Hoof wear and tear is natural, but have you ever looked at the wear patterns on your horse’s feet. They’re telling you something important.
Have you ever wondered if the wear patterns on your horse’s hooves indicate a gait or soundness issue? Is it possible for a horse’s feet to get worn down too much when he’s ridden without hoof boots or shoes? Veteran hoof care professional Jaime Jackson joins us for the second half of a two-part Q&A series on hoof wear. This time, we’ll cover wear patterns as they relate to hoof abnormalities, and how and when to remedy hoof wear.
EW: Which areas most commonly suffer excess wear, and what do these particular patterns indicate? Do certain lameness problems or gait abnormalities present with specific wear patterns?
JJ: I talked about “bull nosing” of the outer wall in the first part of this article series. If we now turn our attention to the bottom of the hoof, where actual weight bearing forces occur, I have to say that excess wear, per se, isn’t really a problem – unless the hoof is “over-trimmed” to begin with. I can testify to hooves wearing in unnatural patterns, but I personally have never seen a hoof that was “too worn”. Insufficient wear would be a more accurate characterization.
For example, a toe wall that appears to be wearing more heavily than the heels, or more to one side than the other, simply means the rest of the hoof wall is in need of trimming. Conversely, heels that seem too worn (too short), coupled with a very forward-looking toe, most likely means the toe wall is simply too long and is in need of trimming, whereas the heels are just fine. Most of the time, the entire hoof bearing surface (including the bars, sole and frog) needs to be trimmed, with some parts requiring more trimming than others due to the uneven (unnatural) wear patterns.
The frog is often an object of much concern when it comes to wear. In its natural state, it lies passively between the heel buttresses and the bars, eventually integrating more or less level with the sole near its apex (“point of frog”). I use this conformation as the template or guideline for trimming the frog. When the frog grows beyond these parameters, due to insufficient wear, I simply trim it back to where it belongs.
The presence of any asymmetric “left foot” to “right foot” wear patterns in either a shod or barefoot hoof would concern me. Tracking these to obstructions of the horse’s natural gaits, shoeing, and hooves trimmed outside the parameters of H and HTL, goes well beyond the scope of this discussion. I will mention two such examples, though, as they are relatively commonplace, poorly understood and, in my judgment, trimmed harmfully in contraindication of the principles of biodynamic hoof balance. These are the “club foot” and “wry foot”.
EW: What is a club foot, and how does hoof wear contribute to its development?
JJ: The unborn young of equines assume fetal positions that bend the longitudinal axis of the torso from side-to-side. In the wild, this “crooked” conformation is “straightened” at birth and thereafter by the gymnastisizing influences of a rigorous lifestyle. Because Equus caballus is a prey type herd animal, he instinctively lives with an innate fear of predators, endowing him with the survivalist habit of looking constantly to his left and right for intruders that may prey on him. Living vigorously, and ever on the move, he is also an athlete and uses his natural gait complex to its fullest in order to survive. His grazing habits, lowering his head to the ground to eat, and raising and bending his neck on the lookout for predators, is part of his athleticism, and the process “rounds” his back and strengthens its muscles.
This is hardly the case with most domestic horses who are born “crooked” and stay that way throughout their lives due to years of confined living, harmful diets that cause foot pain, and the absence of any modicum of natural socialization with other horses. Unless the owner fully understands the tenets and practices of “classical horsemanship” (referred to as “non-competitive dressage”), which decry the paramount importance of “straightening” the horse’s body and “rounding” his back in preparation for all advanced riding (including supporting the rider’s weight), he will forever remain “bent” and at risk for what I am about to describe. Sadly, I know few equestrians who are aware of these classical principles, and fewer still who “train” their horses with them in mind.
It is well known among classical horsemen that the concaved (“hollow”) side of a crooked horse is the weaker side, and must be strengthened if the horse is to be “straightened” and made an athlete. Failure to do this leads to a breakdown of the musculoskelature (bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles) on the weak side. I have kept data records on many horses over the years and am able to correlate club-footedness and lameness to elevations in a hoof’s angle of growth (H). This cross-correlation is significant and useful, in my opinion, for predicting impending lameness.
Asymmetric (left versus right hoof) elevations in H are probable sub-clinical indicators of pain somewhere in the musculoskelature of the horse’s hollow side. The rider would feel this as a distinct “miss” (the horse suddenly “giving” or “falling off”, as with a limp) when riding at the trot and, specifically, over one of the diagonally supporting limbs (the front leg 95% of the time). The hoof supporting the affected limb will measure, or begin to measure, an elevation in H. As the condition deteriorates, the hoof further deforms, with H becoming steeper yet. Typically, the entire hoof capsule contracts from side to side (mediolaterally) and front to back (anteroposteriorly) as pain intensifies in the upper body. The opposing limb then assumes a more compensatory, load-bearing role, becoming wider, longer (front to back) and even “flatter” (i.e., less volar concavity than it previously had). Eventually, and inevitably if there is no intervention, the natural gait complex collapses and the horse becomes unusable and probably terminally lame.
In the end, the “boxy” upright hoof, usually a front hoof, is so contracted that it cannot be trimmed into a normal shape. When this is the case, the hoof is said to be a “club foot” (Fig. 1a). A “true” club foot, in fact, cannot be trimmed to be “normal”. H will vary by degrees from horse to horse, but will always be steeper than its opposing pair (Fig. 1b). For example, if the left front hoof is clubbed, it will measure at a higher angle of H than the right front hoof. The same foot will also have a smaller ground-bearing surface. It is important to understand, however, that the clubbed hoof itself is not in pain. I’ve seen no evidence of this. It is simply assuming its upright conformation to form a “crutch” to better support the traumatized hollow side of the limb and body, from which – somewhere – the pain is emanating.
