Not many people would look at a horse with a problematic club foot and see that the solution lay on the “good” side—but that very insight earned a Collegiate Inventors Award from the National Inventors Hall of Fame for Tia Nelson, DVM, of Helena, Montana.
Nelson was working as a farrier back in the 1980s when a friend bought a 4-year-old Thoroughbred gelding. “She didn’t recognize that he had a club foot until after she brought him home,” Nelson says. “She wanted to use him for dressage, but his gait was not symmetrical enough. He was never lame, but his stride was uneven. I worked with him and did everything I could think of, and read everything I could find about club-footed horses. We tried all kinds of things the first year.” But nothing helped.
Starting again the next spring, Nelson decided they needed to find a new approach: “I watched the horse walk, to make sure his feet were landing flat. I got up on the rafters in the barn so I could watch him walking, from above, and see how his back moved,” she recalls. “I spent time squatting on the ground in front of this horse watching him walk toward me. I was not seeing anything different and wondering what I could possibly do. I was looking at his feet, then my gaze drifted up his fetlocks to his cannon bones, to his knees, and all of a sudden I realized they were uneven. I made sure he was standing straight and his head was straight—because if a horse’s head is tipped one way or another it changes the level of the knees.”
The horse was standing perfectly square, and yet the knee on the club-footed leg was about half an inch higher than the normal knee. “I pointed this out to my client and told her I was going to try something different and put a half-inch pad under the normal foot,” says Nelson. “It’s not a wedge pad, just a flat pad that is thick enough to bring the knee on the normal leg to the same height as the other one.” The pad balanced out the horse’s two legs, evening out his stride so he moved symmetrically. Nelson’s client was able to ride him in dressage.
“I told another farrier friend [Gene Ovnicek] about it, and he laughed, saying ‘Only a blonde would try to correct the normal foot,’” Nelson says. “But he called me back two days later and told me I was right. He’d had a 15-year-old Arabian stallion come in with a club foot and he could see the difference in the knees. He put a pad under the normal foot to bring the knees to the same height. The horse went from being non- symmetrical in his gait to being better than he’d ever been.”
Soon after that, Nelson decided to pursue her veterinary degree. “I was a pre-vet student at Montana State University at Bozeman, and was talking to one of the teachers after a class and told him about the pad I’d used,” she says. He suggested that she enter the pad in the national competition for young inventors. “My entry was one of several hundred across the United States, with only three undergraduates and three grad students selected,” Nelson says. Her prize-winning idea was featured at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.
She has used her hoof pad on many horses since then. “It works, and I’ve recommended it to other farriers, and it works in their hands, as well,” Nelson says. “This remedy is basically for a horse who becomes moderately club-footed as he is growing and developing or becomes club-footed after he’s mature. It’s not for the severe grade-4 horse, but it will work for most horses who just have an uneven gait.”
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue October 2014, #445.