Steel horse shoes deform, weaken and change the tissues within the hoof. The very structures that were meant to dissipate concussion at ground level and protect the horse are compromised. They deform the hoof capsule by loading only the hoof wall (peripheral loading) and as the capsule changes shape slowly under the impact of unnatural forces, it crushes the inner soft tissue structures in the caudal hoof it was meant to protect, resulting in caudal heel pain and deep seated inflammation.
Why the caudal (back) hoof area? Because this is where all the soft tissue structures lay inside the hoof capsule. They fill the back half of the hoof and sit behind the pedal bone because the horse, like most mammals was meant to do a heel first stride landing.
So... depending on the breed, the age of first shoeing and the abilities of those shoeing the horse thereafter to balance the hooves, the deformation can happen very quickly, or slowly over many years, but it will happen. Hoof pain is often the first symptom and begins in the caudal hoof area of the front feet (deep in the heel area) as once the hoof capsule starts to deform, this is the part of the hoof where the leverage forces from the horse’s own weight begin to squash and deform the internal structures.
The hoof will deform by either running forward and becoming splayed and flat, or start to contract at the heels and become steeper. The type of deformation usually depends on the hoof shape particular to that breed. Below are extreme examples of this. Thoroughbreds & breeds with wider pedal bones tend to acquire under long low heels and forward over long toes, and breeds with more conical hooves such as ponies and Arabians tend to deform to become more contracted and steep. Many horses thought to have navicular syndrome actually have acquired caudal hoof pain stemming from their deformed hooves. Every single case of navicular syndrome displays some degree of hoof deformation! Every single one!
Why do the front feet first begin to deform first? I believe it’s because of the unique role they play in the bio-mechanics of the horse which involves a lot of breaking and impulsion in an upwards direction. The hind hooves seem to stay in a better shape for longer, due to their very different role in locomotion which is more about digging in and driving the horse forwards.
If you don’t know a thing about good hoof form and your horse isn’t limping lame how can you know if the horse is sore?
Easy just look at the way they choose to stand.
If you have a sore foot yourself and you walk and stand avoiding the sore area after a time you will find you have secondary problems such as a sore back or hip. Continue to adjust your posture for many years and eventually this will even lead to changes in your neck and amazingly even your eyesight because you will carry your head tilted to offset the tilted hip. A checkerboard of problems will arise throughout your body. The same thing happens to horses.
To identify horses with hoof pain it is first necessary to identify the stance of a comfortable horse. We live in a world of sore horses and most of us have come to accept their various abnormal postures as normal. We need to look again armed with some knowledge of why they are choosing to stand as they do.
Sadly over the years many of the warning signs of hoof pain have been mistaken for conformational problems and even written as such into well known equine texts. Horses are said to be “over at the knees” when in fact they have no knee problems at all and their strange stance stems just from caudal hoof pain. Others have been said to have overly sloping pasterns when they are merely “forced” to have these due to abnormal P3 (pedal bone) alignments within the hoof capsule. This forces abnormal angles on the pasterns as the horse compensates.
No amount of corrective shoeing, remedial body work or chiropractic work will relieve upper body problems caused by constant postural adjustments due to hoof pain. It is the single greatest cause of musculo-skeletal issues in the domestic horse.
Normal Posture: Whether a young foal or an old horse they should be able to utilize fully their “stay apparatus” muscles of his forehand and partial stay apparatus of his hindquarters. To do so they must be able to keep their front legs vertical as illustrated below.
A comfortable stance is shown on both these horses fully engaging their front leg stay apparatus with forelegs locked vertically.
Notice the good definition of the musculature in the older horses neck & shoulders; the deep indent in front of the scapular (shoulder blade) in front of the withers. These forehand muscles are as they should be. Soft and flexible and normal size.
How to identify hoof pain: Simple! Sore horses lean forwards to unweight their sore heels.
Most of us are familiar with identifying limping lameness but what is so insidious about hoof deformation from shoeing is that it is slow to develop, and the horses don’t technically limp as pain develops equally in both front feet! So these horses can’t limp in the clinical sense .
Even if you don’t know a single thing about the hoof except where it fits on the leg you can clearly see horses who adopt this forward posture. It’s a huge warning light. If you see it in your shod horses they are already very sore.
The chest is clearly be seen to be held forward ahead of the legs to take the weight off the caudal hoof (heel area).
At first these postures are subtle, but as the hoof deformation and associated pain progresses so does the advanced forward leaning stance. The horse now adopts altered gaits as well. Riders may notice they are less forward going, less keen to stretch out. They are clumsy and begin to trip, dressage riders find their horses begin to loose impulsion, show jumpers find they will start to run out on jumps or buck on landing, trail riders find their horses unwilling to travel downhill and tend want to creep down slowly or try to go down sideways.
Beware – the toe first landing!
These sore horses will try to do toe first landings with every stride instead of the correct heel first landings nature intended.
