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Legs and Feet Play an Important Role in the Longevity and Wellness of Goats

By Shelene Costello

Peanut shows proper balance of angles and lengths of bone in front and rear assembly. Her front legs are straight from the side, the rear leg set is directly under her pin bones for good balance. Her withers are just a shade higher than her hips for proper levelness across the topline. And while her rear pasterns are not as strong as the front ones, they are functional for a sound life of good production.

A dairy goat carries a lot of weight on its legs and feet each day. A body capable of eating large amounts of high fiber, low protein food, with large amounts of water to make an udder full of great tasting milk, and often a belly full of babies for part of the year, is a lot of weight on these appendages. Having solid feet and legs can make the difference in how the goat lives and produces. I consider the foundation of goat structure to be the feet and the pasterns above them that support the weight of the whole goat.

Good solid feet that are soundly built with strong straight pasterns are ideal. There is quite a bit of leeway in goats kept in dry lots compared to goats that must go out and forage for their own food over large amounts of ground. I would be a lot stricter in my ideals if I knew that my goats would have to range over large areas, as opposed to what my herd really does, which is stay in a dry lot for part of the year and small pastures the rest of the year. Since my goats do not have to walk long distances, food and water is always a only short distance away, and my goats are able to be functional with slightly weaker pasterns and feet that are not quite as tight as ideal. I strive for ideal, but in reality will accept less, because of this. And I wonder how much the added exercise might strengthen the feet and pasterns of younger goats if they had to go out that much further on a regular basis?

When looking at a kid’s hoof structure, it is readily seen that they have feet that are the same depth at heel and toe. The bottom of the foot is flat and runs parallel to the coronary band, which is the division of hair and horn of the hoof. On most young kids, the foot is in balance. As the goat grows, the weight gets heavier and the differences of wear and structure begin to show.

Toes should be held relatively close together and point forward. Hooves should be trimmed regularly to keep that hoof balanced throughout life. The pastern is the lowest part of the leg above the hoof and up to approximately the dewclaw on both front and back legs. It should be short, straight and strong with a little give, but not too much.

Rear pasterns are often weaker than front ones, but all four can be affected in some way to varying degrees. If the pastern is slanted a lot on a young doe, odds are that as she matures it will weaken further. Longer pasterns tend to be less sturdy than short pasterns. A goat who walks with her pastern nearly horizontal is much more prone to bruising and strain, and will not be as willing to walk out to food and water, or even get up and move around—and that will affect the amount of milk she can make.

Mineral levels really play as large part in the strength of feet and pastern as genetics, in many areas of the country. So does the footing the goat lives and walks on. Goats who live on soft ground or well-bedded barns may have weaker pasterns and often more spread toes, especially as they age, than goats who have rocky pastures and hills to run and climb on.

When considering over-all leg structure in goats, I’m often surprised to note that not everyone considers the upper leg parts such as shoulders and upper legs in front assemblies, and the hip angles in rear assemblies. Both are a major part of leg structure and use, not just the leg that is jutting down below the main body frame. I consider the entire leg structure when evaluating legs from top to bottom.

Front ends can be a challenge since shoulders are not connected to the body by a joint, but rather are laid back against the rib cage and held with ligaments, tendons and muscles. Because of this, wear and tear can really loosen this attachment as can excess body fat, particularly as a young kid, but even as a mature animal.

Ideally the shoulder blade should be relatively flat, laid back at a good angle from point of shoulder at the front of the body to the top of shoulder at the withers, with flat muscling that keeps it tightly held to the body wall.

I’ve heard lots of discussion about the merits of tight shoulders in longevity, however, in my own experience I have seen and owned animals with looser shoulders than ideal, that are still functional well into advanced age. They certainly are not as pretty as nice tight ideal shoulders, but they can still support the goat over time. In long-range grazing or rocky terrain I imagine that this might make a greater difference in functionality than goats in dry lots and smaller pastures.

