How does one recognise deformity (and therefore pathology) and discomfort in the hoof? Before even looking at the hoof itself, a great deal of insight may be gained by the horse’s posture, how he moves and holds himself that can indicate whether the horse is comfortable in himself or not. Throughout the course of this article will be line drawings interspersed with text; these drawings have been made from actual photographs and so are accurate representations of how actual horses present.

Horses are able to remain upright for extended periods of time with little to no muscular effort by engaging their stay apparatus- an assortment of tendons and ligimentous structures that, when in balance, are able to support the weight of the horse much like a system of pulleys and guy wires. Any time the stay apparatus is unable to function, the horse is using muscular effort to hold himself up, and is expending effort when he shouldn’t be. Many ‘hard keepers’ fit into this category.
In order for the stay apparatus to be able to function, the horse must be loading his limbs evenly. A comfortable horse is able to stand contentedly with all four cannon bones perpendicular with the ground. The basics are simple. The horse will try to unweight the part of the hoof that is causing him trouble. A horse that appears to lean forwards or stand underneath himself is most likely trying to unweight sore heels. A horse that appears to be leaning backwards with his feet forwards is most likely trying to unweight sore toes. Picking up these unnatural postures, however, is not so simple for in all cases if the postures are only slight. The more extreme the posture, the easier it is to detect.


This horse appears to be hunched forwards, dumping the weight on his forehand. The cannons are obviously not perpendicular to the ground. He is sagging in the abdominals and hollowing his back out. This horse presented with high, impacted bars and high heels. Compare to his posture immediately after the bars were trimmed back hard and heels lowered:


Yes it is the same horse!

Notice how the horse carries himself differently. He is no longer hollowing out in an attempt to unweight his sore heels. His cannons are perpendicular to the ground and he is comfortably standing square. There is a much more even distribution of weight between the hind and fore quarters.

Posture such as this indicates a heel problem. In this case it was bars being levered into the hoof capsule and high heels causing the problem; however any number of issues in the caudal hoof can present in a similar stance, such as underrun heels, laid over bars, or general sensitivity in the heel region.


Heel pain is obvious to detect when it presents as extreme as this, but can often be more insidious.


This is a much more subtle variation of the posture. Often this would not even get a second look; but the cannons are not perpendicular to the ground, the horse is dumping weight onto the forehand and there is tension in the shoulders as the muscles are under strain in an attempt to unweight the caudal hoof.

Heel pain can sometimes present as a steep shoulder. This is often written off as a conformational fault of the horse, but if a horse steepens the shoulder angle, that is an indication that the muscles are taut and bunched up, pulling the shoulder steep and making the shoulder appear steeper than it is.


This mare appears to have a very upright shoulder. Compare to after a trim:


The forelegs are more squarely under the chest, and the shoulder has relaxed. It has a much nicer angle to it. Also consider how the muscles of the rump have relaxed. All this mare needed was a tidy up of the bars which had begun to lay over the sole. Very simple things such as this can make a big difference to a horse’s comfort.

Compare the postures of horses experiencing some degree of heel pain to horses that are loading their feet comfortably. Their limbs are squarely underneath the body, with cannons perpendicular to the ground.




At the opposite end of the scale from the postures associated with heel pain are those of pain in the toe area. In this stance, the horse will shift his weight backwards and onto his heels. His front feet will be out in front of his body and his hind legs underneath him to support his weight. This is a stance typical of founder ponies.


Or the less extreme version:


As with the stance typical of heel pain, the back is hollowed out, though some horses will roach their backs in an attempt to completely unload the toes of the forefeet.

Any alteration of the horse’s posture will have an effect on the horse’s musculoskeletal system and his biomechanics. Naturally, poor posture lends itself to poor (and inefficient) movement. The horse that holds himself with tension in some areas will be more difficult to gymnastacise than the horse that can stand and move without tension. The horse that is not compensating for foot problems through his musculature will generally present with more even muscle development and a more natural way of going, without any of the shortness, choppiness, or distortion of gait associated with those that are. Peak performance from equine athletes, therefore, must start from the ground up.

Sub-clinical lameness has been associated with adaptations in the horse’s posture. As touched on above, the horse will attempt to unweight the part of the hoof that is causing him the most problems, and this is also true with reference to the horse’s movement. Although the horse may appear sound to the uneducated eye, there will be a certain quality to his way of moving that is detectable to those who know what to look for. A horse sore is the heels will be reluctant to weight them; he may resist moving out properly and landing heel-first, may be reluctant to engage his hindquarters and will not enjoy walking downhill. He may hollow out and resist jumping. All of these issues are related to a reluctance to load the heels. Restore proper hoof form and function, and as the pain resolves and the horse becomes comfortable in his heels he will again begin to load them again, and any gait abnormalities caused by the heel pain should be alleviated. A horse sore in the toes will attempt to keep them off the ground as long as possible, often high-stepping and with an exaggerated heel-first landing, and often will move with a kind of rope-walking motion. The horse will be unable to move out properly, and will often resist any kind of movement at all. With both heel and toe pain, the gaits will suffer, and, of particular importance to the human, the horse will be unable to use himself to his potential.


For the purposes of this article, the phalangeal lever refers to the arrangement of the distal phalanx within the hoof capsule, with particular attention given to the natural lever action of the distal phalanx in response to the forces experienced upon breakover.

In a properly proportioned hoof, this action will have no ill-effects; but in a hoof of incorrect proportions it can exert tremendous force, with destructive effects on the structures of the hoof capsule.

A hoof in physiological alignment will have a ground parallel coffin bone (GPCB), mediolateral balance, short (but not too low) heels and short toes (no more than ½ the length of the widest part of the frog to its apex from the apex to the toe). This alignment allows for a correct relationship between the hoof’s various structures and optimum functioning of the hoof and lower limb. Any time the hoof capsule has been allowed to grow longer than it should, it is no longer in physiological balance, and damage will ensue. It is when the hoof is overlong that the normal operating forces of the phalangeal lever become damaging to the hoof’s tissues and function.

