Working Horses: Working Soundness

horse shoes
Traction shoes for work on potentially slippery surfaces, such as tar and ice, can be harsh on a draft horse’s joints if not properly balanced with regular trims and resets.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

A good working draft possesses at least two qualities: sanity and soundness. Based on your goals for your draft, sanity and soundness may have a variety of definitions. However, one thing all good horse folks can agree on is that no matter what your draft has for a job, it needs to have working soundness. Knowing your draft’s use or intended use and the factors that surround it will help you determine the horse’s working soundness.

A draft involved with work or performance of any type is considered sound when there is no condition that interferes with its use. For example, a draft whose degree of hoof quality does not allow it to handle hours of work on hard surfaces with shoes that keep it from slipping may not be suited for commercial carriage work, but could be successful as a light logging horse on terrain where it will not need shoes, or doing a job where it only needs shoes part of the year.

If your horse has or develops a condition that interferes with the purpose it was trained for, then it’s considered unsound for that purpose. A draft that cannot perform properly because of a problem on a particular day is considered unsound, but it may not mean the horse has an overall unsoundness.

It’s important to understand the distinction between acute and chronic unsoundness. Acute unsoundness includes conditions that are severe and sudden in onset, such as a stone bruise that has progressed into an abscess. Chronic unsoundness is from conditions that develop over the long term, often as a genetic or human-induced conformation issue that results in arthritic conditions such as bone spurs and ringbone.

A horse is also considered unsound if there is a progressive condition that will continue to worsen to the extent that eventually the horse will be unable to perform its intended work. Progressive conditions most often involve respiratory or skeletal issues; they can also involve compromised lymphatic or immune systems.

With or without shoes, a massage to the back, croup and gaskin area is a nice reward for a hardworking draft. Photos by Vicki Schmidt.
With or without shoes, a massage to the back, croup and gaskin area is a nice reward for a hardworking draft. Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

A combination of factors often contribute to occasional unsoundness in many drafts, and there are some that will render the draft unsound for many activities if they are not quickly addressed while the draft is young. These factors include:

Skeletal maturity – A young draft that has been fed and trimmed properly since birth may begin light work at 2 years old, as long as the work is light, long and low. Many horses do not fully mature until they are 5 to 8 years old. The long-term health of bones, ligaments and tendons is helped by light work that is balanced and not overdone at a young age.

Proper hoof care and balanced movement – Proper nutrition and weight combined with routine and proper hoof care enable your draft to work with lasting soundness. Most drafts do well with trims every eight weeks, keeping the toes short and the heels long. If your draft is trimmed at longer than eight-week intervals, the toes are often too long to be trimmed back to allow for correct working balance. While your horse may appear to be sound, a long toe gives undue stress to the fetlock and pastern joints and often leads to the painful and limiting conditions of ringbone. Give your draft the gift of good hoof care from a farrier who understands what a working draft needs for proper trims, and who trims the hoof to land in a balanced fashion.

Proper body condition – Many drafts are overweight, which causes numerous stresses and also ages joints prematurely. Combine excessive weight with improper hoof care and the stage is set for a draft that ages beyond working soundness early in life.

Good footing – Attention to care that supports muscle and joint health is complemented by understanding the terrain your draft will work on. Logging and farming horses usually work on ground that does not require shoes. However, if the terrain is rocky or may have dangers that can impale the sole of the hoof, then shoes and pads for working drafts are a must. Drafts that work on streets for hours at a time easily remain sound as long as they are properly shod with shoes and pads designed for the roads they will work on.

A few other rewards that keep your draft sound for work include:

  1. Rinses with cool water, especially to their hardworking joints.
  2. Massaging their large muscle mass areas and along the back, croup, gaskin and shoulders.
  3. A day off to just be a horse after several days of work.

Cover Image: Light, long and low work with lots of walking miles is the perfect way to build strength and working soundness in young drafts. Photo by Vicki Schmidt.