Contracted heels are a common health problem, but they don’t have to become your horse’s “new normal”.
Read any horse care literature these days and you’ll come across a myriad of information about the importance of proper hoof care. Traditionally, it’s been the primary responsibility of the farrier and veterinarian. Now, thanks to a growing recognition of the importance of natural horse care and the barefoot movement, more and more riders are taking an active role in their horses’ hoof health.
Horse care professionals should certainly remain a valuable resource and point of contact, of course, but in order to do the best by our horses, we should know what a properly functioning hoof looks like, and be able to identity some of the most common problems.
Identifying contracted heels
One of the most common hoof ailments is contracted heels. It’s become so prevalent, in fact, that many of us don’t even recognize it as a problem – quite often a contracted hoof looks “normal” to us.
When viewed from the bottom, a healthy front hoof is fairly round and symmetrical; a healthy hind hoof is somewhat more oblong. The frog takes up about 2/3 the hoof’s length, and over half the space across the back.
Contracted heels are usually defined by a narrowing of the hoof’s entire back area so that it appears longer than wider. The heels appear to be pinched towards each other and the heel bulbs and frog get compressed. In some cases, the heels actually curve inward at the bars. From behind, the hoof looks as if the walls have been put in a vice and squeezed together. The base and heel bulbs create a v-shaped pattern, instead of a horizontal line.
The Frogs Have It
The frogs of healthy front and hind hooves should be fairly wide at the back, and touch the ground along with the heels when the hoof is bearing weight. You should not be able to slip anything underneath the frog from the back of the hoof when the horse is standing on firm level ground.
A healthy hoof’s central sulcus (middle of the frog’s widest part) resembles a shallow diamond shape. The frog of affected hooves gets squeezed between the now narrow heel and bar area. Quite often, the frog will be lifted up out of a weight-bearing role and begin to atrophy through lack of use. When this happens, the central sulcus resembles a narrow slit, which more often than not will become infected with thrush.
An easy way to quickly identify contracted heels is to draw a line from the frog’s apex through the collateral groove, out past the heels. The extended line should pass on the outside of the heel bulb, not dissect it. If it does the latter, the hoof is contracted!
What Are The Implications?
Without the frog’s support on the ground, proper hoof mechanism and shock absorption can no longer function properly. The back part of the hoof – frog, heels and bars – is designed to take the impact of each stride and dissipate the shock. Once contraction starts, the hoof becomes narrower during its weight-bearing stage instead of widening. This in turn constricts the nerves and blood vessels, puts improper pressure on the bones, ligaments and cartilage of the hoof, and compresses the heel bulbs.
In an attempt to relieve the pain, the horse will begin to stand forward on her toes, and move so her toes hit the ground before her sensitive heels do.
This in turn overloads the front regions of the corium (the vascular and nerve structures within the hoof), and the front edge of the coffin bone presses down on the inside of the sole. Blood flow through the sole corium is reduced, resulting in the production of poorer quality hoof horn. Because the horse stands and moves in a way that reduces pressure on his heels, they begin to grow more quickly through lack of wear, making the hooves steeper. This change in hoof angle affects tendons, joints and ligaments further up the leg.
Steep heels can no longer expand properly and contract the hoof even more with each step. Many common hoof ailments are thought to be associated with the resulting pinched heels and bars: corns, navicular and clubfeet, to name a few.
Causes of Contracted Heels
Shoeing and/or incorrect trimming of unshod hooves, combined with unsuitable ground (too soft and/or wet) and insufficient movement appear to be the major causes of contracted heels. Shoes are said to restrict proper hoof mechanism and do not allow for the proper expansion of the back of the hoof, regardless of the trimming method used.
If the toe has been allowed to grow forward and the bars have been left unattended, this can pull the entire hoof capsule forward, which in turn can pull the heels together. Long toes and low heels as well as unbalanced feet and overgrown hooves can all contribute to contraction.
If your shod horse is showing evidence of contraction – go barefoot! Have the hooves trimmed so the horse can comfortably land heel first. Usually this means backing off a toe that has grown too far forward, and bringing the heels back to the widest part of the frog, without invading the hard sole at the heel/bar junction. It may mean using pads and hoof boots to keep your horse comfortable during the transition period. It is important to get the foot to take proper weight as soon as possible, yet keep it tolerable for the horse – this will start to reverse the destructive process of contracted heels.
If your horse is already barefoot, review trimming methods with your farrier or trimmer. Perhaps the toe is left too long, or the heels too high? Are the bars unaddressed? Discussing proper trimming methods is beyond the scope of this article, but don’t be afraid to talk about options with your hoof care professional, and do some qualified research. Trimming the feet regularly with a natural non-evasive trim should result in heel expansion after a few sessions.
Dealing with Thrush
Thrush is an underestimated cause of lameness in horses, and no hoof can be properly rehabilitated if it is infected. Most contracted heels will have thrush in the central sulcus of the frog as well as the collateral grooves on either side. Be aggressive about treating the infection, but do use a solution that does not harm viable tissue. Powerful remedies (i.e. bleach) may kill thrush bacteria, but they also damage viable tissue, and in essence create more “food” for bacteria to thrive on.
The horse’s environment also plays an important role in hoof health. Ideally, most footing should be firm and semi-abrasive. This allows for the hoof to expand against a solid support with each step, and the hoof wall to wear appropriately. If your horse lives mainly on soft ground, try to make a point of walking up a road or on other firm surfaces as much as possible.
Reshaping contracted hooves into healthy, natural hooves can take weeks, months or years, depending on individual circumstances and existing damage.
Contracted hooves are a serious and complex problem. horses can suffer some form of hoof contraction. Make sure your hoof care professional is dedicated to a chosen method that focuses on total soundness and longevity for your horse, rather than just covering up problems. Learn about proper hoof shape and function, what the tissues need to heal and be healthy, and discuss the process with your farrier/trimmer.
Each hoof is different – forged by diet, exercise, environment and breed – but it follows a basic parameter and ideal form that allows it to function efficiently. A wide frog and heel base are paramount to proper hoof function, and any deviation should be noted and addressed.
Johanna Neuteboom is a professional barefoot trimmer and natural horse care advocate, living and working in the Muskoka region of Ontario. For more information on her services, visit barnboots.ca.