Long toes in particular have dramatic effect on the hoof; the hoof will run forward, and increase the distance between digital (the point in time when the distal edge of the pedal bone leaves the ground) and mechanical (the point in time when the most cranial aspect of the hoof wall leaves the ground) breakover. The correct relationship of breakover to the average sized hoof is approximately ¼” in front of the pedal bone’s distal edge. Low heels when coupled with long toes will exert extreme force on the hoof, most especially during breakover. This will continue to overstress the laminar bond and pull the hoof forward. The excess toe length can overstress the DDFT (Deep Digital Flexor Tendon) and DFT (Digital Flexor Tendon) which can result in injuries such as pulled tendons. Additionally, horses with a shallow hoof form will often find it difficult to land heel-first, and will be forced to instead land on their toes. Toe-first landings have been associated with lameness for years, and some even speculate that these heel-first landings are a contributing factor to the onset of navicular disease.


Which hoof will find it easier to fulcrum over, that with the short toes or that with the long?

The inverse, of course, is the steep hoof with high heels and a shallow toe. In this case, not only is the pedal bone no longer ground-parallel, but the flexor and extensor systems are unable to function properly, and both will be overstressed as the horse attempts to find a comfortable way of weighting his imbalanced hooves. Often this will be the horse leaning forwards and away from his high heels, with his cannons no longer perpendicular to the ground- rather, they will be more underneath himself toward his centre of gravity. The ill effects of such a stance muscularly aside, the horse standing underneath himself will have his extensors slackened and his flexors taut; increasing the pull on what is usually an already compromised lamellar bond. If the lamellar bond should fail in a bout of founder, this steepened hoof form has set the horse up for sole penetration. During breakover there will be excessive pressure at the toe both from the ground surface (due the elevation of the pedal bone concentrating the load) and from the flexor tendon internally pulling on a pedal bone that is already rotated downwards. Until this hoof form is rectified, these damaging forces will continue to exist and cause detriment to the hoof’s structures.

A good rule of thumb is to trim hooves to a uniform sole thickness as best as can be told, while keeping the toes short enough so as to avoid dysfunction.

With the relatively new trend of barefoot trimming, increasing numbers of horse owners are saying goodbye to metal shoes and their damaging effects on the hoof, and hello to keeping their horses without. Horseshoes have been decried for being the primary cause of hoof deformation, and the existence of a well-shod hoof is loudly denied. Horseshoes are touted as being evil harbingers of pathology, and every shod hoof is unsound and just won’t do, even if the horse presents as sound. But why is it, then, that an unshod hoof can exhibit the same pathology as the shod hoof, just simply due to the absence of irons and the horse appearing sound, that hoof is considered to be healthy and functional? Welcome to the world of cognitive dissonance in unshod hoof care.

Owners and hoof trimmers are presented with a paradox; a horse with bad feet in shoes is considered unsound, but a horse without shoes with the same bad feet that walks around sound must not have bad feet. It is an example of Moore’s paradox: “The feet are unhealthy, but I don’t believe they are.” When the measure of hoof care changes from true health of the hooves to performance, standards are compromised, and the hoof carer that marks his or her success only on the apparent soundness of their charges cannot in true conscience hold the two dissonant beliefs to be true- either the hooves are healthy, or they are not. The performance of sub-optimal hooves is unremarkable- sub-optimal hooves are everywhere, and it is not because they are healthy that they appear to work; they appear to work in spite of being sub-optimal, which is a constant source of confusion. The work of the hoof carer should always revolve around the constant improvement of the health of the hooves, not becoming fixated on keeping a “lame” horse “sound.” With true health of the hooves will come real soundness, not that which masquerades as it in the hordes of unhealthy hooves the world over.

Some hoof carers have become confused with the negative pragmatism surrounding hooves and trimming. Ideas that do not work cannot possibly be true, though ideas that do work may or may not be true. This negative pragmatism exists within both the shoeing and trimming paradigms; farriers assert that a shod horse that appears sound is sound, and most trimmers assert that an unshod horse that appears sound is sound. In both cases, though, the horse in question may not be truly sound (sound in this sense meaning the absence of pathology in the hoof or deformation of the hoof capsule). The statements may or may not be true, but both are upheld by their respective parties as such. The problem lies in a lack of consistency in standards, and even differing opinions on what a healthy hoof is.

When unhealthy hooves that perform are touted as being healthy, our standards slip. So long as the horse performs, all is said to be okay. The problem with this is that mediocrity is deemed acceptable. When hoof carers aim for mediocrity, the horse suffers. Truth is the agreement of a premise or judgement with reality. Validity is the adherence to rules of logic in the relationship between premises and conclusions. Make sure that you do not settle for mediocrity in your horse’s hooves, and that your horses hooves are truly healthy, and not just performing regardless.

Part 2

The hoof is a dynamic structure, and is constantly changing in response to

~ The environment

~ The diet

~ The movement of the horse

~ The way the hoof has been trimmed or not

and as such, is malleable and able to be manipulated to a degree (which is good news from a rehabilitative perspective!). Any deviation from the hoof’s ideal, correct form is considered a deformity. So, we can say that a hoof that has deformed must then be considered to be pathological.

Deviations from correct hoof form are due to one or more of the above factors, and all factors are continuously interacting. In order to restore the hoof to its proper form, the factors that are promoting the unhealthy form must be altered. If the hoof is considered in geometric terms, it is very predictable in the way in which it will react to stress, load and environmental stressors. This knowledge can be used to help determine which factor(s) are causing the hoof to deform. Pathology will often cause very consistent consequences to the hoof, those of greatest importance being the impairment of proper function and a reduction in capsular integrity.

A ‘good foot’ will exhibit most (if not all) of the characteristics discussed earlier. From the solar view, it will present something like this


The distances (a) and (b) are equal, and if the hoof were divided into thirds, no more than one third is beyond the apex of the frog. It has wide bulbs and frog (note the shallow central sulcus), straight bars that end halfway down the frog, weightbearing is set back at the widest part of the frog, and has good thickness of wall.

Compare to


where the distances (x) and (y) are discrepant; it is obvious that there is more hoof to the right of the hoof. See how this has impacted the angle of the bars- they too have become unequal, with angle (b) being greater than angle (a). The bars themselves are also asymmetrical, one being more curved than the other. With this comes contracture of the heel bulbs as the bulb to the left splays out. There is too much horn forward of the frog apex, though the walls appear to be of adequate (if differing) thickness.



where the bars are obviously bent; line (a) illustrates where the straight bar should lie. Line (b) is drawn from the apex of the frog to the outside of the heel bulbs; the presence of horn inside of this line indicates that the hoof is contracted. With bent bars, there will invariably be contraction. Bent bars are akin to an internal flare of the wall and reflects that internal structures are being pulled in towards each other, resulting in a narrowing of the heels, even if other structures (such as a wide frog) may suggest otherwise.