Tight shoulders that pinch at the top of the ribcage can interfere with comfort of the goat, particularly as it ages. The angle of that shoulder blade in relation to the upper "arm" can impact the goat’s movement. I’ve seen a lot of discussion over the years in what is the ideal angle of shoulder and upper arm, and it seems as though a range of a 90-degree angle is as close to ideal as can be expected.

The upper arm is the part that goes from the point of shouldering the front of the goat to the elbow. One of the things about upper arms I see in all species, not just goats, is a trend to shorter and shorter upper arms with a straighter, more open angle at the joint with the shoulder blade. Once that upper arm shortens and straightens, it brings the whole front leg further out to the front of the body. No longer will the front leg hang directly under the top of the shoulder, but will fall in front of it. This moves the whole center of gravity forward on the goat. As the goats carries the bulk of its weight on the front end, this adds even more of the body weight up front and contributes to the earlier breakdown of the entire front end assembly. Often the topline will sway down at the chine from this breakdown, and the shoulder may separate even more, the elbows may swing out away from the body, and sound movement may be lost.

From the elbow and down through the knee to the pastern the leg should be somewhat oval, not round in a dairy goat. The flatter bone pattern on a dairy goat makes the leg appear flatter on the sides than in front or behind. The leg should fall in a fairly straight line from both front view and side. In some animals, there can be a wide variation of bend in the knee joint. Sometimes it’s only from the side that the knee can be seen to bend forward, or occasionally backwards. A slight bend forward will still be functional. A bend backward will almost always result in a goat with issues of unsoundness in the long run.

From the front I’ve seen, in a few goats, the knee seems to be more toward the inside. While again, it’s not ideal, it can be functional, but it does contribute to earlier and more severe wear on the leg joints. Sometimes the lower leg, the cannon bone, from the knee to the pastern is shorter than ideal. This can still be functional, if it does not bring the front end of the goat down low enough to throw off the overall balance of the goat.

A dairy goat needs to be level withers and hips, if not a bit higher at the top of the withers. Ideally the withers should have a bit of a rise, which is not the shoulder blade itself, but a bony process of the spine just above the highest point of the shoulder blade. If the front end drops below the level of the hips, digestion and bodily fluids may not drain properly and the goat will carry even more weight on the front end, contributing to more breakdown of the front end assembly over all.

Moving to the rear leg assembly, the rear leg actually starts at the thurl, the hip joint. The thigh to stifle and stifle to hock joint, hock joint to ground should be nearly equal lengths to balance out the front end. And the distance from hock joint to the ground should be similar to the distance from the knee in the front leg to the ground to keep everything in balance as well. The hock to the pastern should be set perpendicular to the ground just behind or underneath the pin bones under the tail.

The openness of angles of each joint should balance out the angles of the shoulder and upper arm. The angle of the rump (the pelvis) affects the angles of the joints in the rear leg from top to bottom. With the ideal nearly level rump, it opens the angle of the thigh in relation to the stifle (knee) joint, which should be similar to the angle of the shoulder and upper arm. If the rump is too steep, it may push the angles of the rear legs out of balance.

Posty legs are legs that have wide-open angles and result in a rear leg that is too straight. Often the hoof is underneath the body rather than just behind it and may push the hip up so that it is higher than the withers and force more weight to be carried on the front end. Too closed off angles, or thighs that are too long, may push the hock joint out behind the goat and often the foot to be too far forward, or the whole hock to hoof, to be too far behind the goat, creating weakness in the hind end.

The rear end provides the propulsion in movement, the front end the stability and the feet are the foundation. I try to keep in mind that as mountain goats, the forebears of our domestic goats, were built to jump and climb and balance on rocky hills. Even though we have brought them down in to all kinds of terrain, we need to keep in mind the structure that will keep them sound, so that they are able to live long productive lives in whatever terrain they are kept.

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