MEETING OF THE MINDS. Farrier Todd Gillis (in black hat) and equine veterinarian Stephen O’Grady examine photos and discuss potential treatment for the fifth hoof grown by a horse being shod by Gillis.
Strange things can happen anytime, in any corner of the hoof-care world.
Todd Gillis has worked as a farrier for 23 years in the Richfield, Wis., area 30 miles northwest of Milwaukee. He shoes about 325 horses on a regular basis, with more than 85 percent of them located within 20 minutes of his home. And though his work includes therapeutic shoeing for a couple of veterinary clinics, he’d never seen anything that prepared him for a hoof-care case he’s now been working on for nearly 2 years — Beamer, the horse with a second hoof growing on its left front leg.
Beamer’s owner bought the 7-year-old Quarter Horse with no known medical problems early in 2003. In April, Beamer and many of the other 55 horses in the barn developed strangles, a highly contagious respiratory disease.
But Beamer suffered a reaction to the bacteria-borne disease, and a veterinarian diagnosed purpura hemmorhogica in late March 2003. The condition can include fever, muscle soreness and swelling of the body and limbs.
Treatment did not immediately reduce Beamer’s swelling, which was especially severe in the legs. Gillis watched a “bubble” form on the left front coronary band, and as the swelling worsened, the skin on the legs split and pulled away from the underlying tissue — and from the coronary band on the left forelimb.
SKIN LOSS. Most of the skin is gone from the left leg by late May 2003, and the right leg is also badly damaged by the edema (swelling).
THE BEGINNING. By mid-May 2003, about 6 weeks after the purpura diagnosis, the swollen skin has split and the coronary band has “bubbled” on the left forelimb.
“From then on, that foot just started collapsing,” Gillis recalls. “The hoof capsule got real distorted and it pretty much stopped growing.”
Several veterinarians examined the horse, and most of them thought euthanasia would be needed, Gillis says. “When horses develop purpura this bad, they usually founder; the bony column rotates and the horse usually ends up with laminitis,” he says.
However, X-rays revealed no internal problems, Gillis recalls. “With this horse, the bony column in the leg stayed fine,” he adds. “I think it was lame on that left foreleg, but he had such a good attitude that we thought he wasn’t in much pain. He was a happy horse, and the owner felt we could keep going and see if we could get this horse through this.”
BACK LEGS LESS AFFECTED. Splits in the skin and the loss of hair are evident on the back legs (center) by mid-June 2003, but the damage is not nearly as severe as on the front legs. By early November 2003, scar tissue has covered many of the wounds (right) as healing continues.
NO HOOF YET. The skin is entirely gone from the lower part of the leg by mid-June 2003, but the emergence of a second hoof is not yet obvious.
The horse owner wrapped the legs three times a day for several months as the purpura was brought under control during 6 months of stall rest.
During that time, “That left front foot was in trouble, but the other three grew like they always had, so I kept trimming them,” Gillis says. “The left front foot didn’t grow much, so we just kept an eye on it.”
What they saw was a second hoof capsule begin growing on the left forelimb several inches above the damaged foot. Unsure what to do, Gillis trimmed the upper hoof capsule every 3 to 4 weeks to keep it from growing into the bottom hoof. He also started taking photographs, realizing that others might be able to learn from his experience with the unusual case.
After 6 months of stall rest, the horse was improving. The scar tissue on the legs was receding, and trimming kept the fifth hoof capsule under control. He was turned out for a couple of hours every other day.
LEARNING MORE. Todd Gillis was up to the challenge of the fifth hoof.
Trips to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison, Wis., were scheduled for skin grafts. During the second visit, in September 2003, the horse suffered a bad reaction to a sedative, began thrashing and broke its right hind hip.
That injury put the horse back into stall rest for another 6 months. It also left Gillis and the veterinarian wondering which of the two injuries was making the horse appear lame.
They took more X-rays, which Gillis took to the February 2004 International Hoof-Care Summit, along with photos of the leg. He consulted with prominent equine veterinarians Stephen O’Grady, Al Kane and Ric Redden. The photos of the rare condition also drew the attention of dozens of farriers, including noted, longtime shoers such as Ed Watson from Virginia.
“Nobody could say for sure, but we think that when the leg swelled so badly and the skin detached from the hoof, part of the coronary band split and moved up the leg,” Gillis says.
Although the second hoof has no visible coronary band, its presence can be deduced because only coronary band tissue can grow a hoof capsule.
GROWING DOWN. The second hoof is growing rapidly and overlapping the bottom hoof by January 2004.
CORNIFICATION UNDER WAY. The second hoof is clearly developing by November 2003, flaring out from just above the normal hoof.
In meeting with the experts at the Hoof-Care Summit, Gillis says, “They gave me some ideas about what needed to be done, and I came home determined to get more aggressive on this. Every 4 weeks I’d trim both hoof capsules on that leg. The top one keeps wanting to grow down, so I keep trimming it back to keep it from growing into the original hoof capsule. It was just trial and error, but it’s getting to look pretty good now.”
AGGRESSIVE CARE. After returning from the International Hoof-Care Summit determined to treat the problem more aggressively, Gillis begins shaving away all sides of the second hoof, as shown in this February 2004 photo.
DEFINITE PAIR. By February 2004, farrier Todd Gillis is cutting back the leading edge of the top hoof to keep it from interfering with the bottom hoof, making the existence of two hooves quite clear.
He has taken off most of the second hoof capsule, trimming it to just 1/8-inch thickness, down from 3/4 of an inch, and 2 3/4 inches in height, much smaller than it once was. Working with the vet, Gillis rasps the bottom and sides of the hoof until he can begin to see small spots of blood.
He also has resumed shoeing the horse. Prior to the medical problems, the horse wore steel keg shoes on all four hooves. Now, Gillis leaves the back feet bare and uses aluminum, Natural Balance shoes on both fronts.
“The horse started growing a lot of toe with a dished foot when it was growing out,” Gillis says. “Plus, the whole leg was so scarred that he didn’t bend real well at the knee. And he wasn’t landing well on his heel.”
SHAPING UP. By September 2004, the horse is showing marked improvement. The normal hoof is healthier and once again shod, the second hoof is trimmed well back, and hair is growing on the leg.
“So I wanted to use a Natural Balance shoe to help the breakover,” he adds, “and I set it back for a little more support. I used aluminum because it’s a lighter shoe. It seemed to help him land better and breakover.”
Nearly 2 years after the onset of purpura, Beamer appears to be returning to soundness, although the fifth hoof appears to be a lifelong condition. He is still trimmed and the shoes reset every 4 weeks, but he is turned out 7 days a week, 6 to 8 hours per day, with a rider for 10 to 15 minutes every other day.
“He looks good, the hair coat is good and the horse’s attitude is real good,” Gillis says. “The skin is healing and patches of hair are returning on the legs. His hip has healed, though he takes short strides. There’s still some lameness, but he’s much better. He seems to be coming around.”