Here the heels are obviously contracted; note the prominent fissure where the shallow central sulcus should be (it has been pressed in on itself to form the fissure). Note the prominent curve to the heel buttresses. The frog is narrow, much longer than it is wide. This kind of contraction is typical of a hoof with an underdeveloped caudal aspect. Lines drawn from the frog apex to outside the bulbs reveal the extent of the contraction. Similar to the below


The bars are extremely bent and the heels narrow. The hoof is obviously much narrower than it is wide.



A dorsal view of a hoof exhibiting solar and coronary contraction; here the walls appear so steep that they are almost on the vertical. The diagram below shows how the hoof needs to be to return to health and functionality:


The coronet needs to relax and move outwards, and the lateral walls spread as the hoof decontracts. A contracted hoof cannot function as it should, and there will invariably be some kind of compensation by the horse.


Another example of how a contracted hoof may present; here, the heels are contracted such that the central sulcus has turned in on itself and become a prominent fissure that can extend up through the heel bulbs. Such a fissure is able to harbour deep tissue infections of the frog, and due to the ill health of the frog, it is not uncommon for severe infections to extend into the sensitive corium. Horses with heels like this are often very reluctant to load them whether statically or dynamically, and often present with extreme sensitivity between the crack. Due to the discomfort, it is often difficult to decontract hooves like this, especially due to affected hooves also displaying other assorted pathologies.


Underrun contracture. The heel buttresses have migrated forwards underneath the hoof and collapsed, dragging the heel bulbs with them and resulting in a forward foot print. The lack of integrity in the rear of the hoof results in the collapse and flattening of the collateral grooves, which then lay across the sole and crush the corium beneath. This type of hoof horn will invariably have poor quality bulbar and toric cushions, and so the frog is prone to prolapse with the lack of support to the rest of the hoof. Underrun hooves will cause improper pressure distribution within the hoof capsule, with the stress of impact shifted forwards, directly underneath the palmar processes, rather than to the rear of the hoof where it is absorbed by the fibrocartilagenous structures above.


Solar view of underrun hoof. Note how shallow the rear of the hoof is, and how forward the heel buttress. The sole has become misshapen as the hoof capsule has migrated forwards. Underrun hooves can not exhibit any great deal of solar concavity, by virtue of the forward hoofprint displacing from other structures. Forward feet with shallow heels will generally experience heel pain as loading pressure is diverted to areas it shouldn’t be, and/or there is excessive loading of the frog (which may even bruise prolapse).


Another view of underrun contraction. Note the discrepancy of the angle of the tubules at the toe with those of the heels (the tubule angle in the heels is far too low), and the consequent bulge in the quarters. In this hoof there is a prominent dish in the dorsal hoof wall, though in some hooves the entire hoof from the coronet to the ground has been drawn forwards and the dish is non-existent; in these hooves, the angle and length of the dorsal wall is the best gauge of how forward the hoof has become.


There is more than half of the hoof forward of the apex of the frog. The bars extend all the way along the frog, and the heels are narrow; the widest part of the hoof is somewhere beyond the frog apex. The walls are thin and the heel buttresses have migrated forwards. When mapped up like this, it becomes apparent just how long this hoof is, as does the orientation of and effect on the internal structures. Long toes will put extreme forces on the hoof, especially during breakover, and can overstress tendons, joints and soft tissue, as well as adversely affecting the biomechanics of the whole limb.


Here the hoof is exhibiting excessive horn, such as to cause deformation of the hoof capsule. The walls are flaring (hard horn is being pried away from the underlying structures), the heels are too long and have grown so as to move the bearing surface of the hoof forwards and there is excessive bar horn that is laying over the sole and causing the formation of bar pooling along the commissures of the frog. All of the excess horn is locking up hoof mechanism and this hoof is now displaying various kinds of contraction and atrophy of the frog. The dotted line denotes where the hoof will lie once the excess has been trimmed. Note how the hoof has migrated forwards, with a large amount of hard horn beyond the apex of the frog. The toes need to be brought back to restore proper functionality.


Broken hoof/pastern axis (HPA). In a correctly balanced foot, there should not be such a discrepancy between the dorsal angle of the pedal bone and that of the short and long pasterns. In this diagram, line (a) runs parallel to the cranial surface of the pedal bone, and angle (b) is parallel to the cranial surface of the short pastern. Angle (acb) shows the angle at which the two bisect. A hoof with a broken HPA is not in equilibrium, with flexor and extensor systems in harmony; depending on whether the HPA is broken back or forwards, either the flexor or extensor system is overloaded, and in extreme cases once the system has failed, subluxation of the coffin joint can occur.


An overly steep hoof form (heels too high) will result in elevation of the coffin bone above ground-parallel, resulting in the uneven distribution of pressure, with excess pressure concentrated around the distal border of the coffin bone. The rotation of p3 above ground-parallel will result in an overloading of the laminar attachment and thinning of the sole at the toe. Excess horn at the heel resists hoof expansion can lead to contraction of the rear of the hoof and atrophy of the frogs. Steep hoof form will result in the stacking of the bones of the limb on top of themselves, rather than be in a physiologically correct arrangement. This incorrect alignment will result in an alteration in which the hoof can cope with the forces of breakover, as there will remain to be extreme pressure on the toe until the heels are lowered.


The converse of the hoof with high heels is that with low. In a hoof with overly low heels, the sole at the heel is often thinner than that at the toe. The hairline is often distorted, indicating the displacement of internal structures. The hoof will be prone to running forward and collapse of the heels.

These are examples of some of the common deformities seen in domestic hooves. It is by no means a definitive list; there are as many ways to deform as there are hooves, and it is rare to see only one pathology in isolation of others. What is most important is the recognition of the deformations of the hoof capsule, the effects of this on the internal structures, and the steps made to rectify the problems.

Horses evolved over millions of years from small, three toed creatures to the single-hoofed animals seen today. The modern common horse has existed for approximately 2-4 million years in close to its current form and lived as a herd-dwelling animal travelling many kilometres every day over very harsh terrain, and so a hoof capable of meeting the demands of this wild horse came about.


