Steve Foxworth works on about a dozen species of animals at the Denver Zoo in a year’s time, including this lesser kudu. He finds it often takes as long as 2 years to get an animal’s feet in good shape while adjusting to a new environment.

How would you like to handle the health care needs of animals that only get trimmed twice a year? Be part of an 8- to 10-person crew that has only 25 minutes to meet the health care needs once an animal is sedated? And have to trim the feet while the animals are lying down?

Those are Steve Foxworth’s duties as the farrier for the Denver Zoo. As you might guess, zoo work makes up only a small amount of the total business for the Berthoud, Colo., shoer, who specializes in dealing with equine lameness issues on more normal workdays.

Foxworth works closely with two Denver Zoo vets. Scott Larsen is the zoo’s vice president for veterinary medicine and Diana Boon is an associate veterinarian.

Founded in 1896, the Denver Zoo sits on 80 acres within the 330-acre City Park of Denver. It includes 3,700 animals from 641 species.

Trimming as few as three animals often requires a full day of work at the zoo. Yet in a year’s time, Foxworth will work with a dozen species of animals.

“There’s a lesser kudu I trim every time I go to the zoo,” says Foxworth. “If some animals aren’t trimmed often enough, they end up with abscessed hooves. Others are trimmed only twice a year.

“Most of the animals are under anesthesia when I work on them. This can be hard on the animals, so the time of day when we work on them is important. It generally takes 8 to 15 zoo staff to do these procedures and that’s often difficult to schedule. If the zoo calls and they are going to do another procedure where an animal will be under anesthesia, I move my horseshoeing schedule around to accommodate them.”

Earned Trimming Stripes 

  Steve Foxworth says a key part of his success has been being able to work as a team on complicated footcare cases with veterinarians in the area. Foxworth started working with zoo animals in 2007 when he was asked to look at a lame zebra.

“It had not been trimmed in a year and eventually got a hoof abscess,” he says.

With various zoo animals, Foxworth utilizes the Equine Lameness Prevention Organization (ELPO) guidelines for trimming.

“The hoof capsule distortion or imbalance caused by hoof growth has been minimized, allowing the animals to go for longer periods of time between trimmings,” he says. “The Denver Zoo has a fairly abrasive environment, which helps keep the hooves maintained after the distortions have been addressed.”

Foxworth says each zoo animal is not only different, but none of the four hooves on the animal may be the same.

“No matter whether I’m trimming a giraffe or a zebra, it’s important to look at each hoof individually,” he says. “With that being said, using the sole plane seems to be a really good guide for trimming.

“If there are any questions, the vets and hospital staff are always glad to shoot a radiograph to help me, especially if there is a conformational defect.”

Gratifying Work

Foxworth says working with zoo animals is not only different and out of the ordinary, but very gratifying.

“It gives me many different experiences that I can apply to my everyday farriery work with horses,” he says. “You see footcare problems that you wouldn’t necessarily get to see otherwise. This new knowledge helps you develop new hoof-care ideas based on thinking outside of the box.

Diana Boon is one of two Denver Zoo veterinarians who work extensively on health issues with 3,700 animals representing 641 different animal species.

“I can’t just go into a stall and pick up a zoo animal’s feet. So I often need to think ahead and come up with potential solutions. I like the challenge and excitement of trying to figure these things out.”

Foxworth says one of the most interesting aspects of working with zoo animals is having the opportunity to work with many new species of animals.

“A key aspect is helping these animals adapt to a captivity environment,” he says. “They don’t move around as much and get their feet distorted.

“In the wild, these animals travel hundreds of miles a week to eat and drink. Wearing their hooves back to what would be normal or natural for them simply doesn’t take place in a zoo. Being in a smaller area where they do not wear down their hooves causes greater distortions, which can cause joint issues and abscesses.”