Sore hooves lead to sore bodies:
Adopting a continual forward lean has horrendous consequences for the musculo-skeletal system. Firstly it creates dysfunctions in the “stay apparatus” muscles of the forehand. Later their entire musculature becomes involved from one end to the other with secondary compensations.
The “stay apparatus” in the forehand works to lock the leg straight, from shoulder to pedal bone by exerting equal and opposite forces from shoulder to hoof, down through a system of muscles and tendons. This lock allows the horse to sleep and rest in a standing position. Not just something nice for horses to do, but an evolutionary necessity to avoid fatigue for an animal that lives most of the time on its feet.
When the horse has physiologically correct hoof form they hold the leg effortlessly in this lock, with practically no muscular effort; but the foreleg MUST be vertical for this system to work efficiently.
Horses who cannot “lock” their foreleg stay apparatus to rest must use other muscle groups in the forehand to assist in keeping the forelegs straight
These extra muscles normally would be involved
Many horses are undergoing continual body therapiesand chiropractic manipulations for problems that will only return again and again as the source of theses problems remains undiscovered and unchanged.... the deformed painful hooves.
Notice the over development of muscle groups in the shoulder and neck of this horse at left. He has no indentation in front of his scapular and has developed a thick and blocky neck. This is muscular overdevelopment.
Many equine body therapists are not trained to identify hoof deformation so unless they have developed an interest in barefoot rehab, to them, if the hooves look tidy and well shod and the horse is not limping lame they won’t suspect hoof pain. I cannot stress how important learning about natural hoof care can be for any equine therapist. If you are working on horses and don’t have this knowledge you have become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
As the years pass and the hooves deform further, the pain increases. Muscles of the shoulders and upper legs become so fatigued and stressed from trying to maintain this lean that some horses actually adopt a bent knee stance to gain some relief.
By now it’s obvious to their owners that they have a serious problem and veterinary attention is sought. Usually the hoof deformation is not considered as the source because as yet many vets have not been exposed to barefoot rehab. The old solution for these problems was expensive and invasive salvage surgeries to cut ligaments or destroy nerves. After these surgeries the horse was put on a regime of corrective shoeing and pain medication for life. I believe this is merely palliative care. More of the very thing that caused the problems while the hoof deformation continues unchecked causing bone loss and bone deformities within the hoof capsule. By now these are clearly obvious on x-rays and so are thought to be the cause of the lameness when they are actually secondary and due to the advanced hoof deformation.
If this course of action has been suggested to you by your vet you might like to contact a veterinarian who deals in natural hoof care rehabilitation and seek a second opinion. I have not yet seen any case of navicular syndrome that has not dramatically improved with the use of natural hoof care and hoof boots. Many have become sound riding horses again and returned to their performance work.
Secondary hind quarter muscle problems from hoof pain
“Reversed Angles” and their associated body issues.
As time goes on and the horse struggles to overcome a litany of problems he develops a checkerboard pattern of compensation throughout his body. Next hind quarter problems arise and lumbo-sacral pain and hamstring stiffness appear. This is due to the horse bracing their forehand which causes them to shift greater amounts of weight onto their hindquarters.
With this constant transference of weight to the hind quarter the hind hooves become involved in the deformation process too and begin to deform, developing abnormal hoof angles and low heels. Often the angles on hind and forefeet become “reversed”.
Professional Barefoot Trimmers know this “all hoof involvement” as Reversed angles or may call it the “Box Stance” so called because the posture appears as if the horse is standing on a small box like a circus elephant. Often the gluteals located in the rump become so stressed and tight that they appear like little pillows bulging up on both sides of the rump, even on thin horses.
How can this “box stance” happen to shod horses? It is easy to understand if you think about it. If the farrier is shoeing to match the increasing hoof deformity, and many do. Then as the heels crush and become lower the steel shoe prevents any wear or natural correction from happening. Shod like this the horse is forced to bring his hind hooves further and further underneath him just to stand and so places more and more weight on his hind heels.
The pedal bone (P3) of the forefeet, and hind feet have evolved to be slightly different in their shapes and the angle on their anterior surface is also slightly different. This is because the hind and fore hooves play different roles in the equine biomechanics and need to be slightly different in their shape and angle. The forefeet are basically used for braking and impulsion in an upward direction whilst the hind hooves are more trowel shaped to dig in and push, so providing the huge powerful thrusts necessary for speed.
For the horse to function effectively and in harmony with his bio-mechanics and avoid musculo-skeletal issues it has been my observation that they must have hind hooves to be at least four degrees steeper than the forefeet. Naturally steeper not created by wedges or corrective shoes. Once they are the same or become “reversed” they are fighting their own biomechanics for every step.
This cannot be artificially addressed with wedges or pads as it is the actual alignment of the pedal bone inside the hoof capsule that dictates the hoof shape and this affects the articlulation of the short & long pastern joints. Chocking heels up with wedges so that they look better is merely cosmetic, it actually crushes the heels further and tilts the pedal bone abnormally.