Horses have been domesticated from around 4,500BCE, only a blink of an eye compared to the amount of time they existed as the wild horse. Even allowing for selective breeding practices, this has not given the domestic horse time to develop a hoof especially suited to its domestic situation, so they are stuck with what they have. The main lifestyle differences between wild and domestic horses that effect the hooves dramatically are the amount and type of movement (wild horses have unlimited land and have to move for their grazing and water, while domestic horses are largely kept confined to paddocks, yards or even stables with food and water supplied for them), the ground over which they travel and which their hooves become accustomed to (wild horses routinely travel over a variety of terrain, while domestic horses are limited to the ground on which they are kept and worked) and their respective diets (wild horses graze on fibre-rich forage, while most domestic horses have diets and pasture much higher in sugar and lower in fibre). These three factors have great influence over the hoof the horse will have and grow.
Since horses have not evolved under the conditions of domesticity, it is understandable that most domestic horses will have below par hoof form. Be that as it may, we should always be striving for the healthiest feet possible on our horses.


Horses have hooves designed for traction (grip), protection of the internal structures, shock absorption and optimum locomotion (the way the horse moves). They are constantly growing in response to movement and will adapt to the terrain over which they travel.
When the hoof form is correct, the hoof is functioning as it should and the hooves have been appropriately conditioned, the hoof can comfortably and easily perform the above functions without the need for hoof protection. It is when the hooves have been compromised that horses (and riders) run into problems.
The hooves are constantly changing, and will change in response to:

~ The environment the horse lives and works on
~ The diet
~ The amount and type of movement and in the case of the domestic horse,
~ The way the hooves have been trimmed (and/or shod) or not

All factors are continuously interacting. Fortunately, these factors are all under the control of the owner. This means that owners have a great influence over the quality of their horse’s hooves.


The environment has the power to sculpt the hooves of the horse- for better or worse. The surfaces the horse works on are also considered its environment. The environment can influence the way the hoof wears (or doesn’t), the way the hoof looks and grows and the terrain the horse can cope with comfortably without the need for hoof protection.


The diet can influence the amount and quality of hoof growth. Healthy horses will have good, strong hoof horn of good quality; if your horse’s hooves are too thin, weak, brittle or dry, it is likely his diet is the culprit. Excess sugars and protein in the diet have also been linked to laminitis and founder, as well as many other problems above the feet.


Movement is essential for hoof function; “hoof mechanism” (in simple terms, the way the hoof expands as it hits the ground, and contracts again as it is lifted) is needed for proper blood supply to the hoof and allows the hoof to absorb the shock experienced from hitting the ground. A horse comfortable in his hooves will land heel-first or flat (toe first is a big no-no!), and this allows for optimum hoof function. The more movement the better- remember, horses did not evolve hooves suited to cope with being locked up in stables or yards. Not to mention movement is good for the rest of the horse as well!


In an ideal situation, hoof growth will equal wear. In the real world, however, most horses just do not get enough movement, or wear unevenly, and will require some kind of trimming. If shod, the hoof is unable to wear at all and shoes need to be reset frequently to prevent the hooves becoming too long, and out of balance with the rest of the limb.
Trimming has the ability to influence the growth, wear and loading patterns of the hooves, and correct trimming will see the hooves change to a more correct shape, enabling them to function and perform better. Be aware that shoeing fixes the hoof the way it was trimmed, and that all the while it is growing longer; what may have been a balanced foot when first shod will no longer be balanced after several weeks as it grows forwards. A forwards growing foot will pull the whole hoof forwards, and can cause the hoof to become contracted.


~ Become familiar with your horse’s hooves, and know what they should look like.
~ Pick out your horse’s hooves regularly, especially if he is stabled or yarded. Urine and manure are damaging to hoof horn.
~ Organise to have your horse’s hooves trimmed and, if needed, shod regularly. A four to six week trim cycle is ideal.
~ If you must have your horse shod due to environmental or conditioning limitations and in cases where booting may not be an option, consider giving your horse’s hooves a few shoeless months a year; all good farriers will recommend periods of resting the hooves from shoes.
~ Try and condition your horse’s hooves on all kinds of terrain; a good rule of thumb is to ‘bed your horse on what you wish to work him.’
~ Monitor what goes into your horse’s mouth. Avoid feeds high in sugar and protein, and opt for a natural, high-fibre diet instead. Learn the warning signs of laminitis. Know when to supplement, and with what.
~ Give your horse as much movement as possible, be it self-directed or otherwise.
~ Get involved in your horse’s hoof care! Ask questions, learn to tell what is good and what is not, and why. Learn what a sick hoof looks like.


Part 1

There is a general consensus in the hoof care community that, in order to be considered healthy and functional, a hoof must display the following characteristics

~ A ground parallel coffin bone (GPCB)

~ Unbroken hoof/pastern axis (HPA)

~ Wide, full bulbs and frog

~ Short, straight bars ramped up to the heel buttress (HB) and not longer than the wall

~ Flat heel platform and strong heel/bar turning point (HBTP)

~ Strong, low heels of adequate height and angle and a short toe

~ Balance both mediolaterally and craniocaudally

~ 2/3 of the hoof should be from widest part of the frog to the apex, with the remaining 1/3 from the apex to the point of breakover

~ Straight, strong walls

~ Solar concavity mirroring that of the coffin bone

~ Dorsal hoof wall angle matching the dorsal angle of the coffin bone

~ Relaxed coronary band, at approximately 30˚ to the ground when viewed laterally

~ Should not be reliant on a fixed device for ‘soundness’

~ An absence of pathological change to and within the hoof capsule

These are considered parameters for a healthy foot regardless of the horse’s age, breed or size, and will be expanded on individually. The overall picture of a healthy hoof should be one of strength, harmony and compactness. Physiological correctness and functionality go hand in hand, with the result being health. Unfortunately, most domestic horses’ feet are not healthy.

In a healthy hoof, the coffin bone will be ground parallel. This results in the even distribution of the weight of the horse across the solar floor and avoids pressure points caused by either rotated or (decidedly less common) counter rotated arrangements. Unnatural arrangements alter the bearing pressures the hoof can cope with as the projected area for the load is shifted rearward or decreased.