Over the past year, Foxworth and the zoo staff have worked diligently to develop a footcare maintenance schedule. He is sometimes at the zoo twice a month or sometimes only once every other month. But due to the special circumstances, zoo work is a top priority in Foxworth’s business.

Getting Started

Data from the 2012 Farrier Business Practices survey conducted every 2 years by American Farriers Journal indicates only 5% of farriers nationwide work with zoo animals.

Here’s part of the equipment being unpacked that will be used by the Denver Zoo animal health team as it prepares to work on a zebra. Everything moves at a fast pace due to the limited amount of time once each animal is sedated.

If you always want to be working and not be standing around and waiting, don’t consider zoo work. There’s often substantial downtime waiting until animals are fully sedated. But once the animal is sedated, the work has to be quickly accomplished. And you have to be able to adjust your day-to-day routine trimming and shoeing work to meet the zoo’s emergency needs.

If you think you might be interested in working with zoo animals, Foxworth says it’s important to approach this with an open mind and lots of humility. He believes you will be more successful if you work with the vets, keepers and staff as a team.

“Listen and ask lots of questions,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer. Most of all have fun and enjoy it, because not everyone gets to have these unique footcare experiences.”

Foxworth is a big believer in developing relationships with area equine veterinarians. Once trust is built between the two parties, he finds they will encourage you to become part of their team.

“You’ll end up seeing things others won’t see,” he says. “Or maybe you will suggest a hoof-care technique that the vets don’t understand or are scared to try. Once the vets have confidence in you and your work, they’ll be happy to try new things that you recommend.”

Four Zoo Trims Today 

MOVING ON. UNL High Plains Ag Lab Farm Manager Tom Nightingale sorts sunflower seeds from a research plot at HPAL.

On the day the American Farriers Journal editors spent with Foxworth and apprentice Ben Haney of Greeley, Colo., the schedule called for working with a zebra, big horn sheep, lesser kudu and a giraffe.

The morning started with a safety discussion for the eight-member health and foot team by Dr. Boon. She pointed out the day’s tasks, concerns with extremely hot weather and the reasons to be aware of the needs of the anesthetized animals at all times. If something isn’t going right, such as a sharply elevated blood pressure, the staff needs to immediately stop work and let the animal recover.


After a zebra is steered into an indoor pen, Dr. Boon uses a rifle to shoot a dose of anesthesia into the hide.

Working quickly in tight quarters with 8 to 10 health team members makes it extremely difficult to work on the small hooves of many zoo animals. Foxworth says hoof abscesses are a major concern with numerous animals kept in captivity.

While we’re waiting for the anesthesia to take effect, Foxworth trims the feet of a okapi. Looking much like a zebra, it hails from Africa’s Republic of the Congo.

After 25 minutes, the sedated zebra lays down and Foxworth, Haney, two vets, three vet technicians and the zebra house manager enter the pen. The animal’s head is quickly elevated so breathing is not a concern and the animal is rolled onto rubber mats to keep it comfortable while the health and feet work is done.

While the zebra is lying down, Foxworth trims and rasps the hooves.

At the same time, the veterinary crew takes blood samples, checks blood pressure, monitors the heart rate, floats the teeth, palpates the legs, performs a physical exam and finally lifts the animal onto a portable scale. The good news is that the vets determine the zebra is pregnant.

When trimming the zebra’s foot, Foxworth looks at each hoof individually. He often relies on the sole plane as a guide for trimming zoo animals.

Foxworth says a major concern with new animals arriving at the zoo is making the transition from a wet to dry climate.

“It often takes 2 years to get their feet in good shape,” he says. “It’s similar to having horses that come over from Europe needing time to adapt to our conditions.”

Lesser Kudu

The lesser kudu is an animal Foxworth trims during each zoo visit. The problems started when the kudu got pushed off the regular trimming schedule for 7 months due to the need to work with other zoo animals. This inattention may have led to numerous hoof abscesses.

This animal species is a forest antelope found in East Africa that stands 35 to 43 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs 130 to 200 pounds. In the wild, they live in dry thorn bush or forest areas and mainly consume leaves.

