ Magistrates examine the hands of vagrants: and, by their hardness or softness, judge whether they have bonâ-fide ‘frozen-out gardeners’ before them, or professional beggars. Gardeners and navvies neither wear gloves nor pad their spade handles, although the bottom or forward hand comes down and slides on a roughly riveted iron strap. The hoof of the horse cannot be looked upon as being of a more delicate nature than a man’s hand.

Besides the advantage of attrition being gained by the removal of the shoes, expansion and contraction which play so prominent a part in the general economy of the whole foot, and its maintenance in health, also lend their aid in producing sound horn. Without the removal of shoes the ‘water cure’ cannot be a complete success. Mayhew says: ‘The heels of the horse may become rigid and wired in by the fixing powers exercised by the nails of the shoe. But remove these nails, allow the foot that motion which is needful to the health, and its internal structures may recover their lost functions. The veterinary mind was, however, slow to recognise so plain a rule. Like all Nature’s laws, the truth necessitated not that show of mastery in which the ignorant especially delight.’

The writer has already confessed his inability to agree with Mayhew in everything he says; and he thinks that here he is unjust to veterinary surgeons. There is, perhaps, not one among them who would not order the removal of shoes oftener than he now does, if he could be sure that his order would be attended to. Owners rebel, up to the last point, against what will evidently throw the horse out of work for some considerable length of time. They prefer ‘patching up.’

It is not sufficiently acknowledged, or understood, that veterinary surgeons have to deal with people who generally want their ‘say’ in all cases of lameness. In other matters they are more tractable; but every one thinks he knows something about lameness, and almost every one tries to shirk what every practitioner would recommend, if he conveniently could—rest. But, knowing, as they do, what I have attempted to explain, these gentlemen (in practice) find it expedient to order ‘mild’ or ‘sweating’ blisters to be applied, with, perhaps, an intimation that they will have to be repeated; and, during the interims, they give the groom a bottle of ‘oils,’ because they know that this keeps him contented and in subjection; and thus they, justifiably, obtain rest for the horse. This rest is what they are after; but it won’t, by itself, cure brittle hoof. When Mayhew speaks of the ‘show of mastery in which the ignorant especially delight,’ the ‘ignorant’ is plainly meant to be applied to the owner—or rather to the groom, for he is mostly master. It may be advisable to keep these kinds of things ‘straight,’ and not make oneself misunderstood on both sides.

Brittle hoof, when neglected, or improperly treated, often causes still more serious diseases. Sandcrack be it either in the shape of ‘toe’ or ‘quarter’ crack, is a frequent result; and so is seedy toe, and also pumice foot. They will all succumb to the water cure if the toe at the same time be kept well shortened, or rounded off. Mayhew says that ‘seedy toe has been much thought about, and fancy has been somewhat racked to account for its origin.’ The origin was not far off, and so it got passed over by hasty searchers for some distant cause: it is radically—shoeing. The same cause, as Mr. Douglas states, produces sandcrack. Pumice foot is often to be accounted for through the brittle crust being unable to retain its hold of the sole, which then becomes depressed; and, as at the same time the laminæ, partaking of the general disorder of the crust, of which they form the interior, are unable to maintain the coffin bone in due suspension, and are forced to allow it to follow the descent of the sole, the horse becomes past cure, and should be destroyed—or, rather, finish being murdered.

The fact that hard roads are beneficial to the naked hoof is again substantiated by Mr. Douglas in the following passage: ‘When the frog is permitted to remain sound and whole, the more it comes in contact with gravel, stones, or even sharp flints, the firmer, tougher, and more healthy it becomes; while on the contrary, when cut with a sharp instrument, allowing the moisture, which is its life, to escape, it dries up, hardens’—the frog, unlike the crust, should not harden—‘cracks, and becomes highly susceptible to every impression, as well as diseased.’ The same remarks hold good with regard to the sole; but Mr. Douglas withholds them when speaking of the sole—perhaps he was not convinced of that fact. Experience proves that the crust also holds in contempt sharp flints, &c., when it is fairly treated and inured to them. By fair treatment it is meant that it should be let alone—as a man’s hands would be if he were a labourer on a farm. In the colliery districts, where so many women work with the shovel, their hands become horny, as the doctors find out when they have to cut down upon a whitlow. Friction against a hard substance brings about this extra thickness and hardness; the young ladies who handle silk, woollen or cotton textures all day long in shops have soft hands. Like begets like; and hard roads make hard feet for horses, in spite of all superstition to the contrary. The writer has more than a quarter of a century of experience and practice with unshod horses in large numbers. He has, therefore, no theory about the matter, constructed, as may perhaps be imagined, upon the quotations he has so freely used from the writings of scientific, professional, and practical authorities.