In a coffin bone that is rotated above ground parallel (rotation meaning being or having been rotated out of its physiologically correct alignment to the ground and bony column) and into a steeper alignment, the distal tip of the coffin bone points downwards. The weight of the horse is concentrated over the relatively insubstantial distal tip. Bone responds to stress, pressure and load, and this excess pressure can cause the coffin bone to remodel or erode (which may be relatively minor such as in the formation of a crena or “ski tip”, or more severe such as significant bone erosion as seen in chronic founder cases). Forward rotation as seen in a positive angulation to the coffin bone also causes unnatural stress to the coffin and pastern joints as the natural harmonic arrangement of the lower limb is disrupted. The horse will most often make up for this stress by overloading either the flexor or extensor systems. It is normal for the short and long pasterns to angulate backwards and forwards during normal locomotion, but prolonged fixation of the joints in an unnatural arrangement results in stress the limb is not able to comfortably cope with as the associated tendons, ligaments, tendon attachments and muscles are kept under constant unnatural strain.

Backward rotation of the coffin bone (negative plane coffin bone or NPCB) occurs when the coffin bone is tilted backwards, and is on a negative plane as compared to the ground surface. There are very different forces acting on the hoof capsule and skeleton in a NPCB compared to those occurring in forward rotation as certain structures are stressed beyond their elastic limit and internally applied forces are acted out internally. The coffin bone is not intended to bear weight in this counter rotated position; the weight bearing surface, instead of being centred through the bony column to the solar surface of the coffin bone, is shifted rearward onto the palmar processes and can result in palmar bone loss. This causes extreme stress to the rear of the hoof, as well as the coffin and pastern joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Some horses compensate by acute oversteepening of the pastern and slackening the flexors, and thus overloading the extensor system.

The hoof/pastern axis (HPA) refers to the relationship of the hoof to the pasterns. The pastern angles should reflect the dorsal angle of the pedal bone. If the angles between the hoof wall and pastern do not match, the limb is out of correct alignment. The pasterns themselves may not even match each other; p1 may be steepened while p2 is lowered, or vice versa. The joint ligaments are being overworked in any such arrangement, and the coffin joint especially is kept under extreme strain. In the ideal arrangement, with the dorsal angles of p1, p2 and p3 all matching, the horse is able to load its limbs comfortably without compromising or overloading any of the soft or connective tissue systems. Large deflections of load by one member can cause dangerous strains and stresses to other members of a structure as the nature of the normally operating forces in the network are altered and stressed beyond their natural yield point. A system that is overloaded is more likely to reach its fatigue limit sooner as it can never be in equilibrium. If a structure as a whole is to be in equilibrium, then all joints of that structure must also be in equilibrium. A hoof under constant strain cannot be in equilibrium.

Wide, full bulbs and frogs are indicative of a strong and healthy development of the digital cushion/sling (DC), which should be made of firm, shock absorbing fibrocartilage, and make up the majority of the rear of the hoof. It is comprised of both the frog (cuneate) and bulbar (toric) cushions, and so forms the bulbs of the heels and the mass of the frog. The frog should have a shallow central sulcus if the cuneate cushion is well formed. The palmar foot is intended to cope with the majority of the load the hoof experiences under both static and dynamic weight bearing if properly formed, and so it is extremely important that these structures are well developed so that the hoof does not exceed its allowable stress limit under the shock of high impact situations. Underdeveloped digital cushions are unable to comfortably cope with the stresses the caudal hoof experiences during normal locomotion, so the horse will attempt to shift the load to alternate structures less suited to coping with the extreme forces associated with standing and ambulation.

The bars of the hoof must be short, straight, and strong. In a healthy hoof, they will rise from the solar floor up to the heel buttress, end halfway down the frog, be shorter than the hoof wall and will not be laying over any sole. The bars have a dual function; they assist in forming the heel purchase and prevent overexpansion of the hoof capsule upon weight bearing. The bars are the end connections of the hoof wall, allowing non-uniform stress distribution to take place within the hoof capsule by allowing the hoof to stretch and flex sufficiently to dissipate impact stress, while simultaneously retaining the integrity of the hoof capsule by resisting overexpansion under peak impact loading. Conversely, excess bar can inhibit expansion of the hoof capsule so much so that hoof mechanism is impaired and contraction can ensue. Almost all schools of thought agree that bars that are longer than the wall exert tremendous pressure on the structures above them, and can be levered into sensitive places that they shouldn’t be (since there is only sensitive tissue directly above them), such as into or above the frog (it is not uncommon for these type of bars to ‘drop’ after trimming, such is their extent). The bars can extend so far that they are obscured in part by the frog as the frog becomes compressed into the collateral groove. Bars of this nature are often as long if not longer than the walls, which causes bruising and pain, and are often bent into a semicircular shape, with which comes contraction of the heels. Semicircular bars are prone to cracks between the lamellar and any non-lamellar bar as lever forces are diverted to the junction between the two. These cracks can be quite deep and cause great discomfort to the horse if they extend into sensitive tissue. The preventative measure is to keep the bars short, straight and lower than the wall, with the ground surface of the bar trimmed flat.

The heel platform should be what impacts the ground first. It is imperative the platform be flat and level- if it is unlevel, one heel will impact the ground before the other, causing uneven loading of the joints and ligaments and strain on the hoof capsule as it rocks from side to side to stabilise itself as the opposite heel impacts the ground. This causes uneven stress distribution within the hoof capsule, and if prolonged overstresses the collateral ligaments outside of what they are normally able to cope with when travelling over uneven terrain. The platform should also be flat, on the same plane as the toe. If the heel platform is angulated backwards, it moves the bearing surface of the hoof forwards and disrupts the natural biomechanics of the hoof.

The formation of the heel/bar turning point is crucial. The bar needs to be smoothly ramped up to the heel, and the heel needs to flow harmonically down to the bar. If there is a great discrepancy between the horn of the heel buttress and that of the bar, it can weaken HBTP sufficiently so as to allow the heels to overexpand (though for this reason weakening the HBTP is sometimes beneficial in rehabilitating horses with contracted heels) and encourage weak and crooked growth of the bar and modify the natural parameters the hoof has for coping with energy absorption.

