Selecting for soundness in performance horses

By J.D. Lillich, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

The variety of equine athletic disciplines in this country is nothing short of spectacular. But whether it’s showing, stadium jumping, racing, or even ranch work, all disciplines require our horses to undergo significant training prior to use. Each equine athletic event has its own set of predisposing factors that can cause problems or injury. For example, racing horses are most likely to suffer minor bone fractures at the joints, while show horses are more likely to develop soft tissue injuries or degenerative changes to some joints.

One issue is relevant to all equine disciplines; no horse is immune to problems involving the foot. While the old proverb of “no foot, no horse,” holds true for every breed and use of horse, it is especially true for performance horses. The “wear and tear” that intense daily use causes to the musculoskeletal system (muscles, joints, and bones) often results in lameness. Lameness usually manifests in an abnormal gait at the walk or trot and is usually a result of pain.
There are actions that can limit the impact of long use on a performance horse, but no care regimen will fully compensate for a horse’s genetic base. Many problems can be avoided by selecting the right horse for the job in the first place.



Horses are simply amazing in their ability to tolerate hard work and respond to training. However, we can’t overlook the basic truth that we have to have good starting material in order to develop a successful athlete. Selecting your horse is clearly the starting point for any equine athletic discipline. When considering a horse for any athletic work, the fundamental question to ask is: What selection criteria were used to create this horse? Was the horse bred to do this work? Does the horse come from a lineage that excelled at this work?
The performance horse must be both mentally and physically sound. Mental attributes can be hard to gauge initially. But the physical characteristics require careful attention up front to avoid lameness down the road.

Balance and Conformation

The body of a performance horse must be physically balanced, with correct limb conformation. Balance refers to how the body and substance of the horse is distributed into three segments: front, middle, and hind. For the horse to be able to shift weight and move effortlessly during work or competition these three should be about the same size. Correct limb conformation refers to alignment and angulation. The bony column of the limb should be vertically aligned. The joints should have correct angulation relative to the body. Again, proper conformation allows for effortless and coordinated movement of the body.

The Foot

The foot itself should be a key discriminator for selecting a horse. Feet are often the source of problems with lameness, because foot conformation is often overlooked when we select horses for breeding. The foot should be in line with the size of the body. Good or proper hoof conformation allows for even biomechanical loading with each step. When the horse takes a step, its foot should be placed evenly on the ground. This allows the bones, muscles and tendons to align properly so that no portion of the leg will be strained or overstressed. Conversely, without correct proximal limb conformation, the foot will not load properly. Over time, the hoof capsule can demonstrate abnormal growth and uneven wear from improper biomechanical loading, leading to lameness.

When considering a horse for the time and expense of performance training, under-run heels, poor-quality hoof capsules, and flat or thin soles cannot be tolerated. Let’s be honest here; poor conformation and poor-quality feet might get you a low purchase price, but it will cost you much more in medications, corrective shoeing, lost time and unsatisfactory performance in the long run.