The Equine Balance Equation, Part 2: Balanced Feet

By Beth Brown

The Equine Balance Equation:

Balanced Teeth + Balanced Feet + Balanced Muscles + A Balanced Rider = A Balanced Horse

The equine athlete requires a healthy, balanced, foundation to perform his job with soundness and comfort. This element of the equine balance equation refers to the balanced, barefoot horse. This is not intended to insinuate that all horses can be used barefoot. However, I do believe that many horses can perform their jobs without shoes and travel soundly on healthy hooves.

The subject of barefoot trims is right up there with discussing politics or religion. I'm not out to start a battle among supporters of different trim theories and which one is best. What I do intend to do is describe the results of an effective trim and how a healthy, balanced hoof should appear. This article will not cover every aspect of hoof anatomy and function; it will cover the basics and shed some light on the feasibility of owning and using a sound, healthy and balanced barefoot horse.

There are two key elements needed to succeed with barefoot horses, whether newly de-shod or newly working: patience and recognition of change (positive or negative). Patience is necessary because hoof growth is a slow process. An effective barefoot trim stimulates proper hoof growth, however the amount of time required to fully enjoy a sound, barefoot horse depends heavily on the 'as found' condition of the horse's hooves. On the average, excluding founder and extreme cases of neglect, most horses will find barefoot comfort while performing their jobs within six to twelve months after de-shoeing, and perhaps faster for barefoot pasture bums returning to work. During this transition period, a horse may experience tender-footedness right after being trimmed and/or while walking on gravel or hard surfaces, as would any horse not accustomed to these conditions. Recognition of change is needed to assess the entire hoof capsule, because the whole hoof will experience change. These changes will be positive or negative. Not only does the horse owner have to notice changes in the hoof structure, the owner has to determine if the change is for the better or not.

An excellent indicator of progress is the thickness of the inner wall at the quarters of the hoof (explained later in this article). Notice the appearance and thickness of this layer each time the hoof is trimmed. A proper, natural trim will stimulate growth of this important layer. It will appear wider and healthier, which in turn will strengthen the outer wall at the quarters. Within one to two months, a noticeable change in the thickness of the inner wall should be apparent.

If positive changes are noticed, stick with the current program. If not, do some more research and keep your horse's well-being your first priority. Stay focused. You have an achievable goal: a sound, barefoot horse. Go with what works for you and your horse.

The following terms will be used in this article. Each is described here to promote understanding during descriptions of the hoof.

Hoof terms and how I use them:

* Coronary Band: (fig. 1) The junction between the skin and the hoof wall

* Hoof Wall: (fig. 1) Protective structure surrounding the sensitive tissues of the hoof

* Outer Hoof Wall: (fig. 3) Hard, dry barrier for strength and protection

* Inner Hoof Wall: (fig. 3) Moisture-retaining layer that provides connection between outer wall and insensitive laminae

* Insensitive Laminae: (fig. 3) Fibrous material connecting the hoof wall to the sole. Note: To keep this article basic, I am using the term "laminae", referring to the fibrous layer medial to the inner wall (toward the frog) rather than the soft 'white line' horn between the laminae and the sole.

* Quarters: (fig. 1 and 2) Hoof region between the heel and toe

* Bulbs of the Heel: (fig. 3) Blend with the frog and connect to the coronary band

* Frog: (fig. 3) Triangle-shaped component on the ground-surface area of the hoof that assists with blood circulation, shock absorption, and structural support.

* Central Groove: (fig. 3) Indentation on the surface of the frog. This groove should be shallow.

* Collateral Grooves: (fig. 3) Channels formed where bars meet frog

* Bar: (fig. 3) Support structure that is a continuation of the hoof wall. It extends from the heel and angles toward the frog in the quarter region

* Heel Purchase: (fig. 3) A very important support structure of the hoof located where the bar and the wall meet at the heel. Sufficient heel purchase is a necessity for a sound barefoot horse.

* Sole: (fig.3) Concaved surface area between the laminae and the bars/frog

* Break-over: The point at which the horse's hoof shows toe wear due to the horse rolling off his toe as he moves.

* Thrush: A fungal disease of the hoof. Thrush attacks the frog primarily at the central groove. It decomposes the frog, creates a deep central groove and can penetrate right through to the inner areas of the hoof. The central groove will have a black, tarry appearance and a strong foul odor. By damaging the frog, thrush threatens the lateral (side to side) support of the hoof and can lead to lameness.

To recognize healthy, balanced hooves, your examination should begin with the horse standing as squarely as possible with weight comfortably on all four feet. (Note: Your observations will deal with all four feet, however, for simplicity I am going to refer to only one hoof.)

