Natural Trimming and Shoeing -
The Hairline Tells It All
When was the last time you've been down on the ground beside your horse, and not because you've fallen there? Have you ever taken a good look at the hoof by actually lying on your stomach, flat out, eye level with the coronet band? Well, it's time you tried it. You may just find the answer to your horse's problems. The saying, "It's all riding on the hoof" applies here, because the hooves as the base of support affect the entire horse. An unbalanced hoof can cause innumerable problems from the ground all the way up to the ears! How can one tell if the hoof is balanced? It's really very simple - you look at the hairline. If you've ever wondered why your horse is lame or unsound, this is the first place to look. (See Figure 1.)
What can the hairline tell you? Plenty! According to Lyle 'Bergy' Bergeleen, founder of HoofTalk, Inc., "The hairline tells it all." What the hairline tells us, in any hoof, is where there is overloading. With uneven distribution of load, entire groups of tubules within the hoof wall will displace upward, creating an uneven hairline. A crooked hairline is unnatural; it is a horse crying out, "Please fix me!" (See Figures 2 and 3.)
Can a crooked hairline be prevented and corrected? Yes. A crooked hairline is not a conformation fault, yet it can cause faults. Fix the hairline and you will have comfortable conformation. Often "corrective shoeing" can force an artificial geometric standard and won't allow for differences in individual conformation. Says Bergy, "One of the goals at HoofTalk, Inc. is to help every farrier transcend from the realm of cripples and Band-Aids to the realm of lameness prevention with an in-depth understanding of proper base of support and medial lateral balance. We at HoofTalk strive to help all horse lovers advance in their knowledge and understanding of natural equine hoof care. Our mission is to bring to light the epidemic of unnatural feet and provide a cure through education." (See Figure 4.)
Natural balance and function
For a balanced hoof, the hoof wall, the sole, and the frog share equally in the dissipation of concussion; concussion should not be confined to certain areas such as described in other 'natural' methods. Even dissipation of concussion is registered as a one-plane symmetry of the hairline and is viewed as a straight line from the side. This is best seen with your chin on the ground!
"It's ideal for the conical shaped hoof capsule to share evenly in weight distribution," says Bergy. (See Figure 5.) "This will ensure a full, natural blood supply to the entire digit. When portions of hoof wall tubules displace upward, it's simply the horse telling us that a particular portion of the hoof is receiving more concussion." And we all know that excess concussion causes lameness of various kinds. According to Bergy, "The only lower limb lamenesses you can't prevent by watching a hairline are broken leg or founder."
Bergy's trademarked concept of recognizing hairline distortions, "HoofTalk", defines natural balance as "one-plane symmetry of the hairline". (See Figure 6.) Establishing and maintaining straight hairlines is maintaining natural balance. Says Bergy, "Each time your horse, mule, or donkey is properly trimmed or shod, the hairline will maintain or drift naturally towards straightness. It is only when I as a horseshoer fail to achieve a proper base of support or medial lateral balance that the hairline gets distorted."
Bergy explains, "HoofTalk equilibrium is the demonstration of a marvelous, unit coordination that can dissipate literally thousands of pounds of concussive force at high speed. We in the horse industry have for years realized the ability, and the need, of a hoof wall to contact the ground and distribute load. We recognized the ability of a hoof to expand outward and return to memory [original shape]. However, we were 'told' the expansion is from the last nail hole rearward, yet we can squeeze and compress any barefoot hoof and we will observe both branches of the hoof displaying movement all the way to the toe area. For farriers to use three nails to a side with the heel nail near the center of the hoof thus allowing only the heel regions to move is an out-dated idea that must be re-evaluated."
He continues, " When a hoof expands and contracts normally, some forces are dissipated while other forces are transferred to the skeletal bone column through the laminitic complex of the hoof. The bones then relay this load to the chest or the hips to be absorbed by the rest of the body. Trying to force the hoof walls to dissipate or transfer the entire load is where the problems begin."