Perhaps the most important characteristics of a functional hoof are low heels and short toes- provided that the heels are not low because they are underrun. The horse is unable to load his limbs correctly if his heels are too high (or, conversely, too low). Heels that are longer than ideal experience considerable lever forces, be the heels excessively high or low; the longer the heel the greater the lever forces acting on them, which are quite destructive to the sensitive structures underneath. High heels cause the coffin bone to be rotated above ground parallel; this causes the dorsal lamellae to be overloaded (especially if the horse actively unloads the painful high heels) which could result in flare or separation, and can alter the wear pattern of the hoof, exacerbating the problem further. In the case of chronic high heels it is not uncommon to find associated toe cracks or, in some hoof forms, quarter cracks.

High heels reduce the shock absorbing capacity of the palmar hoof, as the excess of hard horn both resists expansion of the heels and lifts the fibrocartilagenous structures out of ground contact. The forces of impact must be absorbed somewhere, and so the shock is diverted to other structures unable to adequately cope with it. This is detrimental to the horse’s long term health for obvious reasons.

If the horse has high heels stressed beyond their elastic limit, then they will collapse. In the case of the heels that are too low, shock absorption is reduced for a different reason; the heels and bars have flattened the digital cushion so that it loses most of its shock absorbing properties and the cyclic stresses of impact will significantly damage it structure over time. The forces that act on a steep hoof form with steep heels and a low toe are very different to those acting on the reverse, especially upon weightbearing and breakover; although the hoof may be in correct alignment in relation to the ground surface, the coffin and pastern joints cannot be by virtue of the shallow heel disrupting the natural angles of the limb. The horse will also invariably endeavour to unweight the painful heel by shifting weight forwards and onto the toe (which then runs forwards in response…).

In either scenario, heels that are of an incorrect length and height detrimentally effect the whole hoof as a unit, and often the entire limb and horse.

Long toes exert excessive lever forces on the dorsal wall, lamellae and heels, particularly during breakover. The longer the toes, the greater the distance between the coffin bone and the point of breakover at ground level. Long toes interfere with correct protraction of the limbs during locomotion as the horse is unable to fully extend the limb mid stride and so must shorten his stride to compensate, necessitating landing on the toes. The lever forces of long toes pull the entire hoof capsule forwards, and can have a dramatic effect on the angulation of the heels if not rectified. Much hoof contraction and cases of heel collapse can be alleviated or at least improved by proper backing up of the toes. The toes should comprise no more then 1/3 of the total hoof length measured from the frog apex to point of breakover. This enables a correct relationship to be formed between the heels, bars, frogs and toes.

Everyone in the hoof care world agrees that the hoof needs to be balanced; but what is ‘balanced?’ Many generally consider a hoof to be balanced if it appears symmetrical mediolaterally and to have a certain relationship to other hoof or limb structures craniocaudally or proximal-distally. For the purposes of this article, ‘balance’ will refer to a hoof that is equal mediolaterally (heel heights not discrepant; equal amount of hoof medially as there is laterally with allowances for the asymmetry of the hinds) and that, craniocaudally, has a heel purchase at the widest part of the frog, with 2/3 of the hoof being occupied by the length from the widest part of the frog to the apex, with the remaining third from the apex of the frog to point of breakover. Static balance refers to a hoof that is ‘balanced’ when viewed as a static object, while dynamic balance pertains to the balance of the hoof in motion. The main loadings we are concerned about in the equine hoof are tension, bending, torsional and direct shear, and combined loading, which the hoof must be properly balanced to resolve. A static hoof that is not balanced can never find its true translational equilibrium and so will remain in a constant state of stress.

Breakover refers to the lapse in time between when the heel and the toe lift off the ground as the hoof fulcrums over. The breakover of the hoof is considered to be physiologically correct when the relationship of the length from the widest part of the frog to the apex and from the apex to the point of breakover equates to 2/3:1/3. This encourages a correct relationship between digital and mechanical breakover. The more hoof between digital and mechanical breakover, the greater the stress to the hoof capsule. It is the relationship between heel and toe that determines breakover. Too long, and the phalangeal lever action is too great; too short, and the pressures in the hoof are unable to be equalised under static stress.

Straight, strong walls are necessary for proper suspension and protection of the coffin bone, and to provide an adequate weightbearing and wearing surface.

Any time the hoof wall deviates from its normal straight growth, the hard horn is being pried away by the lamellar attachment from structures beneath, causing significant internal stress to the hoof capsule. The strength of the hoof capsule is derived from its shape; as a truncated cone it is able withstand great force, but with deformation of the hoof capsule comes a reduction in its structural integrity. Further, the greater the degree and extent of the flare, the more pressure is put on the remaining lamellar bond to help support the weight of the horse.

Hoof walls should be of adequate thickness and strength with a strong, undisrupted lamellar attachment and short enough so as to be able to share weightbearing responsibilities with the sole. Well formed hoof walls are malleable to a degree and have an appropriate moisture content; tension tests indicate that brittle materials break by direct stress while ductile materials break at a 45 degree inclination to the line of loading. Therefore, the greater the ductility of the hoof wall, the stronger and more resistant to stress it will be.

Stress raising factors can occur in the hoof wall, and reduce its strength in response to load. Stress raisers include sharp corners, cavities, cracks, holes and notches, flaws, abrupt changes in consistency, and small areas supporting concentrated loads. It is therefore preferable that the hoof wall exhibit none of these factors, however the seriousness of the stress concentration depends on both the properties of the material (strength, thickness, ductility of the hoof wall) and the nature of the load (whether static or cyclic). It is required to be strong enough to ably cope with the thrust loads associated with breakover and forward movement.

In order for the hoof wall to provide the optimum degree of resistance to abrasion, it must be thick enough to perform a supportive role at the ground surface, and healthy enough to cope with the abrasion associated with normal locomotion.

A healthy hoof with have a solar surface exhibiting concavity mirroring that of the coffin bone. Solar concavity is indicative of a strong lamellar attachment and is necessary for healthy biomechanics; on weightbearing, as the heels and walls spread the sole must be able to also spread and the solar vault bottom out. If there is inadequate concavity, there is the risk of bruising to the corium as the full force of impact shocks the sole whilst the weight of the horse descends upon a sole that is unable to structurally support it. Flat soles are therefore more prone to stone bruising, tenderness and lameness issues, problems which vary directly in severity with the thinness of the sole. Soles filled in with unexfoliated material can cause the same problems, as they are also resistant to expansion (thus reducing proper hoof mechanism) and prevent the normal descent of the coffin bone by being unable to draw flat.

