Hoof Health

What follows is really a simple summary about feet. There is a huge amount of information available out there for those who would like to learn more.

​As one who has been a barefoot trimmer full time for several years, I like to say I am not anti shoes, but pro hoof health. I know there are circumstances where the owner cannot provide the kind of environment that sets up a horse for success working barefoot. In this case it makes sense to keep the horse shod, rather than compromising his comfort and ability.

However, the facts are that having nailed on steel, 24/7, on a dynamic structure which is meant to deform and move on impact, absorbing and distributing concussion, is going to have side effects long term. The feet are very much symptomatic of what’s going on in the horses life. They can tell you about dietary or toxic events, weight distribution and his postural or movement habits. If there is a dietary or metabolic imbalance, the feet are often one of the first anatomical structures to show the signs, as the body will preserve the more vital organs, and the symptoms will be seen in the skin first… the feet are an extension of the skin.

I like to sum up hoof health into two basic and simple categories:

Wall Connection

This has much to do with diet:

The top of the coffin bone, the extensor process, should be level with the coronary band inside the hoof capsule. The tightly connected wall to internal structures in a healthy foot makes sure it stays where it should be, allowing for a nice thick sole for protection. A large factor on the health of this laminar connection is the diet, or metabolic influences. This will of course include the effects of laminitis.

Above: An example of an excellent, tight wall connection

Above: Hoof wall showing loss of connection, with stretched laminae and subsequent cracking and chipping of weakened structures.

What many people don’t realise, is that acute laminitis is not as pervasive and as common as low grade, subtle laminitis. Anything that affects the gut will show up in the feet. If the horse is getting too much in the way of sugars (non structural carbohydrates), or exposure to toxins or stress, this can cause a cascading cycle of events which leads to inflammation and the weakening of the laminae.  Also if the horse tends towards Insulin Resistance/Equine Metabolic Syndrome, then he will have far less tolerance for the dietary excesses and lack of movement that many of our horses are living with.

The weakening and stretching of the laminae means the pedal bone loses it’s place inside the hoof capsule and sinks downward over time, the wall flaring away from it’s tight connection. (in chronic conditions, or it can happen suddenly in acute conditions). Capsular rotation is generally more correct when speaking about rotation of the coffin bone, as it’s the wall pulling away and taking the path of least resistance, the bone stays where it is. This results in thin soled horses, sensitive on hard or stony ground and vulnerable to bruising. 

Above: Hoof wall showing repeated event lines and chronic environmental/dietary stress. Every horizontal ripple in the wall indicates a previous bout of inflammation

Palmar Foot Health

This has much to do with environment & movement:

The soft tissues in the back of the foot (notably the lateral cartilages and digital cushion) need to be stimulated and used, in order to stay strong and do their job properly. We take them out of action by shoeing, but also by incorrect trimming, lack of movement or neglect in the wrong type of environment. The shoes allow for a little side to side movement of the hoof capsule, but no 3 dimensional flexion which it would normally perform on impact to manage uneven footing.

Above: Photos taken by a client in Namibia when she came across a dead feral horse, most likely sadly hit by a car. These are good examples of strong , healthy feet, showing a low heel, short toe, tight wall connection and strong, well developed palmar structures.

The soft tissues in the palmar (back of) the foot atrophy over time, leaving the nerves encased there with less protection. The lack of stimulus leads to contraction, the frog and the heels weaken. The constant pressure of the horse bearing his weight fully on just his walls, taking the sole and frog out of the picture when it comes to weight bearing results in a coronary band that is constantly under pressure, encouraging ‘distal descent’ of the coffin bone… ie the sole loses depth and protection, and the hoof wall slowly separates from the tight connection to the bone (made worse of course if the laminae are weakened by the diet). 

​This is why horses can struggle so much coming out of shoes, depending on how severe their hoof deformity/weakness is. They need time to build up the soft tissues in the palmar foot, the lateral cartilages and digital cushion, which are there to help the foot absorb and dissipate energy, and provide protection for the nerves, part of the body’s proprioceptive abilities, to tell the horse where his feet are in time and space. If you’ve read the article on dentistry, this should sound familiar? Everything is connected.

​If the feet are weak coming out of shoes, or they are struggling with harsh terrain out hacking, then hoof boots are a far more agreeable option than nailed on steel. They have all the benefits of providing protection for weak structures, but none of the side effects.

Above: An example of a contracted, weak foot. the soft tissues in the palmar foot are atrophied and unable to perform their function in energy dissipation properly. The frog will be weak and contracted, and prone to deep central sulcus infection.

The photos of the feral horses’ feet were taken in an environment perfect for shaping strong and healthy feet. The dry conditions, sparse and low sugar forage and huge amount of distances that the horses must cover in search of food and water, ensure the feet are in excellent condition. When everything is in balance, growth does not exceed wear, and the horse is self trimming. The good news is we can emulate this with our domestic horses.

​Many of our porky and sedentary horses, living in their pastures of lush, fertilised paddocks of manufactured grasses meant to make cows fat, will not ever be able to produce feet that look like a mustang’s. But that’s fine, as long as they are healthy and functional, and the owner knows how to balance the diet.

This is also the danger of certain trim styles, that aim to produce a ‘mustang’ style foot in one trim. A cookie cutter method does not work always for the horse. We must respect the internal structures and what the foot needs at that exact moment in time, while it is being trimmed.

​If I had to choose between the best possible environmental/dietary conditions, or the world’s most experienced, and innovative farrier/trimmer, I would choose the former. This is what shapes the feet, and in an ideal world, the horse will be self trimming, where wear is in balance with growth.

Above: American Mustangs are renowned for their well-formed, hardy feet that are a result of living on ideal environmental and dietary conditions.

Clinics & Studies

I have attended the following clinics:

  • Dr Strasser (the only trim method I do not recommend)
  • Dan Guerrera
  • Peter Laidley
  • Jayne Hunt, Equine Podiatry
  • Ian Whatley (KC LaPierre’s AEP instructor)

Other Studies

  • Applied Equine Podiatry online course
  • Pete Ramey
  • Maureen Tierney’s Hoof Guided Method

There are loads of trim methods to choose from, and the one I prefer is the biomechanically correct trim. Ie, trim according to what the horse needs at that time. The sole is your best guide for balance.

​Maureen Tierney’s HGM trim is the one I most recommend for anyone who wants to learn how to trim. Sadly she has passed away, but her books and DVD are still available online.

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