- The slope of the hoof wall should follow the angle of its uppermost portion, about one inch below the coronet band. This area shows the natural angle of coffin bone attachment. (Figure 1) This angle represents the proper angle the rest of the hoof should follow to the ground, and can be checked with any convenient straight-edge. (Photo A)

- The quarters should not be 'flared-out', nor should the toe be long and protruding past the natural angle of the wall. Compare the hooves in Photo B, paying special attention to the straightness of the hoof wall from the coronary band to the ground.

- The hoof wall should be smooth, hard, and free of cracks.

- The coronary band should follow a flat plane, level when viewed from the front and sloping straight down toward the heel when viewed from the side - without bumps or bulges.

- The edge of the hoof should be nicely rounded to prevent chipping. The outer wall edge should be rounded back to expose the inner wall to pressure to stimulate proper hoof growth.

- The hoof wall should be trimmed so that the heel and toe regions (ground surface) are on a level plane.

- The quarter region of the hoof should not be exposed to excessive pressure. Excessive quarter pressure is largely responsible for distorting the coronary band plane and cracking/bulging the quarter region of the hoof. When weight-bearing (standing), the quarters should be level with or slightly above the plane created by the heel and toe regions.

When you are satisfied that the 'standing square' exam is complete, carefully lift up a hoof and start the 'bottom view' inspection.

After the hoof is cleaned, notice the health of the frog. It should be full and thick, with a shallow central groove. The height of the frog should be only slightly shorter than the heels. If the frog is small, thin or has a deep center groove, notice the odor of the frog - you may be looking at thrush.

The bars provide support and stability to the hoof, but are not meant to be completely weight bearing. The height of the bars should follow the concavity of the sole. (Compare Photo C to Photo D.)

The sole should be firm and concave. A flat, thick sole hinders the natural distortion of the hoof while the horse is in motion. (Just like your feet, horses' hooves flex and spring back as the hoof alternates between 'weight-bearing' and 'non-weight bearing' when the horse is in motion.)

The health of the inner wall is vital, because the inner wall must be healthy in order to have a healthy outer wall. By filing off a small layer of hoof wall, while holding the hoof as in figure 2, you will notice a lighter pigment of hoof material between the laminae and the outer wall (Figure 3). This is the inner wall. It should have a constant thickness the entire way around the hoof, heel to heel. In most cases, the inner wall will be thick at the toe and non-existent at the quarters. This is why the quarters break; it's a lack of healthy structure.

Photo A

Photo B

Photo C

Photo D

Check the condition of the insensitive laminae, which should appear fibrous and light yellow in color. The insensitive laminae are in poor health if black in color and/or absent creating a trench between the sole and the wall. This deterioration threatens structural integrity of the hoof.

Notice the amount of heel purchase the horse is standing on. A solid heel purchase is in the shape of a triangle, clearly showing the junction of the bar and the hoof wall. (Compare Photo C to Photo D.) A solid, healthy heel purchase is a necessity for any horse to travel in comfort and soundness.

Examine the toe region and determine where the 'break-over point' is. If the horse is traveling straight, the toe will be worn at the center-line of the hoof. Otherwise, the toe will be worn to one side or the other, indicating the horse is not traveling straight (which may or may not be a problem depending on the horse). Keep in mind that a horse may break over off center due to a conformation issue, not a trimming issue. Examine the entire horse. Note: Any attempt to change the horse's feet to offset a conformation problem is strongly discouraged. This only leads to muscle and joint problems. Work with the horse and not against him.

The final check is to watch the horse walk, trot and canter (if possible) toward and away from you. His gaits should be effortless and flowing; he should track up evenly with a comfortable, balanced head carriage.

Barefoot horses can do many jobs soundly and comfortably. If your horse is used to wearing shoes and you want to try going barefoot, remember, there is a transition period he must go through. His feet need to grow out and toughen up naturally, which takes time, no different than if someone took our shoes away from us. How long would it take for our feet to toughen up so we could run down the road? There are 'transition boots' available to help horses through the toughening up period. Don't get the wrong impression - I'm NOT talking about six to twelve months of lameness; I'm talking about tenderness on gravel and possible soreness one or two days after trimming. The horse should still be usable; one just has to be extra careful.

Being barefoot is very beneficial to the horse and his hooves. Healthy, balanced hooves are the basic foundation toward having a sound, balanced horse. By educating ourselves and checking our horses' hooves we can recognize problems before they happen, because the hooves affect the whole horse.

About the author:

Beth Brown is an Equine Dental Technician practicing a 'natural style' of horse dentistry, primarily using hand tools and patience to float/ balance horses' teeth. She researches and practices barefoot trimming and natural horsemanship-style training. She currently lives in Lancaster County , PA and helps care for 14 horses, 21 dogs and a wide variety of critters on her family's farm. Questions or comments are welcome.

B-B Equine Dentistry, LLC
Cochranville , PA