The dorsal hoof wall angle should match the dorsal angle of the coffin bone; this ensures that there is a constant width to the horn/lamellar zone (H/L zone) and indicates that the while line is not stretched nor the coffin bone displaced relative to the remainder of the hoof capsule (except in the case of non-rotational founder, in which the lamellar attachment fails and the entire bony column sinks down but does not rotate). Studies indicate that the angles of coffin bones are found to be in a Gaussian distribution centred around 45˚ for the front coffin bones and 55˚ for the back. Therefore for the dorsal hoof wall to match the angle of the coffin bone, it too should be distributed around 45 and 55˚ respectively.

The coronary band can be used as a guide as to the orientation of the internal structures of the hoof. A coronary band that is at approximately 30˚ to the ground when viewed laterally indicates a ground parallel coffin bone. An angle steeper than 30˚ indicates that the coffin bone may be on a negative plane, and a coronary band that approaches ground parallel in indicative of forwards rotation.

The coronary band should not be displaced or ‘jammed’ up in places; if it is, that is a reflection of the displacement of the soft tissue structures below and beside it, or uneven pressures acting on the hoof wall. A curved coronary band can indicate that the lateral cartilages have been vaulted up and out of their natural position in the hoof capsule, and can be caused by a number of incorrect hoof forms. It is symptomatic of a greater problem with imbalance and often involves physical trauma to hoof tissues.

A hoof cannot be classed as sound and healthy if its soundness is dependent on the affixation of any external device such as horseshoes. If the hoof is not sound without the device, then it is just not sound. If it is not sound bare, there is a reason; that should not change purely due to the addition of an appliance. This is not an article about shoeing vs. not shoeing; it is simply an article about health and functionality- but suffice to say, a hoof that relies on an external device to be ‘functional’ cannot truthfully be considered to be sound.

It should now be apparent that the absence of pathological change to and within the hoof capsule is paramount to the hoof’s health and functionality. Pathology of any kind varies the internal morphology and causes stress within the hoof capsule, and alters the loading, lever and shear forces outside of the parameters that a healthy hoof is able to tolerate.

Q: My horse is regularly ridden on roads. He needs shoes, right?

A: Actually, no. A horse’s hoof is amazingly adaptable. Regular work on hard surfaces causes the hoof to adapt rapidly, so that new growth is produced. A shod hoof walking on a hard surface experiences the percussive force equivalent to three times that of an unshod hoof trotting on the same surface. Interestingly, a shod hoof on a hard surface has been shown to vibrate at 800hz – which is exactly the right frequency to destroy living tissue. You can see how being barefoot can extend the working life of a horse by minimising this wear and tear on her joints.

Q: I do endurance riding. Don’t I need shoes on my horse for that?

A: If you find that your horses’ feet don’t keep up with the wear placed on them in a short, intense period of time in an endurance ride, you can use rubber hoof boots. A number of endurance riders are competing barefoot after the recent rule change, and even after a 100km ride finish sound. As long as the hoof has been conditioned, it should be fine. If, however, wear exceeds growth, you may have to look into riding booted.

I do cross country/showjumping – doesn’t my horse need shoes with studs to stop him slipping?

A: Studs in shoes create a wrenching effect (torque) every time the horse lands which can cause immediate or longer-term joint damage. This force can often result in the swollen legs you see in competition horses after a strenuous event. Your horse should be fine to jump barefoot. If you find that the going is slippery, say later in the day or on a damp course, again you can use hoof boots for a bit of additional traction, although the unshod hoof almost always has more traction than a shod one. Some eventers are competing up to 1.3m barefoot.

Q: Aren’t shoes compulsory for dressage?

A: No – according to the EFI Dressage Rules, the only requirement is that “foot care and shoeing must be of a high standard” (section 1, page 2).

You cannot use hoof boots in a dressage test.

Q: A vet told me my horse must always be shod or his hoof will crack/will continue to crack.

A: This comes up often. It is interesting, if you look at veterinary textbooks, that the depiction of hooves consistently shows as normal a foot that has contracted heels and long toes. It is perhaps no wonder that vets have a different approach when it comes to horses’ feet than what trimmers, who aspire to create a totally different looking foot, have.

To answer your question, a properly rehabilitated and balanced hoof does not require shoes. A hoof that is not balanced, which has an overly-long breakover and/or which is flaring and/or which has not been rolled, will crack. A hoof with cracks is usually a hoof that is flaring, meaning that simple mechanical and lever forces are what is responsible for the crack. Once the flaring is removed and the hoof is rebalanced properly, these excess lever and mechanical forces are also removed, as a result of which the cracking will stop and eventually grow out. A hoof will not flare if it is adequately maintained. If you have flare, you need to trim more often! I have transitioned many horses that vets asserted MUST wear shoes- and for the most part, they were easy transitions.

Q: Will my horse be lame after converting to barefoot?

A: He will possibly be sore, and for good reason. A horse’s foot is like a pump. Provided that all the parts nature designed to fulfil this function are working as they are meant to, the horse will have normal circulation in his legs and feet. Shod horses’ feet often do not contact the ground, and so hoof mechanism doesn’t work as it should. As a result, while he or she may evidence discomfort (which the trained eye can detect from aspects of the horse’s stance – some subtle and some obvious) the horse will rarely actually limp, as he lacks the necessary circulation – and consequently, sensation – in his feet to realise that his feet are sore. He will also usually be sore in all 4 feet, so that he is not favouring any particular one in the manner we would recognise as a ‘limp’. This is known as bilateral lameness, and can be hard to detect.

When you remove the shoes and sensation in the foot returns, the horse may evidence some tenderness as the nerve sensation returns and the horse is able to register the damage. It’s not possible to guarantee that if a horse is de-shod and trimmed he or she won’t be sore, or even what you would call lame, until he or she transitions. I can say that I have rehabbed numerous horses, some of whom were, from their stance, distinctly uncomfortable whilst still shod, with feet that were extremely unbalanced. Most of these horses surprised me by showing no sign of lameness after a first trim. That’s not to say the next horse I trim won’t experience tenderness – all horses are individuals. But in my experience, a correct transition to a well-balanced barefoot hoof causes minimal discomfort to the horse, but varies with the extent of the damage. And if there are soundness issues with the horse which the shoes are masking, removing the shoes will allow them to be identified and addressed. If any soreness persists after a few months, it is most likely not purely a hoof problem. In my experience, a lot of metabolic problems (such as IR, laminitis, etc) are masked by shoes. They have always been there, the horse just may not have experienced them as much as she could now that she can feel her feet. Once the lack of hoof function caused by shoes is no longer masking the condition, you can treat the underlying cause.