Most club-footedness occurs in the front feet (although I have seen it occasionally in the hinds). This is probably because the added weight of the rider moves the horse’s center of gravity away from the hindquarters, thereby subjecting the forehand to greater weight-bearing forces. A club foot cannot be reversed, unless trauma to the hollow side is caught early enough and stopped. A new hoof must be grown; if its club-footedness continues, then the damage to the horse above the hoof is very likely permanent. The humane course of action is to sustain the club foot, trimming it to the Healing Angle, and avoiding gimmicky “corrective” trimming or shoeing methods.
In conclusion, monitoring for sudden elevations in H is critically important in the prevention of club-footedness and, more importantly, damage to the horse’s upper body. Just as crucial, if not moreso, is learning to ride more naturally (straightening and rounding the horse through systematic training), and providing more natural boarding conditions.
EW: What does “wry foot” mean and how does it arise? Can anything be done about it?
JJ: Wry foot means the hoof has literally grown lopsided. Characteristically, the lateral (outside) wall becomes steeper and “rolls under” towards the underside of the foot; the medial (inside) wall collapses in a “flare” in the same direction (i.e., towards the opposing limb). Wry foot typically arises in horses that do not stand “straight” legged, such as “toe in” or “toe out” conformations, and are subjected to “corrective” trimming and shoeing methods to force them to do so. This is inhumane, in my opinion. If people want a straight-legged horse, they should find one born that way.
Horses with “toe in” or “toe out” conformation should be trimmed no differently than horses standing “straight”. That is, when trimmed according to their respective Healing Angles, each will stand according to his own unique upper leg/body conformation – toe in, toe out, etc. Problems begin when the trimmer attempts to lower or raise one side of the hoof more than the other to get the hoof to stand “straight”, often at the owner’s or trainer’s request. Farriers may use mechanical wedges to achieve this, forcing the hoof to pivot in place. The entire limb above the hoof is then affected, along with the descending weight-bearing force. It is the displaced weight-bearing force that acts pathologically upon the supporting hoof, deforming or “wrying” it in the process. The deformed hoof, in turn, obstructs the natural gaits and a vicious cycle of “deformity and dysfunction” ensues, leading to lameness. Figures 2a,b and c show two examples of wry feet.
Wry-footedness is a serious and complex deformity. Precisely trimming the afflicted hoof to its Healing Angle over many months is of paramount importance to precipitating healthful hoof and upper body changes. As the hoof becomes less and less deformed, more natural movement is facilitated and the biodynamic cycle of healthful “form and function” leading to optimal equilibrium can be attained. I want to emphasize that a vital key to healing the wry-footed horse is to provide ample turnout space for him to move around naturally and vigorously with other horses 24/7. Stall rest, parttime turnout and isolation from other horses are contraindicated and will only delay healing.
EW: How do you remedy the areas that have been worn down? In extreme cases, might a horse need shoes for a time to help balance the foot until the hoof wall grows out, or are there other ways to deal with it?
JJ: Happily, nearly all unnatural wear patterns, including excessive wear, are correctable with natural horse and hoof care practices. But you must learn to distinguish between unnatural wear “patterns”, insufficient wear, and excessive wear to understand what to do. This requires education. Understanding H (Healing Angle) and HTL (Healing Toe Length) is an important part of this education. Working with a certified natural hoof care practitioner is the smartest thing an interested horse owner can do.
Shoes are unnecessary and undesirable for correcting or preventing unnatural wear. In fact, shoeing is the worst thing you can do! There are two fundamental reasons. First, the presence of the shoe weakens the epidermal architecture of the hoof, rendering it a pathetic parody of what it is actually capable of becoming. Second, the shoe also obstructs the formation of active and passive wear patterns – essential for biodynamic hoof balance. The damage caused by shoeing is apparent by simply removing the shoe, looking at the hoof with the naked eye and watching the horse try to move naturally. This damage can be reversed by taking the shoes off and leaving them off, and using natural hoof care methods. Nature needs time to heal the damage and assert its active and passive wear patterns. Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the damage caused by shoeing, and the healing facilitated by using natural hoof care.
The big “fear” among those considering barefoot riding seems to be that the hooves are going to wear away faster than they can replenish themselves with new growth. This is actually pretty hard to do; you would almost have to live in the saddle 24/7 to wear a hoof through. The solution is simple: monitor HTL, trim to H and use hoof boots if necessary. In cases of hypersensitivity, work with your natural hoof care professional to find the cause, such as a diet causing laminitic inflammation. In my 37 years as a hoof care specialist, I have yet to run into a horse that could not transition successfully to going barefoot.
Jaime Jackson is a 35-year veteran hoof care professional, lecturer, author, researcher and noted expert on wi ld and domestic horse hooves. In the early 2000s, Jaime created the American Association of Natural Hoof Care Practitioners, now called the Association for the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices (aanhcp.net). He has written two books: The Natural Horse: Lessons from the Wild, and most recently, Paddock Paradise: A Guide to Natural Boarding. Jaime resides in central California and continues to maintain a trimming and rehabilitation client base.