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Trimming the Toe
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caring for laminitis
Hoof Care Specialist
Why are my horse’s feet so (you fill in the blank)? (Soft, uneven, thin-soled, flared, contracted, cracked, thrushy, laminitic, navicular, uneven, under run, clubby...)
Don’t despair! In most cases neither genetics nor conformation is to blame; it’s how your horse is using his body and interacting with the ground. This is great news, because you can make positive changes in those!
Feet are not intrinsically good or bad. They are just responding to mechanical loading, neural stimulation and environment. Some basic facts about feet:
- all animals get critical information to their brains from nerve endings in the soles of their feet, telling them about the ground surface and how to adapt to it
- weight bearing influences how fast a hoof grows (less weight bearing creates faster growth and less wear)
- weight bearing determines how big and wide the hoof and frog become
What happens when you step into a hole? A complex and automatic response of your postural balance system occurs. Nerve sensors in the soles of your foot “read” the different amount of weight-bearing from one side of the foot to the other if your foot is not level or stable. This triggers a postural response in your upper body, mediated through spinal reflexes. You counter-balance, step to your stable leg, and possibly put your arms out to protect your head in case you fall. Nervous systems are designed to protect themselves and postural feedback from the feet is essential for protecting the brain. If the sole gets asymmetrical stimulation all the time, the body will adopt a long term abnormal compensatory posture.
Hoof shape and size are generated in response to weight-bearing. You can tell a horse’s prevalent weight-bearing pattern, its default distribution of weight, by examining the relative size of its feet.
What is normal? Force plate research shows that normal quadrupeds bear more weight on their front feet than their hinds. In horses, the ratio is around 55-60% front and 40-45% hind, which means a normal animal will bear nearly 20% more weight on its front end. This should result in a front foot that is larger (width of frog and width across widest part of the sole) than the hind. But we see the opposite in many horses: narrow contracted frogs in front with long fast growing toes and big plump frogs behind with slow growing feet that wear too short if not shod. This tells us that the horse is bearing too much weight on its hind end, often causing many common problems: back pain , tight thigh muscles, hock arthritis, suspensory desmitis, stifle issues and more.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Your farrier or trimmer has probably been trying to change the shape of your horse’s hooves for a long time but doesn’t want your horse to turn up lame. However, taking a conservative approach can have its drawbacks. The nervous system, which is controlling your horse’s posture, adapts all too well to slow change by maintaining the status quo, which may be inappropriate for proper posture and long-term soundness.
You need to make enough mechanical change for the postural control system to reset. There is a chance for some transient lameness, especially if the previous posture has been maintained for a long time; joints and soft tissue have to remodel. That’s why you must choose your timing carefully: don’t make major changes right before the big show! And have what you need (boots, pads, soft footing) in case the horse is sore for a few days.
The underlying principles for correction are much the same, no matter what foot problems your horse has. For a horse’s posture and foot growth to be balanced, each foot must be balanced, front to back and side to side. The goal is to get the weight-bearing surface centered around the mechanical “center” of the foot, which corresponds to the widest part of the sole, and also the end of the white line of the bars. When this is done, proper input to the brain will change the posture to a more normal proportion of weight distribution.
Lateral x-rays of the feet can really help. They tell you and your hoof care professional where the coffin bone is in the hoof capsule. They can also give critical information about prior episodes of laminitis/founder , coffin bone dorsal and palmar angles, and sole depth, which help give specific direction for accurate, successful hoof rehabilitation.
The center of the foot (sometimes called the bridge) is located directly beneath the center of rotation of the coffin joint. If the ground contact surface is balanced around that center, when the foot is on the ground, the leg is supported by that stabilized, supported coffin bone and joint. In a distorted foot, often the entire hoof capsule has migrated forward, shifting the weight-bearing surface far in front of the bony column to be supported. The hoof capsule becomes unhealthy because it is not placed in a position to get normal mechanical stimulation, compromising circulatory and joint function, and affecting hoof growth rate, direction and hoof quality.
To be mechanically correct, there should be the same amount of hoof-to-ground surface in front of and behind the center of the foot. Ideally, this balance is achieved by measuring the distance from the center to the heel support base at the widest part of the frog, and matching it to the break-over. When you accurately measure these distances, the break-over will coincide with the projection downward and forward of the tip of the coffin bone. This principle is the same whether the horse is shod or barefoot. In a shod horse, the shoe is substituting for the sole and wall of the foot, and needs to be placed relative to those same anatomic landmarks, especially if the foot is weak and severely distorted.
Your hoof care professional, aided by radiographic information, can get that distorted foot into normal mechanical weight-bearing, sometimes without using a shoe. Often, time spent barefoot and properly trimmed can benefit many of the functions of the foot’s internal structures. Some say, “Never go behind the white line, never compromise the hoof wall.” But this is unrealistic if a foot is badly distorted and overgrown. By using x-rays to view the interior structures of the foot, your farrier can confidently and safely remove distorted toe that is causing mechanical damage and distortion.
BALANCED FOOT, BALANCED POSTURE
These techniques are rapidly becoming recognized by many hoof care professionals who are aware of the influence of balance on health and posture . Talk to your farrier about accurately balancing the foot around the center of rotation of the coffin joint. Plan for radiographs to help with accurate shoe/trim placement, and you can build a team with your farrier and your veterinarian.
Make accurate balance “around the center” your top priority. As soon as the feet are mechanically correct, they will start to remodel and heal the soft tissue structures. It takes about nine months for a hoof to grow from coronary band to the ground. The new hoof growth will be in response to mechanical correctness of the ground surface contact. In less than a year, you will see an amazing new hoof, but it will take a full 18 months, a second full hoof growth, to get a truly healthy foot.
Will this alone correct his posture? Not always. In many horse other factors sometimes confound a horse’s ability to stand up straight, like neck injury/stiffness, lack of spinal and muscular integration, or imbalances in dentition. But you can get a pretty good start on better posture and healing of the feet with balanced foot care, lots of turnout and exercise, and a nutritious, forage-based diet.
Every horse will benefit from having feet that are mechanically correct, inside and out!
Dr. Judith Shoemaker , creator of Postural Rehabilitation techniques, has 25 years of experience solving high level performance problems in every equine discipline. She has taught at IVAS, AVCA and many other continuing education venues in both traditional and integrative therapies. Her practice treats many of the top international performance horses from Maine to Florida. www.JudithShoemaker.com
Dr. Karen Gellman is a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in animal locomotion biomechanics. She has advanced training and certification in veterinary chiropractic and veterinary acupuncture and has studied manipulative techniques with some of the leading veterinary physiotherapists in England and Canada. She teaches internationally about locomotion biomechanics and complementary therapies to veterinarians and physical therapists. Her research and writing concern the nature of postural control. www.EquineSportsMed.com
Drs. Gellman and Shoemaker work closely with hoof care professionals throughout the country. They provide continuing education programs and professional services to improve the balance and well being of horses everywhere. www.PosturalRehabVets.com