Q: What changes can I expect to see in my horse once she is converted to barefoot?

A: You may observe some conformational changes for the better. Our palomino mare was distinctly cow-hocked until I trimmed her properly. Virtually all traces of this stance were eliminated in less than 6 months.

You may also observe an improved overall sense of vitality in your horse. One 30 year + mare I de-shod and trimmed went from dragging her feet looking like she bore the weight of the world to stepping spryly, looking motivated, and overall appearing 15 years younger within a week of her first trim. I actually had to ask the owner to confirm that this was the same horse, the improvement in her overall appearance was so profound.

Another change I have observed in several horses I have trimmed is an improvement in coat condition. This could be attributable to the hoof being able to fulfil its pumping purpose.

This is my warmblood mare before I began trimming her:

This is her condition after I began trimming her:

I have seen chronic thrush clear up once a horse transitioned to barefoot and his heels decontracted. I have seen seedy toe and white-line separation clear up all together in a matter of months, once correct trimming was implemented.

Any foot deformity can have a remarkable effect on the horse’s stance and musculature, and even attitude. My palomino is a perfect example – she had what appeared to be a congenital conformational fault (cow hocks) that has now disappeared simply due to proper trimming.

You can therefore expect a barefoot horse to be able to collect better (provided that his saddle is correctly fitted), extend better, land heel-first and use his back properly. Most shod horses have toes that are too long, making it impossible for them to land heel first, and unnatural heels. Correction of this will result in a heel-first landing, a rounded back and a better more comfortable gait for both you and your horse.

Not to mention a return to beautiful, functional, healthy hooves!

Q: Aren’t all barefoot trimmers/advocates alternative, militant zealots?

A: Forgive our enthusiasm! If we are, it is because we have seen the incredible transformation that de-shoeing a horse can produce, and we love to share that with fellow horse-lovers. I hope that one day you are as enchanted with the benefits of barefoot as I am.

Q: What do I have to lose by trying barefoot?

A: Nothing – except maybe a brief transitional period when you’d prefer your horse not to be in heavy work, if she is especially tender after shoe removal. And in that case, boots will allow you to still ride your horse without discomfort- these do not impair hoof mechanism and can be taken off again once you are done. I always say, if barefoot doesn’t work for you for some reason (and I am yet to hear of one) – its not like you can never go back to shoeing your horse. Did you know that even farriers used to recommend 6 months a year (eg, non-show season) without shoes for shod horses? They no longer seem to recommend this for horses who are shod.

Barefoot is for all horses, but not all owners.

If it doesn’t work for you- at least you’ll be nailing a shoe onto a healthier hoof!

Q: How long will I be prevented from working my horse once shoes are removed?

A: This is entirely dependent on how tender the horse is, any underlying pathology, and whether you are willing to work the horse despite some tenderness. Ironically, the more the horse moves around when newly de-shod (within the horse’s comfort zone), the faster the rehabilitation and transition process. This is because the more the foot is able to perform its natural function, the better the blood supply, and consequently the better the new hoof growth and adaptation and the faster the recovery. Again, boots will allow you to continue working your horse as normal if she experiences any tenderness. Correct movement is the key.

Q: What is the process for transitioning a horse from shod (or unshod but not balanced) to barefoot?

A: My approach is to remove the shoes (if the horse is shod) and do a preliminary assessment of the horse’s foot, to ascertain what deformities exist and what ultimately has to happen to correct them. I ask the owner whether they would prefer a slow gradual transition (in which case I he would do an initial trim, then gradual rehabilitation trims, until we can reduce the trims to 4 – 6 weekly or thereabouts once the deformities have been addressed) or a more aggressive approach, which may result in the horse being more tender in the short term but which hastens transition time overall. This approach will still require a series of remedial trims until it is possible to drop back to monthly-ish trims. If the horse has issues like seedy toe, white line separation or thrush I will advise on the best approach to take to eliminate the problem in the shortest period.

My QH mare had foundered in shoes before I bought her, as a rehab project. I took an aggressive approach to rehabilitation of her feet. After 5 weeks her feet had improved to the extent you’d expect to see in 5 months doing more conservative trims. Having said that, though, I was willing to wait for her to be sound before asking anything of her in terms of performance, and she has had the luxury of time and a 50 acre paddock to recuperate.

There are definitely advantages to taking a stronger approach to a corrective trim trim at first, in the right circumstances.

Q: My farrier says you cut my horse too short, and she was sore after the trim you did. Why did you cut her so short?

A: Ok firstly, most farriers will think that a barefoot trim, properly done, is too short, because a farrier trim is a flat trim you could nail a shoe onto, should you be so inclined. A barefoot trim involves removing leveraging/mechanical forces from the hoof wall and a ‘mustang roll’, designed to redirect weight distribution onto different parts of the foot and reduce damaging forces that can act on a hoof that is too long or left flat. You can’t nail a shoe to this sort of trim (well, not without a lot of difficulty), because the hoof wall has been rounded and smoothed instead of being left flat so a horse shoe could butt flatly against it. No wonder a farrier thinks that sort of trim is too short!

But there is a carefully considered methodology behind the shortness of a barefoot trim, and any sensitivity the horse experiences afterwards, as explained above, would primarily be due to the uncovering of underlying sensitivity due to pathology masked by the lack of proper hoof function prior to the trim. This is true of both shod horses and horses that have been unshod but not trimmed in a ‘barefoot style’, or who have foundered etc, and so have reduced hoof function.

Any horse that has foundered or which has other underlying defects is going to be sore once he can feel his feet again. But it should pass, unless there had already been enough irreversible damage to the sensitive structures and bones inside the foot caused by the defects in the hoof capsule before the corrective trimming began to impact on the horse’s soundness permanently. If that is the case – which you might wish to ascertain by x-rays – then the horse may not ever be completely sound and you should take that into consideration in deciding what sort of activity you want the horse to participate in going forward.

Finally, a corrective trim is different from a maintenance trim. A hoof that is too long NEEDS to be shortened, and this can sometimes appear odd to the eye.  Once hoof form and function has been restored by way of a series of corrective trims, you wouldn’t expect a horse to be sore following a maintenance trim.