Magazine deadline weeks at The Horse consist of much proofreading, fact checking, and vetting of stories and images--literally. While turning out the May issue, for instance, International Equine Podiatry Center founder Dr. Ric Redden swung by to give his stamp of approval on an illustration we had made of healthy front hooves. But getting Dr. Redden to Okay something is easier said than done. As soon as he sat down to look over our images, he scrambled for a pen and covered our neat print-outs with scribbles and line drawings. At a glance they made little sense, but Dr. Redden's message was clear: Each hoof is very different from the next; there is no such thing as a "perfect" hoof; and asymmetries and imperfections are quite the norm.

Dr. Ric Redden left me with a hand-drawn hoof anatomy lesson.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

"Imagine if you had picked up the feet of all the horses that competed at the World Equestrian Games (held here in Lexington in 2010)," he said. "These are the top athletes in the world, but are any of their feet going to look like an image out of some textbook? No way. And if you did try to make them look like that, they'd be crippled."

Dr. Redden's WEG story made far more sense to me than did the pile of scribbles he left sitting on my desk. After all, I too have an equine athlete with mismatched and imperfect-looking feet, but when trimmed and shod the way she wants to be trimmed and shod, she's as sound as can be.

I remember the first time I saw Lily, after my trainer had talked her up to be some nice hunter prospect ("You've got to try this mare, she's just your type!"). She was ribby, her coat had faded from once-black to dull seal brown, and there was something odd about her feet. Her right front hoof was small and clubby, making her left front look like a dinner plate in comparison.

If you look closely, you can see that Lily has mismatched, albeit healthy, front feet.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

A prepurchase exam, however, revealed her inner limb and hoof structures to be in great shape, and I trusted my farrier to help keep them that way. And over the past eight months, he has. Although Lily's farrier bills look more like lists (1 front aluminum, 2 hind steel, 1 aluminum bar shoe, 1 wedge pad), I don't worry. Her feet might look a little funky, but that's just the way they were made; there's no sense trying to mold them into a shape I think looks nice if abnormal is ultimately what keeps my horse sound. (And yes, Lily is now fat, black, and--as predicted--a nice, sound hunter.)

Dr. Redden probably sums up this whole concept better than I can: "There is a basic standard principle of mechanics required for all feet that deals with suspension and support components of the foot," he wrote in one of our many e-mail exchanges. "These components as they are placed together can vary greatly, but they can be very functional, healthy, and balanced even though they are strikingly different in appearance from the textbook foot. There is no one standard formula for balance, mass, and shape that covers all feet.

"It is much like conformation," he added. "Most horsemen of the world try to find a horse with textbook correct conformation; however, they really do not exist. All have unique characteristics that deviate in various degrees from this ideal horse."

How imperfect are your horses' feet?