The topic of natural hoofcare is a vast one. Just as each horse is unique and built subtly different from all the rest, each hoof on each horse is also unique and subtly different.
This means, like the rose in the children’s story The Little Prince, that your horse is one-of-a-kind. No other horse is exactly like yours. Embrace her uniqueness. And endeavor to craft a trim that will provide the best natural hoofcare possible.
Consider what I was taught years ago from a learned veterinarian at a hoofcare convention. This doctor spent his entire hour stressing one very important fact: horses are asymmetrical. This means they are not built exactly the same from one side of their bones to the other, one side of the foot to the other, one side of the body to the other. They aren’t designed to be.
Think about that. We always want to push our horses and their hooves into nice little organized categories. We want perfection not only in function but in form. So, for example, when we have a horse with a higher, narrower right front foot, and a flatter, wider left foot, we interpret it as some kind of problem. And we go about wanting to correct it.
Back to basics
Instead of correcting, let’s get back to basics. Let’s get back to balancing each individual hoof capsule and supporting each individual limb around the inner-lying bones and tissues.
This can be done either barefoot, or in shoes – well-placed supportive shoes. In fact, I’ve found that many horses with lameness or distortion issues transition better into barefoot after a few rounds of good, supportive shoeing. During the shod transition, the new capsule grows down attached and the old flares visibly grow out. Now the horse may go barefoot with fewer issues, because the capsule is tighter, fitter, and better equipped.
As a side note (forgive my frankness), some horses, for therapeutic reasons, perform better in some form of shoe – maybe just fronts, maybe just hinds, maybe all the way around. Why rob your horse of the support she needs just because you prefer to see her barefoot?
Common hoof distortions
Providing natural hoofcare means recognizing a healthy hood versus an unhealthy one. So what makes good support, either bare or shod? How do we know whether the capsule is centered around the internal bones and tissues? What are we looking for that indicates all is well within? Most horses coming out of everyday shoes or even traditional barefoot trims (as opposed to natural trims) have some type of hoof distortion.
1. Feel the hoof wall just under the coronet. The first 1/2 II or so of wall lines up with the inner-lying coffin bone. If this area is at a steeper angle than the rest of the hoof, and you feel the capsule flare outward when you run your fingers down the wall, chances are the breakover is too far forward and the capsule needs to be brought back. By bringing the breakover point back – nipping or rockering back the toe – the new wall can grow down at a steeper angle with tighter attachment for a better functioning hoof.
2. Often the heels are long and run forward These may be gently coaxed back to allow for better alignment. As far as side-to-side (or medial-lateral) balance goes, the live plane of the sole is an effective reference.
3. The sole, whether flat or cupped, reflects the underlying coffin bone. If the bone is flat, yet you want a cupped sole, good luck. You may gain ground by allowing more bar, wall and heel to give a more cupped appearance to the bottom of the foot, but the bone itself will dictate the actual cupping.
It will take time to grow a new hoof capsule: the magic number seems to be about seven or eight months. The plane of the sole and the tightness of the capsule will change most dramatically during this time. Then the hoof tends to “stabilize”. From then on it should require simple maintenance, and the balance and plane should remain consistent.
Developing a trim for your horse
As natural hoofcare providers, we meet each new horse equipped with our training, skills and experience, and make a plan as to where to begin.
We start crafting the hoof toward a more natural form, bringing the capsule back as needed. And we let nature do its work. The horse moves during turnout, and is not left standing in a stall. The hooves are also exposed to moisture – water and mud. The movement and moisture work over time to begin to allow changes in the hoof and improve its function.
When we return to do another trim, we read the progress and steer the capsule again toward the desired result. In our quest for sound bare feet, we may discover that a certain horse needs more heel. More sole. More bar.
More hoof wall. She’s tender when we take it, sounder when we leave it. So we listen, and adapt our trim to her specific needs. We keep notes. We watch her diet. We become specialists in providing her with her best trim. This is natural support. It addresses her flat feet or her high-low conformation or her cracks or flares – because we’ve taken her complete picture into consideration.
One trim does not fit all
Horses and their hooves are a deep, fluid topic. One trimming formula cannot work for every hoof. Just as I swear by my Ariats and my friend her Birkenstocks, horses require different approaches depending on their individual situations, environment, conformation, breeding, and use.
The greatest frustration with following a trimming formula such as “bring the heels, toes and breakover back” is that it doesn’t work equally for every hoof or for every horse. Some horses actually have negative coffin bones, meaning that the bone sits inside the hoof capsule tilted backwards toward the heel. Removing heel on these horses to bring the capsule back to center doesn’t work. These horses need more taken from the toe and more height left at the heel. This doesn’t sound like a formula for natural hoofcare, but for these individuals, it is.
How would you know if your horse has negative coffin bones? Work with a good vet and get radiographs. Usually the horse shows some sign of abnormality: lameness, bruising at the heels, long “floppy” tendons, or perhaps a bull-nosed lump or triangular shape to the dorsal hoof wall. It could be the fronts, the hinds, or all the way around. I’ve had more than one veterinarian tell me to keep bringing the breakover back, back, back! Way beyond the point I would normally feel comfortable. But they could tell me this with confidence because the radiograph indicated that the hoof in question needed it.
There is a lot to consider when it comes to natural hoofcare. As a friend recently said to me: “Horses are just like people – everybody’s feet are different.” Heck, my right foot is bigger than my left, and tighter-fitting in my shoes. I wear magnets in my boots, and arch supports, or I go lame. Why would we expect anything different from our horses?
Dawn Jenkins specializes in natural hoofcare in Southern California and Hawaii. She is a student of Gene Ovnicek, Pete Ramey, and her old-time farrier uncle, Ink Knudson, who at the age of 80 still works under horses! Dawn has been trimming since 1990. She teaches hands-on hoofcare, trimming and shoeing to those who are bold enough to dare. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, 661-245-2182 or 661-703-6283.