Foxworth is convinced the major problem with its feet is poor conformation and foot anatomy. The medial claws are slightly abnormal and slightly larger pedal bones curve in.

Foxworth says the medial claws on the front feet of this lesser kudu are slightly abnormal and that a larger than normal pedal bone curves in, requiring trimming each time he visits the zoo.

If the kudu isn’t frequently trimmed, bacteria become trapped in the hooves, leading to abscesses.

With a domestic horse, the owner can clean out the foot, soak it and wrap with a bandage. However, Foxworth says a kudu will chew a bandage off in 20 minutes.

After trimming, Foxworth drains an abscess and forms a wick drain build with oakum and Keratex putty. The drain is added to the abscess and is covered with Equilox to keep pressure off the sensitive area of the hoof.

“With this technique, the abscesses seem to heal fairly quickly from the inside out,” says Foxworth. “By leaving the area open, we keep manure out of the foot, which helps eliminate the abscess concerns.”

Besides working on the kudu’s feet, Foxworth helps the vets repack a partially cut off horn. The zoo vets ended up treating it much like what would be done with a damaged horn on a rodeo bull. Many other zoos would probably have removed the entire horn.

One of the more unusual Denver Zoo projects Foxworth has handled in the past dealt with an Okapi cow that had hip and stifle concerns. Foxworth glued wooden clogs on the rear feet to provide a small amount of elevation. The clogs helped her move better and be more comfortable.

The native home for the Okapi is the northeastern area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. While its striped markings are somewhat similar to a zebra, it is most closely related to the giraffe. Like the giraffe, the okapi has long legs, but a much shorter neck. They normally stand 5 to 6 1/2 feet tall and weigh 440 to 770 pounds.

Get Paid For Waiting

So how does Foxworth charge for zoo work that includes time spent standing around and waiting for animals to be sedated?

There is a basic charge of $100 for trimming each exotic animal and a $50 per hour consultation fee. He also charges extra for hoof rebuilding, glues, hoof packing or a prosthetic of any kind.

“I don’t make as much money with the zoo work as I would if scheduling the day with horse owner clients,” he says. “I might be at the zoo 4 or 5 hours and only make one-half or one-third of what I would make on a regular day trimming and shoeing horses.”

Keep On Learning

Attending educational venues such as the International Hoof-Care Summit have been instrumental in Foxworth’s ability to help both horses and zoo animals. Like others, he’s constantly learning and doesn’t always have the hoped for outcome. The goal is to learn and grow so he can hopefully help the next animal that he trims or shoes.

Handling the hoof work with this rearticulated giraffe is tricky, since it’s too dangerous to anesthetize the animal. Foxworth was able to make a few quick swipes with a rasp on a sore foot, before the animal rebelled on this hot, humid late July day. 

“Understanding anatomy and the function of the limb itself is valuable knowledge, regardless of the type of animal, you’re working with,” he says.

Besides attending clinics to further his education, Foxworth is involved with ongoing research. One project involves recognizing hoof distortions and accurately locating the distal phalanx and center of articulation through the widest part of the foot. Another zoo project deals with abscess concerns.

Exciting, Challenging

Foxworth finds footcare work with zoo animals is both exciting and challenging, even though it doesn’t represent a large proportion of his business.

“I’m getting an opportunity to put together a footcare program for dealing with zoo animals,” he says.

“We’re working on a research project to see if the ELPO hoof mapping system can consistently find the internal structures of the exotic equids hooves. This will offer zoos better guidelines for trimming and hopefully help prevent typical lameness issues such as abscesses.”

He says the best hoof education at the zoo comes from learning from your mistakes. When things don’t go well, he has to figure out new ways to fix the problem. As a result, he comes up with solutions that contribute to the animal’s overall health.

“Zoo work is a challenge, but I’ve found that you can always learn something new,” he concludes.