These horses with “reversed angles” need to GROW more heel height in the correct alignment. They must have their “fulcrum point ” in the hoof capsule returned to the correct position so that their weight pivots at the anatomically correct point. This can only be done by addressing the hoof deformity and encouraging the growing of a correct hoof form again. It usually takes about six months and they MUST be regularly trimmed every four weeks, but the rewards are great. Often the entire topline of the horse will change and redevelop. Many owners say that their horses look and move better after rehab. than they have since they were young.
Secondary Hock & Stifle problems Horses with reversed hoof angles in their hinds often suffer patellar problems and hock and stifle issues. Often this is mistaken for locking patellar by owner and veterinarians who are unfamiliar with physiologically correct hoof form. The hock and stifle joints work with reciprocal action – flex one and the other flexes equally but opposite. What is not commonly known is that there is also a role played in patellar action by the tensor fascia latae muscle and the lumbo-sacral joint. All of these are affected by abnormal reversed angles as they are unable to work in concert as they should. In fact they are foced to work in opposition to each other. Working in opposition creates tight hamstrings and lumbo-sacral pain. This hock and stifle painis often mistaken for arthritis in older horses.
Barefoot rehabilitation is firstly aimed at halting and reversing the hoof deformation. You will be astounded at how powerful a tool this can be even for horses with serious hoof problems. Its best done with the guidance of a Professional Trimmer but if you don’t have access to a professional there are many great books and dvds available now that will help you and your current farrier make a start in the right direction. Doing something is better than doing nothing. If you don't have access to a professional trimmer then march up to your farrier and hand him a copy of Pete Ramey's books or the Barefoot Blacksmith dvd's!
You will need to be strong and insist that your farrier take of leap of faith and follow proper barefoot methods and not make up his own version of a barefoot trim. It’s your horse and you have a right to have him trimmed as you choose, stay committed. There is no such thing as a “sort of” barefoot trim. It will only leave your horse sore and stall your rehab. as you will be removing important architecture from the hoof that it needs to redevelop properly and maybe not removing the leverage forces that are the actual cause of the hoof deformation.
A professional trimmer will explain in detail what problems they see in the hoof and assess what forces are causing the hooves to morph into an unhealthy form. They will then do a set up trim which is stage one of your rehabilitation. Followed up by regular trims aimed at encouraging the hoof to grow in the correct form. If you can also find an equine massage therapist to work in conjunction with the trimmer they can begin to release tight contracted muscles right from the initial trim. This will speed up the resolution of body problems.
Right from Day One deal with those toe first landings: I cannot stress how important this is! You must provide boots and pads as part of the rehab process.
Horses that have had to deal with years of hoof pain will habitually do toe first landings. Their brain has become hard wired to move this way. When you remove their shoes they will hunch their shoulders when ridden trying to protect their sore feet. This “hunching” adds to their upper body problems and slows down their recovery. It is important that they “relearn” how to use there bodies correctly and to do so they have to feel one hundred percent confident about heel first landings.
Eaycare Hoof boots with therapeutic pads are the very best thing to give confidence to these horses. They don’t need them in the pasture because when at liberty they can take their time to move about and pick their footing, but they do need them for any work or lunging you do.
Why? Dr. Bowker’s recent research using Ultrasound has shown that the greater the peripheral loading of the hoof (as with shoes) the worse the blood flow throughout. With less peripheral loading, the greater the perfusion of blood flow through the hoof. Better blood flow equals healthier hooves. Horses that have been shod long term had the hoof constantly loaded only on the peripheral wall, suffering altered blood flow and all the damage that follows. So this has to be reversed. The digital cushion must be regenerated and as the hoof capsule regains structural integrity the heels will decontract somewhat too relieving the pressure in the caudal hoof area.
Solar loading by putting pads in boots promotes blood flow through the hoof. This constant all over contact mimics the stimulation that the hoof would receive naturally. Bowker’s studies show that blood perfusion through the foot is highest when a hoof is on pea gravel and on foam pads, both rating at 90 on his index.
The very best and quickest way to regain physiologically correct hoof form and thus a sound horse without any musculo-skeletal problems, is to have regular trims and to give the horse gentle exercise in boots with pads. The horse’s own weight in motion will strengthen the internal tissues of the hoof, and break up adhesions. For horses with shrivelled, non functional frogs there are even special therapeutic pads from Easycare for extra stimulation. It is pointless trying to rehab. serious hoof problems without providing hoof comfort as well, as you will be undoing your good work every time the horse is ridden. Unless they can comfortably land heel first again they will never rebuild the tissues of the digital cushion and caudal heel area that have become dysfunctional and painful.
Barefoot is not about being “bare”. It’s about a better quality of life....... for the horse’s entire life. Good luck with your rehab. You will be greatly rewarded for your efforts.
Chrisann Ware EMT & UHHGM
Equethy Barefoot Educational Workshops (
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