Bergy explains, "In a natural hoof, both the sole and the frog aid the hoof wall in its shock absorption duties. The sole, which resembles a rubber pancake, sets at the bottom of the cone shaped hoof wall. It flexes and moves much like a diaphragm bladder in a water pressure tank or hydraulic system. The sole helps to encapsulate the bony column and the soft tissue, including body fluids. This fluid pressure-relief mechanism should not be restricted by horseshoes that are too rigid.
"The frog is V shaped and should become healthier and fuller from one shoeing to the next," says Bergy. "It is a major support mechanism to help support the weight of the bone column and must be in close proximity to the ground. The valleys on either side of the frog should be open at the heels so the hoof can clean itself. With each step, as dirt compresses in these valleys, the entire hoof ground surface can compress and spread outward, dissipating the load then returning to memory." (See Figures 7 and 8.)
Cause and effect
Hairline distortions, viewed from eye-level with the coronet band, fit into one of 3 different categories:
1. If only one side of a hoof capsule shows distortion, the medial lateral balance is improper. This contributes to quarter cracks, sheared heels or side bone, and at times, juvenile hock disorders.
2. If both sides are distorted equally, the base of support is improper, yet medial-lateral balance is correct. Note: This type of bilateral displacement is usually in conjunction with unhealthy frogs that try to slough once or twice a year, and is a direct result of trying to leave too much length of heel from one shoeing to the next. This can result in navicular syndrome, contracted heels, ring bone, or bowed tendons.
3. If both sides are displaying unequal distortions, it tells horsemen that they have a medial-lateral balance problem and a base of support problem. This contributes to any one of the before-mentioned lamenesses.
Here are a few common hoof problems and their causes:
Red staining of the white line in toe region: These isolated blood cells are proof of unnatural stretching up and forward of the hoof wall at the toe. This results from not properly backing up the toe of a hoof so that the hoof capsule will grow down instead of being stretched forward.
Shriveled frogs: Frogs should be full and weight bearing, not discontinuous and shriveled looking. On a natural foot the frogs will grow fuller and healthier from one shoeing or trimming to the next. When frogs are excessively full it generally indicates that inadequate hoof wall support has forced the frog to overcompensate by carrying a disproportionate amount of weight. (An elastic steel shoe will help grow hoof wall of greater substance by transferring more load to the hoof wall.)
Too short/too high heels: Heel lengths should be adequate, not excessive. If your horse's frogs are receding or sloughing once or twice a year, this is a sure sign that your shoer is leaving too much length of heel. If you don't place a frog in close proximity to the ground and use it, you will lose it. Under run heels or caudal heel syndrome are simply frontal toe disasters! A proper base of support is achieved when a shoer backs a toe up to the prescribed 1/3 measurement (see Figure 9). Never lower the heels on a hoof unless you know how to remove proper toe!
Red staining of the sole directly in front of the frog: Is most likely not stone bruising; actual stone bruising is rare. If this bruising were in fact stone bruising, it could at times appear on either side of this region, yet it appears almost exclusively dead center. These unnatural loadings are a result of a rigid shoe violating the ability of the hoof to expand naturally through the toe. When bruises are directly in front of the point of the frog they are in fact bruised from the coffin bone slapping the internal sole. They occur on thin walled hooves that have been shod with a shoe that is not elastic or forgiving enough to allow a hoof to expand naturally in an outward manner.
The natural hoof
So how does one make a natural hoof? How can we determine the proper base of support and length of toe for each individual hoof? According to Bergy, it is all very simple and the techniques can be applied successfully to every hoof.
First of all, front to back positioning of the hoof capsule is crucial. The commonly used method of aligning the hoof wall angle with the pastern angle places the foot too far forward relevant to the bone column. Remember, the hoof is supporting the body through the bone column, so a balance point where there is maximum concentration of force must be determined.
To do this, imagine a plumb line dropped from the heel bulb, at the rearmost point, to the ground. You can use a rasp placed across the bulbs to remember this plumb line and measure from it. Lift the hoof and measure from the bulb line (rasp) to the apex of the frog. Take one-third of that measurement, and measure from the apex back toward the heel. That point is termed the balance point, the point where the line of maximum force enters the bottom of the foot. The distance from the bulb line to the balance point should match the distance from the balance point to the toe. (Or, take the one-third measurement and measure from the apex to the toe.) For instance, if the measurement from bulb line to apex is 3 inches, then the balance point will be 2 inches from the bulb line and the toe. (See Figure 9.) The natural breakover for any hoof is this one-third measurement forward from the apex of the frog.
That is how much toe should remain in front of the apex. Any portion of hoof allowed to remain forward of that measurement will traumatize the limb with every breakover. (See Figure 10.) To get an idea of how the wall should grow downward, look at the top half-inch of hoof growth - it indicates the direction the wall needs to go. Why measure from the bulbs? Because they never change. The bottom of the hoof, the bars and heels, do change. This is why this method of measurement can be used on any hoof. Also, to finish the base of support, the heels may need to be shortened to bring the base back so it is situated properly beneath the bone column, and medial-lateral balance must be achieved.
A natural medial-lateral balance is the most difficult aspect of trimming a horse's hoof. Along with a flat surface, it's important to establish the length of one heel in the proper, natural relationship to the other heel. Heels do not need to be the same in length. What is necessary is a natural line of plane perpendicular to the direction of travel. Bergy's method is the only effective technique for adjusting the natural side-to-side balance of a limb by considering the relation of the joint surfaces to the midline of the bone column.
To observe this (from the horseshoer's position), pick up the hoof and slowly flex the ankle (pastern bone column), rotating it through its normal motion. Imagine an arrow on the ground that is parallel with the horse's spine and represents the direction of travel. As you tip the hoof away from you, watch the flat surface (the ground surface plane). It should disappear into a straight line. This line should be a right angle (90 degrees) to the arrow on the ground. Adjust the heel height accordingly. You may be able to see unloading of the quarter as you are observing this flat surface. Hairlines have memory and, when distorting forces are relieved, will relax back to a line of plane displaying symmetry!
To check for even weight distribution, try this simple test: Wet the hooves, including the hairline, and trot the just-trimmed horse on a level, hard surface for several minutes. An unnaturally trimmed foot will heat up the corneum in the most heavily loaded area. The individual hair shafts in these traumatized areas will point outward at 90 degrees from the hoof wall. Areas of extreme loading will also dry first because they heat up due to increased circulation. Ironically, this increased circulation speeds up the rate of growth, compounding the problem.
"It is important to realize the hairline distortions in older horses have occurred over a period of time because of the techniques that had been used and cannot be corrected overnight," says Bergy. "Our goal is to identify causes and make a slow transition towards natural balance."
Bergy says, "I've observed wild horse herds, whose environments demand exercise and provide adequate moisture and diverse surfaces, with very healthy feet - short toes, frogs on the ground, and one-plane symmetry of the hairline. When their environment becomes too dry, however, feet become shorter than normal with squared-off toes and extreme loading in the quarters." This hoof shape has been called "natural" by some yet it never displays a straight hairline.
When we consider the amount of money spent each year on lamenesses, it's easy to see that something is wrong somewhere, and the hoof is the natural place to start. Bergy says, "The most single source of lameness today is a result of trying to force hoof walls to dissipate or transfer the entire load. A natural hoof has both the frog and the sole in a position to aid the hoof wall in its shock absorption duties. Elasticity of the hoof to allow for expansion and contraction is critical. It's especially important to consider the need for this elasticity because today's horses, for the most part, have been bred for more speed and athletic ability, thus the thinner walls which need lightweight elastic shoes".
As a farrier for more than 30 years, Bergy says, "Back in the '60s it was common to pick up a foot and observe at least a half an inch thickness of wall at the quarter. Now, nearly every horse I shoe will have only a quarter inch thickness, or less." This type of 'class foot' demands that its shoer consider elasticity, shock absorption, pressure relief, and yet support at the shoe or ground surface. If a shoe is to work with the hoof rather than restrict its function, it must have flexibility, but it must also offer support.
"This is not an easy balancing act," says Bergy, "because the amount of forgiveness is counter to the amount of support dictated by function and environment. The traditional method is a six-nail pattern in front of the halfway point of a shoe to allow pressure relief. However, observation of the wear patterns at the bearing surface of old shoes helped me to realize that instead of an outward motion of the heels, they were in fact diving inward; the rigidity of the shoe was causing pressure relief at the corneum [insensitive tissue layer adjoining the corium, or coronet band] but an inward motion at the heels." Less heavy steel shoes applied with 8 nails produced healthier hooves and hoof growth, but lacked wearability and traction; reworking the toe to a narrower width allowed for great elasticity and support, but his customers thought it lacked support. Through experimentation, Bergy has solved this dilemma by devising a patented, flexible yet supportive shoe. (More information is available by contacting HoofTalk, below).
Some shoes, such as bar shoes, don't allow pressure relief because of their shape; others are too rigid because of excessive thickness or width or because of their metallurgic properties (stainless steel, aluminum, and titanium shoes). Plastic shoes allow pressure relief but have little support. Bergy feels we will be seeing the mild steel shoe reign supreme in the years ahead because it relieves pressure and offers more support; the shoe expands yet returns to memory.
Founder and navicular problems
Bergy explains, "I've yet to see a so-called navicular horse that didn't walk out more comfortably with a shoe exhibiting 'forgiveness'. The instant we allow a hoof to be natural, that is, close to the ground and expanding normally at the ground, we will attain maximum blood supply and the most natural function possible. That wasn't a promise I could make when I was an eggbar shoe salesman".
He adds, "Any foundered horse will improve the minute a shoer 'thinks natural'. The acute foundered horse gets 'real comfortable' when a sand box environment is imitated with the new silicone rubber products available from the dental industry and an elastic shoe that's been naturally fitted."
As for the chronically foundered horse, rotation of the coffin bone can be addressed by 'thinking natural' as well. The direction of the hoof wall growth can be adjusted to follow the coffin bone and reattachment will occur in most cases.
How the hoof is trimmed and shod is a major factor in preventing or contributing to lameness. An unnaturally balanced hoof - indicated by distortions and irregularities in the hairline - precedes nearly every lameness in the equine world. Poor nutrition, ill health, and injury can all cause lameness as well. When it comes to 'natural trimming and shoeing', there are many ideas spreading around the horse world, some good and some not so good. What is really best for our horses is what naturally works best for them - equilibrium. And straight hairlines tell us when they have it. Now that we know this and can recognize a distorted hairline, we can put an end to the needless suffering that has gone on so long regarding our horse's feet and the effects it all has on his whole body.
"Happy feet promote health, comfort, and longevity for your horse while providing satisfaction, confidence, and lower maintenance costs for you. If a horse could have long toes, long heels and straight hairlines, then that's what I'd do," says Bergy. "But horses have forced me to be a 'short footed' horseshoer because that's the only way for me to make a horse happy. And the horse has the final say."
For more information, visit HoofTalk's website, www.hooftalk.com .
Natural Horse Magazine thanks Lyle "Bergy" Bergeleen for his help in preparing this article.
High heels can result in:
1. Ring bone
2. Navicular syndrome
3. Short stride
4. Side bone
6. Quarter cracks
Long toes can result in:
2. Bowed tendons
3. Pulled suspensory
4. Caudal heel syndrome
5. Under run heels
6. Quarter cracks
Tilted hooves can result in:
1. Quarter cracks
2. Sheared heels
3. Broken bones